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Gliding Stars weekend performances reflect changes in adaptive skating

Lucas Guzzino will represent the changing face of children with disabilities this weekend when he proudly skates onto the Northtown Center ice dressed in pajamas -- for his starring role in a duet from the movie "Polar Express."

He also will have a great skating partner -- his father, David, who will be skating the role of the Polar Express conductor during this weekend's twin ice shows put on by the Gliding Stars adaptive ice-skating program.

The shows, "Movies and Musicals on Ice," will be presented at7 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Saturday in Northtown Center in Amherst.

Lucas has autism, a condition now diagnosed in close to 1 percent of children -- a far cry from more than 30 years ago, when Gliding Stars founder Elizabeth M. O'Donnell staged her first ice show with the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped.

"I would have one or two kids with autism out of 300 skaters," O'Donnell said. "Now I have 15 to 20."

The explosion in the number of kids with autism may be the biggest change since O'Donnell put on the first SABAH show in Memorial Auditorium in 1979. That makes this her 33rd year of putting on an ice show. O'Donnell founded SABAH in 1977 before leaving the organization and starting Gliding Stars in 2004.

In 1979, about 1 in 4,000 children were diagnosed with autism. That figure has climbed exponentially to 1 in 110 by 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

O'Donnell -- who still knows how to push youngsters with a combination of her infectious energy, booming voice and exacting standards -- says she believes children with autism are a natural for programs like hers. These children often lack focus, which can be developed with weekly step-by-step instruction and well-rehearsed skating routines.

The group structure also teaches these children to engage with others. That's especially important for youngsters with autism, who often are socially isolated and disconnected from others.

O'Donnell says she knows she has a speed merchant in Lucas, one of several youngsters starring in solos and duets this weekend.

"He often says, 'I'm the fastest skater in Gliding Stars,' " she said.

Lucas, 8, has come a long way since he first went out on the ice at age 4, skating behind a walker to keep his balance.

"Now he's twirling, he can skate backwards, and he can skate on one skate," said his mother, Pam. "He has so much fun on the ice. He absolutely loves it."

Ice skating with Gliding Stars is a perfect activity for youngsters like Lucas.

"I think every kid with autism should get on the ice and skate," Pam Guzzino said. "It gives them focus.

Gliding Stars has become Lucas' own activity.

His twin sister, Jessica, has her soccer, horseback riding and dance. His older brother, Jacob, has his karate and baseball.

"Lucas didn't have his own thing," his Pam Guzzino said. "Now he has Gliding Stars."

Tickets for the shows today and Saturday are $8 apiece and can be reserved by calling 608-8345.

SABAH also will present its annual show, "Celebration on Ice," at 2 p.m. Sunday in HSBC Arena. Tickets are $10 at the arena box office the day of the show.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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