Autism: Understanding the Puzzle

By: Sarah Platt Email
By: Sarah Platt Email

What do you think of when you hear names like Albert Einstein or Dan Aykroyd? It's likely Einstein's brilliance comes to mind and Aykroyd's comic timing. But did you know both the physicist and comedian had or have forms of autism?

Autism effects one in 150 children and is four times more likely in boys than in girls. It's a complex neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate, a skill most of us take for granted.

Newscenter 16's Sarah Platt has a look at part one of our autism series, "Autism: Understanding the Puzzle."

The parents that Newscenter 16 interviewed for this story say it was a startling discovery to learn that their children had autism. It's a genetic disorder and what's interesting is just how wide the autism spectrum is. In the most severe cases, people are unable to function normally; while others are very high functioning, but might struggle with social skills.

Today, we introduce you to two families dealing with very different forms of autism.

Meet 7-year-old Patrick Cichoracki, a second grader at Bittersweet Elementary. At first glance, there are no noticeable signs of a disorder.

“He was 22 months old when we noticed he wasn't really talking, wasn't really trying to
talk, didn't say mommy or daddy, juice, cookie, we just assumed that was because he was an only child,” says Patrick’s mom, Laura Cichoracki.

But the problem, turned out to be much deeper than that. Patrick wasn't able to interact with his family or peers, like a prisoner in his own body.

Around age three, Patrick was diagnosed with autism. “For me, it was absolutely devastating, every dream I ever had for him went up in smoke, uncertainty of the future. My husband has been rather stoic about it. He's always been ‘he's going to be what he's going to be, we'll just role with the punches’,” says Cichoracki.

“When we first saw Patrick, he had no words. He had no way of communicating what he wanted other than screaming and pointing and getting upset and crying if he was unhappy,” says Patrick’s speech pathologist, Susanna McKinley.

Dan Ryan is Director of the Regional Autism Center at Logan in South Bend. He says autism cases seem to be on the rise, but it's unclear if that's because doctors are simply better at diagnosing the disorder or there's a scientific reason for the increase. “In addition to the increase in diagnostic availability, there really does seem to be something else, that perhaps is an environmental toxin that is somehow contributing to the increase in kids getting a diagnosis,” says Ryan.

A cause of autism? One widely debated theory is mercury in the vaccine preservative thimerosal may have contributed to the increase. However, there's no scientific proof on that.

The autism spectrum is something the Smous family of Bremen also knows. Angie and Steve Smous' 8-year-old son Ben was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. “When he was in kindergarten, his teacher did say, 'Well, you might want to have him evaluated and she mentioned a couple symptoms',” says Angie Smous.

Like others with Asperger’s syndrome, Ben is highly intelligent, but has many social and behavioral challenges. “They do seem so normal at times. These kids get over-stimulated and then it's when their disability really comes out,” says Angie Smous, Ben’s mother.

Smous' other two children are also on the autism spectrum. Sydney is diagnosed with a mild case of Asperger's, while the youngest, Pete, is considered mildly autistic.

Although teasing is often common for kids with autism, both Smous and Cichoracki say other adults can be just as critical. “People look at you like what's wrong with you, why can't you control your child!” says Smous.

Cichoracki adds, “There was one lady at the gym when he was there, snatched her kid up and ran away to the other side of the room and it took me awhile to figure out, 'Oh my god, she thinks he's toxic, she thinks he's catchy.’ As a mom that cuts you to the bone.”

As for Cichoracki’s son Patrick, he's in a regular classroom at Bittersweet Elementary, but accompanied by an assistant at all times.

Meantime, the Smous’ have decided to home school their son Ben, until some of his behaviors have improved.

Experts at the Logan Center tell us many autistic children and teens can be good "escape artists" or have a knack for sneaking away. That's one of the reasons there are some programs in place to help train law enforcement officers to recognize autism. This comes in handy when police are dealing with an autistic person that might be displaying violent or threatening behavior. The Logan Center has hosted several training events for local law enforcement.

In part two of “Autism: Understanding the Puzzle”, we’ll have more on what types of therapies both families have tried. Also, a look at the importance of getting an early diagnosis for autism.

WNDU has complied a list of links that might help families dealing with autism. The links are listed below.

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