As Tony and Barbara Miller* awaited the birth of their first child in 1990, they excitedly planned for the future by purchasing a large, family-friendly home in a suburb renowned for its school district. When their son Robert* was born -- a striking child with olive skin and a halo of blond hair -- they were ecstatic.
But by the time Robert was 18 months old, they noticed that something was wrong with their baby boy. He did not make eye contact and he did not care to be held. As he grew older, he refused to play with other children; rather, he sat by himself, repetitively rattling toys in front of his face. At home, "he threw things, hit and pinched and scratched," his mother said. At pre-school, he pushed or lashed out at children who approached him. After just several weeks at the school, Robert was asked to leave. Worst of all, the boy was still unable to speak as he approached 3 years old.
His parents finally learned why: Robert suffered from autism, a social communication disorder caused by abnormal brain development and functioning. Tony, Robert's father, had one mantra as he left his son for three months of training at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "All I want him to be is toilet trained," he prayed.
The low point of Tony's life was visiting Robert in the locked UCLA facility on Christmas Day, he said. "Like many men, I don't cry," he said. "But it sunk in that I would never have a normal family relationship with my child; that he would never go away to college, never marry and have children."
Today, however, Tony and Barbara have new hope for Robert. For the past year, he has been attending the Julia Ann Singer Center's therapeutic classrooms at the Vista Del Mar School, a member agency of The Jewish Federation; the classrooms have recently placed special emphasis on treating autistic children. A luncheon Sept. 23 at the Beverly Hilton will benefit the center and its school program, where about half of the 15 students are autistic.
The Julia Ann Singer Center is a division of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, which began as The Jewish Orphans' Home of Southern California in Boyle Heights in 1908. The Singer Center was originally founded as the Jewish Mothers' Alliance in 1916; the outpatient facility became a division of Vista in 1982. Today, it serves children who are victims of child abuse, emotionally disturbed or have learning or developmental disabilities. There is a therapeutic school, a family therapy program and a child abuse treatment program, among other services, all on Vista's bucolic Cheviot Hills campus.
What makes the center's treatment of autistic children unique, said Center Program Manager Dr. Catherine Doubleday, is the family-oriented approach and the fact that the student-teacher ratio is about one-to-one. The goal is to reach children, aged 3 to 8, who, like Robert, cannot attend mainstream public school and often have no place else to go. Early intervention is crucial for such children, because at a young age the brain is most flexible, Doubleday said.
At the school, one emphasis is on social functioning -- teaching children to respond to frustrations with words instead of the body. "All the things you take for granted that a child learns must be broken down and mapped out sequentially," Doubleday said.
If a child grabs a marker from another child, a teacher might ask that child to stop and study the look on the other child's face; to note the grimace, the clenched teeth. Then the teacher might model another way of securing the marker; the child is praised for any approximation of the appropriate response. "Besides motor and [pre-academic] skills, a lot of the curriculum is identifying facial expressions and feelings," Doubleday said. "We concentrate on the face, on 'What do you see?' To stimulate language, we also do a lot of reading, and talking, talking, talking."
Parents learn to take the techniques home by volunteering at least once a week in the classroom; they process their feelings and exchange information during a Friday parents' group.
For many families, the results are dramatic. One mom was finally able to attend her annual family reunion with her two autistic sons, Doubleday said.
And the Millers report that Robert has become a different child. He is calmer; he knows the alphabet; he can speak in two- or three-word sentences; he can hold a pencil. "Before, my son would never even look up when I came home from work," Tony said. "Now he looks up at me and says, 'Hi Daddy.' It's a change that, for me, can't be quantified."
For more information on the luncheon, call (310) 202-0669, ext. 500.
* Not their real names