By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Kenneth Curtis of Catonsville talks for a living, but the radio personality said it was difficult to tell a congressional committee Thursday about his son’s autism and ask for more government research and support.
Curtis told the House Government Reform Committee how he and his wife slowly noticed that their son, Morgan Scott, would not speak. The boy did not seem to hear his parents sometimes, and he displayed unusual behaviors like spinning around and lining up his toys.
Therapy has helped Morgan Scott, now 8, reach a level where he can name objects, read a little, count and recognize colors. But he has never learned to communicate his thoughts and feelings.
Curtis said it is like “being in the mall with your child and looking down to discover he’s gone. That sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach, that lump in your throat, wondering what’s happened to your baby.
“There’s a real boy inside of him somewhere, but he’s lost,” he said.
The Autism Society of America defines autism as a complex developmental disability that affects brain development and interferes with an individual’s ability to communicate with others and relate to the outside world. It typically appears by age 3 and is found in about one in 500 people.
Some people with autism have repetitive motions, difficulty adapting to changes in routine and strong sensitivity to their environment. Others may become aggressive, inadvertently injure themselves or experience other medical problems.
Little is known about what causes the disorder.
The committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., started the hearing by citing Department of Education statistics that the number of autistic children in special education classes is rising in every state. The report said the number of autistic students in Maryland schools rose 513 percent between 1993 and 1998.
Morgan Scott’s mother, Kimberly Curtis, said after the hearing that she believes the numbers are increasing because of a combination of things: more cases, greater awareness and broader definitions of autism. While those families living with autism have noticed the increase in cases, “it is taking a while for the general population to become alarmed,” she said.
Mrs. Curtis, who is co-president of the Baltimore/Chesapeake Chapter of the Autism Society of America, said she “hopes Maryland will rise to the challenge” of providing education through high school, as the wave of autistic children ages. She also said there will be an increased need for adult services in the future.
The hearing drew parents, researchers and advocates to Capitol Hill to discuss possible reasons for the increase in autism cases, particularly in children who begin to show symptoms when they are around 16 months old, after seemingly normal development.
Kenneth Curtis said he would leave the speculation about causes to the medical experts, but hopes that telling his story will encourage the government to fund more research.
“People don’t know what autism is,” and he would like someday to answer questions from friends and family members with more than a shrug of his shoulders, said Curtis, who co-hosts the morning show on WBIG-FM.
He would also like to see the government take steps to make insurance companies cover expenses related to autism. If you use the word autistic, they refuse to pay, he said, even though many will cover the specific health problems associated with the disorder.
Curtis told the committee his son is “a pretty happy kid” and the family is lucky it can provide a good life for him. But “one in every 500 families shouldn’t have to live with this disorder. And what if the numbers keep increasing?”
Curtis told the committee that his testimony was “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”