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This is a story about defeating autism, the practical attainment of hope for devastated parents, and a whole new way of approaching a scourge upon our beloved children. Our son, Joseph, happens to be its protagonist; but the joyful hope in this story resides in the certainty that it is a template into which parents may insert any one of countless thousands of protagonists. Three years ago next week, Joseph joined the Boy Scouts of America. The first article I wrote contains his history in detail, our struggles, and the first real glimmer of hope we had in years of attempting to break free of autism’s shackles.

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As Joseph progressed through that very, very difficult and challenging year, I chronicled him at three months, and then again as he was off to summer camp, and then a week after his triumphal return from a summer camp experience in the middle of a heat wave, where daytime temperatures ranged from a low of 96, to a high of 103. These four stories are a tight chronicle of an important first year experience. It’s been two years since I’ve written, and Joseph’s world has changed dramatically.

Since he began, Joseph has advanced in rank from Scout, to Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, and in two weeks he will complete the rank requirements for Life Scout, one step shy of Eagle. Before this summer, he earned a total of seventeen merit badges and earned the Ad Altare Dei (To the Altar of God) Catholic award, receiving it from Cardinal Dolan in a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this past April. All of that is just the beginning.

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Two years ago I sat with Joseph and explained his diagnoses with him. It is essential to understand that what I told him was the absolute truth, and not an attempt to soft-peddle something unpalatable. Joseph’s two major diagnoses are moderately profound autism (top 25% of the low end of the spectrum at age four), and Attention Deficit Disorder. The other diagnoses are mixed expressive/receptive language disorder, sensory integration disorder, static encephalopathy, and cerebellar deficit. At age five, half of his IQ subtests were low average, and the other half below that at borderline. The explanation took place in stages over a six-month period, in increments I thought he could digest in any given sitting.

So, here is a summary of what I explained to Joseph:

The understanding is that there are different model brains, just as there are different model cars. I had him recall when we bought our car a few years back, how he made a point of sitting in every car on the showroom floor. Each of those cars has associated strengths and weaknesses. Compact cars are great on gas mileage and savings, but can’t tow boats or trailers. Trucks are great at towing, but not so great on gas. Family vans occupy the middle ground. So it is when God creates us. There are many different model brains on His showroom floor, and we each get one, with all the associated strengths and weaknesses.

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Along with each model brain comes an associated learning style. Some are better visual learners, some auditory, others kinesthetic, some brilliant at numerics, while others are more linguistic. Some brains are geared toward being socially gregarious, while others are more reserved and introspective. So, why does God allow for so many types of brains? Why not give everyone equal capability at excelling in everything, I asked my son. The answer, I offered, is simple.

If each of us had it all we wouldn’t need one another. Love would collapse, along with complementarity. Life would be flat, bland. Worse still… how would we attain Heaven if we had no means of learning sacrificial love in a world where it was unnecessary?

Our needs are the salvation of those who give of themselves to fill those needs, and their needs are our salvation.

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The key to growth, I explained, is to get teachers who are schooled in the different learning styles and who can teach to ours. Years ago, before we had all of this great knowledge we thought of the world in terms of normal and pathological. That wasn’t bad. It was the medical model, which put to flight the old superstition model which governed the world at the time of the Salem Witch Trials. However as civilization has advanced from the time of my own childhood, and the hell that was my life with ADHD, we have come to see ‘normal’ as dynamic and not monolithic. We have come to understand much of therapy as merely education (be that psychotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy) and not pathologic intervention.

In fact, I never used the “T” word with Joseph (Therapy, with its associated implication of brokenness and pathology). Instead, I always used the other “T” word, teacher. Speech therapy was going to see his speech teacher. Occupational therapy was going to see his gym teacher. In the final analysis that’s all therapy really is: teaching.

There is another critical distinction. The autistic brain is a brain with a unique learning style, and in possession of unique gifts when it comes to memory and capacity for depth of knowledge. Autism is an “ism,” like feminism, communism. In other words, it is a condition of being handicapped. We defeat autism when we teach to the style of the autistic brain. As I explained to Joseph:

It’s only a handicap if you can’t function.

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It’s been almost eleven years since we began this odyssey of delving into the inner workings of one of the most puzzling brain models on God’s showroom floor, one that now appears in 1:50 children. It’s been a great collaborative effort with several great educators and therapists. It has involved adapting our home life to accommodate Joseph’s needs, with no small amount of sacrifice all around. When Joseph took his first tenuous steps into a troop of 46 boys, I think my anxiety was worse than his. It has been the missing piece of his developmental puzzle.

In his second year, Joseph focussed on learning more about scouting, earning merit badges that encouraged in-depth communication with adult merit badge counselors, participating more fully and intimately on camping trips, and advancing in rank. At the end of his second year he went to summer camp and announced his intention to come back the following year on staff as a counselor in training (CIT). More anxiety for daddy. He then produced a completed application for us to sign, and handed it in on the spot.

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Returning from summer camp, Joseph attended the troop’s leadership training weekend that September and accepted the position of Assistant Patrol Leader. He also asked to be a Den Chief with the Cub Scout Pack (a big brother/liason position), as well as being the troop librarian-accounting for all of the merit badge books. He excelled at all of the positions, with the Cub Scouts asking for him to return-so much was the fun that they had with him.

Then came summer camp this year. Joseph spent all of June and July living at camp on staff as a CIT. The camp director invited him to return next year, and asked us to please facilitate that return. They loved him there, and he loved them. While at camp, he was able to earn two merit badges per week if he desired, which he did. After summer camp, Joseph attended a one week aquatics camp at another scout camp, and earned six more merit badges. In all, he earned a staggering twenty merit badges this summer, adding to his previous seventeen. (One is required to earn a total of 21 to achieve Eagle Scout). At last night’s Troop Court of Honor, though the boys were asked to hold all applause until after all merit badges were handed to all scouts, the hall broke into wild and raucous cheers as all twenty merit badges were read aloud for Joseph. Class act that he is, he turned a gave his brothers a wild grin and scout salute in return.

This summer’s haul:

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American Heritage
Art
Basketry
Canoeing
Communication*
Forestry
Geology
Kayacking
Leatherwork
Lifesaving*
Motorboating
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Music
Nature
Oceanography
Pioneering
Rowing
Small Boat Sailing
Sports
Swimming*
Woodcarving

*Required for Eagle

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Along the way Joseph has become a leader.

This year, he was given his own patrol to lead as Patrol Leader. He has also become a trailblazer, going from being the only scout in the Troop on the spectrum, to being one of about five. God has blessed the troop, which now numbers 67 boys and eight patrols, with ten more boys on the way from Cub Scouts this year.

Regina and I were speechless last night at the Court of Honor. Speechless, but grateful beyond words to the boys and men who have given Joseph a community to which he not only passively belongs, but in which he actively reciprocates. So do we.

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The leaders were commenting last night about how far Joseph has come since his first year, where he came to me constantly in his bewilderment and feelings of being overwhelmed. We all laughed at how he barely has any contact with me anymore. That’s the definition of success. He’s interacting with his peers, making friends, hosting a second annual Super Bowl party for the scouts, etc.

It’s important to be there to help translate the early experience, and to give back. I’m in deep, as assistant scoutmaster, troop chaplain, merit badge counselor for several merit badges, district Catholic committee on scouting, etc. In getting involved, I have been able to educate a great many people on what kids on the spectrum are really all about.
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That’s essential, as we live in dangerous times for those with so-called poor prenatal diagnoses. The autistic learning style, as it is known in our home, demands total devotion from the entire family. That’s quite a bit to ask in a hedonistic culture. These children will be found out in utero in short order, and when they are, the merchants of death will prey on parents’ well-founded fears. They are fears that nearly paralyzed me in those early years. Yet Joseph’s story is a story of hope in the depths of parental fear.

Moreso, it is the story of love’s triumph. As I’ve sat and watched Joseph increasingly taking the younger boys under his wing, and seeing their respect for him, I see how that love cannot be contained. It has taken root in this child and grows wild within him. Not bad for a fourteen year-old kid.

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For any parent of a young autistic child, Regina and I hold out Joseph as not only a symbol of hope, but the sure and certain sign that God keeps His promise as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:13 and will not allow us to be tried beyond our capacity, and when we are tried, will give us a way out. Sacrificial love, lived totally and completely, is that way out.

It has been our salvation.

We still have no idea how far Joseph will go in life, no more than any other parents do for their children at age fourteen. Some autistic children will achieve demonstrably more than others. The same goes for neurotypical children as well. For all of them, scouting offers a home, a family, a society. And while the achievements are great signposts along the road in life, that’s not at all what I will carry away from this experience when it’s all over.

The spontaneous wild and raucous cheers of his brother scouts last night, reciprocated with an equally spontaneous wild grin and scout salute spoke volumes:

Brotherhood

Love

Respect

Affection

A frightened father’s wildest dreams come true.

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autism-awareness

It is often the rule that in the hours immediately following a tragedy such as the shooting in Newtown, CT that the media report erroneous information as the scramble to delineate the tragedy’s parameters intensifies. Sometimes that erroneous information can cause grave harm to innocent people, and such is the potential with early reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, may have had autism or Asperger’s disorder.

Whether or not the shooter resided somewhere on the autism spectrum, autism is in no way causal in this situation. How people are treated by other people is what leads to the isolation, alienation, and despair that drives people to these all-too-frequent acts of unimaginable violence.

In no other school shooting or mass murder has the autism spectrum been invoked as a causal factor. That’s noteworthy.

As the father of a son on the autism spectrum, I speak from painful and joyful experience. Joseph is thirteen years old and doing marvelously, as I’ve written about here on the blog. In February Joseph will be awarded the rank of Star in the Boy Scouts (having achieved the ranks of Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class). This places him two ranks from Eagle Scout, which he’s on track to achieve by age 16.

Joseph also dances Irish Step, Street Tap, and Jazz. I’m also Joseph’s baseball coach, and biggest cheerleader in his competitive bowling, for which he received the bronze medal for boys 11 and under in New York State. Joseph is also an altar boy in our parish. He’s very involved in good and wholesome activities and is always the first to volunteer for service projects.

That last point is key and needs to be discussed.

It is true that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty in empathy for others. But empathic behavior is not impossible and can be taught through social skills activities and training. Also, involvement in social groups and functions is essential, and not optional. Even if empathy is slow to come online, the idiosyncratic focus that many with Asperger’s have on rules can be used to great effect in ordering the social interactions of these children. Respect for the property and rights of others can be taught as rules to be followed as we wait for empathic sensibilities to develop.

We have a large bubble of teens on the spectrum, and an even larger bubble of children on the spectrum behind them who are going to need gainful employment, as any other citizen. It is vital, VITAL, that employers not walk away from this episode with some vague and erroneous understanding that people on the autism spectrum represent a danger to the public.

They don’t.

There is a sweetness to most of these children, and with proper placement into wholesome (often faith-based) social groups where there is genuinely patient forbearance, they will grow as teens with a sense of rootedness and belonging. In this, their needs are no different than those of their neurotypical peers.

The evil visited on my friends’ community yesterday was in no way rooted in the autism spectrum. It was rooted in the coarsening to life that has gripped this nation for decades. That’s a discussion for another day, and it will not happen here on this blog while there are so many yet to be buried.

For now, it’s enough to say that our children on the autism spectrum call forth the best in us and are a blessing in our lives. They need to be embraced, now more than ever, lest they become additional victims of one man’s evil.

Join our Novena for Healing:

Day 1 Here.

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Scout


Tenderfoot


Pathfinder

Seven years ago the diagnoses on Joseph were devastating, as was the prognosis for his moderately profound autism. Our sole comfort was being told that while he was at the bottom end of the autism spectrum, Joseph was in the top 25% of the bottom end of the spectrum.

That was seven years, and thousands of hours of therapies ago. He is, like the rest of us, a work in progress. Today, he is a bright, articulate, socially-growing boy who seems just a bit quirky.

But this child is also here as a prophet. His life, and how far he has come is actually unremarkable for a child on the autism spectrum.

And that’s remarkable!

Joseph joined the Boy Scouts at the end of last October. Today he attended his first Court of Honor, the ceremony where scouts receive their badges for rank advancement, as well as merit badges.

In the past three months, Joseph has advanced two ranks, earned one merit badge, has three more in progress, is half way to his next rank– Second Class, participated in two service projects, one camping trip, and a Klondike Derby where he spent the entire day pulling a homemade sled with his patrol in freezing rain yesterday and demonstrating his newly-learned skills at designated stations.

Even more remarkably, he has begun to positively critique the leadership skills of patrol leaders.

More remarkable still, he’s not the only special needs boy in the troop, and is treated as one of the guys by the other boys. New friendships are blossoming.

I say that this child is a prophet, because the hunt for the autism genes is on with a vengeance. Nothing good will come of that endeavor. I say that this child is unremarkable as children with autism go because, well, he is. That’s a great sign of hope for parents who may one day receive a prenatal diagnosis of autism.

Greater still is that the other boys quietly, intuitively make the allowances for boys of differing abilities and social skills. These children have grown up with special needs students mainstreamed in their schools. It’s no big deal for them.

And as we move forward, as Joseph continues to grow, it’s less and less a matter of “Not bad for an autistic child,” and more;

“That’s my boy!”

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We have come a long way together since the diagnoses of autism, ADHD, static encephalopathy, cerebellar deficit, and mixed expressive/receptive language disorder seven years ago. Just shy of Joseph’s fifth birthday we finally got the proper diagnoses, which were nothing less than shattering to my wife and me.

All we had to cling to was our faith and one another.

But after adapting the very rhythm of our lives to Joseph’s needs he has progressed beautifully, and tonight at age eleven he became a Boy Scout. He decided to join the troop of a friend from sports. Per usual, with new steps up socially I was anxious that the experience be a positive one. Not quite sure how Joseph would respond to the boys, or the boys to Joseph, we entered the hall.

The older scouts working on their last and highest rank, Eagle Scout, immediately brought Joseph before the troop and had him introduce himself. The boys (some 30-strong) gave a hearty “hi”, and immediately pulled him into the activities of the night. I sat and watched as they showed him the scout sign, scout salute, scout handshake, knot tying exercises, scout oath, scout law, etc. They were the embodiment of the goodness, decency, and leadership that are the hallmarks and endpoints of the scouting program; just as it was when I was a scout, only these boys were better.

None of the boys know about Joseph. From the goodness and warmth they lavished on him tonight, I doubt that they could have been any different had they known. These aren’t just any boys. These are scouts. These are boys who submit themselves to discipline and the commitment of citizenship and leadership. They are a breed apart, and always have been. Many will become our next generation of military officers, astronauts, business leaders and clergy.

And while all of this was happening tonight, there were parents elsewhere wrestling with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, still others who have not yet conceived the autistic child that will one day be prenatally diagnosed. I understand their despair. I’ve lived it. I’ve been consumed by it. It has tested my faith in God’s love, in humanity’s decency. “What happens when I’m gone?” and a host of other questions…

But all along the way we have encountered nothing but goodness and kindness, decency and love, acceptance and words of encouragement from people. None of my worst fears, or even my mildest fears have materialized. Quite the opposite. People are so very accepting of the Josephs today. This is NOT my parent’s generation. This tsunami of autistic children has brought right behind it a tsunami of love and patient forbearance in society. Everyone knows someone with autism. Speech and occupational therapists, special education teachers work miracles daily as a matter of routine. Down syndrome kids benefit every bit as much from these modern miracles at overcoming neurological defect.

We live in a golden age. With so much hope, so much healing, so much acceptance, there is truly little to fear. The only caveat is the pro-abortion nihilists whose black hearts lead them to manipulate parents’ worst fears when they receive the results of genetic testing. They’ll never tell Joseph’s story, which is the story of thousands and thousands of autistic spectrum children and Down syndrome children today. We must do so, and so I am today.

When we left the meeting, I wondered if the boys sensed a difference in Joseph who just seems a bit shy now. If they did, it didn’t matter. These are, after all, Boy Scouts, and they live their oath and their scout law. These boys stood tall as men tonight in the way they welcomed and embraced a new kid, and they’ll never know how high they made a father’s heart soar as he saw his special son embarking on his training in honorable manhood as just one of the guys. With such mentors and guides outside of the immediate family, how can Joseph do anything but succeed?

And that is the good news, the message of hope that we need to trumpet in our witness to life.

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Revealing Autism

Today 9, soon to be 10 year-old Elizabeth asked us why we have taken Joseph on so many special trips. So today was the day that we told her about her 11 year-old brother’s autism, that all of those special trips have been us taking Joseph to the best specialists in the country. She accepted it well and in a spirit of reverent compassion because we presented it in just that manner.

Joseph doesn’t know because he isn’t ready to know. It’s an individual call.

Elizabeth had over an hour’s worth of questions that we answered slowly, deliberatively, and as thoroughly as we thought she could grasp. Then she asked THE question:

“So why do so many parents want to abort handicapped babies? Don’t they know what they’re missing?”

This from the little girl who awoke every school day at 6 AM for three years so that we could get Joseph to his speech therapy at 7AM and then to school. This from the little girl who sat in waiting rooms daily for a total of 8 hours per week, between all of the therapies, and never once in 7 years has uttered a complaint.

Beth grasps how much of her life, and ours, has been subordinated to Joseph’s needs. Yet she is bewildered that parents don’t understand what they are missing in aborting their handicapped children.

Love sees that which narcissism and fear obscure.

They are holy, these little ones. No doubt why Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.

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The Boys of Summer

In answer to the oft-repeated slur that pro-lifers care only for the fetus and not for the child beyond the womb, I offer the following as a refreshing break from the weighty subject matter that is regrettably routine on this blog.

I’m in my third year of coaching little league baseball, having done so on my son’s team since second grade. We are a parish Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) team, which is to say not nearly so competitive or advanced as a typical little league. We have five boys on the autism spectrum on the team, including my son.

Last year in spring training, we had a team where several of the boys had never picked up a baseball in their lives. That’s rough, especially as third grade is the first time that the boys play by standard rules. So the three coaches got together and agreed on our coaching philosophy and drafted the following letter to the parents:

23 April 2009

Dear Parents,

As the baseball season is about to begin, we would like to take this opportunity to send you the team schedule and share with you a few thoughts and pointers for making this a great experience for our sons.

First, this year will be very different from the boys’ previous experiences. We are now playing regular innings, three strikes, etc. This is usually a difficult adjustment for the batter when called out on strikes, and for the pitcher when he walks eight batters in a row!

Of course it would be wonderful if the boys won every game, but realistically, we need to be prepared for a few losses. That preparation begins with understanding why we are here (parish CYO as opposed to Babe Ruth League), and what it is we wish to accomplish.

The point of it all is to teach the boys the love of the game, improve their skills, build their self-confidence, and most of all to teach them the value of fair play and good sportsmanship. We coaches need your help with all of this.

Some boys will be more advanced than others. Some have been playing longer than others. On this team, every boy plays, and plays frequently! There will be no boy riding the bench. On this team, there will be no superstars and favorites. We coaches pay close attention to each boy at practice and in games, and we find something, no matter how small to praise them about. We ask that you do the same.

We will offer gentle correction in order to help the boys learn from mistakes. We will never criticize them. Experience shows that this works best when left to the coaches and left on the field. What the boys need most is PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE.

Accordingly, we will not tolerate parents ridiculing other children, their own children, other coaches, our coaches or umpires. We have cell phones and the numbers of CYO officials if an umpire shows that he is not up to the job, though that is unlikely. That having been said, CYO has implemented a new program of training and certification for umpires and has fielded the best group of umpires and coaches in its long and impressive history of fostering character formation in our children and those who serve them.

If there are any special accommodations your son requires, if there is any special information we need to know to make this a terrific and memorable experience for your son, please don’t hesitate to tell us. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you at the games and look forward to providing our sons with memories that will last a lifetime.

Respectfully,

Don Rizzo, Coach

Gerry Nadal & Joe Pigott,
Assistant Coaches

And so it began last year, a perfect season. Zero wins and 15 losses!! Though it was tough to swallow, the boys never complained, cheered one another on, and never, ever quit. Not one! Not even with a 43-0 defeat one game. We coaches agreed that we would never invoke the mercy rule and call a game. We weren’t going to quit on them, and expected them to follow suit. We simply told the boys that the lopsided games were to be treated as great fielding practice. And so it went. Every boy played every game, and we found something, ANYTHING to praise, even if it was the commanding way the boys swung that bat as they went down on strikes!

This year they all returned, in the words of one of the grandfathers, “Full of piss and vinegar.”

This year these same boys shut out 2 teams, one of them 20-0. They made the playoffs, and won their first playoff game 13-4 against a team that they tied 3-3 at the beginning of the season. The scores in the lopsided games would have been much higher had we coaches not held the boys back (out of sportsmanship) in base running.

Today is the second playoff game, if the rains hold off.

It’s been a team effort all the way with parents, kids and coaches. Many dads have pitched in at practices, and we have welcomed all of their input. We coaches have lived that letter to the parents, and the approach has been transformative in the lives of all the boys. More than a few parents have teared up at the sight of their autistic boys being cheered by their teammates, at our sons being embraced and high-fived in the dugout.

And when not exhorting batters from my position as third base coach, or leading the cheers, I sometimes find myself being an outside observer of this wondrous sight: Of handicapped boys made less so by dedicated parents and coaches, by peers who welcome them with hearts as wide as the ocean. It’s just one small contribution to building a Culture of Life and a Civilization of Love. The other boys on the team are growing in the realization that there’s a place for everyone at the table, even those shy and otherwise socially hesitant kids like my Joseph who brought two of them around to score with a 2 RBI double, and a triple that turned the tide of their last game.

The score of today’s game later this afternoon doesn’t matter.

We Won!

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Prophets are usually derided as madmen, and I’m sure that I’ll come in for a pounding on this one in some quarters. Research into the etiology autism’s explosion is accelerating. Molecular biologists are looking for genetic markers that can explain what’s at the root of this dilemma. Having written on this before (see here), I stated that God is giving us a second chance at getting it right after what we have done with Down Syndrome babies, 93% of whom are aborted.

The numbers don’t look good for autism, and an abortion holocaust is brewing for them as well, one that is going to dwarf the Down Syndrome holocaust in comparison. The numbers are staggering. Consider first the graph below showing the rise in autism since 1992 (fightingautism.org).Click on the image to enlarge.
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Facts and Stats (From the Autism Society of America)

1 percent of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 have an autism spectrum disorder.1
Prevalence is estimated at 1 in 110 births.2
1 to 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder.3
Fastest-growing developmental disability; 1,148% growth rate.4
10 – 17 % annual growth.5
$60 billion annual cost.6
60% of costs are in adult services.7
Cost of lifelong care can be reduced by 2/3 with early diagnosis and intervention.8
In 10 years, the annual cost will be $200-400 billion.9
1 percent of the adult population of the United Kingdom have an autism spectrum disorder.10
The cost of autism over the lifespan is 3.2 million dollars per person.11
2003, 2006 Copyright the Autism Society. All rights reserved.
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1. Pediatrics, October 5, 2009, based on a National Children’s Health Survey done with 78,000 parents in 2007.
2. “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, United States, 2006.” Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report, 18 December 2009.
3. Based on the autism prevalence rate of 1 in 150 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007) and 2000 U.S. Census figure of 280 million Americans.
4. “Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Changes in the California Caseload, An Update June 1987 June 20007.” Cavagnaro, Andre T., California Health and Human Services Agency. State of California 2003 survey of developmental disabilities.
5. Autism Society estimate based on 2003 US state educational data.
6. Autism Society estimates based on UK study by Jarbrink K, Knapp M, 2001, London School of Economics: “The economic impact on autism in Britain,” 5 (1): 7-22.
7. Autism Society estimate.
8. Autism Society estimate, using Government Accounting Office Report on Autism 2007.
9. Autism Society estimate.
10. Autism Spectrum Disorders in adults living in households throughout England,” Report from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007, a survey carried out for the United Kingdom NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
11. Arch Pediatric Adolesc Med. 2007;161:343-34.

Focus on the current and projected costs. We simply can not afford $400 BILLION per year. We’re drowning now at $60 BILLION per year in costs. The money simply is not there now, let alone seven times that number within a decade. School systems are groaning under the financial weight of providing the services necessary to rescue these children from the most devastating dimensions of this insidious disorder in communication and social skills. Property taxes, which support the school systems, are spiraling upward beyond most people’s limits.

Something has to give.

Prediction: Within ten years we will have some reliable genetic markers identified. With genetic markers comes genetic testing. With genetic testing comes abortion. Imagine adding to the current rate of abortion 1 out of every 110 children born today. 1 out of every 70 boys.

This isn’t a matter of “IF”. This is simply a matter of “WHEN”.

We are not helpless here. We can do something about this, as much has changed since society started the genocide against Down Syndrome babies. Thirty years ago, there was still a large stigma attached to mental retardation, and not much advancement in the treatment and education of those with Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. Combined with a paucity of services, the horrors that emerged from investigative reports of institutions housing these people certainly exacerbated the feelings of helplessness, dread, and guilt in the parents of these children and young adults.

Just as feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are the cardinal symptoms of suicide, these are the same forces behind abortion.

Great strides have been made in treating autism. Joseph was diagnosed with autism at age five with an age equivalent of 2.1 years in speech. The IQ tests were catastrophic. That was seven years ago. Today, after intense therapy (which includes a home environment where the therapy has become a part of the household’s fabric) Joseph presents as a somewhat shy and awkward child who is at or above average intellectually and academically, with vastly improved and ever-improving verbal and social skills.

It’s been a long, but love-filled road toward making Joseph a functional member of society.

However parents of all special needs children, not just autistic children, are seeing desperately needed resources dry up in many school districts as the numbers climb into the stratosphere. We need to change the entire paradigm by which we get our children treated. We have less than ten years to get this paradigm in place before genetic markers and genetic testing come online. The key is to have our houses of worship become the nucleus for services, for mentoring of parents with newly diagnosed children by more seasoned parents, for pro-bono parent workshops given by lawyers and therapists.

The clock is ticking. We need to get a whole new reality in place, and quickly. We need to have the alternative up and working well before the genetics catches up with us.

In Part II, the blueprint for an easily workable, sustainable, and authentically pro-life program.

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This morning I’ll be the keynote speaker for the annual communion breakfast at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Mount Kisco, New York. I was asked by the pastor, Fr. Steven Clark, to deliver a few appropriate remarks concerning where we are in the mushrooming autism epidemic.

This isn’t a clinical seminar, it’s a communion breakfast, and so I plan to share our story of Joseph’s autism and its impact on our lives in every dimension: family, marriage, sibling, professional, etc.

Autism occurs within the context of family life and radically alters every single aspect of that life. It exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the marriage and family dynamic. It calls for a different dimension of parental love, and full-time involvement. I’ve thought much over these past seven years of Joseph’s autism and what it has done for us, for me.

It has taught me depths of love and devotion, of ferocious advocacy that I never would have thought that I had a capacity for. It has slowed me down as I was on a rapidly rising professional escalator, and taught me how to encounter Joseph in the inner sanctum of his fragile existence. He can’t just fall into line with the plans I had so neatly mapped out. This has been a derivative benefit for my wife and daughters.

Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov writes:

“Brothers, love is a teacher, but a hard one to obtain: learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it. It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.”

No words so completely capture the challenge of parenting an autistic child. Loving behavior doesn’t come to an autistic child the way it comes to ‘normal’ children. It needs to be handwired bit by bit. In teaching love, we learn love. In suffering with and for our children, we learn depths of love unfathomable but for the experience.

So why so many autistic children?

I believe that in His infinite Love and Mercy God is permitting this to happen as a means of rescuing us from ourselves. We are aborting 93% of all Down Syndrome babies, engaging in sex selection, experimenting with cloning, etc. We need to stop this, and soon.

Autistic children are Love’s answer to our designer approach for offspring, especially as there are no clear genetic markers or physical attributes to pick up in pre-natal testing. We are being given one last chance as a civilization to get it right, to learn the meaning of sacrificial love through a condition that strikes at the very heart of social communication, to walk ourselves back from the precipice of the abyss of narcissistic annihilation. We are being given the chance to learn the true meaning of human dignity and marital love, a love that creates new life and is large enough to swallow any imperfection that comes with that new life.

Such capacity results from being at peace with our own imperfections and having allowed ourselves to be the recipients of God the Father’s healing love. If we haven’t, we must begin there. Our hearts certainly have that capacity. We need to empty them first of the clutter that we amass when we turn from God, seeking instead fulfillment with things and egocentrism.

This may be our last chance.

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This isn’t about the fetus anymore. This is a referendum on who we are: how selfish and hopeless, or whether we have grown up. This isn’t about the children, about their suffering or struggles. This is about what we have to offer, whether we have the capacity for selflessness. This time, it’s personal.

Within the last year, the discussion has started in earnest: What to do with the development of prenatal indicators of autism? Last January, news that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University had developed a correlation between the amount of testosterone in amniotic fluid and autism sparked heated debate that continues. It is now well-known that karyotyping of cells in amniotic fluid is used to screen trisomy 21, with the result that 93% of Down Syndrome babies are aborted. Will genetic screening also be used to cull autistic babies? If it comes to pass, it will not be the silent holocaust of the Down babies.

The autism community of activist parents is large, loud, loving, and deeply committed to advancing our children. We are a force to be reckoned with. We are also a sign of societal evolution.

We have succeeded in destigmatizing , to a large degree, our children’s handicap. We have dragged the medical community, sometimes kicking, to an awareness of these children’s potentials and have helped forge new therapeutic paradigms that have yielded astounding fruit. With one of every one hundred-fifty children diagnosed on the spectrum, everyone knows someone with autism.

Like their cousins with Down Syndrome, these children are sweet and kind. They have much to offer. Unlike their cousins with Down Syndrome, these children’s prevalence arose in a more enlightened time, after the age of institutionalization, among parents better educated in the aggregate, sensitized to the fate of aborted Down babies. Even the Down babies benefit from the early intervention programming that has arisen mainly out of the autism community.

Twenty years ago, we simply didn’t know. We have evolved.

There are, however, powerful economic forces arrayed against those with autism. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, play therapy, special education, are all essential services in the successful treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders. Over 95% of these costs are carried by school districts that are being bankrupted in the process. The cost is necessarily shifted to homeowners through property taxes. Parents must fight like lions every year in many school districts to maintain their child’s level of services. All too often, unscrupulous school officials mislead parents, wear others down, in the attempt to reduce services to children because of budgetary constraints.

Then there is the fact that autism advocacy groups are spending millions on genetic research in the effort to find the cause, and hopefully a cure. Genetic disorders with a single gene involved are the best candidates for treatment. Most genetic disorders involve several genetic loci in combination. Early data on autism research point in this direction. Therein lies the potential for abuse. In the absence of a ready medical treatment or cure, there will be increasing pressures brought to bear on mothers to get tested and to abort.

But these children haven’t been sequestered in institutions, hidden out of fear, shame, or the inability to help secondary to a dearth of therapies.

These children have names and faces in our communities, attend school with our children, attend our churches. They are participating members of the family.

Why them? Why now? Why so many?

Has God sent them to save us from ourselves? To redeem us from the holocaust against Down babies? Are these children the prophets sent to assuage us from our bitter selfishness and despair?

I hope so. I’m blessed to live with one.

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Pregnancy was a rude awakening for me. No matter how many guys told me that life changes forever with a positive EPT, there’s just no teacher like life herself. The cravings were the best. I’ll never forget going out into a snowstorm because Regina was dying for Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream. (I think it was really one of those, “just how far would you go for me” moments.) Either way, how exactly does a guy say “no”, especially when she says it’s the baby’s favorite? Having tried unsuccessfully for four years and resigning ourselves to not having a child who would be the product of our love, we were surprised a month later. No snow drift too deep! That was fun stuff. So were the sonograms, talking to the baby every day when I came home from the lab, poking at Regina’s side and having the baby kick back. It was all magical and glorious.

The rude awakening came in people’s line of questioning, well-intentioned as it was. It started when we declined to have the alpha-fetoprotein test. Our OB, a solid Catholic physician was somewhat surprised. “Don’t you want to know if there are any abnormalities?” He wasn’t the only one. Others, when asking how the AFP results were, seemed incredulous that we would decline the test. Our answer to all was a simple “No”. AFP’s have notorious false positive results. Then what? Eat our hearts out for the remainder of the pregnancy? Fill our souls with grief and dread? Do an amniocentesis which causes spontaneous abortion in 1/200 babies?

It didn’t matter. “Handicapped babies need more love, not less,” Regina and I would tell people. “If God has a set number of handicapped children who need to enter the world, then He can send one our way.”

He did.

Right away. More on that in a moment.

At least our doctor understood. This was our baby, not something we felt we needed to accessorize our lives with, but the product of our shared love for one another. It didn’t need to be perfect. We’re not. That’s a good place to get parenting off on the right foot. Don’t burden the children with two parents vicariously reliving their lives through the child. The baby just needed to be. Not, needs to be (fill in the blank…) The baby just needed to be.

I still cannot get over the number of people who were really put off by the fact that we would welcome a handicapped child, regardless of the severity of the handicap. Paranthetically, these are the same people who accuse pro-lifers of only loving the fetus and not giving a damn about the conditions of the child (poverty, handicap, education…) once the child is born. We were called selfish. One person even said such a sentiment was ghoulish. Evidently it isn’t ghoulish for a couple married six years aborting a less-than-perfect product of their love.

The conversation would end with people saying, “As long as it’s healthy…”

Then came Joseph. We almost lost him on his due date. After emergency c-section, he was fine. Then came the moderately severe regressive autism, and a host of other neurological diagnoses, not diagnosed as such for three critical years. It wasn’t until he was turning five that we got the correct diagnosis at University of Michigan’s Autism Center and Columbia Presbyterian’s Pediatric Neurology. We changed course in both of our careers in order to have maximum time with Joseph and his two younger sisters. At age five, his speech equivalent was 2.1 years, his IQ tests, low-average to borderline. We arranged for massive amounts of speech therapy each week with one of the most gifted therapists in New York, a saint by the name of Robert Marinello. In six years, Bob has Joseph functioning very close to where he needs to be. Likewise his occupational therapist, private special ed teacher at our home, his teachers in school from pre-K to second grade, all worked wonders.

Regina and I have been diligent in doing the carry-over work ’round the clock at home. It’s been a six-year intensive team effort, and we have been graced with some exceptional therapists and a community of parent-activists for their autistic children. At age 11, Joseph still has a way to go, but I believe that he has a decent shot at a normal life. With his sisters who adore him, he’s all set.

There was a time, not too long ago, when children who were as bad off as Joseph were simply institutionalized. For some, with Down Syndrome, we’ve learned to use diagnostic medicine to identify and abort 93% of them. God help us if we find genetic markers for autism. For the time being, the autistic children are safe. So why the success in treating them over the past decade?

Not everyone is given to cynical abandonment, which is what abortion is all about. We live in an age of unprecedented enlightenment and innovation. Collectively the various therapeutic communities, in partnership with autism activist parents, have worked up an approach to autistic children that works. It’s getting better by the year. What has happened with Joseph is nothing short of miraculous, and is happening with tens of thousands of autistic children daily. The miracles are being performed by ordinary people who are putting in one more average day at the office. There’s a great lesson in that.

We don’t perfect ourselves as humans by dealing with perfect people. There are none. We perfect ourselves by the manner in which we encounter those with imperfections. As Thomas Jefferson said it best in a letter to his daughter,

“Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for; for none of us, no, not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love.”

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