Missing Autistic Bronx Boy's Odyssey Illustrates Challenges Highlighted During National Autism Awareness Month

on April 27 2012 5:13 PM

A 13-year-old autistic Bronx boy, Ross Harrison, who went missing three days ago was found wandering the New York City subways and returned to his family April 27.

Ross Harrison ran off Tuesday when he was getting ready for school. His mother, Rosura Tabers, told NBC Harrison complained of a bully on his school bus before disappearing out the front door. Harrison is autistic and has a speech impediment, so his parents were concerned he wouldn't be able to find his way home.

After a hotline number to call with tips was broadcast on the nightly news, dozens of calls poured in. Two citizens spotted Harrison on the J train in Brooklyn and took him to the police station. Police then escorted him, in good condition, back to the Bronx where he was reunited with his family and checked by medics.

This incident highlights the challenge facing any family coping with autism. The condition has increased in recent years, although why remains a mystery. At present, one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism. The problem, which has been in the news and is a growing concern to parents and health professionals nationwide, is being brought front and center during April, which is National Autism Awareness Month. The Autism Society, a nationwide organization, has been encouraging communities to show their support by wearing the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon. Present research shows that this is a multifactorial condition--in other words it can be both genetic and environmental in its causes. It has also been shown that, in many less-severe cases, both a nurturing family and school environment can let those with autism create the strategies they need to lead successful and productive lives. But though widespread, and although research efforts have increased dramatically in recent years, the question remains: What is autism, really?

Autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability that impacts the development of the brain in areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function and usually appears before the age of three, according to the National Autism Association fact sheet. Currently there is no cure for autism, though symptoms can be improved through early intervention and treatment. Boys are four times more likely to be autistic than girls.

Making the diagnosis of this condition can prove elusive, even for trained professionals. For example, Karolyn Kabir, an adolescent medical physician at the Children's Hospital in Colorado and mother of an autistic son, told International Business Times that she didn't notice anything was wrong with her son, Jacob, until he was about three years old.

I began to notice that when I was vacuuming, he would cover his ears, he would walk on his toes and he didn't like walking on the grass, she said. Most of my experience is from raising my son, not from being a doctor.

After not being officially diagnosed until the age of five or six, Jacob, now 13, has seen a psychiatrist and is now on medication to reduce his anxiety and help him sleep, but Kabir says the only truly affective treatment is support. The general need is communication and [counteracting] social deficits, she said.

According to The National Institutes of Health, while genetics definitely play a role in developing autism, environmental factors may also contribute. Although mainstream science disregards vaccinations as a cause, the National Autism Association feels that vaccinations have triggered autism in some cases.

Environmental factors that are thought to contribute include: pesticide exposure, pharmaceuticals, freeway proximity and limited prenatal vitamin intake. According to Live Science, a 40-year-old woman's risk of having an autistic child is 50 percent greater than that of woman between 25 and 29.

From a family standpoint, it's very difficult to raise a child with autism; they're so high-maintenance, Kabir said.

However, she explains that the extra parental attention is not the only stressor. You forget how important it is to have social relationships because your child isn't. I really thought we were isolated because Jacob was isolated.

Kabir explained that many children with autism are home schooled because of their struggles to be social. Jacob goes to a private school, but it is not specifically for children with developmental issues.

Maybe it would have been better for him to be around children like him, because he recognizes that he is different and it's hard for him to make friends, Kabir said.

An enlightened, supportive school environment is as important as a home one--and not necessarily easy to find, as a recent story of a 10-year-old autistic boy at a New Jersey elementary school highlights. The story grabbed national attention April 26, when it came to light that he had been allegedly bullied by a teacher and aide. Akian Chaifetz's father, Stuart, put a recording device on his son and captured audio of staff in his class calling him names and laughing at him. According to MSNBC, at least one classroom aide lost her job, but the teacher, Kelly Altenburg, was transferred to another school.

The Associated Press found nine similar cases across the nation since 2003. Parents of special needs children have recorded teachers using various insults toward their children and in one case, a bus driver threatened to slap one child. The National Autism Association reported that in a 2009 survey on bullying, 65 percent of parents reported that their children with bio-neurological developmental disabilities had been victimized by peers in some way within the past year.

Despite the struggles faced by those with autism and their families, as more awareness and research is focused on the condition, things are bound to improve. Funding has increased over the years and autism research currently receives $169 million annually. And despite the challenges of life with autism, says Kabir, I feel like they're going to change the world; they're so smart and kind.

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