Thursday, March 17, 2005

Coming to terms with autism

Coming to terms with autism

"Hi. My name's Eric and I'm playing with some blocks."

After that announcement -- made to no one in particular -- Eric LeBow hurried from the living room of his Mayo home to the basement to resume building.

The bright-eyed 6-year-old was back upstairs a few minutes later with his favorite stuffed animal, proclaiming, "That's my teddy."

Eric smiles and laughs a lot, is unfailingly polite and has a fantastic memory. He's also been diagnosed as high-functioning autistic, a finding his parents, Bert and Tammy LeBow, are just beginning to come to terms with.

They got the devastating news from a psychologist just before Christmas, even though they suspected for a long time that something was different about their son.

"It threw us for a loop," said Mrs. LeBow, a district manager for Hair Cuttery. "I wondered, should I quit my job? I left in tears. It's heartbreaking, We just had a big time pity party in December."

After some more crying and a few "down" days, the LeBows resolved to do whatever they could to help Eric. "We need to focus on his abilities - not his disability," Mrs. LeBow said.

The LeBows, who've been married 13 years, decided to share their story to help other parents who might be wondering why their child behaves certain ways. They'd also like to meet families who have children Eric's age with the same diagnosis for support.

"It's what it is," said Mr. LeBow, who works in the security department for Prince George's County schools. "What are you going to do? Sit around and complain? The best you can do is take it head on. We're not looking for him to get by in life. We're looking for him to succeed."

Still, the LeBows are uncertain about what the future holds for Eric. "All this is new. We're still figuring stuff out," Mr. LeBow said.

Initially, the LeBows were told Eric might have Attention Deficit Disorder. Others suggested he'd just grow out of his behavior, that he was "just a boy" or that it was unfair to compare his growth and progress with that of his older sister. But Mrs. LeBow suspected more was wrong.

Eric had language delays, conducted one-sided conversations "at" people instead of with them, handled change with difficulty, had a penchant for putting things in order and repeated behaviors, she said.

Over the summer, Mrs. LeBow spent a lot of time on the Internet and eventually figured Eric might have Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder that's included in an umbrella category known as the autistic spectrum disorders.

Asperger's is primarily characterized by difficulty with social skills. Some experts consider the difference between it and high-functioning autism to be merely a matter of semantics.

Eve Band, the Owings Mills psychologist who began seeing Eric last fall and presented her findings to the LeBows in December, said he tends to fixate on his own, narrow interests and doesn't engage in two-way conversations.

Despite these problems, she was hopeful he could make a lot of progress. "He's young enough that there's a lot we can do," she said.

Linda Jacobs, executive director of The Harbour School in Cape St. Claire, said a lot of the students there with Asperger's end up going on to college. "With careful planing, they do quite well," she said.

Ms. Jacobs said 50 to 60 percent of their referrals are for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism. In the county school system, there are 506 students, ages 3 to 21, with autism, according to officials.

At Eric's school, Mayo Elementary, he has an aide who helps him twice a day and a kindergarten teacher whose commitment has garnered praise from his parents.

Teacher Donna Kachura, who stays in constant contact with the LeBows, said she's learned a lot about autism because she wants to do the best she can for Eric.

"He's challenging, but there are many challenges in every class," she said. "He is special, but every child is special."

Besides his teacher, the school and his parents, support for Eric also has come from his sister, Amber, 8

"He's a good brother," she said with a wide smile.

Amber wrote a poem about Eric recently that pleads for tolerance. She often sticks up for Eric when other children tease him. "I tell them he can't help it," she said.

Eric is too young to know he's autistic, and does interact with his family - just a little differently than other children. The LeBows wish they had learned about their son's diagnosis when he was younger so they could have started assisting him sooner. But they've come to terms with the past and want to move on.

"If we had the opportunity to trade him for (another) kid, I'd say, 'No way,' " Mrs. LeBow said. "We're happy with the package we got. (We're) hell-bent to help him do whatever he wants to do."

The LeBows want to contact other local families with children Eric's age with the same diagnosis. If you would like to contact them, send an email to

This is a poem Amber LeBow recently penned about life with her brother:

Kids with autism can't help it. Did you know that is true? Kids with autism are not like you. Kids with autism don't understand the rules, that's why they have challenges at school.

When kids make fun of him it makes me sad. And when they're mean to him it makes me mad.

But kids with autism are special too. They can draw pictures that really amaze you! He can memorize lots of cool things. He can memorize all the things that he sees!

He can make the whole world laugh, just by telling about his favorite things. He can be annoying, but he's a fun friend. When we play games he has fun til the end.

Every time I read to him, he slowly walks away. But surprisingly he remembers every thing I say!

So give him a chance, by trying to understand, I really love him. He'll always be my brother and he'll always be my best friend., Lifestyle - Coming to terms with autism

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