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When Autism is Running the House

By — One of many Autism Spectrum blogs on

Autism changes the lives of everyone around it. Parents might learn that a child has the disorder as early as infancy, and from that moment on, all hopes of a "normal life" seem unattainable.

But many families and professionals believe that it doesn't have to be that way.

Recently, CNN followed the progress of 13 year-old Marissa and parents Mary and John Bilson, as Rick Schroeder, of Autism Partnership (AP), entered their lives and home to stage what is being called an autism intervention. These interventions are not generally covered by insurance, and can cost $20,000 for a week. As CNN was allowed to observe and film the activity, the fee was waived for the Bilsons.

Up until this point, the Bilson household was run by Marissa and her behavior. While her desires were typical of her age (candy, shopping, time on the computer) Marissa obtained these things by screaming, monopolizing, and even stealing. She went into her siblings' rooms uninvited and made scenes in public.

When Schroeder entered the scene, he determined that a large part of the problem was not just that Marissa was having these fits, but that the family let her to do what she wanted to avoid more of them. Schroeder's approach was to demand the behavior expected of the other Bilson children. He would reward good behavior with little treats, and met defiance and rule breaking with no reward.

"It's all about the teaching," he explained. "With a child like Marissa, we can't sit down and discuss it with her she's just not going to get that. So we have to take it in small steps. Make them understand and move on, one step at a time."

The final test came at the end of the week when Schroeder took Marissa to a store with the expectation that she would refrain from yelling or stealing. The trip was a success.

"I am very happy!" Mary Bilson affirmed later. "Marissa is smart, smarter than I thought."

Marissa's behavior improved significantly while Schroeder worked with her. Her parents discovered their own ways of rewarding her, and accepted that avoiding tantrums altogether would actually make things worse. They are already seeing the benefits in simple things like running errands.

The Bilson family still has a lot of work to do, but now someone has given them the tools that could make the journey a lot easier.

Autism is in the public consciousness more and more every year. As the various forms are defined, and the diagnosis procedures are reworked, the number of cases goes up. Whether this is due to increased occurrence, or simply fine-tuned diagnosis, is not known.

Hopefully, organizations like the AP continue working to minimize the negative effects of autism, and helping families living with the disorder to develop their own unique programs for improvement.

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