Intensive lessons, and time in tent, pay off for autistic boy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2009, 12:00am

Kendall Noble is a sweet six-year-old child. He's into Indiana Jones and Spider-Man, and he likes hugs. Kendall, however, is not your typical six-year-old child; he has autism.

Kendall can look at you with interest, then his face becomes blank. He can become irritable when his routine changes, and his motor skills are off, causing him to walk with a bouncy sway.

'Anybody who's ever met Kendall will say he's very smart and very sweet,' said Kendall's mother, Deirdre Noble. 'He does have a way of kind of melting people.'

'He doesn't do a lot of manipulation a regular kid would do,' she said. 'He just simply doesn't know how.'

Autism isn't an ordinary illness. It's hard for people to describe, it's not always easy to diagnose, and its cause, a neurological disconnect, an inflammation or a chemical imbalance, hasn't been pinpointed.

The South China Morning Post spent a day with Kendall to get a better understanding of what it's like for a child with autism.

The day was organised by the Autism Partnership Foundation, one of 13 beneficiaries of Operation Santa Claus. Money raised will help the Autism Partnership School in North Point replenish materials. The school is open to children aged four years eight months to 14.

7.50am Kendall and his mother wait for the minibus stop outside their Pok Fu Lam home. Their usual bus is running late so they hop on a different bus. This is a change of routine, and it registers with Kendall, who is on his way to school. Many children with autism don't like changes in routine.

Autism is a neurological disorder that can affect emotional control, co-ordination and social interaction. Some people living with autism are prone to temper tantrums, or they don't understand the concept of personal boundaries.

One child out of 150 on the planet is diagnosed with the disorder, said Kathleen Man, Kendall's principal, citing worldwide research. Some 3,000 people are listed as having the disorder in Hong Kong, she said.

8.45 am to 2.30 pm Deirdre drops Kendall off at school. Kendall, who was diagnosed with autism when he was three, has been going to the school since January 2008. Typically, children with autism start developing without any problems until they reach two or three, then their development stops or regresses, Man says.

'You can have children who are picking up words, they are developing normally, crawling, walking, and suddenly everything just stops,' Man says.

Kendall has seven classmates, only one of whom is a girl. Most autism cases involve boys, Man says. The children, aged five to seven, look like ordinary kindergarten children, but when they first arrived at the school things were different, Man says. 'We had to work with them,' she says.

For more than a year, they've been learning how to behave, wait their turn and how to perform in a group. The pupils at the Autism Partnership School learn through repetition, praise and reward, and there is one teacher for every two pupils.

Kendall and his classmates are learning fast. 'We have seen children that do very well, progressing within two to three years of therapy and consistent training,' the principal says.

If autistic children are trained early enough and their cases aren't severe, research shows some children can live normal lives, she said. There is evidence that autistic children do go to college, get jobs and even get married, she says.

2.30 pm to 6pm Kendall's mother picks him up from school in the afternoon. He has a snack in a nearby shopping mall and is allowed to play in a jungle gym in a downstairs arcade. Afterwards, Kendall attends a social group for high-functioning autistic children, the Autism Partnership's Buddies Club, also in North Point.

6.45pm Kendall arrives home. His father, Mark, helps prepare dinner.

7.15pm After supper, Kendall enters his 'rocket ship', a rented, 180cm-long hyperbaric chamber made of hybrid vinyl and stitching, which he has been using regularly for the past few weeks. The device is supposed to deliver oxygen at a higher pressure, Deirdre says. 'The thought is that these kids do not get enough oxygen to their brain, and that under pressure their bodies get more oxygen, or let's just say as much oxygen as you and I get, to help improve their brain function.'

Kendall's school does not take a position on the device, but his doctor suggested Kendall try it, and the boy appears to enjoy the hour-plus experience. He sits alone with a DVD player and watches a video, or reads.

'We've decided we were going to march through all the various interventions,' Deirdre says. 'And if something seems to be working, we are going to stick with it. If it doesn't seem to be working, we are going to move on and try something else.

'Also, there has to be some kind of study that [the therapy] has been used with children with autism and that it has shown to be effective.'

Children with autism 'have a better outcome, meaning a better chance of an independent life, the earlier you get to them and the earlier you make these changes when the brain is still developing,' she says.

And Kendall has been getting better. 'He's been more vocal lately, more interested in people. He's been interacting more with his peer group as opposed to just adults.'

The Nobles don't know why Kendall's behaviour has been rapidly improving. It could be the hyperbaric chamber, it could be the behavioural therapy, or it could be both.

'You're seeing a different Kendall than even three months ago. You're seeing him when he's good and sweet and cute. But in August he was having three temper tantrums a day. You're seeing good Kendall now, and I hope we keep good Kendall.'

9pm Deirdre kisses Kendall goodnight - like she always does. 'Seriously, I think he looks like an angel,' she says.

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