Boy begins to emerge with new therapy

UNRAVELING AUTISM'S COCOON

March 31, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

In an unadorned 10-by-12-foot room in the basement of his parents' Jacksonville home, 7-year-old Billy Noon lives in his own world.

His friends have spent thousands of hours trying to coax him back to this one. They've been at it for more than a year.

Now -- encouraged by an occasional smile, a nod, or an unexpected response -- they're beginning to find their way past the frayed outer edges of an autistic child's universe.

Linda Reeves, one of the 15 friends who have dedicated time and emotional energy to an intensive form of therapy constructed for autistic children, wrote a parable about the journey. It begins:

"The fearless adventurers set out to find their young friend Billy. He had wandered across the Bridge to Nowhere, and they knew he couldn't find his way back without their help."

*

William John Noon III was born at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center at 6 a.m. on Nov. 8, 1985. He weighed 7 pounds and was the second of Billy and Denise Noon's three children. The nightmare began almost immediately.

"Billy cried all the time. He slept about two hours a day. He ate just enough to keep himself going, and he had constant ear infections," said Mrs. Noon, 37, a former buyer for Crown Central Petroleum Corp.

After three months, the Noons took him to a behaviorist at Sinai Hospital, who diagnosed Billy as a "difficult child," something they already knew. The doctor offered no solutions. The Noons hoped he would outgrow it. He didn't.

He walked and talked on time, but the incessant crying continued. His parents knew something was wrong. After a year, he weighed only 14 pounds. At the age of 2, he started to withdraw.

The Noons took him back to Sinai. This time the diagnosis was stark and defeating. Billy was autistic.

*

Autism is one of nature's most puzzling conditions. Even the dictionary definition is vague: A mental state marked by disregard of external reality.

Medical references are frightening: The cause of autism is unknown. Any disruption of a compulsive routine may result in explosive rage. Self-mutilation, even to the point where it is life-threatening, is fairly common. The outlook is guarded. Most require lifelong shelter and care.

The Noons were crushed.

"Most of what we read was so bad," Mrs. Noon said. "Is this going to be our life? No hope, no future? Will I have a child who doesn't care about us, who doesn't even know us? I would look for positive things to put in his baby book, but I had a lot of blank pages."

It got worse.

"Billy began to have wall-to-wall tantrums," she said. "Anything would set him off. He became hyperactive, he wouldn't sleep. We couldn't communicate with him. My husband is a wonderful dad, but he would sometimes get up and go to work at 3 in the morning."

At 3, Billy began attending White Oak, a Baltimore County special education school. "The teachers tried hard and were wonderful, but Billy was beyond them, he was beyond us," Mrs. Noon said.

Bill Noon, 37, a sales representative for the Packaging Corporation of America, said the couple tried other standard treatments with doctors in Arizona, Buffalo, and finally at Johns Hopkins.

"Billy just kept getting more distant," he said, "but we never considered an institution. We were looking for alternatives."

Hope arrived in the mail.

"People would send us little articles on treatment for autistic children," Mrs. Noon said. "We received this article from a friend about this family in Massachusetts that had had some success with autistic children."

It was a story about Barry and Suzi Kaufman and their son, Raun, who at age 1 1/2 displayed the classic autistic symptoms: self-absorption, withdrawal, repetitive motions, total inability to communicate.

Doctors told the Kaufmans that Raun had no future outside an institution.

Today Raun is a sophomore at an Ivy League college.

The Kaufmans' approach was simple but tortuous: They spent 12 hours a day with Raun for 3 1/2 years, imitated his rituals, tried to understand what motivated him, and showed him they accepted his behavior. They improvised as they went along.

After eight weeks, Raun began to express himself, and after 3 1/2 years he was able to attend kindergarten.

Eventually, the Kaufmans developed a program they thought would work with other autistic children. They bought an 85-acre farm in western Massachusetts, where they now treat adults and children with a variety of disabilities.

"The program is based on attitude," said Melany Kahn, a spokesman for the Kaufmans. "Attitude is no more than how you feel about a given situation. You have to see the autistic child as perfect, and that it's OK for him to do whatever he wants to do. It's training through following and supporting his movements, not coercion, so you can get him to see that your world looks pretty good too."

Taking a gamble

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