BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Among the myriad projects Queens Tribune person of the year Jack Friedman has pursued, fighting for the City’s autistic residents has stretched through both his civic and political life.
“It’s just something I took a personal interest in and really pushed for,” Friedman said.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopment disorder that largely impacts social interaction and communication and can manifest in a wide range of forms. Friedman said he has no personal interaction with ASD, but was struck by its complexity and the high numbers of those affected.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that about 1 in 68 children have been identified with ASD, according to the agency’s website.
“It’s just amazed me that more attention isn’t being paid to [autism],” Friedman added.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) remembered working as a City Council member with Friedman, his then-chief of staff, on an initiative to provide funding to autism groups throughout the City.
“[Friedman] was committed to public service. He was very involved in trying to make a difference when he was my chief of staff,” Weprin said. “We had a lot of responsibility and I thought he used his position not only appropriately, but in the way to try to do the most good for the most people.”
According to Weprin, Friedman’s primary mark on the autism initiative was making sure that money was allocated to as many different groups and providers as possible.
“He ran with it,” Weprin said. “It wasn’t a huge amount of money [but] it was money that made a difference, and we wanted to make sure that we had as many autism groups benefiting from it.”
“I can’t tell you how many parents told me that it really changed the lives of their kids,” Weprin added.
New York Families for Autistic Children was one of the organizations to benefit from this funding. In a letter to the Queens Tribune, NYFAC president and CEO Andrew Baumann spoke about Friedman’s passion as an advocate for the autistic.
“As the father of a son with autism, I witnessed first-hand how fervently Jack believed in the cause – and how hard he worked on behalf of these individuals,” Baumann said. The funding allocated through the initiative, he added, “forever changed how outside-of-school services were rendered for those along the spectrum.”
NYFAC will be honoring Friedman for his work on autism in February.
About a decade since its inception, the Council’s Autism Initiative continues to this day, with the Assemblyman’s brother, Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), as a major engine behind it.
“Jack has always cared about people with disabilities. The Council has continued his good work by increasing the number of children that are receiving autism services,” Councilman Weprin said.
Friedman called the initiative’s longevity “incredible.” He added, “I’m pretty excited that we were involved in it from the start.”
This year, about $1.3 million were allocated to the Autism Initiative, according to Council documents.
Outside of the political sphere, Friedman has lent his expertise to organizations such as the Gersh Academy for students on the autism spectrum.
Kevin Gersh, founder and CEO of the Gersh Academy, said that in his capacity as vice president at the Bellerose Jewish Center, Friedman was instrumental in securing shared space at the BJC for the school.
Friedman also helped the Gersh Academy get involved in various fairs and events, according to Gersh.
“He gave our children an opportunity to be exposed to things that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to, and for children with social skills deficits, that’s a tremendous opportunity,” Gersh said.
“I always felt that anything [Friedman] was doing, he was being selfless and serving others,” Gersh added.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, email@example.com or @JNStrawbridge.