Health

Friday, Mar 14 2014 07:23 PM

Families at autism conference offer practical advice, comfort

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dr. Robert Naseef, psychologist, author and parent of an adult child with autism, was one of the speakers Friday at Hodel's during the 19th Annual Autism Awareness Conference in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Four hundred turned out for the 19th Annual Autism Awareness Conference at Hodel's in Bakersfield Friday. They applaud Dr. Lawrence Fung, a child psychiatrist and Fellow of Stanford University Medical Center, at the end of his speech.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Hodel's was packed Friday during the annual Autism Awareness Conference in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dr. Lawrence Fung, a child psychiatrist and Fellow of Stanford University Medical Center. speaks to a crowd of 400 during Friday's 19th Annual Autism Awareness Conference at Hodel's.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Like any proud father, Dr. Robert Naseef cherishes a delivery room photo shot shortly after the birth of his child. In it, Naseef cradles son Tariq in his arms, and they gaze at each other.

"Look at the eye contact," he said, using a laser pointer to draw a line from his eyes to his son's on the image projected on a screen at the 19th annual Autism Awareness Conference on Friday.

The point Naseef was trying to make was, like most children on the autism spectrum, Tariq, now 34, started out normal. It wasn't until he was a year old that something went terribly wrong.

"Thirty-three years ago he stopped talking ... and he never spoke another word," Naseef said.

It's that moment when typical child development starts veering off course that family dynamics begin a long, slow evolution into something entirely different, and that was the dominant theme of this year's conference at Hodel's Country Dining, a sellout at 400 registrations.

Naseef, a psychologist who counsels families with disabled children, talked about gender roles and how the sexes cope with crisis differently.

Another speaker, author Caroline McCraw, discussed what it was like to grow up with an autistic brother.

Fathers, in particular, have a really hard time adjusting to the reality of a disabled child because they think of themselves as protectors and fixers, Naseef said.

Some illnesses simply cannot be cured, and there's no way to completely shield a family from the consequences of that.

Much of Tariq's presentation was self deprecating. Again and again, he pointed out the futility of trying to communicate with men the same way you communicate with women.

"GPS was the greatest thing that ever happened to men because we don't have to ask for directions anymore," he said. "We don't like asking for help."

Many men respond to a diagnosis by throwing themselves into their work to cover the expenses of specialized care, but the stereotypical image of men as emotionally distant bread winners is fading, Naseef said.

Fathers today are much more hands-on parents, he said, and they're every bit as traumatized by a diagnosis and its aftermath. They just don't necessarily show it.

If you sense a father is upset, it's pointless to ask him how he's feeling, Naseef said. He'll shut down because men aren't supposed to reveal pain or vulnerability.

Instead, ask a man to simply tell you his story. In other words, what happened? In the course of responding to that, he'll show how he's feeling, Naseef said.

He added that he finds the comfort women derive from venting mysterious.

"I just don't get it," he said. "They go back and forth and back and forth and I think they're not getting anywhere, and then out of nowhere they come up with a solution."

Men, Naseef said, like to go straight to the solution part, which frequently frustrates the women who love them.

"Be patient with the guys in your life who are trying to solve problems, because it's how they show love," he said.

Conversely, men should get better at the art of listening, "because when we learn to be a better listener, we become better problem solvers."

Author McGraw, 28, said she imagines Heaven to be a place where she and her autistic brother, Willie, will be able to communicate verbally.

At the same time, she said, she has come to appreciate "the inadequacy of language to express our deepest feelings and truths."

For her, the written word was a balm that soothed her during her brother's transformation from a quiet, peaceful boy to a volatile adolescent who often hurt himself and others. She read voraciously and wrote, first journals and later short stories, books and blogs.

McGraw loved her brother dearly, yet she was embarrassed by his outbursts and sometimes jealous of the attention he demanded.

One of her parents had to miss an important choir performance, for instance, because Willie was having a bad week and they didn't think a babysitter would be able to handle him.

It was perfectly normal to want both her parents to see her sing, McGraw said, but when you have an autistic family member, even routine expectations are upended.

McGraw recounted feeling responsible for her brother's care, and her disappointment in herself when Willie's size and strength were too much for her and she had to call her parents for help.

The accumulated pressure of that caused McGraw to lose it, once. In a sudden and completely out of character tantrum, she smashed Willie's guitar to pieces after he'd had a particularly difficult meltdown. Her tortured rationale was that Willie shouldn't be allowed to make music when he was so destructive and disruptive.

Oddly, McGraw said, the tantrum created a new connection with her brother. In that moment, when guitar shards were flying everywhere, she knew what it felt like to lash out in frustration. It felt good.

That empathy is one of many life skills McGraw has accumulated growing up with a disabled sibling, she said.

She recalled once as a teenager having some friends visit for a sleep-over. She'd been hesitant to do it because of the possibility that Willie would misbehave in front of them, which he ultimately did.

McGraw was mortified and cried, but her friends didn't flee.

"While my parents were tending to Willie, my friends were tending to me," she said. "I realized that if you don't invite them in, they can't be there for you to provide that comfort."

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