Local News

Saturday, Jan 29 2011 09:26 PM

Hope for autism: One family's journey

BY DIANNE HARDISTY, Contributing writer dhardisty@bak.rr.com

The sun burned through the morning fog on Carl Twisselman's ranch along the Temblor Range, west of Buttonwillow, as cowboys separated cattle and herded them into corrals. Helping Twisselman on that Saturday were several of his grandsons, including 20-year-old Justin.

Working his cattle surrounded by family: It couldn't be sweeter for Twisselman. And working alongside Justin made him savor the moment all the more.

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"... When I first learned of Justin's diagnosis, it was almost like telling me he was dead. At that time, even though it was only 17 years ago, they recommended institutionalization."

-- Carl Twisselman

16th annual Autism Awareness Conference

Featuring Dr. Temple Grandin, author of "Thinking in Pictures," and John Elder Robinson, author of "Look Me in the Eye."

When: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday

Where: Hodel's, Banquet Room, 5917 Knudsen Drive.

Cost: $100, includes breakfast, lunch, handouts and certificate of attendance.

Information: kernautism.org or 588-4235

Editor's note: The conference is sold out, but there is a waiting list.

"Justin has progressed far beyond what we could have dreamed," said Twisselman, as he recalled his grandson's long-ago autism diagnosis, the family's commitment to develop Justin's strength and his hope that someday Justin would be able to live independently.

That dream seemed impossible when, as a toddler, Justin displayed developmental problems. It was at a family wedding that Justin attended when he was 3 years old that the term "autism" was first used. A cousin, who was a therapist, observed the child's behavior and suggested he be evaluated for autism. That evaluation led to confirmation.

"It was lucky she was at that wedding," Twisselman said in a recent interview. "Otherwise, I don't know how long it would have been before he was diagnosed. And we were also lucky that people in Kern County were developing programs. They knew about autism. But when I first learned of Justin's diagnosis, it was almost like telling me he was dead. At that time, even though it was only 17 years ago, they recommended institutionalization."

But a UCLA researcher and a Colorado cattlewoman gave hope to Twisselman and his daughter, Julie Van Sickel, a special education teacher and Justin's mother.

"We heard about a leading expert at UCLA, Ivar Lovass," explained Twisselman. Lovass, who died last August at the age of 83, was a professor and pioneer in autism. A landmark 1987 study he published on the little-known syndrome demonstrated that nearly half of children with autism who received early, intensive behavioral therapy achieved normal-range IQ scores and were able to attend regular education classrooms by the end of first grade without the help of an aide.

"The next thing I read was Temple Grandin's first book, 'Thinking in Pictures,'" Twisselman said. Thanks to a recent HBO biopic on her life, Grandin is perhaps the most recognized adult in the world living with autism.

Her book details her amazing journey and accomplishments, including her renowed work in improving humane conditions for livestock, a subject the westside rancher also knows a little something about.

'We looked for strengths'

Taking a cue from Grandin, who flourished in large part because of her mother's determination and teachers' encouragement, Twisselman and his family have dedicated themselves to Justin's development.

"Justin is going to be a rancher," said Twisselman, who is the fourth generation of his family to live on the sprawling ranch that straddles Kern and San Luis Obispo counties.

Justin agrees. Taking a break from herding the cattle, Justin said, "I love working with animals. I want to be a rancher."

Justin isn't so keen, however, on horses, which he said can be "dangerous, mean." Instead of doing his cowboying on the back of a horse, Justin deftly maneuvers a four-wheel ATV over the hills and through the herd.

"We looked for strengths. We found his biggest strength was working with animals," said his grandfather, noting the characteristic Justin shares with Grandin.

"The younger you start treating the child, the better. If you can get it around 2, it is so much better. You can get the behavior under control," Twisselman said, adding that an estimated one in 60 children are believed to have some form of autism, with mild to severe symptoms appearing on a "spectrum."

Twisselman's personal and intense involvement in his grandson's development has included serving for several years as the president of the Autism Society's local chapter. He now considers his board membership "honorary."

He feels a special connection -- through his activities supporting the autism society and grandson, and his life as a cattleman -- with Grandin. Twisselman will be escorting the Colorado State University professor to Bakersfield for her appearances at the autism society's annual conference and meeting of the Kern County Cattlemen's Association on Thursday and Friday.

'The ethics and compassion of a Grandin burger'

Besides autism, Grandin's "big interest is in improving animal welfare -- how to work cattle, keep them calm, end the use of the cattle prod," said Twisselman.

"She can sit back and see a rope hanging some place, or hear a noise and understand why a cow doesn't want to go through a chute," said Twisselman, noting that her recommendations for designing corrals and slaughter houses focus on keeping animals calm and treating them humanely. Grandin has developed a scoring system for assessing the handling of livestock that is used by many large corporations to improve animal welfare.

In 2010, Time listed Grandin as one of the world's 100 most influential people. Explaining the honor, Harvard University psychology and biology professor Marc Hauser asked, "What do neurologists, cattle and McDonald's have in common?

"They all owe a great deal to one woman, a renowned animal scientist born with autism," Hauser wrote for Time. "Though she didn't utter a word until close to her fourth birthday, substituting screams for phonemes, she splashed onto the stage of public awareness in 1995, thanks to the vivid, sensitive writing of the famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. Little was known about autism at the time except that people so afflicted appeared socially isolated, emotionally fragile and difficult to engage."

As with many psychological disorders, autism occupies a spectrum. Hauser noted that Grandin "is on one edge. Living on this edge has allowed her to be an extraordinary source of inspiration for autistic children, their parents -- and all people. She is also a source of hope for another mammal: the cow. Using her unique window into the minds of animals, she has developed corrals for cattle that improve their quality of life by reducing stress. And though the fast-food industry continues to use cattle in its patties, it has come to appreciate the ethics and compassion of a Grandin burger."

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