JILL SAMELSON will never forget the day that broke her heart. She was watching her 16-month-old son Adam playing with a bubble toy. Something wasn't right. Instead of trying to blow the bubbles, as he had done before, Adam inserted the stick in the bottle over and over in a mechanical way. Looking at him, she felt her heart sink. 'Oh my god, here we go again,' she said to herself. Samelson felt a sense of foreboding because she had lived through this once before. Two years earlier, in 1997, her first child Elizabeth started to show the same kind of repetitive behaviour. At about the same age doctors diagnosed her as autistic. In the weeks that followed the incident with the bubbles, Samelson watched helplessly as Adam lost most of his social skills, including language. Three weeks after he showed his first symptom, he was diagnosed with autism. A life-long disability, autism is a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. Autism, and its associated behaviour, typically appears during the first three years of life. Symptoms include no eye contact, no language, no social skills and repetitive and hysterical behaviour. Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. No single cause has been established, although it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain function. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. There has also been much debate about the possibility that autistic disorders are caused by the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, although this is unproven. It is a physiological rather than mental illness. There are no known psychological factors in the development of the child that have been shown to cause autism. Six years living with the condition has turned Samelson from a young mother who had only heard about the disorder from the movie Rainman to an educator of her children and founder of The Children's Institute of Hong Kong. Sitting in the classroom by the beach at Repulse Bay, Samelson looks young and full of energy. She talks incessantly about the prospects that autistic people can enjoy given good education and intervention. 'My philosophy as a parent is that you need to learn how to read, how to write and you need to learn how to do basic maths, and if you can do those basic things, you can be a contributor in the society.' But back in 1997, she refused to accept that her little girl, her first child, was different from other children. 'It was actually my husband who noticed something was wrong before I did. I didn't want to see what was right in front of my face,' Samelson recalled. 'We went to birthday parties, all the children were playing together. Beth would be in her own corner and doing her own things. She cried a lot. She was a very frustrated little girl.' Elizabeth was diagnosed with autism at Matilda Children Development Centre in Hong Kong in July 1997. The family moved to the US in 1999 when Beth was four years old to try to give her the best possible education. At the time of the move Samelson was unaware that Adam was autistic as well - the penny dropped just three weeks later. Tears well up in her eyes when she remembers that day she suspected Adam was autistic. 'It was devastating. Of course I don't want my children to be autistic, but they are and we will deal with it. We love them and autism is part of our lives. It's definitely not the end of the world, by any means. They are happy and fabulous children. I consider myself very lucky. 'Beth is very high-spirited and naughty. She's really into dress-up clothes, looking in the mirror and Disney stuff. Adam is a lot like his father, really quiet. He goes with the flow and is happy to go anywhere doing things.' It was during her stay in the US that Samelson became driven by a new mission. She spent hours on the Internet researching autism, spoke with hundreds of professionals, and drove all over the east coast looking at various schools and programmes educating children with disabilities. She remembers the first time she walked into the classroom at the Teachers' College at Columbia University in New York City, where a technique called Comprehensive Applied Behaviour Analysis to Schooling (Cabas) was used as the curriculum for disabled children. 'All the children were sitting at their desks, and they had teachers one on one. There was not a child crying, they were laughing, having the best time. And they were learning. I could not even believe the information these kids were getting into their heads.' She recalls how a boy was pointing on a map of the US and identifying the capitals of each state. She tells how she watched the teachers working with a girl who had a hard time controlling impulsive behaviour, and going 'this child knows so much', despite her behaviour issues. 'We left there just in shock, we couldn't believe how fabulous it was,' she said. Samelson was determined her children should go to the school and they soon made great progress. 'Elizabeth and Adam thrived in the school and I slept like a baby knowing I was finally providing my children with the best education possible.' But the sleep-filled nights came to a halt when Samelson's husband came home and told her his company wanted them to transfer back to Asia. Although there were several schools offering education to autistic children in Hong Kong, there were long waiting lists, and Samelson was forced to fall back on her own resources. Encouraged by the improvement of her children brought by Cabas, she believed that it could also benefit other children with disabilities, and decided to open her own school. Samelson put her thoughts into action as quickly as she could. She and her family returned to Hong Kong on June 14 and started working on the project the following day. She convinced Dr Douglas Greer, the inventor of Cabas, to allow her to use the curriculum, and Dr Robin Gomez, programme director at the Teachers' College in New York, to travel to Hong Kong four times a year to supervise the programme. Within six weeks, The Children's Institute of Hong Kong was incorporated and had a business registration. She also ran a newspaper advertisement and hired seven teaching assistants. A month ago, the school opened to the public with three students. 'We have a lot of help from people. My thinking on the whole thing is that we are doing a good thing, and when your heart is in the right place things will fall into place,' she said. Samelson has come a long way since the day her life took an unexpected turn, and she has now reconciled herself to the challenge. 'As a young mum, I think there is a lot of maturity you need and I wasn't quite there but I did the best I could. I think if it all happened now, I would probably do it better. You are a little bit older, a little bit wiser,' she said.