Bringing autism into focus
Story by Kelly Reed
The developmental disorder autism has
come into focus in recent years as scientists work to unravel its
possible causes, and affects, on the growing number of children
September 21, 2006
One Paradise couple has learned
more than they ever thought possible about what the disorder is, and
what it isn't.
residents Brett and Stacy Pew grew concerned when their son, Bailey,
hadn't spoken by the time he was almost four. They had him tested
for everything they could think of before taking him to a clinic at
UC Davis where he was officially diagnosed with autism.
The news was devastating to the
couple who knew little about the disorder, other than their son's
life would be drastically different than how they had imagined it.
"Everything you hoped and dreamed
of when you brought this baby home, him getting married, going to
college, having babies, is gone," Stacy said. "It's not that it
won't happen, it will just be a lot harder."
The only images the couple had of
autistic children were stereotypes from movies and television, of
children not able to look at other people or express affection. So
they threw themselves into learning as much as possible about it,
reading everything they could get their hands on and looking for
Autism is an often
widely-misunderstood developmental disorder. It affects the way
people communicate with others and can include symptoms such as
avoiding socialization or throwing tantrums. There are several
levels of autism, from mild to severe. According to a recent study
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 166
children in America fall within this spectrum, which is more than
double the rate from 10 years ago.
The theories on what causes autism
are varied. According to the CDC, scientists think a combination of
environmental and genetic factors play a role. A controversial
theory about the mercury levels in the standard measles, mumps and
rubella vaccination for children possibly being a factor in
childhood autism made the couple decide not to have their
second-born son, Connor, vaccinated.
Although the theory is disputed by
many medical professionals, the couple did not want to risk it
because the chances having another autistic child were greater,
had Conner tested soon after he was born, but he did not have it.
Now Conner, 4, is protective of his older brother. Although he is
vaguely aware something is "different" about his brother, he is too
young to understand, Brett said.
Bailey, 6, attends first grade at
Ponderosa Elementary. For half of the day he is in a special
education class and for the other half he is in a regular class.
Although there is no known cure for
autism, it's a myth that all autistic children are incapable of
showing affection and looking people in the eyes, Brett said
"We're very lucky," he said, as
Bailey climbed on his lap and wrapped his arms around him, staring
up at his father's face.
But both parents acknowledge Bailey
has made a tremendous amount of progress since he was first
"We had to really work on him to do
the eye contact, he has come a long way," Stacy said. "If we hadn't
pushed him and got him involved in all these programs he wouldn't be
where he's at. I'm sure of it."
Bailey was very anti-social, often
not wanting to sit next to another child or acknowledge anyone
around him. Since autism affects communication, he could not express
what he wanted or respond to anyone.
"There was a point where we
couldn't tell him to turn the light off or go to bed, because he
would just stand there and scream. He just couldn't put it
together," Stacy said.
if they showed him what they wanted him to do when they told him,
eventually he would figure it out, she said. Bailey is a very visual
learner who has become a whiz with the computer. Colorful computer
learning games have helped, and they followed professionals'
recommendations to keep him busy and around other people.
"We got him enrolled in everything
we possibly could," Stacy said. "Preschool, daycare, soccer,
tutoring, baseball. Anything to try to get him more social."
They have also taken him to speech
therapy and other programs through Chico State University and a
one-on-one autism tutoring program at Cedarwood Elementary in
Brett said one of his major fears
was his son being picked on in school and not getting along with the
other children. But the other children in his class have accepted
him and cheer on his progress.
"When he got invited to his first
birthday party, I cried," Stacy said.
The school district has worked to
accommodate the escalating number of autistic children in the school
system, said Mary Ficcardi, the director of special education
programs for the Paradise Unified School District. Currently there
are about 570 children in special education programs in the PUSD and
40 of those are diagnosed as autistic. The school district has been
collaborating with Butte County disability programs, medical
professionals and parents to better respond to the children's needs.
Integrated classes with developmentally disabled and other students,
along with individual tutoring, helps students and their families,
While the number of autistic
children seems to be expanding, she said, it could also be because
the disorder is being more accurately diagnosed.
Brett and Stacy have met and formed
connections with several families dealing with autism in Butte
County. Stacy said she remembers the loneliness of discovering their
son had been diagnosed but not having anyone to talk to who
understood. Now, when she meets other parents through school or
support programs, she gives them her home phone number. The couple
also gets support from their church and are considering starting a
support group in Paradise.
Motivated by his son, Brett is
getting close to earning his credential to teach special education.
He hopes to someday work in an autism clinic to help other children
and share with parents what he and his wife have experienced. He
formerly worked in the transportation industry, but now feels this
is his calling.
"I've learned a lot," he said.
"What I was doing before doesn't even seem important anymore."
The writer can be reached at