WHEN I HELPED TO TEAR A FAMILY APART TO SAVE AN AUTISTIC BOY
Chances are increasing incredibly fast that you know a child struggling with one or another form of autism. The stats in a minute, but a recent Centers for Disease Control report has put me in mind of one of the saddest and wrenching decisions I ever made in a long career as a division head in private schools. And yet my decision to exit Andrew D. from The _____ School was both heartbreaking and right.
Twelve-year-old, red-haired and handsome, Andy had been initially and properly diagnosed with severe autism but our admissions people had been told by his psychologist that his was, at worst, a mild case, and that he could handle the rigors of a top-flight, traditional independent school, one, like ours that didn't have teachers trained in any way to help him to integrate, succeed, be happy.
While Andrew was academically very bright, after a two-month grueling daily struggle to make it work, it became clear that the tantrums without apparent provocation, the screaming at staff, the taunts of girls and boys and teachers alike, spending serious time most days in Guidance and with me, and many early exits to his mother's care, we had to consider a change.
Ironically, too--and this saddened me even more in a way--his one-on-ones with me when he just could not cope with peers in groups of, say, between fifteen and twenty, were pleasant. Together we talked baseball, science, books he'd read. We went at chess and a variation of Go, the Japanese board game of territorial acquisition played with white and black stones. And we talked about his perceived "enemies"--his word--adults and kids. I'm no therapist and I never pretended I was, yet it became clear-as-a-bell to me that a one-to-one situation, or at least, say, a three- or four-to-one, was what Andy needed every day. He never raised his voice in my office and he tried to make eye-contact more than a few times.
Yet a second struggle now daily layered over the first, this one with Andrew's family. Mr. D. fiercely wanted him in the school that he himself had attended. Yet Andrew's lack of common social skills, inability to pick up on cues from adults and peers, his becoming overwhelmed in groups greater than five or six, his inability to act within an acceptable range of behaviors, made school life for him increasingly miserable. His three older brothers had graduated from our school, as had, as I've said, Andrew's father who was especially was desperate for Andrew to complete the family cycle. Our decision split Andy's dad from his eventually more reasonable mom and I have no doubt contributed to their separation.
We recommended a school far better equipped than we were, in mission and program. After a three-month painful push-and-pull with the family and his psychologist--we did not want to expel the child; that would mean he'd have to explain that from a defensive posture for years--Andrew withdrew from our school, enrolled in a new one and thrived. Our relationship with Andy's parents had soured past repair and so had his parents' relationship with one another in many ways, but we had served Andy (and our other students). The new school's staff disgnosed him with a particularly tough form of autism, well along the spectrum.
I'm put in mind of Andrew because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted that disgnoses of autism and other, particularly tough variants of autism are increasing at remarkable rates. A new study looked at records of 400,000 kids nationwide.
.In 2007, the incidence rate was 1 in 150.
.In 2000, the number was 1 in 300.
The study's lead author says she cannot be certain why such a sharp increase was discovered. Dr. Catherine Rice says that no one, simple explanation is apparent. Disgnoses may reflect increased symptom-awareness sparked by advocacy groups, or, perhaps, the disorder is in fact increasingly more common. No one has a handle on why the incidence rate has jumped this much.
Still, a doubling diagnosis rate in seven years is not something reasonable people just dismiss as somehow politically- or advocacy group-motivated as some media commentators do. Michael Savage has, and to no end, and for ratings, others have aped his dismissive, venal hate. They claim parents of these kids simply want your money and avoid responsibility for what is simply poor parenting.
More serious study needs to be done so that children whose conditions do fall within the range we call autism will have a better shot at living happy lives and contribute as effectively as possible to family, community, and economic life ad adults.
I'm going to ask after Andrew soon, look him up; he should be close to twenty-five now.