Though quite certain that his 3-year-old son, Nicholas, had a disability, Vince Franco said he struggled to face that reality.
"He was in day care and would always go into the corner, and turn his back and play by himself," Franco recalled. "I was in denial for quite awhile. I didn’t want to think there was anything real wrong."
Franco and his wife, Ellen, did eventually delve further by getting a professional diagnosis. Sure enough, Nicholas fell onto the autistic spectrum. By addressing the situation early in their son’s life, the Francos have seen him thrive in many ways; in fact, Nicholas, now 7, has just completed second grade.
Autism is a brain disorder that hampers one’s ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment. Autistic people often have severe language delays and low social skills, and although they may have normal intelligence or even be extraordinarily gifted, their disability may well keep them on the fringes of society.
Nicholas was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disability — not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), which has some features of autism but doesn’t meet full criteria. His notable tendencies have ranged from delays in potty training, to coordination issues that render him fearful of falling down, to a disdain for not wearing clothes with buttons.
There are, apparently, more and more children like Nicholas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that anywhere from one in 166 to one in 500 children born today have autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
ASD is now a more commonly used term than autism, due to the wide range of autistic tendencies from child to child. The rate for these disorders has doubled in the past 10 years, according to a 10-page cover feature on autism in the May 15 issue of Time magazine. And yet, author Claudia Wallis wrote, "More than 60 years after autism was first described by American psychiatrist Leo Kanner, there are still more questions than answers about this complex disorder. Its causes are uncertain."
The article lists genetical and environmental factors as potential contributors to the increase, along with a greater overall awareness of people with ASD, whereas in the past "such children were probably labeled retarded or insane and hidden in institutions."
Nicholas also has a secondary diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — inappropriate levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness that in many cases have autistic overtones.
"There are so many components. These things roll over into each others," Ellen Franco said.
Nicholas’s only sibling, 10-year-old Christopher, also has ADHD. The brothers also were diagnosed with sensory integration dysfunction — the inability for the brain to correctly process information from the senses.
Many good things have happened for the Francos, parishioners of St. Pius Tenth in Chili, since the boys’ diagnoses. Nicholas enrolled in special schooling for autistic children, and continues to receive therapy and other services through the Gates-Chili School District. Since he has been classified with a disability, Nicholas gets a one-on-one aide during the entire school day at Paul Road School. Both brothers are taking medication.
The Franco parents cannot easily drop Nicholas off in an unusual setting, such as at a birthday party, because of his need for structure. They also avoid elaborate vacations because of their concern with either boy’s ability to handle it. However, the family was scheduled to attend the Wellness GIFTS retreat June 16-18 at Camp Hickory Hill in Bath. The camp offers special activities for children with ASD while parents attend workshops or leisure events.
Nicholas still has trouble socializing with other kids, but recently formed his first close friendship.
"We’ve been really happy he’s found a best friend. This is the first time," his mother said.
His parents noted many of Nicholas’ positive traits, such as his considerable academic and creative gifts. In addition, Vince Franco said, "Nicholas wears his emotions on his sleeves. He can be so loving and concerned about other people, that he comes up (to) give a hug if he’s feeling bad or you’re feeling bad."
Nicholas’ parents are hoping public awareness of ASD will continue to increase, but realize there’s still a way to go, based on their conversations with some people.
"If you say ‘autism’ to them they think severely affected, nonverbal. And that is just a tiny bit of the spectrum," Ellen Franco said.
One local person who has become the poster boy for autism, so to speak, is Jason McElwain, or "J-Mac" as he is commonly called. He is autistic and learning disabled, yet the basketball team manager became a national sensation this year after scoring 20 points in just a few minutes — in his first and only varsity game for Greece Athena High School.
"I thought it was great. It gives you hope for your kid," Vince Franco said.
"I thought, ‘if (J-Mac) could do that, what’s Nicholas capable of doing?’" his wife added.