Family's Struggle: All Six Kids Are Autistic

Each of the Kirtons' children has a different type of autism.


Feb. 5, 2008— -- Autism is a difficult diagnosis for any parent. For Robin and John Kirton, it's difficulty times six.

Each of their six children suffers from a different form of the disorder, which affects an estimated one in 150 American children. It's an incredibly rare occurrence that, experts say, points to something in the genes.

Studies have shown that if one child has autism, the chance of the next sibling having it is only about 15 percent.

"They've rolled the dice six times and have a child each time with autism. That's really uncommon," explains Dr. Gary Goldstein of the Kennedy Krieger Institute for pediatric research and treatment.

After reading about the Kirton's inspiring story in People magazine, "Good Morning America" decided to visit the Utah family to find out just how they cope.

"We worry about them, where they're going to be 10, 20 years in the future," says John. Together, he and Robin navigate the diverse world of autism, and deal with each child's individual condition.

Shy and Awkward

Bobby, the oldest at 14, has Aspergers, a high functioning form of autism that his teachers started noticing in the 5th grade.

"He just would not speak up. If he wasn't sure about something, he just wouldn't ask. He was like a fly on the wall, and would just sit back and not do things ... we didn't know any better, we just thought he was quiet," explains John.

With the help of his school, Bobby has been able to thrive, academically, but is often lost when it comes to social and behavioral skills, shying away from other kids on the playground, unsure of how to make friends.

"He doesn't engage in back and forth conversations with people. It's mainly one-sided on his side, whatever interests him mainly," says John.

Anxiety, Tantrums, Meltdowns

The next oldest children, 9-year-old Emma and 8-year-old Nephi, have more severe Aspergers.

Unlike their older brother, they are prone to anxiety, temper tantrums and extreme fixations with a specific object.

Nephi is "somewhat like Emma, where he has the meltdowns at school, as well," according to John. "He has hit [others] before, also, so he and Emma are very similar in that respect. Varying levels, different things upset him, though he's not as anxious as Emma. Nephi doesn't quite worry as much as she does."

"Just the little things will set her off, and we never know what things will set her off, and when," Robin explains.

"In school, she'll get upset about the most trivial thing that wouldn't bother a kid half her age, and she'll just start crying, burst out in tears, sometimes she'll cry out loud, wail. Sometimes she will strike other children, she'll hit," says Robin.

"She has a very difficult time transitioning from one activity to the next, and will sometimes have fits, bouts of aggression over it, because it upsets her so much to not be able to finish."

Non-Verbal, Classic Autism

At the other end of the spectrum are 6-year-old Sarah and 4-year-old Ammon. With a diagnosis of classic autism, both are completely non-verbal, and have wreaked havoc on the Kirtons' home.

Both have to be diapered with extra tape, and their clothes put on backwards to prevent them from putting their hands inside their dirty diapers.

"She's not potty trained, she's 6 years old, and she's not potty trained," says John. "She does a lot of screaming, that's how she communicates."

"We have to strap Sarah in when she eats, because otherwise, she'll just bounce around, so, in order to get her to sit there and finish a meal, I have to strap her in," explains Robin.

Ammon used to rock in a recliner so violently that he once flipped himself over, and would spend hours and hours shredding paper.

"He sways his head and bobs, and when he's in the bathtub, he likes to pour water continuously over his head and watch the water fall. He flaps his hands, and he moves his head," says John.


With the least severe form of autism, called PDD-NOS, 3-year-old Mary is the youngest of the brood.

"She's about a year delayed with her language. She's also emotionally behind, as well. She gets upset and has these little meltdowns, as well. She does a little bit of hand flapping," says Robin.

How could this happen to all six?

"The current feeling is, it's a combination of genetic risk and some environmental risk that either determines what kind of autism the child has, or how severe the autism is," explains Goldstein.

No matter how severe the autism, this disorder can be financially crippling for families. The average cost of caring for just one autistic child is $500 a month.

"The biggest factor that is holding us back, and a lot of autistic parents, is being able to afford to try different things, because there are some methods out there that cost a tremendous amount of money," explains John.

Feeling Incredibly Blessed

Despite the challenges that daily life with six autistic children can bring, John and Robin say they feel incredibly blessed to have them.

"They're just so wonderful in their own unique ways, and we accept them and love them for who they are, and they just bring so much joy into our lives, and we just love being their parents," says Robin.

"We do love them, and want to take care of them, and just hope for a better day to make their lives easier," says John.

Blogging For Support

The Kirton family has also started a Web site, a sort of cyber support group for parents of autistic children. Click here to visit their site

Click here to read more about autism from the Kennedy Kreiger Institute.