Examining Autism

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At 7 years old, Walker loves playing make-believe with his Mom…

Walker: "Hello. Is this the pharmacy at Stop and Shop?"

Mom: "Yes."

Walker: "Do you have any magic potions?"

He loves story time with his dad.

Dad: "Toad took all the buttons out of his pocket. He took his sewing box down from the shelf."

Walker: "You know what he's gonna do?"

Dad: "What's he gonna do now?"

Walker: "Sew 'em onto his jacket and give it to Frog. It's gonna be beautiful!"

None of this is unusual, until you learn what Walker was like as a baby. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver reports:

Says his mother, Patricia Stacey, "Well, the thing that, you know, haunted me was the fact that he would stare out the windows and that he wouldn't make eye contact with me, and that he seemed to be brooding, seemed to be lost in some deep depression."

He was a little baby. He seemed like that?

"Absolutely," says his mother. "He never smiled. He never laughed."

When Pat and her husband, Cliff, sought medical advice, the pediatricians, at the beginning, assured them that Walker was fine and all systems were normal. "And it was a relief," recalls Pat. "You want the doctor to say everything is fine."

But they knew that things weren't fine. Walker's big sister, Elizabeth, had been a normal, lively baby. The couple began researching their son's behavior patterns and found that activities like constant rocking matched up with autism, a baffling condition that manifests itself in so many different ways that even experts have a hard time defining it.

Rebecca Landa is director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She's also an associate professor of psychiatry. Landa says diagnosing autism can be difficult. Symptoms can include constant repetition and inability to connect with other people and distress at any change in routine, the kind of conduct Dustin Hoffman displayed in the film "Rain Man."

What does it mean to say that someone is autistic?

Says Landa, "The big clincher is really social interaction. That's the main thing. They don't use their eyes to punctuate what they're saying in their communication. Things like that."

Is there anything medical science can say at this point about what causes autism?

"We're not there yet,"says Landa. "But we do know that the primary cause of autism is genetic and we also think that there is a gene-environment interaction, so that you might have predisposition for autism, but then you get a second hit, exposure to something and that takes you into full-fledged autism."

Though there have been some claims that certain vaccinations can lead to autism, the latest major scientific studies have shown no evidence that's the case.

There are other mysteries. Why are there more autistic boys than girls? Why do symptoms sometimes show up at birth and sometime not until months later? And why does there seem to be a rise in autism? Some studies show that 1 child in 500 is autistic. The increase may be due to better diagnosis. In the past, many autistic children were simply written off as "retarded." But scientists do not fully understand the rising numbers.

The problem has reached such proportions that the federal government recently convened the first National Autism Summit. Though the overall picture is gloomy, one encouraging finding has emerged, according to Nancy Wiseman of the advocacy group First Signs: Clear, early and intensive intervention can profoundly impact the quality of life for every child and family at risk.

Evidence is beginning to accumulate that autism can be moderated or even reversed in some (though not all) autistic children when their symptoms are detected early. The problem is that, often, doctors don't know what to look for.

"Some pediatricians believe that children can't be tested before 3, that they don't know enough to show you much," says Landa. "But there's a lot you can test in babies as young as 6 months."

So, to help develop a set of guidelines that pediatricians can use, Landa is conducting the first study of babies at risk for autism from infancy through their third birthday. She is focusing her study on younger siblings of autistic children, because they have an increased chance of developing the disease.

Two-year-old twins Allison and Joel Fleming have been monitored since birth. Both have shown some minor signs of autism. Their older brother, Grant, was not formally diagnosed until he was well past 2, according to their mother, Kim Fleming.

Looking at it now, does she wish that maybe she had started heavy-duty working with Grant before he was 2?

"I do, I do," says Mrs. Fleming. "And hindsight has helped because now, with our other children, we are starting early."

That means special play and educational therapy, essentially teaching autistic children to use their brains in a different way.

"The brain is more able to compensate for areas that aren't developing so well when you intervene earlier," Landa explains.

Scientists are looking at the possibility that, if children are not turned onto a certain behavior automatically, they can then be helped to move into the right behavior.

"It gives them building blocks for learning more skills and more skills until, finally, they are better," says Landa.

And that brings us back to Walker. His parents started him in speech and physical therapy even before any doctor would diagnose him as autistic. By the time he was 11 months old, Walker was in one of several intense programs that have worked for some children. In his case, it was a system called "floor time."

Says Walker's father, Cliff, "It's simply getting down on the floor with a child, meeting them where they are, having them, as much as possible, direct the play, and creating circles of communications, where you do something and the child responds. And then they do something and you respond, and back and forth. Walker, where he was, you roll him a ball and he would just sit there. He couldn't complete that circle."

The program called for eight to ten 20-minute sessions a day, almost every moment when Walker wasn't eating or sleeping. Their state (Massachusetts) helped pay for therapists. But most of the responsibility fell on the family. Pat Stacey has documented the arduous process in her recent book, "The Boy Who Loved Windows."

She recalls, "We started working to get a reaction from him, and it wasn't enough to get one reaction, You have to get 100, back and forth, back and forth."

What kind of a toll did this start to take on the family?

Says Cliff, "It was very stressful, the hardest thing we've ever been through."

But it was worth it. Today, Walker goes to a regular public elementary school, and gradually, like some other children who have been lucky enough to get early intervention, he has learned how to connect with other human beings.

For his mother, watching emotion start to show on her son's face over time, "was like watching ... a birth happen very slowly."