|Jul 15 2009|
How Autism Ages
("Time" Vol. 173, Issue 20)
It is estimated that 1 out of every 150 American children is living withautism. And yet little attention is paid to what happens when they grow up. A personal account of the silent struggle of adult autistics
Noah, my younger brother, does not talk. Nor can he dress himself, prepare a meal for himself or wipe himself. He is a 42-year-old man, balding, gaunt, angry and, literally, crazy. And having spent 15 years at the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, Calif., a state facility, Noah has picked up the con's trick of lashing out before anyone could take a shot at him.
Noah's autism has been marked by "three identified high priority maladaptive behaviors that interfere with his adaptive programming. These include banging his head against solid surfaces, pinching himself and grabbing others," according to his 2004 California Department of Developmental Services individual program plan (IPP). Remarkably, that clinical language actually portrays Noah more favorably than the impression one would get from a face-to-face meeting.
Despite the successful marketing of the affliction by activists and interest groups, autism is not a childhood condition. It is nondegenerative and nonterminal: the boys and girls grow up. For all the interventions and therapies and the restrictive diets and innovative treatments, the majority of very low-functioning autistics like Noah will require intensive support throughout their lives. If recent estimates of prevalence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are accurate, then 1 in 150 of today's children is autistic. That means we are in for a vast number of adult autistics--most better adjusted than Noah, some as bad off--who will be a burden to parents, siblings and, eventually, society.
We are largely unprepared to deal with this crisis. Autism funding and research, so far, have predominantly focused on children. When I have visited autism conferences, there have been exceedingly few research projects devoted to low-functioning adult autistics. It remains difficult for families of adult autistics to find the programs they need, to access those services that are available and even to locate medical professionals and dentists who can handle adult autistics. Too much of the burden rests on the families themselves, who remain in the picture as caregivers, advocates and, too often, the only party with the autistic adult's best interests in mind.
Parents, of course, love their children. When I used to accompany my parents to visit Noah at Fairview, we would sometimes see other parents visiting their middle-aged "boys"--some of them strapped into helmets because of their self-injurious behavior--who walked with the same stiff-legged gait, bobbed their heads from side to side, twiddled rubber bands or twigs in their hands and sometimes smacked their foreheads with their fists. They were unlovely men, I thought, lost, impossible to like. But once the parents were gone, who was supposed to keep making these visits and these phone calls checking up on their sons and attending these meetings with the administrators and bureaucrats and caregivers to advocate on behalf of the lost men? That will end up being me, or people like me, the siblings. We will be the ones left caring.
My family served for the first 14 years of Noah's life as a sort of monument to my parents' love for their autistic son. We functioned as a Noah-support group. Almost as soon as I was aware of myself, there was Noah, a perpetual source of worry and concern because of his delayed development. He wasn't turning over, crawling, walking, doing anything on schedule except talking--and he soon regressed out of speech. My parents began then the lacerating pilgrimage from specialist to specialist, seeking, first, an explanation for this delayed development and then, finally, desperately, a cure, a therapy, hope.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, autism was considered a rarity in the U.S., so uncommon that many pediatricians believed they had never seen a case. Treatment was laughable: the dangerous Freudian inanities of Bruno Bettelheim and his now widely discredited methods, the talk therapy of the psychoanalytic community, whose members wanted to treat the parents rather than the child (the blame-the-parents approach). We moved from New York to Los Angeles in search of a cure for Noah. There, at UCLA, new behavioral programs, the operant-conditioning and discrete-trial therapies that now dominate autism treatment, were being pioneered by psychologists like O. Ivar Lovaas.
Noah was an early patient of Lovaas', yet the success that Lovaas would have with some of the autistic children he worked with eluded Noah, who remained among the lowest-functioning cohort--nonverbal, unable to dress himself, not toilet-trained until he was 5. Lovaas soon told my parents that he had gone as far as he could with Noah, that he was now focusing on younger children. (I have since heard of numerous children who also, as one parent I know put it, "flunked" Lovaas.) It was an early disappointment but only a precursor of so many to follow.
In the late '70s, my mother, frustrated at the lack of care and attention given to special-education children, who actually had fewer school hours and more days off than "normal" children did, opened her own day-care center for the developmentally disabled. By this time, Noah was 14 and as tall as my mother. My father, already in his 50s, was soon diagnosed with a heart problem; he has since had open-heart surgery. My mother, who had been Noah's most assiduous and faithful teacher, spending hours a day at a table in his room, constantly trying to get him to repeat sounds or tie a string, was exhausted. Both of them felt they couldn't take care of him at home anymore, that it had become a matter of their survival or Noah's. My parents reluctantly began looking for a place for Noah; a year later, they chose a group home in the San Fernando Valley.
When we arrived, we were shown the room--four beds, three along one wall and the other in a corner, two windows with vinyl draperies--that Noah would share with three other boys. My parents signed some paperwork and showed the staff how to use the rice cooker they were donating so that Noah could still eat his favorite food. My mother had sewn labels into all his clothes and prepared a huge stack of gyoza dumplings for him. My parents were given additional forms to sign, including one that allowed the use of "aversives"--hits, slaps, spankings.
It wasn't forever, my father believed, as if he had packed his son off to a military academy for some discipline. But he knew, he already knew, that this felt wrong.
My mother was crying.
Noah bounced on a leather sofa, uninterested, and then reclined on his elbow. He didn't know this was forever; he didn't even know he wasn't coming home with us.
We left him sitting there. He waved to us, a weak, indifferent, limp-wristed gesture. Goodbye, like he didn't care.
Driving away felt like a crime.
That was the first of half a dozen residential placements for Noah. Some were better than others, but none of them was a place you would want to put your own child.
Fairview developmental center was Noah's last institutional stop. Built during the 1950s, Fairview is a complex of stucco bungalows spread over 100 acres (40 hectares) next to a golf course. Noah lived in Residence 14, one bungalow among about 50. In recent years, as the state has embraced a program known as Community Care, with the goal of moving developmentally disabled adults, including the severely autistic like Noah, from state facilities to local supported-living homes, these bungalows have been gradually shuttered. The money spent maintaining vast complexes like Fairview, the state believes, should instead be filtered through local agencies. Many of the higher-functioning developmentally disabled or autistic adults were never put into the state system to begin with, leaving the more difficult cases like Noah in facilities that increasingly rely on pharmaceuticals to treat any and all developmental and behavioral challenges.
Over the years, we noticed that each time we visited, Noah had a new scar, a black eye or a chipped tooth. In clinical parlance, these were Noah's "unobserved, self-inflicted injuries"--or USIs. One day, Noah had a dozen thick, black stitches on his forehead. As Noah's medications increased, so too did the number of USIs he suffered. Noah was already on Trileptal, Zyprexa and oral and injected Ativan. The collective side effects of these three drugs filled three pages of his IPP. I've looked and never been able to find a study of how they interact in "normal" individuals or the autistic. Because Noah had reached the maximum legal dosage for each of these medications, the Fairview staff urged another new medication, the antidepressant Remeron. (It is important to note that Noah suffers from no other physical illness, ailment or handicap. His problems are entirely neurological.)
But the drugs always seemed to make Noah worse, we pointed out.
They told us the choice was ours: either more drugs or a transfer to another ward in the facility where the most dangerous and criminally inclined autistic adults were housed.
My parents and I were desperate to find a well-run supported-living situation for Noah, but they're rare. When the state launched Community Care, numerous for-profit companies sprang up to house the developmentally disabled, each of whom is entitled to many thousands of dollars a year in state funding. The companies that have succeeded tend to work with higher-functioning autistic or developmentally disabled adults, those who pose little risk to themselves or others. Other companies are alleged to be providing inadequate care or even in some cases abusing clients.
The risks of Community Care for families of the adult autistic or mentally challenged are numerous. Perhaps the greatest worry is that the state will cut the promised funding per client, leaving families to foot the bill. Institutions like Fairview, flawed though they sometimes are, are often necessary for care of the lowest-functioning or violently autistic. The seemingly benign term community care, when it is invoked by conservative state representatives in domed capitols, is too often a code word for budget-cutting. The concept of moving the autistic into loving group homes where they will be taught or looked after is Edenic but inadequate to society's needs. For the high-functioning, such assisted-living situations are a better alternative than institutionalization; for the low-functioning, the concept is often better than the reality. What happens if the supported-living home we find for Noah goes belly-up or loses its license or is just plain corrupt? Then where would Noah go? My parents simply can't care for him at home, nor could I.
And yet by 2005, my brother seemed almost in critical condition; we had no choice but to find yet another new place for Noah.
When I was writing my book about my brother, Boy Alone, I wished I had a story of hope and salvation. It is miracles that sell books. There seems to be an insatiable demand for narratives that end in triumph over an affliction: the cripple walks, the mute speaks, the autistic boy laughs and hugs and cries. We hunger for that uplifting journey, as opposed to the cruel odyssey I had to tell. What did I have to offer? My adult brother, still autistic, still nonverbal, still lost. As much as I hope that all the autistic boys and girls will get better, and as much as I can encourage their families to fight with all the hope they have, I also know that they will not all recover. The boy or girl will grow up, and there won't be a miracle; instead there will be an effort, something like what my family goes through every day, to figure out what to do.
We did, however, catch our own small break three years ago. Through the Westside Regional Center, my parents found out about Diverse Journeys, an assisted-living program willing to place Noah in a rented house in Los Angeles closer to my parents' home and therefore an easier commute for their weekly visits. Noah lives in a two-bedroom house with a roommate, a "normal" person, whose rent is partly subsidized in exchange for the attention she must pay to Noah when she is home. A rotating series of caregivers take Noah to the park or for walks or to fast-food restaurants during the day.
The program has made some real progress in weaning Noah from some of the medications he had been taking, cutting him down to two drugs from four. And the mysterious scars and bumps and bruises he was getting, what Fairview termed USIs, have largely ended. So far, Noah's assisted-living program represents a great improvement over Fairview, and my parents and I are thankful every day for this change in Noah's circumstances.
When Noah is happy, it is a stark, uncut ebullience, rising, as my father wrote in his first book about our family, A Child Called Noah, "from a deep, pure place." The joy emanates from him with such force that he will run toward me with his wide smile and rub his head against my shoulder in an almost feline gesture of pleasure. On days when Noah is in a good mood, when he is humming an up-tempo version of his melody of repeated, nonsensical syllables, we are again reminded that he is capable of great happiness.
Yet on some visits he is awful. He has good moods and bad moods. Just like me.
Is Noah happier in his new situation? Perhaps a little. He can never say.
Noah's condition persists, an immovable psychic object. As a family, we lived in the present, from crisis to crisis; my parents always mustering the energy for a response. My father is in his 80s now, my mother in her late 70s. They will go on as long as they can. Then I will try to step in.
Will I always be there for Noah, as my parents have been?
I wish I could say, Yes, definitely, I will be there.
But I honestly don't know.~~~~~~~~
By Karl Taro Greenfeld
Greenfeld is the author of Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir (Harper), from which this article is adapted
Copyright © Time Inc., 2009.
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