Scenes of silence

Erica Walsh

Scene I: The question

Yells and giggles echo across the playground at Basil Griffin Park. Ten boys race from jungle gym to curly slide to merry-go-round, their imaginations moving as fast as their feet.

Off to the side is a girl dressed all in purple. Her chestnut hair has a slight wave that ends just below her shoulders. She stares at the boys, but doesn’t really see them. Her gray eyes are glazed.? ??????????? ???????????

She plays by herself until she runs to her father’s side and uses all her strength to pull him towards the swing.?

She doesn’t say a word, not even a, “Please.”

One of the boys, the one with the curious eyes and a slight lisp, walks over to the father.

“Does she have autism?” he asks.

“Yes, she does,” the father answers. “How did you know?”

The boy shrugs his shoulders. “It takes one to know one.”

Six-year-old Savanah Helton was born with her mother’s gray eyes and her father’s chestnut hair. For the first two-and-a-half years of her life she was as normal as any other toddler. She made messes when she ate and played with her dolls. She was ahead of schedule with speech, learning to talk before other children her age.

But almost a year later, after numerous doctors misdiagnosed her condition, a Louisville pediatrician gave Eugene and Amy Helton the news that, years later, took a ten-year-old boy minutes to figure out.

Eugene, now a Western senior majoring in general studies, was taking a child psychology course in 1999 when Savanah’s disease was diagnosed.? Coincidentally, the week before her first doctor’s appointment, the subject of the class lecture was autism.

It’s a different world the Heltons live in now, something almost out of a Hollywood script. In their life, scenes of fear and grief are littered between moments of triumph and elation.

But in this movie, there are no stand-ins for the difficult scenes.

And after years of practice, the Heltons are still learning what roles to play.

“She’s been a wild teacher,” Eugene says.

Scene II: The cause

Just two days after Savanah’s 15-month immunizations, she’s taking an afternoon nap in her Allen County home. Her parents are in the other room when Savanah emits an earth-shattering shriek.

Eugene and Amy run to their daughter and find her on the kitchen floor curled into a fetal position, screaming.? They try to pick up their daughter and cradle her in their arms, but she howls in pain.

The terrified parents rush Savanah to the pediatrician. By the time they reach the office, Savanah stops screaming. The doctor reassures the parents, checks Savanah out and determines she is just fine. He says it’s probably a tantrum: Savanah is cutting teeth.

Eugene and Amy take her home. Their daughter begins withdrawing from them.

Autism is a severely disabling disorder that usually appears within the first two-and-a-half years of life. Since the early 1990’s, cases have increased more than 1,300 percent. The Autism Research Institute, or ARI, now estimates that 60 out of every 10,000 children have some form of the disease.

The reasons for the increase are still being debated, but some researchers make a strong case for the over vaccinations of infants, according to the ARI Web site.

The Heltons believe Savanah’s autism was triggered by the required vaccine for measles. She didn’t begin showing any symptoms until just after the MMR shots.

“You can’t convince us that’s not what happened,” Amy says.

ARI says there has been no conclusive research on the subject. But try telling that to a first-time father who was just getting used to hearing his baby’s voice.

“Daddy” was the first word Savanah said.? After she was diagnosed, Eugene had to wait two years before she said, “Daddy” again.

Scene III: The smiley face

Eugene is volunteering as a helper at Allen County Primary School one morning as the teacher tries to help Savanah with her art.

The teacher draws a?circle on a piece of white paper and urges Savanah to draw a smiley face. Savanah looks up with pencil in hand and nonchalantly places a small, dark spot in the circle.

Eugene thinks it’s a coincidence. Then the teacher asks Savanah to draw in the other eye. Savanah’s tiny hand pushes the pencil and adds another spot, and then a crooked smile. Eugene’s eyes begin to tear. It’s the first time since her diagnosis that Savanah has followed directions.

According to the Center for the Study of Autism, an autistic child often has trouble listening to adults. They typically don’t make eye contact or listen when their name is called, and they have trouble following verbal directions.

An autistic child may stare into space for hours. Many can’t communicate.

Both sides of Savanah’s brain work, Eugene says, but the side that understands what people are asking has trouble telling the other side to do what they say.

“It just hurts when you don’t know what they want,” Eugene said. “Amy has much more patience with it than I do.”

There’s no cure for autism, even though some of the symptoms may fade as a child grows. Still, most autistic children will carry some symptoms throughout their entire lives.

The crude pencil sketch is framed and placed on top of Eugene and Amy’s dresser so its first thing they see when they wake up in the morning.

It reminds them to live for the little things.

Scene IV: The park

On a cool, cloudy October afternoon this year, Eugene and Savanah meet fellow members of an Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome support group and their children at Basil Griffin Park.

Amy was supposed to have come and baked a cake, but she got called in to work. Eugene doesn’t mind, because he and Savanah love the park.

Of all the children gathered, Savanah is the only girl.

Dr. Stephen M. Edelson of the Center for the Study of Autism in Salem, Ore., says autism is three times more likely to affect males than females.

Being a girl isn’t the only thing separating Savanah from the other children on the playground. She is also the only child who can’t communicate with anyone there. Eugene watches her closely to see how she will?react to the other families.

She plays alone for a while then runs to her father’s side. She keeps close to Eugene for the rest of the afternoon.

Ten-year-old Jacob Brennenstuhl arrives at the park at the same time as the Heltons. Jacob has Asperger’s syndrome, a disease similar to autism, but less disabling.

Savanah has a more severe form of the disease. While she communicates in shrieks and clicks, Jacob rattles off vocabulary words better than some high school sophomores.

Jacob watches Savanah grab Eugene’s hand and drag him towards the swings. She laughs and clicks her tongue as she flies higher and higher.

Jacob turns to Eugene as he pushes Savanah.

“Is that your little girl?” he asks.

Eugene smiles. “Yes, she sure is.”

“Well, she’s very pretty,” Jacob says, then turns and walks towards the balance beam.

Eugene looks at his daughter. His eyes gleam with fatherly pride.

“I love that boy already and I don’t even know him,” he says.

Betty Brennenstuhl, Jacob’s mother, leads the Helton’s support group.

She remembers the desperation in Amy’s voice when she made the call to find out about joining.

Usually, Brennenstuhl recommends that parents of children with Savanah’s level of autism attend a support group held in Glasgow for parents of lower-functioning children.

But something about the Heltons was different.

“We thought we could help them,” she said. “They seemed so eager and determined.”

Maybe that’s where Savanah gets her spunk.

Scene V: The chase

Eugene is in the living room. Amy walks in wrinkling her brow.

The house is quiet. Too quiet. There’s no sound coming from Savanah’s room, and there’s no rustling in the kitchen, as happens sometimes when she’s searching for a snack.

“Is Savanah in here?” Amy asks.

Eugene shakes his head no. He releases the footrest on his armchair.

Amy checks the bedrooms and kitchen and finds an open door. Within seconds, Eugene is up and out the front door. Amy is already searching the backyard.

For a few tense seconds, Savanah has vanished. Suddenly Eugene spies her around the side of the house. When she sees him, she only smiles and runs faster.

Eugene returns, Savanah slung over his shoulder. He’s out of breath, and she’s laughing.

“She loves getting chased,” Amy says. “She thought it was a game.”

Sometimes Eugene gets frustrated with his daughter.

Children with autism can throw uncontrollable tantrums, show no interest in people and complete strange, repeated activities with no apparent purpose, according to ARI.

Savanah jumps from couch to couch with no regard to the glass coffee table in between.

“She has no perception of danger, either,” Amy adds, eying the table.

While Amy is the one Savanah turns to when she’s hungry or thirsty or needs a hug, Eugene is there for the fun and games.

Eugene has worked with special needs children before, and is also interested in premarital counseling. He says communication is the key to any relationship, whether it’s friendship, marriage or parenting.

That’s why his daughter’s disease hurts him so much.

“It’s painful,” he says, his eyes welling with tears. “It’s like trying to talk to somebody through a big, thick, glass wall.”

Amy and Eugene have discussed having another child, but they’ve decided against it for now.

“It scares us to think we’d have another one like that,” Amy says.

“Sometimes it feels like a sentence,” Eugene says. “But then I think ‘If this is what God wanted for me, then it will help me be a better man and a better daddy.'”

Scene VI: The theme song

One afternoon after school Savanah is lying on her back in front of the television in her bedroom, fast forwarding the video with her toes and singing in perfect unison with the cartoon characters on the screen.

Eugene calls her name. He has a surprise. She doesn’t break her stare.

He walks into the room and picks her up. She screeches with anger until they reach the living room.

The Disney version of Tarzan is on TV. As Amy sits smiling quietly on the couch, Savanah grins and runs around the room, leaping from the couch to Eugene’s arms as the characters on the screen romp through the jungle.

Eugene gives a half-smile.

“It’s like she’s stuck in her own world and we can’t get through,” he says.

The movie reaches Savanah’s favorite part. Kala, a gorilla who will become his mother, has just rescued baby Tarzan.

Savanah squeals and jumps into Eugene’s arms, reenacting the scene. Eugene looks down and locks eyes with his daughter. She reaches up and wraps her arms around his neck as Amy places a cautious hand on Savanah’s back. Savanah holds her position for a few fleeting seconds.

Music fills the room. She squeals and places her hands over her ears.

“Put your faith in what you most believe in,

Two worlds, one family.

Trust your heart,

Let fate decide

To guide these lives we see.”

Eugene pauses the movie. Savanah has lost interest. She hums the theme song over and over as she tiptoes down the hall.

Eugene and Amy watch her exit. Off camera, out of the spotlight, they hope that fate will guide her to a happy ending.