No longer autistic

Mark Macluskie, 16, who is no longer autistic. Credit: Mark Peckmezian for The New York Times

About 10 percent of autistic kids grow out of it, researchers now believe. Intensive behavioral therapy seems to help, but it’s not clear why some children “beat” autism and most do not, writes Ruth Padawer in the New York Times Magazine.

Mark Macluskie was diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at the age of 3.

He showed no apparent interest in those around him and seemed to understand few words. He threw stunning tantrums. And even when he didn’t seem angry, he would run headlong into walls and fall over, then get up and do it again, like a robot programmed to repeat the same pattern eternally, seemingly impervious to pain despite the bruises spreading across his forehead.

His mother, Cynthia, researched therapies so she could teach Mark at home. By the time he was 8, he’d caught up in speech and behavior, but not in social skills.

Cynthia . . . watched DVR recordings of “Leave It to Beaver” with Mark, stopping every few minutes to ask him to predict what might happen next, or what he thought Beaver was thinking, or why June reacted the way she did. When they had watched every episode, they moved on to “Little House on the Prairie” so Mark could practice reading facial expressions.

. . . At parks and restaurants, they watched the faces of passers-by and played social detective, with Cynthia asking Mark to find clues to people’s relationships or emotions. “He didn’t seem to learn that stuff through osmosis like other kids do, so I’d have to walk him through it each time till he got it.”

When he fell in love with robots, Cynthia invited four typically developing children to come over two afternoons a weeks for “robot club.” The five kids began writing code and entering contests.

At 11, Mark no longer met the criteria for autism. Three years later, he competed in a world robotics competition. “He was partnered randomly with teenagers from Singapore and had to strategize with them on the fly,” writes Padwaer. “They won several rounds.”

Now 16, Mark is a “typical geeky teenager,” albeit one who co-hosts a weekly Internet radio show,  “Tech Team,” with 32,000 listeners.

On a parenting blog, a father writes about the kids who don’t beat autism. They are the majority.

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