- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

In the 1970s, when autism was a rare condition affecting 1 in 10,000 children, Barry and Samahria Kaufman were told their toddler son, Raun, was severely autistic.

Today, autism rates have soared — about 1 in 150 children are classified as having an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but the worry parents feel remains the same.

“Parents of autistic children are often told their children will never be normal, never talk, have friends, initiate affection, behave politely in public or learn academic subjects,” said Bryn Hogan, executive director of the Autism Treatment Center of America in Sheffield, Mass., and Raun’s sister. “Diagnosis is one thing, but prognosis is the problem. Some are handed pamphlets about group homes for autistic adults — when their child is 3 years old!”

Refusing to accept that Raun would never speak, make eye contact, learn or be aware of his surroundings, the Kaufmans decided to study his behaviors and follow his cues. Rather than trying to stop his repetitive and ritualistic movements, such as spinning a plate, waving his hands and squealing for hours on end, they joined in, doing the same behaviors for hours on end. Choosing to love and accept Raun unconditionally, they celebrated every moment of eye contact, every playful interaction.

Defying the experts’ predictions, within 3½ years, Raun had recovered completely. He became a fully functional, smart and social young boy, had a normal childhood, graduated from an Ivy League university and is now CEO of the Autism Treatment Center of America and the Option Institute.

The family’s story was dramatized in a 1979 TV movie, “Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love,” and soon, hundreds of parents were pleading with the Kaufmans to share their methods — which led to them opening the Autism Treatment Center of America in 1983.

“The central idea is that the child shows us the way into his world, and the parents show the child the way out,” Raun Kaufman said in a recent interview.

This approach runs counter to the applied behavior analysis stance that considers autism a lifelong and irreversible condition.

“There is an underlying belief by the professional community that the autistic child can’t be helped,” Ms. Hogan explained, “so they believe the best hope is to train them so they won’t look weird in public, make strange noises, embarrass the family. Applied behavior analysis tries to extinguish aberrant behavior with positive reinforcement or negative consequences.”

As Mr. Kaufman’s sister, Ms. Hogan grew up with the Son-Rise methods — which include teaching through interactive play, inviting eye contact, using fun and excitement to facilitate communication, being optimistic and consistent, and creating a safe, distraction-free area for the work of play. Although she later explored other types of interventions in studies and career choices, she said she found nothing that came close to the effectiveness of Son-Rise.

“The Son-Rise program empowers parents to help their child in a way schools can’t,” Ms. Hogan said. “It harnesses the most powerful force in the universe — parents’ love for their children — and gives them practical tools they can use to help their child.

“To do this program, the parent needs to find the most loving part of himself or herself,” Ms. Hogan said.

Unexpectedly, this became a personal quest for Ms. Hogan.

“When my adopted daughter at the age of 2 started to lose language, avoid eye contact, flush the toilet repeatedly, scream, go off in a corner, my husband and I realized that she was autistic,” she said. “So for 3½ years, I went on this extraordinary, painful voyage, finding the most loving part of myself, and doing this program with my own daughter — who today is a friendly, warm, affectionate, normal 13-year-old who sometimes says ‘Mom, can’t we step up the pace?’ and rolls her eyes — and my husband and I just feel so blessed!”

Nicole Schumacher of Canton, Ohio, said her 8-year-old son, Andrew, has blossomed over the past five years using the Son-Rise program’s approach.

“It is relationship-based, and it focuses on strengths of the child,” explained Ms. Schumacher, who has a doctorate in psychology. “The bottom line is: It works.”

Andrew has transformed from a child who would hit, scream, bite, run outside the minute the door was opened, speak only gibberish, and couldn’t accompany his family anywhere, to one who can do every normal thing with his family, talks well, is connected to others — is even “too social,” his mom said.

“Within two months after starting the program, I heard him tell me “I love you, Mommy,” Ms. Schumacher said. “What was locked inside was able to be unlocked. Now, we can go places together as a family, do things I thought we could never do. Most people now would never even know Andrew ever had any issue.”

Although care professionals are welcomed to learn, the main focus of ATCA is empowering and training parents to work with their own children, and sometimes to enlist and train others to help. Parental fatigue, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, self-blame and frustration are clearly addressed.

“Parents can get demoralized,” Mr. Kaufman explained, “and then it’s hard for them to stick with any program, to stay focused, to see development and results. We help them to stay inspired, stay motivated.”

At the weeklong parent training sessions in the Berkshire mountain retreat, “Our focus is getting the tools into their hands,” Mr. Kaufman said, “because parents love their children more than anybody else.”

Before attending a session, parents can visit the center’s Web site (www.autismtreatmentcenter.org) to view short videos that provide training on several of the basic skills and environmental preparations to start working with their child immediately.

The cost of the training can be daunting — about $2,200 — and the parent has to find care for the child during that time. But from the impact reported by some 25,000 parents who have used the program, the investment is well worth it. The Web site is filled with letters and stories from parents about the breakthroughs made with their children of all ages with all types of issues.

Right now, a “Grass Roots Autism Tour” is crisscrossing the nation, featuring Mr. Kaufman and a Son-Rise parent, Kristin Selby Gonzalez, who in a free two-hour presentation are sharing tools parents of autistic children can use, including elements of the Son-Rise program as well as the dietary and enzyme-based interventions of the tour sponsors, Enzymedica. Parents who attend a presentation can apply for one of the 100 full scholarships for the Son-Rise training that Enzymedica will fund.

Love, acceptance, appreciation, joyfulness, fun — these are the constants in the Son-Rise approach. Mr. Kaufman notes that whether people are dealing with autism or any number of other trying life circumstances, “These are attitude tools that improve every situation and every life.”

“Autism is an interaction disorder,” Ms. Schumacher said. “This is a relationship-based approach that focuses on the child’s strengths, and once we are able to connect, what is locked inside the child is able to be unlocked.” The value of the Son-Rise program is not for the child alone, she said.

“It has been such a gift — it taught me so much, and I’m such a different person,” she said. “I’m now the person I always wanted to be.”

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