Autism is a defined as a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and form relationships. Many affected by this disorder do not like to be touched, avoid eye contact and seem to be “trapped” in their own world. It is the fastest growing developmental disability in the US. My son has autism and this is the story of how my wife and I helped him find a way out.
I have a band that I wear on my right wrist. A copper pendant rests in the center with the word “blessed” carved into it. I bought it on the set of a commercial I was shooting in early 2009. It was the first acting job I had booked in almost a year. That’s the life of an actor—feast or famine, and at this particular moment I was coming out of a painful “famine stage.” One of the things that helped me get through this difficult period was that I had begun to consciously and verbally give thanks for the things in my life that I did have: my legs worked, I was living without pain, I could hear my children laugh, see my beautiful wife. But more than anything, I was able to do something I thought I might never have the opportunity to do: talk with my son Reece.
Reece Jude Bowen was born on a beautiful day in October, 1998. My wife brought him into this world by natural child birth—alert, healthy and beautiful. He was the best thing that had ever happened to either of us.
Although he was meeting developmental milestones, as Reece grew, my wife and I began to suspect “something” was different with him. He wasn’t like the other babies we met. He was sensitive, serious, almost hyper aware of things and had an odd fascination with opening and closing doors. What was most alarming is that he didn’t speak—not a single word. Although we spoke to him all the time, took him to Gymboree and read to him every night, Reece was non-verbal. Our journey for answers was nothing short of frustrating. We heard of autism, but he didn’t show the hallmark signs—he loved to cuddle and had great eye contact. Our pediatrician wasn’t even convinced it was autism. We had his hearing checked and his physical development was advanced (he walked at ten months). We knew he understood what was going on. His twin brother and sister arrived when he was two and it was obvious that Reece loved and enjoyed playing with them. But his speech, where was his speech? Although we had figured out a way to “sense” what he needed, we felt completely helpless when he became upset and we couldn’t figure out how to fix it. The older he got, the more obvious his behavior became. He started “parallel playing,” was extremely particular about his toys, had tantrums and intestinal problems and began to develop a slight stim.
After much tenacity on our part we finally got Reece evaluated. He was officially diagnosed with autism at three and a half. Despite the relief we felt for finally having an answer, we were crushed. We had a child with special needs. Though heartbroken and scared, Renee and I did the only thing we could do—we got motivated and began to educate ourselves on “all things” autism. There wasn’t a plethora of information, services or networks available like today, so we read whatever books and articles we could find. It wasn’t long until we became almost experts on autism. We found that educating yourself is a requirement when you have a child with autism. Even today, traditional doctors still don’t know a lot about autism or what is causing its explosive growth. Many more are still unwilling to recognize alternative treatments that have been proven to be successful and are vehemently resistant to acknowledging some alarming facts. So as a parent you must become the teacher—the warrior—and Renee and I became fierce advocates for Reece.
Since the pharmaceutical answer was to fill Reece with harsh, untested drugs without any promise of helping him, we looked for other options. After extensive research, we found a Doctor of Osteopathy who practiced biomedical and natural interventions, added a homeopathy regimen and started the detoxing and healing process. I wish I could say this was a cheap route. It wasn’t. Unfortunately, despite the massive amount of data to support its success, insurance companies will still not recognize biomedical or natural remedies as an effective way to treat autism. Part of the protocol we followed called for putting him on the GFCF (gluten free casein free) diet, and within two to three weeks, Reece started to speak. After six months, he was having conversations and his intestinal problems had subsided. But that was just the beginning. With autism there is no single answer, so Reece went on to endure over thirty hours a week of in-home behavioral therapy, speech therapy, social skills groups, and occupational therapy—in addition to school—for the next three years. We literally had therapists in our house all the time. It wasn’t easy for him, but he stuck it out. There were many setbacks over the years but from supplements and thermal brain scans to methyl B12 shots, we did everything we could to keep him moving forward. It was a fight we were not going to walk away from. Above all, we made sure Reece knew we thought he was perfect just the way he was. As much as we pushed him, we embraced and celebrated him more, gave him time off and made sure he knew he was loved.
Reece is now thirteen. He knows more about computers than most adults, is honest, gentle, has an infectious laugh, a goofball personality, is adored by his teachers, liked by his classmates and talks all the time (sometimes a little too much, but I think he’s still catching up on the five years he lost). He is fully included in general ed at a project-based charter school he attends with his brother and sister. Speaking of his siblings, perhaps the greatest gift is what he has given to them. They are more compassionate and understanding than any eleven-year-olds we know and they have also been Reece’s greatest resource for learning social skills. No, they are not always “good” lessons, but a gift none the less. And a side effect from all that therapy—Reece says things like: “I’m feeling really frustrated right now, I need a minute.” If only we could all be that articulate.
We consider Reece to be a success story, but he still has a long road ahead of him. It’s hard for him to express his thoughts and emotions, and social nuances continue to be a land mine for him to navigate. Although we have had positive results with the methods we pursued, it’s unfortunately not the case for every child in the spectrum. There is no rule book with these kids; every child is different, so you have cast your net wide and try, try, try…until something works.
The question of why this epidemic is happening is still a mystery and highly controversial. The current rates of autism in the US is 1 in 88 children born. It is more common in children than cancer, diabetes, Down Syndrome, and AIDS combined. If that doesn’t scare you, it should. While the genetic research being done is important, it’s not enough. From vaccines to the staggering levels of mercury and other neurotoxins we are finding in our air, water and food supply—much broader research needs to be done. I personally believe this epidemic is proof that we are not immune to the damaging effects of the toxins we have filled our world with and are dealing with an environmentally triggered mutation of our genome. Cleaning up our environment might just be a lot more important than we ever thought. We need to be scared, we need to mobilize and we need to do a lot more.
My daughter and I were discussing the possibility of a cure the other day and she said, “I know this sounds bad, but I kinda hope they don’t find one, Dad. ‘Cause I like Reece just the way he is.” I turned to her and smiled, “Me too.” Perhaps that is the greatest gift my son has given me. When you have children, you have so many hopes and expectations for them. “I hope he’ll be good at sports, I hope she’s a lawyer, voted most popular,” etc. When you have a child with special needs your hopes become much more simple: “I hope the’’ll be happy. I hope they can hold a job someday. Make a friend…Maybe fall in love.” Can you imagine what our world would be like if we treated all our children like that?
Andrew Bowen is an actor/writer last seen on STARZ Magic City and will be seen later this year in the movie Rock Jocks. He and his wife Renee are parents to boys Reece and Seth, and daughter Avery. Renee runs a successful photography business in Los Angeles specializing in Senior Portraits. Organizations they support include: Autism Society of America, AutismOne, Generation Rescue and Autistic Self Advocacy Group. Their websites are:
Images Courtesy of Renee Bowen Photography
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