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STONY BROOK, N.Y. (AP) - They're raising three children on a sprawling estate on Long Island Sound. One drives a Humvee, the other a BMW convertible. He's a retired Wall Street executive, she's a stay-at-home mom.

In so many ways, Matt and Debra Cody enjoy a privileged, suburban life. Now they are sharing another part of that life - and their wealth - with others.

Stony Brook University recently opened The Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, thanks in large part to a $2.5 million donation from the couple.

The Codys understand the challenges of raising an autistic child better than most parents - all three of their children have the disorder.

"We're fortunate enough and God's blessed us in many ways," said Matt Cody, who retired in 1998 as general partner of Speers, Leeds and Kellogg (now part of Goldman Sachs) and chief executive officer of its Nasdaq Division.

"We have the wherewithal to take care of our children, but the big question that came out was what about everybody else? What happens to them?"

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects more than 500,000 Americans. It usually appears by age 3, mostly in boys. Affected children have trouble communicating and interacting with others. They may not respond to their names or even look at other people. In severe cases, they may become aggressive or injure themselves.

The Cody Center will have three primary functions. A community service program will seek to increase awareness. A second program will provide clinical services and care. And a research arm will use facilities such as the nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The center will also offer undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships for the study of developmental disorders.

Only about two dozen such treatment centers for autism exist nationwide, said Joe Guzzardo, spokesman for the National Alliance for Autism Research.

"I think that speaks to how important the Cody Center is," he said. "There are some places in the country where families are forced to move to get closer to services like this."

The Codys' three children - Dillon, 18, Shawn, 15, and Kaitlin, 10 - have varying degrees of autism. "Each one has that common thread of autism," said Matt Cody, "but each one is different. Uniquely different."

The Codys' first encounter with Stony Brook University came in 1988, when they took Dillon to see Dr. John Pomeroy, a prominent autism expert and Stony Brook professor.

"This center wouldn't be here without Matt and Debra," said Pomeroy, founding director of the Cody Center. "Matt is not a person who just sort of put his money into this and stepped away. He's working every day. … Debra's taken on a lot of the work in terms of fund-raising.

"They're people with experience. They're the people who know what the problems are."

It's not the first time the Codys have helped. In 1997, the couple donated $500,000 to help Stony Brook open a community resource center for parents of autistic children.

Shirley Strum Kenny, president of Stony Brook University, said the Codys have an "extraordinary dedication to their own children, but they really understood that other people who have these problems didn't have the financial resources they have to deal with it and they needed help."

For their part, the Codys are humbled by the attention.

"Parents will say to me, 'I can't believe I'm complaining. I have one autistic kid and you have three,' " said Debra Cody. "I'm like, what difference does that make? You still feel the same way I do. … It's still heartbreaking."

She admitted it took a long time to come to terms with autism.

"I live it, breathe it, sleep it, dream it, eat it, breathe it, the whole schmeal," she said. "But there's some parents out there - and I'm not knocking it because I was there once upon a time - I looked at my children and all I saw was autism. Autism. Not a child, just this nightmare autism.

"But I accepted it. It took a long time, but now I see a child with autism."

Matt Cody said a bout with hepatitis C and a subsequent liver transplant a few years ago changed his outlook.

"I lived when I shouldn't have," he said. "So I'm here for a reason because my work is not done and maybe in a way that's some of God's work."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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