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Testimony : ONE PERSON'S STORY ABOUT CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES : 'I Think He Would Enjoy Company of Other Kids'

March 14, 1994|As Told to ROBERT SCHEER

Illana Katz is the publisher and author of Real Life Storybooks in Northridge. One of her books, "Joey and Sam," deals with autism, which afflicts her youngest child. Katz praises the Los Angeles Unified School District for the services it provides to autistic children.

I'm the mother of four children. The youngest is 8, the oldest is 25. The one that is 8 has autism.

I knew something was wrong with him when he was 2 1/2. He was speaking a little bit at the time. When he was 3, he could say maybe a dozen words, but he wasn't waving, he wasn't pointing, his eye contact was poor. I began to suspect autism. So I took him to several doctors.

When he was diagnosed, I was devastated. Our children represent us. Who in their right mind wants a child who is so severely different? It's like death. You suffer the death of your expectations for your child. At least, temporarily you do. You have to find a new set of standards by which you are going to operate.

But once he started speech therapy, he grew by leaps and bounds. Once he understood what was going on around him and what I expected from him, he started to learn how to communicate better with me. He clearly moved much more into this world.

Then a behaviorist came to my home. The L.A. Unified School District provides a lot of services for children with autism, and they sent a behaviorist who taught me how to discipline, or to guide, my child. And you know something? I wish I had had those techniques when the other three children growing up, because it was nothing more than being consistent and making the child follow through--being helpful, rewarding things they do right and not punishing for things they don't do as you expected. It has made all the difference.

And now, at 8, my child certainly spells better than other kids his age; he reads better than other kids his age; his mathematics are fair. That doesn't mean he understands what he is reading as well as other children, but he's a good little reader.

Is he ever going to be completely normal? Probably not. But he could be close enough. Certainly I'll see him go to college; there'll be no problem with him getting into college. Will there be a problem with him marrying and having children? The jury is out on that one.

He still doesn't play much with other kids. He tries, though. He's trying. The sensory-integration therapy program during which he spends time with non-autistic students really helps. But it tears me up when he doesn't get invited to their birthday parties.

Is he lonely? I think he would enjoy the company of a lot of other children. I take him to places where there are other children. He loves to be around them. He follows them around and tries very hard to socialize with them. But he still must be lonely.

At school, children are very helpful, the non-disabled ones, and they do their best to integrate him into a game. But he has to understand the rules of the game.

With my books, I'm trying to prevent kids from making fun of children with disabilities, being cruel because they don't know any better. That's why I'm writing. Not only to teach children about the disabilities or the diseases, but to help them grow up to be better, more caring people. Lord knows, we could use all we can get. Is it naive on my part? Probably. Am I going to try anyway? Of course.

Nowadays, disabled kids are integrated full-time with kids who are non-disabled, or "normal," or whatever you want to call them (I usually say "non-disabled.") And when you explain to children why these other kids are different, they become incredibly helpful and wind up reaping tremendous benefits. Yes, the child with the disability benefits, but the non-disabled child does too. They get a chance to be helpful and caring and loving and understanding and, as a by-product, they're proud of themselves.

I'll tell you a little story. My son's regular classroom and his special-needs classroom are back to back. It's really nice. Well, there was this one little boy--who happens to be black and comes from the inner city--and he was my son's mentor. My son just loved Seth and, of course, Seth loved him. He showered Seth with attention.

Come the end of the school year, I found out accidentally that this little boy had been a problem--a pain in the neck--in class until our child started coming in. But after that, Seth became a model student; he was helpful, caring. I spoke to Seth a few months ago and asked him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" He said, "I want to be a teacher like Mr. Rome. I want to help children like Seth."

That says it all right there.

I think we find, in general, that people whose siblings or relatives have a disability are often more caring and understanding. They slow down long enough to feel, long enough to care.

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