April 2nd, 2008
09:26 PM ET

Autism: Shattering stereotypes

When you hear the word “autistic” what kind of image pops into your head? Most of you probably think of a young child, out of control, lashing out, screaming.

Well, I can’t wait to introduce you to a little boy that will shatter all those stereotypes. His name is Dylan Jackaway. He’s five and a half years old and he knocked my socks off from the moment I met him. He has piercing blue eyes that are full of passion and dark hair.

When I arrived at the apartment he shares with his mom, Gwenyth Jackaway, he greeted me immediately and invited me to sit down at his computer with him. I couldn’t resist.

He quickly informed me he was “downloading widgets.” He proceeded to download widgets for about the next 30 minutes while I watched and interviewed his mother. During the brief time I sat with him at the computer, he reached out his hand and put it on my face to draw me in to the computer. I was shocked. My own nephews don’t even show such affection toward me. His mother explained with autistic children, the social boundaries aren’t as clear.

When mom’s interview was done, Dylan took me by the hand, walked me down the hall and into his bedroom. That’s where I made my first mistake. I stepped on his thermometer he’d built on the floor. A giant paper thermometer with markers running down the middle and temperatures along the side. He let me know what temperature it was today before we moved on to the giant subway map hanging over his bed.

He’s practically memorized the entire New York City subway grid, so I asked him how I’d get from his apartment back to my office. In seconds, he mapped out the most efficient group with hardly a glance at the map. He even told me about a tunnel I wasn’t aware of! Remember, he’s just 5 ½!!

I wish you could see his room in person. There are rainbows on the walls, and calendars with numbers everywhere, even the Fibonaci code is on display. That’s a really complicated math sequence that I had to ask Dylan to explain. Dylan prefers to read books about the human body instead of children’s books (he lectured my producer about tibias and femurs before I arrived) and he does two hand composition on the piano. His mom says he reads and writes music. Impressive!

There are some struggles too. I watched as his mom tried to coax him away from the computer to get to his afterschool program. He didn’t want to leave his widgets. Gwenyth, his mom, said that’s one of the challenges with kids who are autistic. It’s very difficult to get them to change direction and move them to a new activity because they are so focused.

Eventually, Dylan gave in and got ready to go. But as we were all leaving there was one more distraction. Dylan insisted I hear one of “favorite songs.” I was expecting something from “The Wiggles” or to something like my little niece and nephews listen. Instead, much to my surprise, Dylan instructed his mother to put on “disc 3, track 6” and I watched in amazement as a huge grin appeared on his face and an Italian Operata began to play. He told me, “I love Italian music.”

Dylan may not be what’s considered “normal” in this world, a term his mother dislikes, but he is so special in so many ways. I can’t wait for you to meet him.

We’re sharing Dylan’s story because his mother used an anonymous donor’s sperm to get pregnant, and that donor may have been carrying a gene that causes autism. FULL STORY ON CNN.COM

Turns out 3 children from that same donor are autistic, and one is showing signs of autism. It’s a fascinating story about how this happened and how these families are getting through it. Don’t miss it!

– Randi Kaye, 360° Correspondent

Program note: Watch Randi's report tonight on 360° at 10p ET

Comments to the 360° blog are moderated. What does that mean?

Filed under: Autism • Randi Kaye
soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Craig

    Sounds very much like Asperger’s Syndrome, it’s on the Autistic spectrum and can be misdiagnosed as Autism. I have Asperger’s and I had similar behaviors when I was Dylan’s age.

    Also good to see the emphasis on a genetic cause which is likely to be responsible in most cases of Autistic Spectrum disorders. The media is giving the vaccination crowd far more attention than the theory merits.

    April 3, 2008 at 5:23 pm |
  2. Lisa

    I'm really very glad that so much attention is being called to autism. It is staggering how many cases there are in this country alone. My older sister is one such case. She is sometimes very precocious. She can build a 1000 piece puzzle from the bottom up, right to left, one piece at a time, in under 2 hours. I know, impossible right? It would take me, her "normal" sister two weeks to do that same puzzle. She never fails to amaze me, and despite the difficulties that she and my family have faced, her character has made me hopeful for the future. I believe that through more attention and more research, together we can move towards a cure.


    April 3, 2008 at 2:11 pm |
  3. anne

    My autistic son is similar to Dylan. And yes, I never considered it a disability, but instead a challenge. Kids (and their parents) on this side of the spectrum are lucky and sometimes there is guilt about that, but there are still challenges we share in common. I think kids like these who are high-performing are able because their needs have been met, which begs the question, what are some other (not all kids by any means) lower performing autistic kids capable of if they got what they needed? I do believe most of history's biggest innovators are on the spectrum, and that illustrates what the world stands to gain or lose.

    That is the promise of increased knowledge and awareness. If I made my son spend all his mental energy on counting the number of seconds for proper eye contact or how to meet the social expectations of every stranger we met on the street, something else would have to give and that's not a trade I wish to make. So world get used to it.

    Thank you CNN for showing the full spectrum.

    April 3, 2008 at 1:51 pm |
  4. Katherine

    I only wish more people who know that there is a direct link to vaccinations and autism would be allowed to speak up. I personally know a Doctor who went to a medical convention on autism and was floored to hear the medical experts aknowledge the link and then communicate the fear of the "public" reaction to such a finding. It is outragous that our system of protecting big business (ie.. the pharmaceutical industry, CDD, WHO, and others ) is allowed to get away with covering up information at the expense of of citizens health. I applaud CNN for discussing this very important issue. However, I also recognize that the medical experts opinions will, at the very least,
    undermine most, if not all, findings that may help save future families the grief of having to deal with autism. I would truly welcome the day when reporters are allowed to fully disclose their investigative findings without the fear of reprecussions from the powerful "Big Government"!!! I am hopeful that you, CNN, can help pave the way. This is a good start, just PLEASE allow other "experts" outside the traditional medical community to present their view points as well. Thank you CNN for your courage to bring topics like these out into the open!!!

    April 3, 2008 at 1:11 pm |
  5. Mari

    I totally agree with Dr. Tom Waite. Over diagnosis of Autism is a major problem. My son did not speak until he was 2 and half. He had good eye contact with me or other family members but not so with strangers, so people keep trying to label him as Autim. He is doing very well now, but they still want to label him as autistic like behavior.
    It drives me crazy!


    April 3, 2008 at 1:03 pm |
  6. Diana

    I read this and the article by the woman diagnosed with Asperger's at 48 who to me, sounded pretty normal. She indicated that thinking as a child that a janitor was the equipment, not the man, was a clear symptom, yet it sounded to me like a pretty typical childhood mistake. (For example at the same age we had a discussion of rhyme in class, and I, off in my own world during the explanation, offered "dragon" as a rhyme for "cat" and had no idea why everyone laughed.) I was an extremely advanced reader, starting at 4 and reading Tolkien, Anne Bronte, and similar authors at age 8. I have to work at being warm and social on first meetings. Like lots of people I don't like (even recoil from) random touching; and you certainly don't have to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum to be moved to tears by beauty – whether scenery, music, a painting – doesn't matter.

    Yet – I am absolutely not autistic in any way. I believe the numbers are "rising" because it's massively over-diagnosed – just as a decade ago, everyone started thinking their child was ADD. Over-diagnosing perfectly normal children and people who may be a little quirky and different as autistic does a huge disservice to the people who truly are autistic, doesn't help get at the cause, and doesn't help their families. What happened to embracing diversity? Let's get a grip.

    April 3, 2008 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Kevin - Indianapolis

    I think it's important for news organizations to note in their stories that autism isn't a "black and white" diagnosis. This story helps to illustrate what medical professionals have been trying to say for years, autism is a spectrum of functional impairment – some children are largely functional while others require continuous, lifelong supervision – with an unknown cause. It's irresponsible to classify all children with autistic symptoms as having the same disease severity, which has been implied in more than one story on CNN this week, though not in this article.

    Regarding Larry King's story last night about the correlation between vaccines and autism, I have to take issue with those parents who think vaccines are the cause of autism. Childhood vaccines have been largely unchanged for the past twenty to thirty years. When parents became concerned about mercury-based buffers in vaccines, they were replaced with a different buffer formulation. Still, autism rates continue to rise. There is no statistic correlation between vaccination and the increasing prevalence of autism in this country. Why is nobody considering the fact that the toys these children are playing with came largely from China – many of which may contain other toxic substances such as lead? Why is nobody concerned about the possibility of high levels of mercury in our world's fish population and the effects fish consumption may have on the development of autism? Or better yet – why is it rates of autism are rising so quickly in this country while they remain nearly constant in many others which have the same vaccination recommendations and requirements as the United States? Until these questions are answered, the witch-hunt against vaccine manufacturers needs to be put on hold.

    April 3, 2008 at 12:53 pm |
  8. Todd E.

    I am very happy to see stories focusing on people with autism that are focused solely on the negative (abnormal affect, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, etc.). However, I would love to see stories that don't continue to feed what I call the "Rain Man" effect in the public. The "Rain Man" effect is this commonly held belief that people with autism have some extraordinary (borderline supernatural) ability in some facet of their life (mathematical, musical, etc.).

    When I tell people that my 12-year old son has autism (with cerebral palsy, mild mental retardation and hypotonia), people try to ferret out what "talent" he has. I tell them he has none, and he is a perfectly ordinary boy who has some challenges in accomplishing things others take for granted. He is a good brother to his little sister, he likes movies, music, computers and any little tech-gadget you might have. He likes to go visit friends and loves cheesburgers. He is so much like just another kid, and I love him for it.

    April 3, 2008 at 12:53 pm |
  9. Marylin

    I agree with earlier comments that the child highlighted does not represent the more commonly affected on the autism spectrum. More often, the children are unable to speak, have extreme behavioral issues and cannot make emotional contact with parents and other children. I understand the public is interested in the attractive children with unusual autistic abilities but the extreme and heartbreaking hardships are on parents who have children functioning on the other end of the spectrum. I know, I work in a program for developmentally disabled adults and see, daily, what aging parents are doing to meet the needs of their autistic children. In some cases it's killing them physically and emotionally. Please offer a more realistic picture if you hope to gain the understanding and support of the public.

    A Social Worker

    April 3, 2008 at 12:47 pm |
  10. Lila

    Dylan sounds very normal to me. And very smart. If I had a kid like him, I would feel blessed.
    His social behavior is not odd at all. He's just 51/2. It's normal for him not to be able to find social boundaries.
    It is ridiculous to call kids like Dylan "Autistic". I think the definition of "Autism" is too wide and confusing.

    April 3, 2008 at 12:30 pm |
  11. al d

    I don't have autism, but can not talk. Vietnam has left me no larynx. I have searched and search for a voice synthesizer like the one on your "Finding Amanda" story. I have a laptop, with speech software, but it is not practical, and the battery life is so short. Does anyone know where a device like she had can be found ???????

    April 3, 2008 at 12:27 pm |
  12. JGG

    These children are not only "linked" to a single sperm donor, they are also linked to frozen sperm in general, artificial fertilization methods, older mothers, etc – which of these "links" might also be a cause?

    I suspect – and you can quote me – that we are going to find another cause (other than immunizations) for autism that "appeared" within the last 20 years – and artificial fertilization (of older women) is going to be one of the factors that needs to be investigated.

    April 3, 2008 at 11:48 am |
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