Outwitting autism worth watching

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 30, 2002

It was life at my house playing on television, and I sat glued to the screen.

"Do you want to sit here or do you want time-out?" the mother on television said to the screaming child.

"Do you want time-out?" she repeated, getting no response but screams.

The words have been mine; the child on overload and melting down under the pressure, could have been mine.

In the next scene a child is in constant motion, running from one room to the next.

A mother explains motion helps stimulate something in her child, helps him calm down and focus better.

I know only too well what it is like to have a child moving non-stop, bouncing from one piece of furniture to another, rushing in and out of the room.

At that moment, my daughter jumped down in front of the television and watched for a minute. The look she gave me seemed to say, "I know what they are talking about." Then she was up and out the door. I wondered if she saw herself in the children on the screen, but she couldn't tell me.

For an hour I watched the world of autism unfold on the National Geographic Channel's Science Times program. This show, entitled "Outwitting Autism" was a look at a disorder that is baffling for researchers, as well as parents, teachers, doctors, psychologists, all of those dealing with autism.

It is not easy to see images of children struggling to make sense of a world that seems strange and foreign to them. It is even more difficult to watch knowing your child faces those challenges.

There was, however, good news, in what I saw. People are paying attention to autism, looking for missing answers.

One reason for the increased attention is the growing number of children affected by this disorder. It is on the rise throughout the country. Folks in Covington County would be surprised to know how many families right here live with the reality of autism, and if predictions hold true, there will be more in the future.

Several years ago after our daughter was diagnosed with autism, her classroom aide, who is now her special education teacher, and I went to a workshop on autism. What we heard an expert say to an audience of teachers and parents was, to put it mildly, disheartening.

Basically, she offered no hope for autistic children. She said if children did not reach certain milestones by age five, there was little chance of improvement. This doctor, with certainty, pronounced that 75 percent of autistic people were mentally retarded. And this program was called: "I Am a Gift, the Autistic Child."

During a break, I asked her when we were going to get to the "I am a gift" portion of the program because all I heard was negative predictions for anyone with autism and pity for the people who care for them.

She smiled politely and gave me some answer meant to appease parents who ask too many questions.

As I watched the program on Tuesday night, I hoped that doctor was seeing it because what they learned in the last few years wipes out most of what she said at that workshop.

They now know early intervention has miraculous results for autistic children.

They also discovered the brain remains what they call "plastic" for life. In other words, there is hope for overcoming even serious brain disorders such as autism. One young man featured on the program did not develop language until the age of 12, something the experts, including the one I heard speak, once said was impossible.

As one mother said, don't accept the limitations they put on your child because no one knows what is possible. I wanted to stand up and shout "Amen" because we see improvement in my daughter, and we expect it to continue.

The final segment of the show looked at how researchers are seeking the genetic connection to autism, and at a major project under way to identify the genes that play a role in the disorder. It offered still more hope for the future, something important to those who know autism on a day-to-day basis.

As I listened to parents talk about their fight to find help for their children, I understood their determination, their drive for answers, because we are searching for that same help, seeking those same answers.

Until we have them, my goal, and the goal of parents of autistic children everywhere, is to foster understanding so the challenges autistic people face are understood by those who don't live in the land of autism.

That is the focus of much of what I do in my life. One father on the program said it best when he talked about watching his son work for 12 years to develop language.

Perseverance, he said, is the lesson he learned from his son. Choking back tears, he said if his son could struggle for 12 years to be heard, he, as his father, would never stop fighting for his child.

That is how we feel at my house, too.

(The National Geographic Channel will air "Outwitting Autism" again on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 3 p.m. central time and on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 4 p.m. central time)