Saturday, March 29, 2008

Autistic man at college graduation details hopes

Autistic man at college graduation details hopes

By Allison Lopez, Jeannette Andrade

MANILA, Philippines--David Michael Lopez, 22, graduated on April 12 from the Lyceum Institute of Technology in Calamba City in Laguna, earning a degree in communications.

“I wanted to communicate,” Lopez said, explaining why he took the course.

He is one proof that being diagnosed as a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not the end of the world.

Only a trained eye can detect traces of autism in David. He looks like any other young man his age, but his life is a shining example of the triumph of perseverance and years of struggle against ASD.

ASD, as defined by the Autism Society of the Philippines (ASP), is a developmental disability that severely hinders the way information is gathered and processed by the brain, causing problems in communication, learning and social behaviors.

At age 3, David was diagnosed with ASD. But through years of education and parental care, he was able to overcome his problem. David told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the early intervention of his parents was a key.

“There is no cure, but through education and training, autism can be treated,” he said at the close of the two-day national conference at the Philippine Columbian Association in Paco, Manila, on “A Life Journey with Autism: Hope After Diagnosis.”

For the ASP, which organized the conference, autism is not a tragedy. Ignorance is. The organization maintains that parents of children with autism should not despair, claiming that 1 in 150 children is diagnosed with ASD.

“There is no one specific cause of autism known yet. But while there is still no cure for autism, it is treatable. Many children with autism, especially with early intervention, make considerable improvements. Parents have to empower themselves to give these children a better life,” the group stressed.

Their vision: “ASP sees an environment that helps persons with ASD to become, to the best of their potentials, self-reliant, independent, productive and socially accepted members of society.”

Based on information from the ASP, autism “typically appears during the child’s first three years, is four times more common in males than in females, and has been found throughout the world in families of all ethnic and social backgrounds.”

“People with ASD live normal life spans and some of the behaviors associated with it may change and disappear over time,” said ASP.

The symptoms of ASD, usually apparent in toddlers, include:

* No pointing by one-year.

* No babbling by one year or no single words by 16 months or no two-word phrases by 24 months.

* Any loss of language skills at anytime.

* No pretend playing.

* Little interest in making friends.

* Extremely short attention span.

* No response when called by name or indifference to others.

* Little or no eye contact.

* Repetitive body movements such as hand clapping or rocking; intense tantrums.

* Fixation on a single object.

* Unusually strong resistance to changes in routines.

Dr. Alexis Reyes of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, stressed in her discussion, “Early intervention works. We cannot wait until the symptoms are very obvious.”

She said that treatment within the developmental framework would be most effective to arrest the incidence of ASD, which has been reported to be steadily increasing here and abroad.

In his speech with matching PowerPoint presentation, Lopez recounted his struggles as a child that began when his parents did “lots of massage” on his neck thinking it would help him speak.

“They also put a spoon in my mouth, and had a faith healer work on me. After a week or two, I was talking like a parrot,” he said as the crowd laughed.

A special education program at Cahbriba, an alternative school foundation in Los BaƱos, Laguna, transformed Lopez.

“I learned new skills that changed my attitude,” said Lopez. It was there that he learned to eat properly, to wait for his turn, and to develop teamwork by joining sports activities.

He described high school in Cahbriba as “challenging, full of hard work and fun.” He recalled acquaintance parties with girls and “romantic evenings” at junior-senior proms.

A trip to Thailand, his first foreign visit courtesy of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was a dream come true.

“I think I gained more self-confidence after this trip,” he said, as he related eating grasshoppers and haggling to buy a black Buddha image down from 600 baht to 300 baht.

Lopez said he was disappointed he failed the entrance exams of University of the Philippines and University of Santo Tomas. “But I did not lose hope in life,” he said.

He was accepted at Lyceum where he chose AB Communication because he “wanted to communicate with other people.”

A vigorous writer, Lopez also started blogging through accounts at Multiply and Blogger.

“Hopefully, I will land a job soon to help my parents, search for the right girl, get married and raise my family,” he said as the audience clapped loudly.

“The future is there waiting for me. I know it will be hard but I have walked those steps. The next step is really not that hard anymore … I will be an eye-opener to everyone to persevere, not to lose hope in case their child is afflicted with autism. I know that not everybody can be like me, but I know in their own time they can duplicate what I have achieved,” said Lopez.