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CNN Student News Special: Autism - Unraveling the Mystery

  • Story Highlights
  • Learn about some of the symptoms and warning signs of autism
  • Examine some of the commonly held myths about autism disorders
  • See how some autistic young people are displaying their talents
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(CNN Student News) -- April 2, 2008

Quick Guide

How do you Know? - Learn about some of the symptoms and warning signs of autism.

Autism: Mythbusting - Examine some of the commonly held myths about autism disorders.

Autism: The Musical - See how some autistic young people are displaying their talents.



CARL AZUZ, CNN STUDENT NEWS ANCHOR: Hi, I'm Carl Azuz. We want to thank you for joining us for this special edition of CNN Student News, where we're observing World Autism Awareness Day.

First Up: How do you Know?

AZUZ: Autism is a brain disorder, one that thousands of kids will be diagnosed with this year alone. It's associated with different development issues, and it affects people in different ways. There's no cure for autism, but there are treatment options, so one of the biggest priorities is recognizing it. The first signs usually appear by age three. But what are they? Some parents of autistic children and a child therapist talk about what to look for.


SHANNON KUNNINGER, SON IS AUTISTIC: My husband and I, we both felt something was not right.

JEFF CHIUSANO, FATHER WITH AUTISTIC SON: We knew the stereotypes of autism; Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man."

JUDITH STEUBER, MOTHER WITH TWO AUTISTIC SONS: There were just so many milestones that other children hit that he just did not hit.

CHIUSANO: We thought that maybe he had a speech delay.

LYNN GASTON, AUTISTIC TRIPLETS' MOTHER: No matter how many times I changed the symptoms around or left one or two off, it kept coming back as autism.

CATHERINE TRAPANI, MARCUS INSTITUTE, ATLANTA: In the area of social communication, these are children that don't establish eye contact. They don't share common enjoyment. They don't offer comfort. They don't have the skills to approach a person, say hello, start a conversation or interact in a game in an appropriate way.

STEUBER: He was just finishing kindergarten when he started talking, which is not what other kids do.

TRAPANI: Children with autism don't necessarily develop expressive language skills. Many times, children who do not have verbal expression make up their own words, don't use pronouns appropriately and have difficulty really understanding the common conversational language that we use in our society.

KUNNINGER: He kept washing his hands. He kept flipping the light switch on and off.

TRAPANI: These are kids who become obsessed with the garbage truck, ceiling fans, stop signs, flag poles, sewer covers, very strange things. Other children, they have interest in lining things up or playing with just very specific parts of toys: spinning wheels on a car, or opening and closing doors, or switching lights on and off, or running from one room to the next. So, the activity they engage in is sort of a meaningless activity.

CHIUSANO: He would have horrible, horrible tantrums and an inability to calm down from those. Everything that we did, it affected.

TRAPANI: Any time that a behavior results in a tantrum or in crying or re-establishes the routine of the family, any time that child's behavior is really running the family, that certainly is a great red flag that something's wrong. Early intervention can really circumvent the development of those behaviors, and certainly early intervention can assist in minimizing those behaviors if the behaviors emerge.

CHIUSANO: It's remarkable how far he's come along. He has complex speech. He interacts with other kids and wants to. He can recognize social cues. He's funny. He has a personality. It is 180 degrees from where we were.


Autism Factoid

GRAPHIC: Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Autism affects each person uniquely.

Autism: Mythbusting

AZUZ: One of the reasons why the United Nations declared World Autism Awareness Day is to educate people about the disorder. Autism is still kind of a medical mystery. Doctors and scientists are working to learn more about it. But CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at some of the commonly held myths about autism.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: One out of every 150 kids may be diagnosed with some form of autism. No doubt the numbers are staggering, but I still had this lingering question: Is autism an epidemic?

DR. JULIE GERBERDING, CDC: Is it becoming more common? We need more information over time to say that. We should just agree that it is way more common than we ever thought it was. It needs to be experienced as an urgent health threat.

GUPTA: Not an epidemic, but an urgent health threat. As the urgency mounts, so does the misinformation. One myth: Autism is solely caused by environmental factors like vaccines.

GUPTA: Are we ready to say right now, as things stand, that childhood vaccines do not cause autism?

GERBERDING: There's been at least 15 very good scientific studies at the Institute of Medicine who have searched this out. And they have concluded that there really is no association between vaccines and autism.

GUPTA: So, what do we know about the cause? Right now, all signs point to genetics.

DR. ERIC HOLLANDER, DIRECTOR, SEAVER AND NEW YORK AUTISM CENTER OF EXCELLENCE: There's a stronger genetic predisposition for autism than any other neuropsychiatric disorder.

GUPTA: But something in the environment can actually trigger it in some cases.

TOM CRUISE, FROM THE MOVE "RAIN MAN": Did you memorize the whole book?


CRUISE: Did you start from the beginning.


CRUISE: How far did you get?


GUPTA: Dustin Hoffman's character in the 1998 movie "Rain Man" had extraordinary mathematical and memory skills. So, another myth: Every person with autism has savant abilities.

DR. FRED VOLKMAR, YALE UNIVERSITY: When you have a skill in autism, typically, you have one skill. Maybe 10 percent of people with autism have one of these unusual abilities.

GUPTA: So much in the world of autism is unusual and even controversial. But researchers and patients agree that, for now, there are still more questions than answers. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.


Autism Factoid

GRAPHIC: Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism. As many as 35 million people have autism.

Autism: The Musical

AZUZ: Write a song, learn lines for a play; it's tough for anyone to do. But that's the focus of a new HBO program. HBO and CNN are both divisions of Time Warner. This documentary shines a spotlight on a performance from a special group of young people. Kareen Wynter takes us behind the curtain of "Autism: The Musical."


KAREEN WYNTER, CNN REPORTER: It's billed as a musical production, but delivers much more. There are no professional actors, no scripts.

ELAINE HALL, FOUNDER, THE MIRACLE PROJECT: No idea if they're gonna be able to pull it off.

WYNTER: And it's children instead of adults running the show, youngsters facing incredible odds.

HALL: There are all these myths about what a child with autism can do. I plan to shatter those myths.

WYNTER: Drama teacher Elaine Hall managed to tear the walls down on the hidden world of autism, a rare disorder that afflicts 1 in 150 children in the United States.

HALL: I had a voice inside that said teach children with special needs how to act and sing and dance.

WYNTER: Hall's Los Angeles-based musical theatre program, The Miracle Project, inspired a new HBO documentary called "Autism: The Musical," a moving profile of five autistic children who star in their own stage production.

HALL: How was school today?

WYNTER: One of them: Hall's 12-year-old adopted son, Neal. Neal was just 23 months when she brought him home from a Russian orphanage. Years later, he began displaying unusual behavior from tantrums to sleeplessness. But why?

HALL: I can remember just bawling and then just praying to God: "Dear God just give me the strength to get through one night."

WYNTER: Doctors said Neal was afflicted with autism, a diagnosis that sent this mother on a lifelong mission to unravel the mysteries of this puzzling condition. It included years of research and help from medical experts. Eventually, Hall created her own autism outreach program using music and theatre as developmental tools.

WYATT ISAACS SINGING "SENSITIVE": Sensitive. Am I too sensitive.

WYNTER: Sounds like a simple song, but 13-year-old Wyatt Isaacs wrote it himself: "Sensitive," a song he's now recording with actor Jack Black.

WYNTER: Do you have a few pointers for Jack?

ISAACS: For Jack? It's just to listen to how I sing.

WYNTER: And following your lead?

ISAACS: And following my lead.

WYNTER: Wyatt's taking the lead now, but the documentary offers a raw look at what some autistic children face, like being bullied, an experience that inspired Wyatt's song.

"AUTISM: THE MUSICAL," COURTESY HBO: They're gonna call me names. (MOM: What kind of names?) Because, mom, they're growing up. And when bullies grow up, they get meaner.

WYNTER: Wyatt, Neal: They're the new faces of autism; courageous, candid, colorful. Traits we like to attach to all children.

ISAACS: This kid can shine. He has his meltdowns, but he shines and that's all that matters.

WYNTER: Kareen Wynter, CNN, Los Angeles.



AZUZ: Our special coverage isn't just today. We'll be observing Autism Awareness Month all throughout April. You can go to our Web site to check out our related curriculum materials. And while you're there, we hope you'll visit our blog and leave us your thoughts about autism. You can even send in an iReport. It's all right there at



AZUZ: Thank you for joining us for this special edition of CNN Student News. We'll be right back here tomorrow. See you then. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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