Score another success for a coping technique Sebree learned through a special education program Derry attends. First, she interrupts, unobtrusively breaking up the dark clouds of Derry's brewing tempest. Then, she redirects, refocusing her grandson's attention on something else. Finally, she reinforces, subtly rewarding his good behavior with praise and love taps. In short, Sebree buys a little peace at a very small price.

"If it wasn't for early intervention and getting in with the right people, I would have been in a looney bin," says Derry's mother, 28-year-old Kari O'Dell. "It's very challenging to raise him, but his progress has been amazing."
Derry no longer bites or lets loose with a string of obscenities. He doesn't take neuroleptic drugs. Shadowed by an aide, he was enrolled in a regular kindergarten class last year and will start first grade next fall at Madison Elementary School.

Says principal Mary Lucas: "Derry is doing fine. He seems to be as happy as any of our other children. There's no reason for him not to be in a regular first grade."
He was able to attend an after-school day-care program at the Riverside YMCA. He has learned to read and write. He made his first friend and playmate, his 9-year-old cousin, Nick Sebree.

 

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"Derry has made some very large gains in the last three or four months," says Stanley L. Swartz, Ph.D. For the last 2 1/2 years, Derry has attended this program for children with autism. Impressed with Derry's achievements, Swartz placed him in a Reading Recovery program at the center, where the boy receives two hours a week of individual tutoring.
"He's real bright, reading words a 6-year-old wouldn't know," says Page Brandt, his teacher assistant at Cal State, San Bernardino.
Autism, four times more common in boys than in girls, occurs in 15 out of every 10,000 births. People who have the lifelong disability have trouble expressing themselves and interpreting the meaning of others' words. They have problems processing everything that stimulates the senses -- the hum of an air conditioner, the flash of neon signs, a babble of voices at the mall.
However, those affected aren't always easy to spot, with much depending on the severity of the disorder.
"Derry looks normal and will talk to people, mostly adults," says his mother, O'Dell. "They don't realize he's autistic. They don't see the hand flapping, the funny little things that set him off."
Educators consider Derry high functioning within the broad spectrum of autisitc behavior. This means he is far more  in touch with the real world

than the stereotyped autistic person, the savant character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movier "Rainman."
"Derry has a higher level of intelligence, manifested in language and academic skills," Swartz says.
In September, Derry sat in the back of his kindergarten class, more comfortable to be isolated. Eventually, he felt safe enough to mingle with the other children and sit with them at tables.
These steps delight and astonish his family, who knew nothing about autism when Derry was born on Dec. 24, 1990. He wasn't diagnosed until he was 3 1/2 years old.
"We always thought he was weird from the beginning," says O'Dell, who's divorced and works in customer service for a title insurance company.
Sebree, who manages a Riverside real-estate office four days a week, is highly involved in her grandson's life. To give her daughter a timeout, she keeps Derry overnight every Thursday.
Every Monday Sebree attends the autism program at Cal State, San Bernardino. There, she and O'Dell participate in a parent support group for 2 1/2 hours while Derry gets one-on-one instruction. Sometimes parents watch videos that Swartz has taped of their children to monitor their progress.
"Derry will never be normal, but he's come so far," Sebree says.

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The stages of his autism unfold in a journal Sebree keeps. As an infant, Derry would lie in his crib and watch a mobile turn in circles. If it stopped, he'd scream and cry. He did not like to be held.
Between 6 months and a year, Derry would only touch toys and objects with a telephone cord. He'd jump up and down for hours in a bouncer that hung in a doorway, but wouldn't sit on laps.
Before his second birthday, he'd watch a ceiling fan whir for hours. He'd line up toy cars, but scream if anyone arranged them or spun their wheels. His first words were "wheels" and "fan".
He memorized all the routes to familiar places, and went ballistic if the driver of the car he was riding in took different streets.
At 2 1/2 he pored over car magazines and soon could identify every car on the road by its tail lights. He was fascinated by garage doors opening. He spoke only in one- to three-word sentences and reversed pronouns, saying "You want drink" if he were thirsty.


"We couldn't take him to a busy store or anyplace that had a lot of people or noise," says Sebree. "We just thought, like others, that we had given in too much to him and he was a spoiled brat."
Derry preferred to play alone, so his mother enrolled him at age 3 in preschool to encourage friendships. But if the other children ventured too close, Derry bit them. The director gave the family a list of Derry's unusual behaviors. They included avoiding eye contact and touching, biting himself and others, engaging in constant repetitive motion (head banging), throwing tantrums for no apparent reason.
After Derry's pediatrician suspected these were signs of autism, the boy was evaluated and diagnosed at the Inland Regional Center Inc. in San Bernardino, which contracts with the state to provide services to developmentally disabled people.
"Kari and I cried a lot," remembers Sebree, "We went through all the phases of grief."

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Derry spent the next couple of years at the Sunshine School, a preschool in Riverside for children with disabilities.
The staff cured Derry's biting by tying a rag around his neck and forcing him to bite it at increasingly longer intervals. He progressed to gnawing the cloth only when he felt the need; eventually, this broke the habit.
Rosemary Lewis, Derry's instructional aide at Sunshine School, followed him last year to Madison Elementary.
"Derry's turnaround has been incredible," says Lewis, who will move with Derry next fall to his first-grade class.
"We haven't had problems since the first of September," she says. "He's practically on his own now. I think being around normal kids has made a big difference."
O'Dell and Sebree also attribute much of Derry's improvement to the behavior modification program he attends at Cal State, San Bernardino. It was developed seven years ago in collaboration with the Inland Regional Center Inc., which funds Derry's participation.
"The swearing is almost gone and we don't see the tantrums anymore," says Brandt, his teacher-assistant there. "We're increasing his conversational skills."



Despite these strides, there are daily struggles and frustrations.
"He can't sleep alone," O'Dell says. "He has to be touching someone with his foot."
He can't be surprised with a change of plans. "I usually don't tell him about anything until it's time to do it," Sebree says. "He always needs to know what's happening next."
He interprets everything literally. "We have to watch what we say," says Sebree, "because he takes every word as truth."
For example, Derry became phobic about felines after being asked, "Cat got your tongue?" When learning to read, he tried to cross out the "k" in "knee", because it didn't belong there.
He must be taught to play and learn social skills, such as introducing himself. He's mostly unaware of others' feelings and reactions, but loves rules, and knows all of them at school by heart.
And he's stolen the hearts of his family.
"I get a lot of joy out of him now," says his mom. "He looks at everyday things so differently. He asked what butterfly wings are made of. We finally came up with 'butterfly skin.'"



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