INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP -- The rates of autism in children have
risen 700 percent nationally and more than 1,500 percent in Michigan since
1992, according to a recent study, and no one in the medical industry or
government knows why.
But Gary and Rose Lannen may have come up with their own solution to
Two years ago, their son, Sean, then 3, could not speak. He growled at
strangers. He wouldn't let his parents or anyone else touch him.
He was eventually diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a
milder form of autism.
Now, Sean, 5, talks and acts like any normal kindergartner as he greets
a stranger who knocks on his front door.
"These are my brothers, Robert, Thomas and David," said Sean, making
the introductions of the other boys in his Independence Township home.
"But there are no girls here."
His parents won't go so far as to say that Sean has been cured of
autism, a neurological disorder that some authorities say has reached
epidemic proportions in recent years.
"We like to say he's on the road to recovery," Rose Lannen said.
While Sean Lannen's experience is not unheard of, it is unusual, said
Dr. Catherine Lord, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director
of the Unviersity of Michigan's Autism and Communication Disorders Center.
The autism center has about 200 autistic children from across the
country under long-term study. Sean Lannen is not part of the study.
"We probably have 10 kids in that group whose parents would say, 'Look,
they don't have autism anymore.' But when I see them, I see remnants of
autism," Lord said.
Rebecca Landa, a speech-language pathologist and autism expert at the
Kennedy Krieger Center of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, cautioned
that parents of other autistic children should not get their hopes up.
"I've had a couple of cases (like Sean's), but only a very small
minority of these children (can appear normal)," she said. "People are
seeking a cure. But there isn't one."
The Lannens say Sean is making progress toward recovery because they
put him on a gluten- and dairy-free diet and enrolled him in an intensive,
behavior-therapy program recommended by, among others, the Autism Research
Institute of San Diego.
The institute's director and father of an autistic son, research
psychologist Bernard Rimland, admits much of his program is not accepted
by mainstream doctors.
"Only a small fraction of autistic kids recover because only a small
fraction of parents follow this procedure," Rimland said. "Traditional
doctors will tell you that's nonsense, but that's because they're
As recently as the early 1990s, only about one in every 2,500 children
was diagnosed as autistic. Some researchers are suggesting the current
rate is as high as one in 150.
The apparent explosion in autism cases has produced speculation over a
possible environmental cause. Some parents have blamed vaccines, despite a
Danish study that said the vaccines given to young children appear to be
Other experts say the definition of autism, which was first described
in the 1940s, has been medically broadened to include many related
conditions. Also, public schools are being required to offer more services
to autistic children.
An often-referenced California study showed the number of children
diagnosed with autism in that state more than tripled from 1987-1998. A
follow-up study released last year showed the numbers continuing to climb.
An Internet newsletter on autism, The Schafer Report, quotes U.S.
Department of Education data that show the number of Michigan children
diagnosed by their public schools as autistic has risen from 12,222 in
1992 to 97,847, an increase of 701 percent.
Public schools in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties say the number of
children enrolled in their autistic programs has more than doubled since
Gary and Rose Lannen say Sean was developing normally as a toddler. His
behavior changed after he received a series of common children
immunizations about age 2.
"You couldn't get near him," Gary Lannen recalls. "If strangers came
into the house, he would hide. He wouldn't play with his toys, but he
would walk around all day with the same toy."
The first few doctors who examined Sean gave his parents no
One doctor told the couple that Sean would be fine if they waited
another six months.
But the Lannens took a proactive approach. They read books on autism,
conducted research on the Internet and contacted the Oakland County
chapter of the Autism Society of America.
One of the first changes they made was to remove dairy and
gluten-containing foods -- wheat, oats, barley and rye -- from Sean's
"There was an amazing change in Sean's behavior after only a couple of
weeks on the new diet," Rose Lannen recalled.
However, autism experts Lord and Landa say there is no scientific
evidence that nutritional changes have any effect on autistic symptoms.
The Lannens also enrolled Sean in the fall 2000 in the newly opened
Early Interaction Center in Birmingham.
Jennifer Wiessner, the local center's executive director, said Sean
Lannen was one of the first three autistic children accepted by the center
-- and its first graduate.
"When Sean first came into our clinic, he had no verbal language, but
he growled," Wiessner recalled. She described the kind of progress that he
has made since then as "pretty rare."
"You have to catch it early enough, and you have to have the treatment
intensive enough, and you have to do it the right way," Wiessner said.
Sixteen children are now enrolled in the Birmingham clinic.
Therapy costs the center about $6,000 per month, per child.
Scholarships and fund-raisers bring the cost for each family down to
$4,000 a month.
Sean Lannen was a 30-hours-a-week patient of the clinic for several
months, and then was a part-time patient from February 2001 until last
September. His parents estimate the treatment there cost them about
$50,000. Savings and generous relatives paid the bills.
Now, Sean attends a regular kindergarten class at his neighborhood
elementary school. But his parents say he has a long road ahead.
You can reach Mike Wowk at (586) 468-0343 or mwowk@ detnews.com.