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Autism: An Enigma 

By María del Rosario Burgues

Diego Vasquez is a 14 year old known to be slim and tall. He is recognized by his dark hair and velvet like skin. He seems like any other guy, but after ten seconds observing him you can tell something is different about him. He does not speak, he jumps, fumbles and emits guttural sounds, and he can’t use the bathroom by himself. Diego has an innocent expression, he stares like if he is facing into his own interior. He barely reacts to external stimuli like human’s voice, affection; noise does not alter him at all. His mother says he enjoys music, but that isn’t enough to tear down the imaginary wall that seems to surround him to get to the bottom of his thoughts.  


Diego has autism. 


Currently five out of every thousand children have some form of autism, and four out of them are men. The number is growing daily in the United States and globally at an alarming rate without apparent reason. Anyone, regardless of race, age, and socioeconomic or intellectual level can have a child with this disorder. So far there is nothing that a parent does to have a child with autism. It is believed that some genetic and environmental factors might influence but there is no proof on those statements. Autism is a group of disabilities caused by an abnormality in the brain that causes communication problems. The syndrome was identified and named by Leo Kanner in 1943. The extent and severity of autism is different in each person; some are less affected than others who sometimes have behavioral problems and serious disabilities. Diego falls in the second description; He was diagnosed with autism in his native Peru when he was nine months old. "He had no strength in his neck and was moving his hands in circles most of the time, that worried us and we went to the doctor," said Marlene Vasquez, his mother, who has three more children older than Diego, the older kids do not have autism.


10 years ago, Marlene Vasquez and her husband Raul, started seeking help for the child and following advice from a relative who lived in California, Marlene and his family left their city and country Lima, Peru and immigrated to the United States. "They had very good training centers and care for autistic children, but they were expensive, they charged about $ 700 a month," Marlene said.


In the US they have an advanced infrastructure for the care, development and training for people with autism. " North Los Angeles County Regional Center [NLACRC] is one of 21 regional centers in California that provides service and support for people with developmental disabilities," said Sara Iwahashi, Media supervisor on that institution. "Depending on the needs of each individual we give different services completely free if they can not pay, and we are not interested in the immigration status of people." Vasquez receive the support and sponsorship of the center without paying a penny. "The center sponsors, manages and coordinates education and therapies for the boy for 10 years now. Right now he attends Leichman school in Reseda. He also receives therapy and day care services at home since he constantly needs to be monitored," said Marlene wh0+ntk was sitting in her living room in Van Nuys, holding his son’s hands. According to Giovanni Trivino, Principal Assistant of Leichman school, they educate and train students so that they can survive on their own in the most appropriate way with their disabilities. "Many of the children can not speak, then we train them to communicate with signs, to recognize and read posters with pictures ," Trivino said. "The Leichman is basically like any other school in California, we have six periods of 45 minutes each, some of the subjects are required, others are optional, such as cooking, painting, music." Around 70 trained people in Lecichman assist students with their shores, personal care and behavior. Some of them work one on one with students, as in the case of Diego, who is accompanied by an attendant from home and to home.


According to Marlene, school and therapies have greatly improved his son’s behavior, who sometimes can become aggressive, with the huge disadvantage and the speech problem is difficult to know what he feels. While he is always surrounded by love and patience, sometimes Diego’s tantrums test the family’s stability, make daily life difficult and interfere with the activities of his brothers. For this, the regional center helps them with a service called Respite, which pays a nanny service 30 hours a month that allows the family to make recreational outings and leave the boy at home.  Diego’s brothers, who are between 18 and 25 years old are  studying and still live with their parents, but the responsibility for Diego’s care lies primarily on the shoulders of Marlene and Raul. 


"Even when we live in a very simple way I prefer to live here," Raul said as he wiped his son's nose. "Not only for Diego but for the whole family, we found resources and opportunities that we would never have found in Peru." 


US spent annually millions of dollars in education, therapies, medicines, accommodation, salaries for therapists and research on autism, but the syndrome still considered an enigma, a mysterious puzzle with no apparent solution which is continuously increasing. 


In California, the Autism Epidemiology Research and Developmental Disabilities Center is one of many centers in the country that works to identify children with autism and research to know what causes it.  Meanwhile, at home, The Vasquez family still hoping for a miracle to come,  for a key that will open the mind of Diego to allow them to get deep into his thoughts, as they continue patiently and lovingly taking care of him. 


"I'm happy to be here and I am deeply grateful to this country for the support and assistance they have given us for my son," Marlene said.

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