Working together to overcome autism

Family comes together while coping with son's disability

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— If it is true that love becomes a love story once the couple has overcome an obstacle, then Denise and Darin English have enough material for a short novel.

They met five years ago during a record snowfall winter. Darin had just finished the construction of an igloo at his house on the mountain and Denise attended the dedication party.

"In 1997 we got married, bought a house and had a baby," Darin said. "We went from being ski bums to parents."

Darin is a Colorado native and Denise is a transplant from Connecticut. They both moved to Steamboat about 10 years ago for the snowboarding.

A lot has changed since then.

Neither of them has time any more to ride the mountain.

The life change came on Sept. 30, 1999, in the maternity ward of the hospital with the birth of their second child, Jack.

Their son was a normal, healthy baby for the first year of his life, but after his second birthday, the couple began to notice changes.

Jack stopped responding to his name. He forgot the few words he had learned and stopped speaking all together. He flapped his arms and ground his teeth.

"A bomb could blow up next to his head and he wouldn't respond," Darin said.

Suddenly, Jack refused to be left alone. Denise had to take him with her to the shower and he slept with his parents.

At first they thought he might have a hearing problem and they took him to the doctor.

"Jack refused to let anyone touch him but Denise," Darin said.

They finally were forced to have his hearing tested.

Because Jack was still very affectionate with Denise, the doctors initially ruled out autism.

His hearing was fine and the doctors had no answers.

So Denise went to the library. When she read about autism, she recognized Jack's behavior in every line.

According to "A Parent's Guide to Autism," by Charles A. Hart, autism is a neurological problem that blocks, delays or distorts signals from the eyes, ears and other sensory organs.

"This usually weakens a person's ability to interact with other people," Hart writes.

"Imagine standing in a train tunnel and all you can see is one point of light at the end," Darin said. "That is Jack's world. He focuses on one thing and everything else is gone.

"If you distract him, it is like flipping on the lights in a lamp store."

The distraction is completely overwhelming to Jack. He begins flapping his arms and grinding his teeth.

Jack spends most of his time watching television. He watches the same program over and over.

"That's why people with autism are so gifted," Darin said. "Because they get focused on one thing."

These days he is interested in a video that teaches the ABCs both spoken and with sign language.

"It's only been a year now since this whole thing started," he said. "We're at the beginning of this whole thing the tip of the iceberg."

"It's been hard on us," Denise said. "We handled it in different ways. Darin was in denial for a long time. Then he set about researching ways he could fix it."

"It almost tore us apart," Darin said.

The tension built between Darin and Denise as they both struggled to deal with their son's disability.

In an attempt to save their marriage, they attended a half-dozen counseling sessions.

"It didn't help," Denise said. "Basically he told us to get a divorce."

The endless hours alone at home with two children Alex is 5, Jack is 2 one whose every moment was a potential struggle, left Denise frustrated and feeling alone.

Last February, to prevent a breakdown, she decided to get a job as a say of getting out of the house. She now works at the front desk of Pine Grove Dental in Steamboat while Darin takes care of the kids.

"Before, I was working three jobs," Darin said. "My only role in the family before was as the provider."

When Jack first started showing signs of autism, he stopped liking anyone but his mother.

"We couldn't even hug, because Jack would get jealous and push us apart," Denise said.

Darin has been spending days at home and working at night as a bartender at the Holiday Inn.

The father and son have been building a relationship they never had before Denise worked.

Jack likes his father again.

The daily routine of parenting Jack involves a lot of therapy sessions.

A worker from Horizons Specialized Services for the Developmentally Disabled drives out to the family's Stagecoach home for speech therapy sessions with Jack.

He also attends Humble Ranch, a nonprofit agency off Colorado 131 that provides, among other services, horse therapy for disabled children.

Denise and Darin believe Jack's autism came from his low tolerance to heavy metals, combined with exposure to mercury at in his first few months of life.

According to an article in the May issue of Asperger's Autism Digest Magazine, a growing number of people in the autism community are beginning to turn their attention to the role of heavy metals in the disorder.

Mercury is used in thermometers, pesticides and dental fillings, according to the magazine. Many children recently have also had mercury injected into their bloodstream when they are vaccinated.

Vaccines made in the past 15 years use the preservative thimerosal, which contains mercury.

On July 9, 1999, the U.S. Public Health Service and American Academy of Pediatrics issued a joint statement recommending the removal of thimerosal from vaccines.

"People wrote to Congress with their concerns and a couple of months ago, vaccinations containing thimerosal were completely removed from the market," Darin said.

The victory was too late for the English family. They were more interested in how they could heal their son.

The couple, convinced that their son was suffering from mercury poisoning, found a local homeopathic doctor who introduced them to chelation.

He prescribed the use of a drug, originally used as a cure for lead poisoning, known as DMSA. The powder was put into Jack's bottles.

The treatment was meant to leech the mercury from the baby's body. The treatment is not covered by insurance.

"After four months we were already seeing a change," Darin said. "He's making eye contact again and starting to murmur his ABCs."

Not every child is affected in the same way by vaccinations. It was Jack's allergy that caused the neurological reaction.

Denise said there is a small support group in Steamboat for area parents who have autistic children. Eight people, with autistic children between 2 years to high school age, attend the meetings.

The women get together for dinner and drinks to discuss ways they could educate the school system and local doctors about dealing with their children.

With funding from BOCES, the group brought an autism specialist to speak in Steamboat. About 20 people attended.

"No one in town can really help us with Jack," Denise said. "In Steamboat, we have to be the experts."

Denise and Darin are confident that through the group's work, a program will be in instituted by the time Jack is ready for school.

Anyone interested in joining a support group for parents of autistic children can call Denise or Darin at 736-8586.

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