Tag Archives: Stem Cells

Stem Cell Treatments

“You thought my autism was hurting me and that you needed to remove it, but you did not understand that it is a neurological difference and fear caused you to behave with desperation.”  ~  Emma on the topic of the three stem cell treatments we did in 2010

Every now and then people find this blog through a site that promotes stem cell treatments in Central America.  In our long and twisted journey since Emma was diagnosed with autism, stem cell treatments were something we once hoped would help our daughter.  It is a decision I deeply regret.  People ask me whether I think it may have helped her.  I do not.  People have wondered whether the tremendous strides Emma has made are not directly related to those stem cell treatments.  They are not.  I can say this with assurance.   If you want to learn more about how Emma is communicating, click on this link.  The stem cell treatments put Emma’s life in danger.   We have no way of knowing what we may have exposed her to because of those treatments.  For the rest of our lives we will not know if the stem cell treatments harmed her.  We will never know and that is a fact we must live with.

In April of 2010, we believed anything was worth trying if it would help our daughter.   Just four years ago, I believed being Autistic meant a life of untold misery.  Autism was a list of deficits.  At the time, I doubted whether my daughter would be able to learn to read and write, let alone speak in a conversational manner.   I had no idea what my daughter was capable of.  I had no idea that she already knew how to read.  I know this now because she has told me through her writing.

We took Emma to Costa Rica and later to Panama for three rounds of stem cell treatments despite being strenuously urged not to go by a team of stem cell researchers out of Harvard.  We were cautioned about the experimental nature of this procedure.  We were told it was risky, dangerous, highly invasive, and yet we made the decision to take her anyway.  We did this because we loved our child and, at the time, believed anything we tried was worth it, if it might “save” her.  (I use that word purposely because this was what we once believed.)  We believed we were giving her a chance at life, we believed, if we did not try this, we would regret it.  We held out hope that maybe, just maybe this would help her communicate and thereby give her the opportunity to form friendships.    

I’m not going to go on a rant about all the misinformation we were given by well meaning professionals, educators, medical experts and pretty much every single person we came into contact with on the subject of autism and our daughter, all of that is pretty well documented throughout this blog over the last year and half, but I will say this, our response to autism and what we believed that meant for our daughter was not unique.  We knew of a great many parents who believed just as we did, that any treatment was better than doing nothing at all.

This blog began as a result of those stem cell treatments.  I never thought more than a handful of people would read what I was writing.  This blog was a way to document the changes we hoped we would see because of the stem cell treatments, a treatment that is not allowed in the United States, a treatment that has since been outlawed in Costa Rica as well.  We believed we were doing a good thing.   For those of you who never contemplated such drastic measures, I understand how incredible this must sound.  For those of you who are Autistic, I can only tell you how sorry I am that this was what we once believed.

We all make mistakes.  Some of us have made terrible ones; things we cannot undo, take back or cancel out with an apology, no matter how heartfelt.  What I can do is continue to learn, hope to do better, and do all I can to counter that list of deficits so commonly attached to an autism diagnosis, while signal boosting Autistic people’s words, including my daughter’s.

Last night Emma and I discussed those stem cell treatments from four years ago and she wrote the words I opened this post with.  When I told her that if I could take those treatments back, if I could cancel them out, I would, in an instant and without hesitation.   She then wrote, “Many parents have not loved their children as much as you.

This isn’t about forgiveness, I know she forgives me, this isn’t about publicly beating myself up, this isn’t about me learning to forgive myself, this isn’t about me at all.  This is about misinformation, where that misinformation leads us and the inherent problem with speaking about autism as a “medical disorder” as opposed to a neurological difference; a difference that carries assets and deficits just as non autistic neurology does.  This is about oppression, segregation, prejudice and how that plays out in every aspect of autism, autism research, autism treatments, biomed interventions and almost all of the various autism therapies that currently exist.

“Put it on the blog!” Emma said, after we talked about all of this.  

“Really?  You want me to put this on the blog?”

“Yes,” she said and then she leaned over, gave me little kisses and added, “Aw… sweetheart…”

Emma walking among ruins in Panama ~ 2010

Emma walking among ruins in Panama ~ 2010

The Path Leading Away From Hell

In the last few months, Richard and I have been hit with a surge of information, ideas, alternate ways of thinking that have completely upended our goals for Emma and our thinking regarding autism.  (In the best possible way.) I have written about these shifts in past posts – The Evolution of  a Perception and A Different World, prior to that Waging War where I was still straddling the fence but was getting close to seeing Emma and autism in a new and, I believe, improved way.

A few things have occurred to me in recent weeks, please read this as it is meant, which is as a description of the process, a process I am grateful for.  Some of the words I use are often misunderstood, they have been by me, this is the beginning of that process.  Tomorrow I’ll try to finish this post, but for now this is the beginning…

There were a number of factors that increased my terror at the word “autism” beyond the grim way in which the diagnosis was delivered, the less than hopeful and helpful “advice” given to us.  There were a couple of things I read or was told that have remained etched in my mind.  Such as the pediatrician who advised me to – “Get on with your life.  There’s nothing you can do,” was equally as destructive as reading Catherine Maurice’s book, Let Me Hear Your Voice about how her two children on the spectrum lost their diagnosis with an aggressive ABA program.  That book was the first of many “recovery” books I consumed like a starving person confronted with an all-you-can-eat-buffet.

Whether it was a diet, the vast number of biomedical interventions we tried, behavioral therapies, 40 hours of ABA, 10 twenty minute sessions of DIR/Floortime every day…  you name it, we tried it.  Pursuing these interventions was akin to hitting my head against a brick wall over and over and over again.  In fact, nothing seemed to make much of a difference, and it was that fact that continued to propel us down the “searching for recovery” road for as long as it did.  Because nothing we did seemed to cause any long term continuous progress, in fact at certain points during her ABA program Emma actually regressed, we started looking for more and more radical “alternatives.” Until finally I remember feeling, exhausted, utterly exhausted, physically, emotionally, spiritually, it was as though I’d come to the end of a grueling trek and faced yet another mountain range, there was no breathtaking view from atop some majestic peak, just more of the same and I just couldn’t do it any more.  I was spent.  We had just returned from a third trip to Central America for stem cell treatments, saw very little change and weighed the risks (which were enormous and like a flashing red question mark in neon lights) we said to each other, how much longer can we do this and at what cost?

It was at this point that we found a literacy program that seemed to really help Emma beyond anything we had tried thus far.  At the same time that we embarked on the literacy program, I continued to hold out hope that some sort of biomedical intervention would help her as well. *I am adding this now a year and a half later. –  It is with great regret that we embarked on the literacy program instead of using RPM as this has been what has worked more than anything else.*

This past fall like a burst, one final spark of frantic energy I took Emma to a Naturopath who’d been recommended to me, and put Emma on one more radical “diet” not GAPS, but damn close, pulled the few things that she loved to eat from her diet, saw her lose so much weight it frightened me as she refused to eat anything, and after six weeks of hell, said, enough.  We put everything back into her diet, saw no change at all, and then felt all the guilt that accompanies these failed interventions all over again.  I just couldn’t believe I’d put her through that yet again, (the first time was when she was first diagnosed and two years old.)  All those “suggestions,” the well meaning advice, the referrals to the “miracle” doctors who were recovering kids left, right and center, it was a pandora’s box I just kept going to and opening over and over and over again.  You’d think someone with intelligence (I like to think of myself as that hypothetical someone) would have said, if this guy is such a genius why isn’t he on the cover of Time Magazine, why is it that no one has actually heard of this person, this intervention, this whatever it was?  But I didn’t.  I kept trying different things.  The allure, the seduction of finding the “thing,” the miracle was so great, all rational thinking was suspended again and again.  Add to that – desperation, which actually doesn’t describe what I felt, I was beyond desperation.  I was beyond crazed.  I was on a mission from some other universe.  Nothing was going to stop me from “fighting” for my child. I was determined; I was going to find the thing that would “cure” my daughter.

And after all of that, I didn’t.
And after all of that, it turns out, I couldn’t.
And somewhere deep, deep down, I felt I’d failed her.  To stop trying to find a cure that would remove what plagued her, what caused her to not be able to articulate what she was thinking, was to give up on her.  To stop the search was like leaving her to a future of wordless, silent dependence.  Institutionalization, upon Richard and my death, was her future.  Of that I felt certain.  Who would take care of her?  Who would help her?  Who would hold her when she was sad?  Who would be there to sing and dance with her?  Who would even allow her to listen to the music that seems to feed her soul?  Who?
We are fortunate in that Emma’s long time therapist, Joe and his wife, had agreed that for as long as they were alive they would take care of her  should something happen to us, but that did little to quell my fears.  What about when they both died?  I asked myself.  What about then?
To be continued….
To read Emma’s profile in The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, click ‘here.’
To read my most recent Huffington Post, click ‘here.’

A Look Back

When Emma was first diagnosed Richard and I decided to start noting her progress in a little leather bound book we entitled – Emma’s Hope Book.  The idea was that it would be just that.  A book filled with hope.  After the first few months of making sporadic entries, we wrote in it very little.  We were immersed in Emma’s “boot camp” of 35 hours of ABA, with therapists coming and going, then there was the speech therapy and the occupational therapy as well as the homeopath, the cranial sacral therapist and the DAN doctor.  In addition, I was caring for Emma’s older brother Nic, who we had decided to keep out of nursery school, (even toyed with the idea of homeschooling both the children) before we knew of Emma’s diagnosis.

A few months ago I came upon the original Emma’s hope book and flipped through the 27 entries spanning the time of her diagnosis – 10/2004 – April/ 2010 when I began this blog.

The first entry was written by Richard in October, 2004.  He wrote:  “Emma said, “Peek-a-boo-I-see-you!”  Pointed to her eyes when I said, “no eyes.”  I said – “Bertie hit you with his tail” and she immediately grabbed his tail.”

In the beginning we looked for any sign of understanding or attempt to communicate, no matter how small.  While other two-year olds know well over two hundred words, Emma said very little.  It was difficult to gauge how many words she really knew, as days would go by with no words spoken at all, then other days she would say half a dozen words that she never repeated.  I now wonder that those words weren’t things she’d heard and was echoing back, but didn’t really know or understand.

In any case, the first Emma’s Hope Book never got off the ground.  It was suppose to be a document of hope, something we desperately wanted to feel, but often had in short supply.  We would hear of some new treatment, a diet, biomedical intervention, or therapy and would feel a surge of hope, only to feel that hope dwindle as the months wore on and she made little if any progress. When we learned of the stem cell treatments in Central America, we felt another surge of hope, which was when I began this blog.  It was intended to show her progress from the stem cell treatments.  By the third treatment, we still hoped stem cells would be the thing that threw Emma out of her “autism” and into our world of “normalcy.”  But whatever progress she’s made from the stem cell treatments is not something we can pinpoint or even know with any certainty.  They may have helped, but they just as easily may not have.  We never saw such a massive uptick that we were left without doubts as to their effectiveness.  This has been our experience with almost everything we’ve tried.  All the biomedical interventions, all the behavioral therapies, all of them have done very little.   Or perhaps it is more accurate to say – None of them have had a huge impact.

But, call us crazy, we keep trying to find ways to help her.  We keep looking.  We try to keep an open mind.  We try to keep our hope alive.  There are days when our hope falters, though usually it is just one of us who feels particularly glum and the other is able to infuse some hope into the conversation.  Every now and then we both feel a lack of hope and that is when we will remind each other to look back.  We look at how far she has come.  The one intervention that has made a huge difference is Emma’s literacy program.  We remind each other that just one year ago, Emma couldn’t form all the letters of the alphabet, now she is writing complex sentences, uses the past tense and is often able to use the correct pronoun in answering a question. She did not know what a math equation was, let alone able to solve one or write one.  We are often exhausted, but even through our exhaustion we are able to enjoy and appreciate Emma in all her Emmaness.   Just as she is.

Emma found this old Halloween Costume of Nic’s and put it on saying – “I’m a monster!”

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Day 6

Call me crazy… BUT I think we’re seeing some changes.  Okay, I know, I said this after each of the three stem cell treatments.  Though there really did seem to be a slight shift – a change in her speech, better eye contact, longer more complex sentences, a more grounded presence in the world and I don’t think we were wrong about any of that.  I’m pretty sure Emma really did make some progress.  However, here’s my latest theory  (Richard, please refrain from rolling your eyes) – what if the stem cell treatments were helped by the fact that she also wasn’t eating all the dairy she normally ate.  What if in addition to giving her a little boost, the fact that she ate very little and therefore almost no dairy and hardly any wheat contributed to the progress we saw?   What if these food intolerances really are making it difficult for her to concentrate, focus, stay on task, carry on a conversation, maintain eye contact?

Today is the 6th day on Emma’s modified gluten free/casein free diet.  I use the word modified because, according to Dr. D she can tolerate dairy products from sheep and goats.  However she is not allowed to eat anything containing soy, corn or potato.  Which pretty much eliminates all pre-made foods, no matter how organic and gluten free they are, they all, every single one of them, contain either soy, corn or potato and often all three.  In addition she cannot eat anything with chicken eggs as she cannot have the whites, yolks are okay, but not the whites.

I’ve been doing a great deal of baking.  Which is a bit ironic considering how little Emma is actually consuming, but I keep trying to find things she might like.  I also love a challenge.  My mother told me about one of those cooking shows she likes called Chopped or a name like that. I’ve never watched it, but she described how the chefs are given bizarre items such as (I can’t remember what the actual ingredients were on the episode she told me about, so I’m making this up) – sweetbreads, licorice and coca-cola – and told to create something edible.  The chef then whips up some amazing concoction using those ingredients as their base, which looks delicious and the judges proclaim it a work of art.

The list of Emma’s “CANNOT EAT” foods sits on our kitchen counter, where I refer to it, reminding myself that if someone can prepare a fabulous dish with lifesavers and sweetbreads (or whatever it was they were given) then surely I can create something Emma will eat with all the foods she CAN have.  Still it does seem daunting.  And I’ll bet Emma wouldn’t touch any of those dishes prepared by those fabulous chefs, no matter how talented they may be.  Emma is one discerning customer.  Or as my son Nic said in answer to my question as to why he didn’t like the girl who keeps texting him at all hours of the day and night, “I’ve got very high standards, Mom.”  He then went back to playing his video game, involving lots of blood, various weapons no one has ever heard of and screams of agony.

When I first told Richard about taking Emma to Dr. D, he asked, “So what’s the science behind this?”

And the truth is I cannot answer that.  Though the following non-biased paragraph from the website, about.com is a pretty good description of the theory behind foods, intolerances, GI issues and autism:

“Why Does GFCF Seem to Work?

GFCF diets are difficult and expensive to administer. They require a lot of dedication and knowlege, and most professionals suggest that the diet be implemented over at least three months. Given all of this, it’s possible that parents who desperately want to see improvement could report improvement that may or may not actually be present. In addition, many children do gain new skills over the course of three months, with or without special diets.But there’s more to the story than just wishful thinking. Allergies to gluten and cassein are not uncommon, and those allergies often manifest themselves in diarrhea, constipation, bloating and other symptoms. About 19 to 20 percent of autistic children seem to have significant gastrointestinal issues.

If these issues are caused by gluten and/or cassein, then they would certainly be significantly improved by the diet. By removing a source of constant discomfort and anxiety, parents may well be opening the door to improved behaviors, better focus, and even lowered anxiety.”

It may be that I am trying to find improvements that have nothing to do with the change in her diet.  It may be wishful thinking on my part.  It may be that what I’m seeing may have happened had we not started her on this radical new diet. But I began this blog as an honest documentation of Emma, the progress, the lack of progress and everything in between.  Since we began the diet I have seen the following:

Greater sustained eye contact.  Less spaciness and a more solid grounded presence.  An interest in her Dad and a desire to include him beyond what she normally displays.  This morning, when I told her we didn’t have time to finish her study room and that we’d finish it tonight, she said, “Study room later.  We get to show Daddy.”  Now this may seem insignificant to most, but I can tell you, to Richard this sort of acknowledgement is a long time coming.

Emma – last night – October 20th, 2011

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

On the Spectrum

I was asked recently why I am trying so desperately to overcome autism.  It’s a valid question and it made me think about the challenge of writing about one’s child in a way that honestly captures that child with all their complexities.  A week or so ago I wrote in my post entitled A Cure – “Emma cannot function in our world, she is not mainstreamed, she cannot take a shower, wash her hair and dry herself off without support.  We are not discussing nuances here.  We are talking about a child who is more than “quirky”.  My husband, Richard and I love quirky.  Quirky is GREAT!  We’ll take quirky.  But that’s not what Emma is.”

To me, that summed up why we continue to search, why we continue to try various things, but it does not adequately describe Emma.  Emma cannot function in our world without hands on support.  We cannot have a conversation with her or ask her questions.  I am still trying to capture Emma on video and post some clips on here, but haven’t had the time to do that yet.  The question I began this post with, made me realize that for someone reading this blog they cannot know her through my writing.  Perhaps one gets a sense of her, but there’s too much left out, too much I don’t think to mention, the cadence and inflections of her speech, the words, which I can understand, but which may not be understood by someone else.  I try to give an accurate portrait of her, but in the end, it is just that, an interpretation and not representative of the whole.

When we first received Emma’s diagnosis I was determined to find a “cure”.  I felt sure that I would find one too.  (Hubris?   Arrogance?  Ignorance?  Stupidity? Denial?  All of the above?)

After those first few years I realized I might not find a cure for what ailed Emma.  And after another few years and three trips to Central America for stem cell treatments under our belt, a “cure” seemed more and more elusive.  I have come to accept that.  Perhaps more importantly, I am less focused on the miracle of a cure and more focused on pushing Emma to expand her world.  There’s a balance we have tried to achieve with Emma.  We try to follow her lead whenever possible, but we also encourage her to stretch and do things beyond her comfort zone.  Our most recent attempts to expand her diet is a case in point, her literacy and math program are another.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t continue to research and do everything in my power to find treatments to help her.  I am convinced Emma’s digestive issues are exacerbated by her environment – the foods she ingests, the air she breathes, the water she drinks.  This Friday I am taking Emma to a doctor who has worked with hundreds of children on the spectrum.  He and I spoke on the phone yesterday for over an hour, going over her history, her GI issues (inflammations and ulcerations), chronic constipation, recurring strep throat, porous teeth, cracked heels and limited diet.  While a few years ago, I would have eagerly anticipated this appointment with the same degree of excitement the devoted view a visit from the Pope, I no longer do.  I have come to see all of these people, no matter what letters may follow their name, with tempered interest.

Last week Emma’s school bus matron told us Emma refused to buckle her seat belt and when the bus matron tried to help her, Emma kicked her hard in the chest.  We immediately went over with Emma the behavior we expected from her.  We rehearsed buckling her seat belt and made sure she had her ipod and ear buds with her so she could amuse herself once she was seated.  We went over the importance of not hurting another person.  We tried to consider what sort of support she might need to help her control herself.  We are lucky in that Emma seems to have understood and has not struck nor tried to get up from her seat while on the bus since.

As we waited for her bus this morning, I coached Emma, “Emma, it’s nice to say good morning to people.  She’s a nice lady and saying – Good Morning – will make her smile.

When Emma boarded the bus this morning she said, “Good morning, nice lady.”

The bus matron beamed.

There are many people with an autism diagnosis who are on the “mild” end of the spectrum or fall in the “gifted” category of Aspergers or are considered “high functioning”.  These children are often mainstreamed or learning at grade level or above.  And while they have tremendous hurdles, often requiring support into their adult lives, they occupy a different level of hurdles from those who, like Emma are moderately autistic.

I had a friend whose child was unable to walk or even lift his head.  He, too, was diagnosed with autism, though severely so.  That child faced developmental and physical problems far beyond anything Emma has had to deal with.  For me to compare the two would have been ludicrous.  At this point my goal is to get Emma to a higher level on the spectrum.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Dinner With The President – Autism

I received a form letter from Vice President Joe Biden yesterday.  It was one of those mass emails one gets, but rarely reads.  For some reason I glanced at it and read that the president will be having dinner with one person who makes a small donation of five dollars.  Their name will be thrown into a hat and one name will be drawn.

I thought about what I would say to the President were I to have the opportunity to have dinner with him.  And of course I knew what the answer was without hesitation.  I would speak with him about the rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism.  I would direct him to the countless news stories regarding the rampant abuse of those same children and adults living in group homes and institutions.  I would ask him to help set up communities where individuals with autism would have more control over how they lived, allowing them to pursue their interests, encouraging them to follow their dreams.  I would tell him about our trips to Central America with our daughter, Emma for stem cell treatments.  I would encourage him to put more funding into stem cell research, umbilical cord stem cells, using the patients own stem cells, and any other form of stem cells that might prove viable in restoring the lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions.

As I continued to think about all the things I wanted to say and ask for, in the name of autism, I thought of the families like mine who have been affected.  I don’t just mean on an emotional level, but financially as well.  A diagnosis of autism is devastating to any family financially.  We have chosen to pursue a more aggressive route than many can or want, but any family, even those who have not taken their child to foreign countries for stem cell treatments has found the cost of caring for a child with autism staggering.  For those who have little or no resources, who have to rely on social services to help them, who cannot afford to have a caregiver come to their home to give them a break, they live in a world starkly different from those with similar financial constraints who have neuro-typical children.

So Mr. President, on the off chance my name isn’t chosen and I don’t have the opportunity to sit down with you, can you please help galvanize the medical community and make autism a priority in research, can you look at what we’re doing when we cut so much funding from our already overwhelmed schools, can you earmark autism as something we need to find answers to?

To read about the genesis of this blog and Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Wake Up Calls

Last night Emma came into our bedroom every few hours.  The first time was just after midnight, then again at 2:30AM or thereabout, again sometime after 3:00AM and once more, only I was so tired, I can no longer remember what time it was.  The last time she came in, standing beside the bed and looking at me, we told her she had to go back into her room and that we would come get her when it was time to wake up.  When she left, whispering, “Mommy, Mommy come into the other room,” I stayed awake waiting for her return.  Only she didn’t return.  She went back to her room and managed to fall back asleep, something I was unable to do.

So I’m tired.

And when I’m tired things can look a bit bleak.

I know this about myself.

This post is therefore about countering that exhaustion induced bleakness with a more balanced view of Emma and how far she’s come in the last year.

At this time last year, Emma was still wearing a diaper at night.  She was often awake in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep without one of us, usually me, lying next to her for the remainder of the night.  Or she would come into our bed, forcing Richard to sleep in her twin bed in her bedroom.  The feeling of utter exhaustion I am currently experiencing was commonplace a year ago.

In addition to the nocturnal awakenings, Emma had a habit of sucking on a strand of her hair, returning home with an encrusted lock, which I had to soak in lukewarm water before brushing out.  Emma was unable to shower by herself, brush her teeth, floss or brush her hair and needed reminders to go to the bathroom. Emma showed no interest in most toys and her language was not as complex as it is now.  Her utterances were in the three to five word category and often were difficult to understand.  Her difficulty distinguishing between pronouns such as “you”, “me”, “I”, “him” and “her” was all too apparent.  More often than not she referred to herself in the third person and often referred to others by calling them – “Emma”.

In the last few months, Emma has become enthralled with one of her baby dolls.  Each night for the past week, she comes home, bathes and washes her baby doll’s hair with shampoo, then wraps her in a towel and puts her to bed.  Her pretend play continues to be somewhat literal, in other words she doesn’t pretend to talk for her doll, she isn’t able to “name” her dolls beyond calling them things like:  doll, girl, baby, etc.  But Emma is showing an increased interest in playing with them, taking on the role of “mother” and spends longer periods doing “motherly” things with them.
This is the first year Emma has shown even a remote interest in Christmas and likewise with her birthday.  She has been talking about her birthday and the party we are giving her for over a month now.  Sadly, few children are able to come to her party, as it falls on a three-day weekend and almost everyone is busy or away.  But despite this, we are making sure she and her birthday are celebrated.

Sometimes it takes exhaustion and numerous wake up calls to remind me of just how far Emma has come.

Milestones and Miracles

As we sat at the dinner table last night celebrating our dear friend Claudie’s birthday, I saw Emma ride up to Nic on her scooter and stand in front of him as he sat on the couch listening to music on his iPod.

“Hey Nic!” she said.

It was very unusual for Emma to go up to Nic and speak to him so directly so I nudged Ariane who was sitting next to me, and pointed in their direction.

“Hey Nic!” Emma repeated. “Will you come to mommy’s room with me and watch Elmo?”

We were absolutely floored. Ecstatic. Choking up with emotion. Not only was this one of the longest and most articulate sentences Emma has ever spoken, it was also directed at Nic, asking him to do something together with her.

For any parent of two normal children, this would be something you take totally for granted — something you would have witnessed twenty million times by the time your children were 10 and 8 years old. For us it was first, a true milestone, as significant as when Nic and Emma took their first steps or spoke their first words. More than that, it was something we had hoped and prayed would happen for such a very long time. Something we feared might never happen.

It was a miracle.

We looked at our guests with our mouths hanging open in shock and wonder, then began hugging and kissing each other in joy and gratitude. It was such a special moment, made even more special by the great good fortune of being able to share that wondrous milestone with such special friends. Claudie said it was the best birthday present she ever had. Elaine knew exactly what we were feeling and how significant it was, having experienced parental challenges so much more arduous and painful than anything we have weathered.

I went with Emma and Nic into our bedroom and helped her put the Elmo DVD on, then spied on them from around the corner, my ears perked up for any more dialog that might be forthcoming. They just sat together silently, watching Elmo, Nic barely able to tolerate it, but being such a great sport, Emma looking so happy in his company.

Eyes were teary as we put the candles on Claudie’s cake, then called for Nic and Emma to join us. Emma came running in like a freight train, since two of her favorite activities in the world are singing Happy Birthday and blowing out candles. True to form, Emma led the chorus, singing as loudly and cheerfully as always. When the song finished, Claudie started to blow out the candles but Emma leaned across the table and blew out most of them first.

“Emma, those are Claudie’s candles,” Ariane admonished, then asked Claudie if she wanted us to re-light them.

“No,” Claudie said, “I already made my wish.”

And we had one of ours granted.


The vicissitudes of our daily life with Emma require a certain degree of hope in order to stave off the depression lurking in the background.  I need a plan of action, something I can refer to when I am tired, when my defenses are down, when I feel my grip on that tenuous thread of hope beginning to loosen.

At the moment I am reading about RPM – Soma Mukhopadhyay’s Rapid Prompting Method for autistic children, which gave her non-verbal son Tito a voice.  I have watched the videos, have read her book and am now rereading the book while taking notes.  I am on a waiting list to go with Emma to Texas to have a four-day session with Soma.  In addition I have just started reading Dr. Howard Shane’s book – Visual Learning.  I need to be alert while reading as the subject matter is dense and I have difficulty taking it all in.

Emma continues to wake the entire family at all hours of the night, resulting in all of us being exhausted, relying on caffeine to get us through the day with no end in sight.  Poor Nic, who is not allowed to drink caffeine, has to muddle through as best he can.  It is certainly affecting his ability to concentrate at school.

“We don’t have a plan,” I said to Richard this morning.  “We need a plan of action.”

But the truth is, I need an infusion of hope.  Like an IV – hook it up and let it drip into my veins.  Hope is the thing, more than anything else motivating me to keep pushing ahead.  Hope is the lens through which the world can seem grey and dull or bright and cheery.  I need hope.  So I think about the phone call Richard had yesterday regarding Emma’s last QEEG.  We had the brain scan done the day before we left for Panama for her second round of stem cell treatments.  Our conflicting schedules have made it impossible to meet to go over the results.  Richard is meeting with one of the doctors this Friday.  The doctor told us he thought there were some interesting things going on with that last scan.

So we wait and we hope.

Emma on the Telephone

I must begin this post by stating the obvious.  I am not a scientist.  Biology was the one class in high school I almost failed.  In fact I had to go to summer school in order to restore my grade point average.  In both undergraduate and graduate school I avoided all things science by first going to Parson’s School of Design and majoring in Fashion Design and later did my graduate studies in Creative Writing.  Science courses did not play a large role in either of these majors.  That I now find myself steeped in science, stem cell research specifically, is more than a bit ironic.  And I have to say my avoidance of science is not serving me well in these on-going conversations with some of the most highly regarded stem cell specialists in the country.

Tuesday Richard and I had more disheartening news regarding the stem cell treatments Emma underwent.   We spoke with another stem cell specialist.  He told us if the donated umbilical cord blood from which they harvested the stem cells was from a male, then she could develop troubling complications as she reaches puberty.  Another specialist we spoke to an hour later refuted this claim.  I will not pretend to understand or repeat all that was told to us, suffice it to say, the news was not good.  On an optimistic note, we are learning a great deal even if I am unable to articulate all of it and there are some very positive things happening on the stem cell front in this country, just not so much with autism.

Richard and I are scheduled to speak with several other stem cell and autism specialists within the next few days.  In the meantime we are doing our best to manage our fears.  And it really does come down to just that – management.   I allow myself a specific time frame, say five minutes, in which I let myself think every frightening thought and then I tell myself – okay.  Time’s up, you have to think about something else.  As an entrepreneur, there is always work to be done, so this technique works well.

I am ending with a scene from yesterday afternoon.

Emma returned home while Richard was on another phone call.  Emma patiently waited a minute then went to his computer to watch a youtube video of the Beatles singing Happy Birthday.

“Emma, I’m on the phone you’ll have to wait,” Richard said.

“Have to wait,” Emma said, turning the video off.  She stood in front of the computer waiting.

“Hey Em, it’s Geneva, do you want to talk to her?” Richard asked, hoping to distract her.

“Yes!” Emma said, taking the phone from him.  “Hi Geneva!” Emma said.

“Hi Emma!  How are you?” Geneva said.

“No, not going to see Geneva on the airplane,” Emma said, shaking her head.

“No you’re not going to see me on the airplane…” Geneva began to say.

Emma interrupted her and laughed, “That’s so silly!”

“But you’ll see me when you get back to New York,” Geneva said.

“Okay.  Bye Geneva!” Emma said brightly and then handed the phone back to Richard, before turning back toward the computer.

“Not yet, Em.  You have to wait til Daddy’s off the phone,” I reminded her.

“Wow!  That was the longest phone conversation Emma’s ever had with anyone,” Richard said.

“Yeah, that was great,” I agreed.

“Hey Emma, do you want to talk with someone else?” Richard asked, holding out the phone to her.

Emma nodded.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hey Emma!” Joe’s voice was heard to say.

“Hi Joe!”

“Is your stomach still hurting?” he asked, referring to the 24 hour stomach flu she just had.

“Yeah, bye Joe!” Emma said cheerfully and then placed the receiver back in the cradle.

“Em!   Your stomach doesn’t hurt and you just hung up on Joe! ” Richard said.

Emma gave him an impish grin and began to laugh.

“You want to listen to your video, don’t you?” Richard said, laughing.

“No you cannot hang up on Joe!” Emma said, giggling.  “Now watch video?” she added quickly.

“You hung up on Joe so you wouldn’t have to wait any longer, didn’t you?” Richard said.

“Watch video?” Emma said, grinning.

For more on Emma’s therapist, Joe go to:  http://www.emmashopebook.com/?p=615

The Journey Continues

Many concerned people have contacted me asking what’s going on, so I will try to explain the recent course of events.  But before I do so, I just want to say I am extremely conflicted by what we have been told to date and by the opinions we have recently been given.  Unfortunately this represents the inherent problems with autism.  One is given a diagnosis based on observation and by the anecdotal evidence provided by parents.  There is no blood test, no x-ray by which a diagnosis is made.  No one knows what autism is, no one knows what causes it and no one knows how best to treat it.  There isn’t even one thing (whether a drug, a therapy, or any other kind of remedy) that everyone agrees will help.  As parents of an autistic child struggling to make sense of all the opposing opinions, it becomes a formidable task to wade through the copious amounts of information, opinions, articles and books.  We are continuing to do our best to make sense of all we are hearing, reading and learning and will continue to keep posting as we gather more information.

To give a summary of what has happened in the past week – through a series of unrelated incidences, Richard was put in touch with the two Drs. he and I referenced in the past two posts.  They voiced their deep concerns with the stem cell treatments we have been doing with Emma.  They gave an example of a boy who evidently developed tumors as a result of stem cell treatments he received in a third world country.  I do not know any more details.  We have, since our initial conversation with them, been put into contact with a number of other professionals in the field of autism and stem cell research.  Richard and I are doing all we can to get as many opinions from different researchers and doctors who specialize in autism and stem cell research.

Last winter when we began looking into stem cell treatments, wondering if it might help Emma, we spoke with a number of doctors who felt it was worth a try.  The two doctors who have been following Emma and meeting with us over the past few years were in the process of putting together a group of 40 autistic children to take to the Costa Rican clinic before it was closed.  They had funding in place, which has since fallen through.  These two doctors were our main source of information as they had both been to the Panama clinic as well as the Costa Rican clinic.  In one conversation with them, I was shown the brain scan of an autistic boy before he had done any stem cell treatments and then his brain scan after six treatments, which occurred over the course of two years.  His brain showed marked change and he is now in a regular school.  Seeing that scan was a turning point for me.  I remember standing in the doctor’s office and thinking – we have to at least try this. For another example of anecdotal success stories see comment to my last post, “Hope for Emma?”

Prior to Emma’s first stem cell treatment in Costa Rica I spoke with a couple of other doctors, a few of whom felt it was inadvisable to go, but prefaced their comments by saying they did not know of the work the Stem Cell Institute was doing personally, and two who said they were watching what the Institute was doing and hoping to replicate their treatments once it was allowed in the US.

To date we have not seen the sort of huge uptick we would hope to see on Emma’s brain scans.  We have been told we shouldn’t expect to see results so soon and that these things can take up to six months to show up.  Again these are opinions regarding a treatment, which has only been done to a few hundred children during the past few years.  Richard and I intend to continue monitoring her through our own observations as well as with periodic brain scans.  We continue to pursue the leading specialists in the field of stem cell research and autism.

At the moment, however, we have decided we cannot return to Panama and the Stem Cell Institute.  Richard and I agreed, when we began advocating for Emma, we would try anything to help her if there was no risk of harming her.  We cannot ignore what we are now being told.

Hope For Emma?

I have spent several hours starting different blog posts over the weekend and this morning, but have been unable to finish any of them.  I am still raw after the phone call Richard and I had with the director of the Stem Cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital in Boston and the director of the Stem Cell Research Program also at Children’s Hospital in Boston.  See the previous post below, written by Richard on Friday.  An hour after our phone conversation in which they both expressed their concern with the stem cell treatments we have taken Emma to in Central America we received an email from them saying:  “We know that you are trying to do the best for your daughter, but given the issues we discussed, George and I think that you should not go back for stem cell treatment.”

I am feeling overwhelmed with emotions at the moment which is why I am having such a difficult time writing a post.  This blog is about Emma, not my fragile emotional state and though I have certainly written of the difficulties in parenting an autistic child I have tried to always keep Emma front and center – she is the star of this blog.  And yet, it is hard for me to write about anything at the moment because this blog is also about our hopes for Emma.  At the moment my hope is in short supply.

Em & Muzzy

Emma’s attachment to her green furry monster, Muzzy has grown to such a degree I feel compelled to honor Muzzy with his own post.

There are a number of significant early “signs” of autism:  An absence of pointing as a toddler, unresponsiveness to ones own name and a complete lack of interest or emotional attachment to inanimate objects such as stuffed animals or dolls, to name just a few.  Emma could be counted on to display all three of these things from an early age.  So it has been with great excitement we are witness to her growing desire to bring Muzzy with her on outings.  It is an attachment, which made itself apparent to us during her first stem cell treatment.  Emma asked to take Muzzy into the operating room and the doctors agreed it would be fine.  It was during that initial trip that Emma said to the anesthesiologist, “Muzzy first.”  Thankfully everyone was wonderfully good-natured and went through the motions of putting Muzzy under before it was “Emma’s turn.”

On a recent excursion with Joe, Emma insisted they take the jogger stroller out.  When they returned, I had Joe go over the outing in detail as I took notes.  Joe also took a video, which I haven’t been able to figure out how to post, so I’ve transcribed much of it.  I am always struck by Joe’s ability to use any opportunity to draw more language from Emma.

“Em, you’re too big for the jogger,” Joe said.

“Jogger stroller!” Emma said.

“Who’s going to go in the jogger?  Am I going to sit in it?” Joe asked pretending to climb in.

“NOOOOOO!” Emma said squealing with delight at the absurdity of it.

“I can’t fit!”  Joe exclaimed.

“Too big!” Emma said.

“Yes, I’m too big!” Joe said.  “Who do you want to go in the jogger?”  Joe asked.

“Muzzy!” Emma shouted twirling him around her head by one large furry arm.

“Oh!  You want to put Muzzy in the jogger?”  Joe asked.

“Yes!  Put Muzzy in the jogger.  Go for a walk!”  Emma jumped up and down.

“Okay, where should we go?”

“Muzzy needs to put on his seat belt,” Emma said, carefully buckling Muzzy in.

“Which way should we go?” Joe asked.

Emma carefully pulled up the “hood” on the canopy of the stroller, a flap of fabric covering a plastic window to peer down at Muzzy, checking to be sure he was all right.  “Muzzy sleeping,” she said.

“Big Muzzy is okay.  Esta bien!” Joe said in his Muzzy voice.

“This way!” Emma said, pointing east.  “Muzzy needs to go in the rain jogger,” Emma said.

“Do you think it’s going to rain?” Joe asked.

Emma stopped and lifted the flap to check on Muzzy.  “No!” Emma laughed.  “Let’s go this way, down the hill.”  Emma peered into the jogger stroller at Muzzy and asked him, “Do you want to go fast?”  Then she started running, pushing the stroller ahead of her.

“Do you want to go slow or fast?” is the type of question we often ask Emma as it is still hard for her to answer an open ended question and so we give choices.  Joe is terrific at coming up with choices for her, often one will be ridiculous such as –  Emma do you want to have some yogurt or should we eat this stick?  Emma will then laugh at how absurd this is and choose yogurt.  When we trained with Stanley Greenspan he emphasized the use of choices to increase language and back and forth dialogue.  It is not as easy or simple as it may seem.  I have found myself grappling for creative choices and coming up empty many times.

“How’s Muzzy doing?” Joe asked after a little while.

“Muzzy sleeping,” Emma said.  She stopped running and looked into the stroller.  “Do you want to go back to sleep?” she asked.  Looking at Joe she said, “Muzzy wants a snack.”

“Muzzy’s hungry?” Joe asked.

“Yeah.  Muzzy wants some vanilla yogurt,” Emma said.

After they stopped for a snack and continued on several miles, Emma said, “Time for Muzzy to go back to Granma’s house.  Muzzy needs to put on PJ’s.”

“Then what should we do?”

“Brush teeth, Muzzy go back to sleep,” Emma said.

Back Home

We arrived back in Aspen late Saturday night.  Even Emma, who is the world’s best traveler, was feeling tired.  By the time we arrived in Denver, having missed our connecting flight to Aspen she said, “Go see Granma?”

“Absolutely.  But we missed our connection so we have to wait a few hours.  Then we’ll see Granma.”

“Go see Granma?” Emma said again, anxiety creeping into her voice.  Which is her way of saying – NOW!

Concepts of time are difficult for Emma, if not impossible.  The idea something will happen tomorrow is not something she understands.  If one says, “One minute,” she will patiently wait as she knows from the kitchen timer we use, one minute is a length of time she can count.  Beyond five minutes it all becomes muddled.  Emma will often answer the statement, “tomorrow” with “You have to wait one minute.”

To which we respond, “No Emma.  Tomorrow.  Much longer than one minute.”  We might as well have said, “Next year.”

As we had been traveling for the entire day, having woken up at 6:00AM in Panama and were still traveling at 9:00PM, the idea we would catch a flight at 9:30PM and be back in Aspen by 10:15PM did not lessen her anxiety.  Still, Emma was terrific and did not make too much of a fuss.

I took this photo in the Denver airport.  While waiting for our next flight, Emma grabbed Richard’s newly acquired Panamanian hat and put it on her own head.  Muzzy is in her lap and she is holding her cokie.  (Evidently the Ecuadorians are to be credited with making the first hat we now think of as a Panama Hat.)

One of our faithful readers commented last week she had noticed how Emma was making eye contact in all the photos I have recently posted.  She is right.  Of course I didn’t post the dozens of photos I took when she wasn’t looking at the camera, but that I was able to get any photos of Emma looking at the camera is nothing short of miraculous.  And of course my immediate thought has been – is this the stem cells?!  Is it possible her terrific eye contact since she had her second round of stem cells could possibly be due to the stem cells?  Impossible to know, but it is a striking difference.

Friday night Richard and I went to a wonderful restaurant in Panama City – Manolo Caraccole.  It was absolutely terrific with no menu.  The chef wields his magic in a kitchen one can see from the dining area and produces 11 tapas courses which are brought out – one more delectable than the next.  As we were dining, a young American woman walked in with the attending physician who treated Emma the day before.   It was Dr. Hernandez who spoke to us at length, patiently answering our questions, giving us his opinion and generally making us feel calmer about the entire procedure as we waited for Emma to wake up from the anesthesia on both Tuesday and Thursday.  So when he walked into the tiny restaurant we were happily surprised.  The young American woman said, “This is the man who saved my life.”  She told us she had MS and he was the doctor who had taken care of her.  She was overcome with emotion, her eyes filled with tears as she told us about coming to Panama to have stem cell treatments.  She said she had had to stop working and now was able to go back to work.  She was taking Dr. Hernandez out to dinner to celebrate her recovery.  It was a bizarrely serendipitous meeting on our final night in Panama.

We can only hope the stem cells are doing their work in Emma’s small body as I write this.  It continues to be quite a journey.

It’s good to be home.

Panama – Day 5

We are in the clear.  Emma made it through the second treatment with no side effects.  She stayed in the clinic for two hours after the procedure was over to ensure she didn’t develop any complications.  Our biggest challenge was not worrying about her reaction to the procedure, but in keeping her occupied since she was feeling so terrific she wanted to:  swim, go back to the mall, ride on the carousel, find a water slide, go bowling, all of the above.

Emma waiting to have the stem cell treatment.

Emma awake.

I took this photo and Emma said, “Now go back to sleep.”   Then she closed her eyes.

I asked Richard how he was feeling, now that we were through the second round of stem cell treatments.

“It’s strangely anti-climactic and I’m tired.  It’s not as though I was expecting her to begin quoting Shakespeare, but there’s a kind of post-partum depression feeling.”  He stopped talking for a second then said, “Do you feel it too?”

“Yes, very much so.  I feel as though I’ve been given a sedative.”

“And now we wait,” he said.

“Right.”  I said.   “We wait and try to stay in the present.  I think that’s the hardest part in a way, trying not to think about the future with a lot of fantasies and projections.”

A couple of noteworthy things…  Emma’s recent interest in Muzzy, her green stuffed monster is a positive sign.  She brought Muzzy into the operating room both times and used him to express some of her fears and anxiety.  She has insisted on taking him out with her whenever we’ve gone anywhere during this trip.   In addition to her growing affection for Muzzy is the more elaborate pretend play she is engaging in with more frequency.   She has not wet the bed for 18 nights, even has gotten up in the middle of the night to pee on her own without prompting.  Since we’ve been in Panama Emma has been sleeping in her own bed.  All of these things are positive signs!