by Jason P. Smith
The Children’s Hospital of Denver has a unique and captivating art exhibit on display for the month of April. The exhibit, which features art work from people of various ages and artistic styles, was put together in honor of National Autism Month. All the art work on display was created from adults and children who suffer from autism, a little-understood disorder in which a person has impaired communication and/or social behavior as well as a limited range of activities.
The art show displays artwork that ranges from three-dimensional art to paintings and sketches – all of which tell personal and moving stories about the person who created it.
One of the artists featured in this year’s art show was Eli Cohen, 14, of Denver. Cohen’s artwork has been in several art shows and received recognition from not only those who were part of the shows, but also by Denver Post critic Jeff Bradley, who said his abstract work "might fetch six figures" if it were signed by a different artist.
And while Cohen’s simple and elegant paintings have impressed many onlookers, the many medical problems he faces are far from simple. Cohen, who often has been diagnosed with autism by the numerous specialists who have examined him over the years, also has unusual symptoms that have kept doctors baffled.
"He didn’t sleep through the night until he was 10," said Betty Lehman, Cohen’s mother and executive director of the Autism Society of America. Lehman, who has become an expert on autism through her years of working with her son and researching the different avenues available for help, said there now are many different options for treatment out there, but not all are effective – and almost none are cheap.
"I don’t know what’s worse," Lehman said reflecting on the progressions of different treatments since she started researching the topic. "When I started looking for treatments there was the belief that there was no way to treat a child, but if there were, insurance would probably have covered it. Now, there might be a way to treat a child, but you can’t afford it and insurance won’t cover it.
"Families only have so many resources when it comes to money, time and emotional resiliency, and you have to pick the path that will offer the best results or the biggest yield.
"There is no single cure for autism – there’s no pill," Lehman said. "The way you treat people with autism is to treat them individually. Eli has learned everything someone has tried to teach him," Lehman said, "but it’s just taken a long time."
"Although the treatments are better, since we still don’t know the cause, it’s very frustrating to the parents who want a cure," said Robin L. Gabriels, Psy.D., who has been working with autistic children for eight years. "Parents can fall victim to the next areas of treatment that arise, which is why it’s good for them to have a case coordinator who understands all the theories and will know what will work best – there is no one approach that is considered better than the others."
Autism, first described medically as recent as the 1940s, currently is on the rise in the U.S., which has raised the collective eyebrows of health care and school professionals as well as the Centers for Disease Control. Currently, the estimated number of children with some form of autism is 6.7 in 1,000.
There are basically three different forms of autism: Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, according to Gabriels. The range within these different levels of autism varies from case to case, and there is a range in social presentation.
The range of social presentation can be aloof or actively social. Those who are actively social, however, generally are inappropriate in their social interactions. The communication abilities also can range from being non-verbal to verbal, but idiosyncratic in their use of language, according to Gabriels.
"It’s important to note that autism is not the same as mental retardation," Gabriels said. "However, mental retardation can be present along with autism." An estimated 70-75 percent of those who have autism also have mental retardation.
Autism also coincides with many medical problems as well, such as gastrointestinal problems and seizures. Cohen, who suffers from a variety of things – some of which specialists cannot quite understand – has come a long way, according to his mother.
"It’s really difficult to teach someone with autism something, because you essentially have to teach them how to learn," Lehman said. "Eli’s a hero to me because he came from such an extreme deficit."
For more information on autism, visit www.autismcolorado.org.