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April 3rd, 2009
03:11 PM ET

The ruff world of autism

By Jennifer Pifer-Bixler
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Monday was a fiasco. Let me tell you what happened.

I decided to check in on my buddy Justin Kinninger. Justin is in the second grade. He is a kid after my own heart: We share a love of root beer and barbecue potato chips. Justin also has autism. I've known Justin and his family for a year. We worked together on a story about the challenges of getting medical and educational services for children with autism. From time to time, I check in with Justin's mom, Shannon, to see how things are going. Since the last time we chatted, a new member joined the Kinninger family. His name is Luke. He has a great smile and loves cold hot dogs. Before I continue, I should probably tell you Luke is a black Lab. He's Justin's autism assistance dog. Luke is one of the growing number of dogs that's been trained to work with people with autism. I hit the jackpot, I thought. A boy and his dog. The perfect story. What could go wrong?

I would soon find out.

Our first stop was Justin's classroom. As a producer, I am always trying to get the best “moments” on camera. Luke was waiting and I assumed Justin would be so excited to see him, that he would go right over. Wrong. Justin was excited to see us. "I missed you guys!" Justin said. Instead of heading over to the dog, Justin made a beeline to our photographer, Jonathan, and gave him a big hug. Moment missed. I wasn't deterred, yet.

We eventually ended up at the Kinningers’ home. I wanted to ask Justin some questions with Luke by his side. But this time, it was Luke who refused to give us our “moment.” He thought the boom mic was a toy, (it's furry) and jumped up to try and catch it. He barked. He refused to sit by Justin. His working harness off, in Luke's mind, he was off the clock. I half expected him to go into the kitchen and make a kibble martini. Luke was ready to party. As chaos ensued, I wondered what in the world I was going to do. This shoot had become a disaster.

But then something unexpected happened. Justin's head started to hurt and he got sick. Who was immediately by his side? Luke. Later, as Justin lay on his bed, Luke snuggled as his best friend stroked his coat, calmed down and recovered. It was in that moment, that it was clear why this boy needed his dog. For Justin, like many people with autism, it can be hard to connect with others. Sometimes Justin gets picked on at school. It breaks Shannon's heart. She's often not sure what to do. But Luke knows. He never judges Justin. He's just present.

I had my moment.

Has autism touched you or the life of someone you know? We'd like to hear about it.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


April 3rd, 2009
08:51 AM ET

Autism is a journey with many co-pilots

By Phil Riley
CNN Senior Writer

Even if you had months of advance notice and could talk to experts and read books, you wouldn't be ready. Each child is a snowflake, unique. There's no blueprint. You fly by the seat of your pants. And you take co-pilots.

Emma and teacher Lynn Tarnow

When I wrote my blog last year about living with Emma, I had no idea how much I would learn and be touched by the postings of people with autism and those who love people with autism. (learn more about autism)  But when I revisit my own writing, I feel fear, solitude and sadness. Life with Emma is much more.

Emma is generally a joyful 12-year-old girl. She loves her family, wanting us together so much she'll continually ask for absent members. Though speech therapy is still a struggle, Emma has made progress on her goals at school. Credit Lynn, her teacher. Emma still has occasional outbursts, but I’m no longer getting calls to bring her home because she's uncontrollable. Besides maintaining a calm classroom, Lynn has expanded Emma’s curriculum beyond school.

Emma’s community-based activities include supervised shopping trips. She gets a list of simple items that her teachers need, along with their money. She goes to a store, makes the purchases, and then returns to school to deliver the items to the teachers along with their change. It’s a blessing to have a creative educator who has experience with special needs kids. But experience is not always necessary.

Kaloni is Emma’s swimming instructor.  He’s worked with a lot of kids, but Emma’s his first one with autism. Like Lynn, he's relaxed, patient and a cheerleader. Add repetition and familiarity, and you've got a winning formula.  Two examples: Monica and Dr. Cathy.  Monica cuts Emma’s hair. It used to be an event full of squirms and tears. Now Emma sits straight in the chair, smock on, no fussing. It used to take two dental technicians and me to hold Emma down so Dr. Cathy could pry open her mouth. Now she jumps up in the chair and opens her mouth wide when asked. A stunning transformation, even if it did take years.

We’re not out of the woods by a long shot. Emma still would rather not speak, which makes it almost impossible to develop social skills. And she'll soon begin menstruation. She won't be able to understand what's happening to her body. The confusion and pain she'll experience has prompted parental debate over using a drug to prevent the cycle. So we'll face challenges for sure.

But as long as we keep going, and have co-pilots along for the ride, we'll get there.

Have you dealt with the challenges of autism?  We'd like to hear your thoughts. 

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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