October 2, 2008
Transcendence: Jacob Artson’s eloquence and spirit defy his severe autism diagnosis
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(Page 4 - Previous Page)'Open My Lips'
Jacob's life changed dramatically when he was 7. Until then he couldn't communicate well either through words or body language.
The Artsons heard about a speech therapist in Whittier who taught non-verbal kids to type. Although they thought Jacob couldn't read, they decided to give it a try.
While the speech therapist supported his arm, Jacob correctly pointed to words and letters on a card. He identified the word "book." Asked what he watches, he pointed to the word "video." Asked what he eats, though, he was stuck. The word on the board was taco, and Jacob had never had one.
When the therapist asked him a question and he couldn't find the word he was looking for, he typed, "H-e-l-p m-e."
Elana got home and called Brad.
"I said there has to be a bracha (blessing) for this, because there is a bracha for everything miraculous, and I have just witnessed the most miraculous thing. He knows how to read and how to think, and he has communication. Now we have to find a way to help him bring it out," remembers Elana, who works part time as a prosecutor in the appeals division of the U.S. Attorney's office.
Later that week, she found the prayer: "God, open my lips, and my mouth will utter Your praises."
They pursued facilitated communication despite studies in the 1990s that purported to show that the facilitator was subconsciously channeling his or her own thoughts through the autistic child -- sort of like a Ouija board effect.
Elana said those studies are not only bad science, but destructive, robbing people of a basic human right of self-expression. She has hundreds of examples from Jacob's experience that shut down persistent doubts from others about whether the thoughts are originating in his mind.
She said Jacob has been able to accurately report things that happened in school that she had no knowledge of, or details about himself she couldn't discern, such as which of his ears is infected. Facilitated communication allows him to calm himself down once he is able to explain what is bothering him.
"Facilitated communication has saved my life, because now that I can communicate I can participate in the world as an equal," Jacob told me.
Life, Not Therapy
Along with using facilitated communication, the Artson's opted out of the normative treatment of autism, which uses behavioral therapy to train kids in the life skills they need through repetitive teaching and reward systems.
Instead, Dr. Ricki Robinson, Jacob's pediatrician, taught them to use a method called Floortime, in which parents insert themselves into the child's world of play and movement, so that the child has to respond and eventually develop abstract thinking.
"For me Floortime was a savior, because it showed me how to live life with joy and laughter, and that is the reason I keep fighting every day to overcome my challenges," Jacob said.
Jacob engages directly in life and learns skills that way. He has a full schedule of sports and social opportunities, and has attended public schools most of his life. Now a 10th-grader at Hamilton High school, he is mainstreamed for three classes -- history, English and biology.
He loves school.
"Last year, I took a health and life-skills class, which the rest of the people consider to be stupid and a useless requirement, but I learned so much in those classes about the diversity of human experiences," he said.
Finding out about kids in his class who had been pregnant or tried to kill themselves put things in perspective for him: "I am so blessed compared to the challenges I see my classmates facing."
That kind of perspective is what family and friends say Jacob has offered them.
"Having a child with special needs forces you to focus on what it is we really want to teach him -- what is important to having a happy and meaningful life," Elana said.
"The story of finding out who my child is and watching him unfold into this amazing human being is such a remarkable experience, I just feel like it's intoxicating. I push him because I want more, I want to know who he is," Elana said.
And Jacob, too, is learning more about who he is.
"When I was younger, I was constantly angry at autism for limiting my motor functioning so much. Dr. Ricki has worked with me for years on this issue, and I am in a very different place now. I feel at peace now," he said.
"I've learned about myself and the world because of the challenges I have to face," he said. "I know that having autism has made me who I am, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't have autism."