ROBERT MACNEIL: In recent years, the diagnosis of autism has shown startling growth, now affecting one in 110 American children. For over two decades, parents desperate for answers and feeling slighted by the medical community have helped force to create services for their children, raise money for research and campaign for wider awareness of autism and for support from the government.
Today the picture is changing. Researchers now believe there is no simple genetic cause, that autism may involve multiple genetic pathways, and toxic materials in the environment may trigger the symptoms of autism. Autism once was considered only a brain disorder. Now, more doctors say it often involves serious physical illness.
And that’s our first story tonight. Frankly, I have a personal motive in telling it, because it’s about my grandson Nick, who is 6 and lives in Cambridge, Mass.
It’s not easy connecting with Nick. We live in different cities. All my grandchildren are a little shy when we first meet again. But Nick’s shyness is different.
One of the marks of autism is difficulty making eye contact and communicating, even with family members.
I’ve been a reporter on and off for 50 years, but I’ve never brought my family into a story, until Nick, because he moves me deeply. Also because I think his story can help people understand his form of autism and help me understand it better.
This was Nick when he was 9 months old, a healthy, alert and engaged baby with no apparent medical problems. Now at 6, my grandson seems like a different child, showing the classic symptoms of autism, a disorder in development, his difficulty connecting. Nick struggles with language, the rigidity and resistance to change Nick shares with other children with autism.
“I think pain in a child with autism is a very difficult thing to assess because a child with autism can’t vocalize that. He will very often not come to you and say, ‘I’ve got a bellyache.’ He can’t use those words.”