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Life with special son rich, loving

Jeff Ackerman, Publisher
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

“What makes a desert beautiful is that sometimes it hides a well.”

Antoine-Marie-Roger de Saint-Exupery






My son Luke is that desert well. He’s our special boy and one of a growing number of children in America today diagnosed with some form of autism.

According to a recent Newsweek magazine article, the number of California children receiving state services for autistic disorders has nearly quadrupled since 1987. It is now thought to affect one person in 500, making it more common than Down syndrome or childhood cancer, according to the magazine. I thought I’d point that out since this is Autism Awareness Month.

We knew when he was still toddling that Luke (now 9) was different from his sister, who is 13 months his senior. Most 2-year-olds don’t sit for hours drawing pictures until they get them just exactly right. Luke could draw the Titanic in detail when he was 2. He could identify the national flags of most countries in the world by the time he was 6.

But when he eventually went to kindergarten, he wouldn’t get into the circle when the teacher blew her whistle. He was too busy drawing the Titanic or some nation’s colors.

The teacher told us Luke was disruptive and that in a class of 35, she couldn’t allow Luke to disobey her whistle. That made sense to us. You need discipline when trying to teach a room full of 5-year-olds. Aspirin also helps.

So we agreed to have Luke transferred to a school across town that allowed him a little more flexibility. Then we had him examined by a neurologist, who concluded that Luke is a “high-functioning autistic.” We think his symptoms are closer to Asperger’s syndrome, but the public schools aren’t really ready to deal with specifics yet, so autistic is where he sits at the moment.

It’s important to get kids classified in the public school system. That’s how public schools get funding for the special programs they provide. It’s also why Luke already has a file as thick as the one Hoover had on Marilyn Monroe.

The public school system in Carson City, Nev., where we are coming from, has been wonderful to our son. We have seen Luke grow in leaps and bounds, thanks to the support he has gotten. That’s why I’m a big fan of public schools. And I have already spoken with some school administrators here, and we are comfortable that Luke will continue to receive the special help that all special children require.

We were also pleased to learn there is a local support group right here in Nevada County, sort of informally led by two mothers (Laurie DesJardins at 265-4154 and Amy Butler at 470-0980) with autistic sons. It’s important to share information and to know you are not alone with the challenges that come with raising a special-needs child. There often seems to be more questions than answers, and parents shouldn’t have to learn by the seat of their pants.

It was also great to learn they are building a facility down the highway at U.C. Davis (M.I.N.D. Institute at http://www.mindinstitute.ucdmc.edu) to specifically study and serve those afflicted with autistic-related problems. It was started by four fathers whose sons are autistic.

Hollywood has also helped raise awareness of autism through movies such as “Rain Man” and recently in a Sean Penn flick called “I Am Sam.”

In that film, things work out fine in the end for Sam. And I think things will work out fine for Luke when he becomes a man. For each of his weaknesses, there is a strength. While most dads and sons spend weekends at the Little League field, Luke and I hang out at the library or, when it’s closed, at a neighborhood bookstore. They all know Luke, and he knows where every book in the place is stashed. He’s checked most of them out at least once.

He’s been our gift, and I’ve learned to cherish the excitement, curiosity and extra special love he brings to our lives. And we know there are many, many children whose problems are far more severe than Luke’s.

As America learns more and more about autism, the future for Luke and for the millions of children like him will only get brighter. The desert is filled with wells if your eyes, ears and hearts are open to them.

(Other resources on autism or Asperger’s syndrom, are available through Families for Early Autism Treatment at feat.org There is also a great book titled “The Oasis Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome,” by Patty Bashe and Barb Kirby, available at most bookstores.)

Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. Contact him at 477-4299;


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