When her son Christopher was almost 2, Sarah Sun used to hold his little face in her hands as she gazed into his dark brown eyes.
"I would say, 'Just look at Mommy,' " says Sarah Sun, a 37-year-old product manager for eHealth and the mother of two sons. "I would plead with him, but he just wouldn't. That was the moment of truth."
After a one-hour visit with their pediatrician, Sarah and her husband, Josh Sun, 39, got the news -- their little boy had autism, a complex developmental disorder that typically impairs a person's ability to relate to others and often results in repetitive behaviors such as spinning or headbanging and discomfort with being touched.
After Christopher was diagnosed, a caseworker with the state Department of Developmental Services matched the boy and his family, who live in Mountain View, with Santa Clara-based Pacific Autism Center for Education. Christopher now attends the center's Sunny Days preschool in West San Jose four days a week.
"PACE is almost like divine intervention or something," says Sarah Sun, adding that the school is only five minutes from her husband's office. "They were amazing. The first session, a developmental therapist came in and the moment he interacted with Christopher everything changed. "... He loved it."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 110 babies born in the United States have disorders that place them within the autism "spectrum," which encompasses a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe. For many parents whose children have autism, just getting through the day can be trying. Changes in daily schedule or any disruption can send a child who is supremely sensitive to touch, sound, smell and the unexpected into a frenzied state.
Josh Sun describes Christopher's condition by comparing it to someone who is carsick unless he is driving the car and in control of all the curves and bumps in the road. For Christopher, all the sights and sounds of the world are overwhelming. Until they are controlled, he can't manage.
Christopher "has his own charm in his own way," says Josh Sun, an IT manager for Dentistat, a dental insurance services company. His voice softens when he talks about his son, who is now 4. "He is just wonderful. Sometimes he is our Tasmanian devil, destroying all our stuff, like electronics and books. Other times just looking at him makes me laugh."
One way to control sensory input is for the child to swing, much as children do at the playground. Swing therapy helps build muscle control, balance and stability as it calms the nervous system and promotes receptivity to learning, research has shown. PACE hopes to purchase such a specialized swing so it can offer the therapy at the center.
Therapeutic swings are not playground equipment, stresses Karen Kennan, assistant executive director at PACE. The speed and rhythm of the specialized swings can be adjusted, and the swing system comes with components that allow users to swing in a variety of seated or prone positions. PACE hopes Wish Book readers will help the organization purchase a therapeutic swing, which costs about $5,000, including safety mats.
At Sunny Days preschool, a wide range of therapeutic approaches give children with autism a chance at a better life. Christopher is enrolled in PACE's early intervention program, which is specifically for children younger than 6. (For more information about PACE, visit www.pacificautism.org.)
"Children with autism make the greatest gains if you start at a very young age with intervention" because their brain development is at a critical stage, says Kennan. "Our real hope and goal is to work with children young enough, with therapy that is intense enough, that they will be able to be mainstreamed" into their local public schools, she says.
Before PACE, Josh Sun says, he and his wife felt like Christopher was in his own world.
"It was like he didn't know his own mommy and daddy. It is really hard," he says. "We tried to play with him and he wouldn't even look at us. When the therapy started and they were able to connect with him, it was unbelievable."
Christopher has made great strides thanks to PACE, where he has been a student since May 2009. His teachers describe him as cheerful, happy and sweet, which makes his parents proud. Sarah and Josh Sun see continuing improvements in their son, and look forward to the day he can attend public school.
"It gives us hope," says Sarah Sun, "that we didn't lose our child to some dark world."
Wish Book readers can help Christopher and other young and adult clients of the Pacific Autism Center for Education by making contributions of $50 to help the school purchase therapeutic swings for both the early intervention program and the adult program.