Boy Sheds Light on Autism Mysteries

ByABC News via logo
January 15, 2003, 10:34 PM

Jan. 16 -- Imagine your child locked behind a wall of his own words, helpless to communicate, unable to look into your eyes and frantic with odd behaviors fueled by frustration.

That is the reality for the parents of children with autism. Half a million children in the United States are currently diagnosed with autism, for which there is no known cause or cure. The numbers are inexplicably growing.

Half or more of those afflicted with autism will never speak, leaving desperate parents to wonder if, deep inside, there is a child they will ever know. But thanks to one unusual little boy from India, some parents are getting a rare glimpse into the isolated world of autism.

Deep in the heart of India, in a two-room house in the city of Bangalore, the unimaginable took place. Tito Mukhopadhyay, a severely autistic 11-year-old boy, was writing poetry. His language skills proved that, despite his odd behavior, his cognitive mind was alive.

"With the help of my imagination, I can go to places that do not exist and they are like beautiful dreams," Tito wrote in his book of poetry. "But it is a world full of improbability racing toward uncertainty."

Mysterious Rise in Autism

In 1992 there were 250,000 cases of autism in the United States. By 2002, that number had nearly doubled, rising to 425,000. In California, the number of cases of autism has jumped a staggering 273 percent in 10 years.

No one really knows why.

"If you asked a hundred specialists about what could contribute to the increase, you'd get at least 30 or 40 answers," said Dr. Mike Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco.

The average level of intelligence among autistic individuals is unknown because their impaired communication skills make testing of cognitive abilities often nearly impossible.

Theories about what causes autism range from childhood vaccines to delayed development in utero. A Danish study released last year studied 50,000 children given vaccines and 50,000 not vaccinated, and the autism rates were about the same. Still, some cling to the theory that vaccines have something to do with autism.

But as the experts debate, autistic children remain at the heart of it all, which made Tito's case all the more compelling.