When Ethan Gorin was a toddler, he threw terrible tantrums, spun around in circles and repeatedly opened and shut drawers while counting. He didn’t respond when others called his name, and he was incapable of playing quietly by himself.
Students at the Media Enrichment Academy in Sherman Oaks often arrive with a variety of labels: Autistic. Isolated. Troublemaker.
"You hear so much from autism organizations about what a horrible disease this is and how the parents have been robbed of their children, yada, yada, yada, and I suppose on a certain level that is true," Jacob told me, typing the words on a special keyboard that allows him to fully express his ideas. "But I refuse to live the rest of my life believing I am a defective human being. I have gifts and talents and challenges just like everyone else, and I have the same desire for connection and a need to be treated with dignity and respect."
Mark Worland -- six-foot-something, dressed in tight black and skinhead bald -- grabs Navid by the arm.
"Come with me!" he barks.
"No!" screams Navid, barely 5-feet tall.
Navid throws himself on his back, locks the bottom of his feet to Worland's knees, and shields his face and head from Worland's flailing fists.
"Great job," says Worland, a self-defense specialist, shaking Navid's hand and helping him up, as Navid's friends applaud.
This self-defense class is part of a repertoire of life skills that Navid and his peers are learning at Independent Living Skills, a summer program for developmentally disabled adults run by Etta Israel Center, a mid-Wilshire nonprofit for people with special needs.
Joey Schwartzman has a passion for clocks. He is also crazy about street addresses, dates and numbers of any kind. And he has one more enthusiasm not often seen in 15-year-old boys: he loves reading Torah and Haftorah at his synagogue, Westchester's B'nai Tikvah Congregation.
What makes this truly remarkable is the fact that Joey has been diagnosed as autistic. A few years back, he was likely to disrupt services, or fall asleep on a couch outside the sanctuary. But he was fortunate to be part of a warm-hearted community that has known his family for three generations. As his bar mitzvah approached, a congregant with a background in psychological counseling devised a special Hebrew school curriculum for him and another boy with autism.
It is a bright, sunny day at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. In her office, medical director Dr. Susan Schmidt-Lackner is sitting on the floor with one of her young patients -- not an easy feat for a tall woman in a long skirt, but the doctor is more interested in the little boy than in her own comfort. The child's mother, seated nearby, recounts her concerns, such as how her son can't tolerate the texture of most foods and is subsisting on a diet of McDonald's Happy Meals.
arbara and Sheldon Helfing never expected to have one autistic child, much less two. Their son Leland, now 5, was born prematurely and began showing signs of a neurological disorder before reaching his 1st birthday.