By Deborah Hilcove
With stadium lights blazing and the high school band playing, the Mountain Pointe football team—the Pride–ran onto the field. Roaring cheers greeted them. During the first timeout, a student announcer thanked several sponsors. When he finished, Tommy Ponesse gave a big smile and thumbs up to his mentor.
Until the first grade, Ponesse was nonverbal. When he did begin speaking, his parents realized he was intrigued by other voices, as well as his own, and often repeated sounds and words. Tests confirmed autism.
Correctly called autism spectrum disorder, the condition is one of complex brain and developmental disorder, characterized by repetitive behavior and affecting communicative and interpersonal skills. Symptoms range from mild, including those of Asperger’s syndrome, to more severe. People with this condition may have high intelligence, but lack social skills. Many scientists, artists, musicians, educators and public speakers are autistic in varying degrees.
As many as one in 68 American children may be affected with ASD—an estimated three million—with an unexplained 10-fold increase in the last 40 years. Studies show the condition four to five times more common in boys than girls, with one in 42 boys being diagnosed with the disorder and only one of 189 girls.
Researchers do not agree on causes, but extensive research suggests genetics, brain structure, and environmental impact. Although many parents fault vaccines containing thimerosol, a mercury-based preservative used until 2001, nearly all leading health organizations, including the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health, say there is no relation. There is no known cure, either, although two treatments approved by the medical mainstream include applied behavioral analysis and anti-psychotic medication to reduce aggression.
If parents suspect autism in their child—perhaps language delays, eye contact avoidance, or unusual sensitivity to light or sound— their pediatrician can order diagnostic tests, for hearing or genetic studies, including a Fragile X syndrome test, to detect chromosomal changes. Other tests might include an EEG to test brain waves and detect seizures, or a brain MRI if the head is unusually large or small.
Lou and Mili Ponesse have encouraged their son to be as social as possible. They credit the teachers at Pueblo middle school with helping Tommy make the transition to Mountain Pointe high school.
“It’s a difficult dynamic in school,” Ponesse says. “But we’ve been lucky. Tommy’s special education teacher, Jason Johnson, noticed he liked to use his voice and a microphone.”
Ponesse continues, “Mr. Johnson suggested Tommy try the public address as an announcer, and last year invited him up to the press box during basketball season. He introduced the game, you know, the rules and expectations of good sportsmanship. He introduced the starters, and by the end of the year, he developed a flair for it. He had a good time and felt like part of the team. This year, Matthew Henry, the main announcer, invited Tommy to help out and read the list of 20 or 30 sponsors, thanking a few during each timeout. It means a lot for the staff members and teachers to help him be included, keep him involved. ”
The Ponesse family has explored options, too. They are active with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center and Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest grassroots autism walk program, to help raise funds for research and awareness about the increasing prevalence of autism.
Because their son loves singing—“whatever is currently popular,” his father says—they have enrolled him at ASU’s Music Therapy Clinic, Higher Octave Healing, where Tommy belongs to a three-member rock band, “Wreckless.” Although his favorite gig is singing, he takes turns on drums and guitar, rocking out with classic 80’s music by Journey and Bon Jovi.
Although there is no proven cure for ASD, early diagnosis and proper medical care, together with a supportive family, can reduce the symptoms and help a child grow and learn new skills. Tommy Ponesse’s father laughs and says, “Tommy didn’t speak for his first few years. Now we can’t keep him quiet!”