Travolta's Blackmail Trial Spurs Autism Debate

John Travolta's testimony in extortion case has won him support and criticism.

ByABC News
September 28, 2009, 7:13 PM

Sept. 29, 2009— -- John Travolta is expected back in the Bahamas this week to testify in an extortion case against two people accused of trying to blackmail the actor for $25 million following the tragic death of his teenage son in January.

Travolta recounted in last week's testimony how he tried to revive Jett, 16, who had fallen after a seizure in a family vacation home on Grand Bahama island.

The actor also publicly acknowledged -- for what is believed to be the first time -- that Jett had autism. News of the testimony sparked an ambivalent reaction from the autism community.

"I ran downstairs with my wife to help my son," Travolta said Sept. 24, according to The Associated Press. In his testimony, he said he and his wife Kelly Preston were awakened by a nanny around 10:15 a.m. Jan. 2, 2009, the day of Jett's death. Travolta said when he went downstairs, another caretaker was doing chest compressions and he began administering breathing help.

The actor testified that his son Jett was autistic and suffered seizures every five to 10 days. He said the seizures would last 45 seconds to a minute and Jett typically slept for 12 hours after each one. "He was autistic. He suffered from a seizure disorder," Travolta told the jury when asked about his son's condition.

"It didn't really come as a surprise for people," said Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, who said she and many others who work in autism awareness saw signs of the disorder in news footage of Jett.

"But I've read some things that really bother me -- basically that they should have come forward sooner, said Fournier. "Everybody handles autism in the best way that they can and for whatever personal reasons they had, they chose not to make it public."

"Just because you have a child with autism and you're a celebrity, it does not automatically mandate you to be a spokesperson for the disorder," she said. "I feel bad for them, I really truly do."

Still, on blogs and in formal press releases, other activists and parents of children with autism felt abandoned by a family with so much celebrity power.

"John Travolta finally admitted to what everyone else in the world already knew!! Jett had autism!! WOW!! Thank You!! That was like pulling teeth!!" wrote a blogging family on the nonprofit Autism One Web site.

"Why did Mr. Travolta admit to it now?? To increase autism awareness? No, I don't think so," the author of the Robert and Sandy Waters blog continued.

In the past, Preston had said Jett suffered from Kawasaki disease, a rare condition in children that involves inflammation of the blood vessels.

While some parents begrudged the Travoltas for the delayed public announcement of Jett's autism, many more felt the news of Jett's seizures had struck a chord.

"The Travoltas are suffering right now from a tragedy that could affect anyone," said Rebecca Estepp, national manager for Talk About Curing Autism (TACA).

"It's very frightening with kids with autism -- when they're hitting puberty and they're having a terrible time with seizures," said Estepp. "We've heard of several children passing away with seizures lately."