Two women from different worlds both have children with Autism. Janice Murray was living in New- York in 1961. She had several healthy children, but her son Chris did not receive enough oxygen at birth. Years later Chris was diagnosed with autism. Dalia Shkedy’s son Ethan was diagnosed with autism at eighteen months old. He went through the public school system, received therapy forty hours a week, but after 12,000 hours of treatment, Dalia was told her nine-year-old son was MR mentally retarded and had the intelligence of a six-month-old. Ethan couldn’t recognize A B C’s, or the numbers 1,2,3, but their stories didn’t end there because these mothers didn’ t give up. Instead, they tapped into their endless reserve of love, defied the experts, and gave what Janice Murray refers to as an “abundance of love” to their kids.
I spoke to Janice’s son Tom Murray, a documentary filmmaker whose critically acclaimed movie Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon, tells the remarkable story of his brother Chris and shares his touching bond with his mom. About his mom, Tom told me “ I think it was not only strength that carried her through, but the belief that there was more going on with Chris than he was letting on.” Tom’s said his mother often said of his brother,“ he never looked dull, or unaware.” Janice’s instincts told her to disregard a number of New York psychiatrists who said: “He’ll never amount to anything put him in an institution.” According to Tom, the main reason his mom didn’t listen to the doomsday experts was “absolute, unconditional love.”
Currently, an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder. When Chris was born in 1961, the whites of his eyes were totally red - a sign of oxygen deprivation. Recent laboratory studies have shown that oxygen deprivation is a cause leading to autism. In the early 1960’s treatment for autism was still experimental. The Murray family children participated in some of Chris’s treatment. Tom said, “those daily patterning sessions not only brought us together as a family, united to do all we could to help our brother, but they also imbued in all of us a lifetime concern and sensitivity for anyone challenged by any kind of handicap.” Mom Janice showed strength against the odds. “Even if she didn't know what she was dealing with--and she didn't know for a very long time--her way of dealing with that was to love Chris, and do all she could do to allow him to achieve every bit of the potential she believed was within him.” Tom recounted.
Psychologists have debated nature versus nurture for centuries, and the jury is still out, but I can tell you that Chris Murray lives independently, is gainfully employed with three jobs. He only needed one, but he likes all three. Chris is a professional artist whose paintings of New York City landscapes captured the eye of Gloria Vanderbilt an astute collector. Chris has been selling his art in a New York Gallery for years, and for fun, he works in a hospital and a supermarket. He doesn’t have to, but again he likes working there.
Dalia’s son Ethan wasn’t communicating, he would have fits, San Diego public schools had given up on him, but Dalia didn’t. “At that point, we were working with one of the biggest ABA - autism agencies in the country and one day I decided to work with Ethan. I tried teaching him and to my amazement, he was learning many whole words. I was excited to tell the supervisor of the agency about my breakthrough. She looked me in the eye and said: “you do what you want to do and we the professionals, will do what we know what to do.” It was at that point that I knew that if I did not take things into my own hands, the professionals would continue disabling my son and “prove” to me that he is MR (mentally retarded). That was the day we decided to homeschool Ethan.” Following her intuition and homeschooling her son who is non-verbal autistic was met with opposition from both family and friends.
“When I first decided to homeschool Ethan, everyone thought I was nuts. They figured that I was in denial and should just face the truth that my son was not able. They were so entrenched in their methodologies that they could not comprehend a world where the child was capable and their methods were flawed. So, before you homeschool your child, be prepared for the naysayers and the armchair generals. They will all tell you why it will not work. Once you start homeschooling, the first thing I would advise doing is relax and take it slow. This is a marathon and not a sprint.”Dalia created her own lesson plans for Ethan, experimenting to find what worked.
“In the beginning, my biggest concern was what to teach Ethan, especially how to teach him communication. There was no curriculum and no published materials. Once we discovered the right way to teach him, he was like a “sponge” and was learning for 6 to 8 hours a day and I was up every night preparing materials for the next day. I was inspired/encouraged and didn’t mind working all night so that the next day Ethan would have new material to learn. I was tired but excited that he was finally learning.”
As Ethan learned the fits subsided. He could communicate with a tablet writing his thoughts and feelings. He progressed to learn high school level math. He can go to a restaurant and order food on his own. He is happy and enjoys life. As for his mom, she founded a tutoring center Alternative- Teaching Strategy Center in San Diego with her husband specializing in educating non-verbal autistic students. Their methods are now being recognized and implemented in San Diego Public Schools.
Tom Murray’s documentary Dad’s In Heaven with Nixon is dedicated to his mom Janice “To Mom Who Never Stopped Believing.” There is something special, powerful, unyielding about a mother’s love. When asked about his late mother's devotion to her children Tom Murray said it best, “I'll only say that unconditional love can and does allow miracles to happen.”
It can make miracles happen, and surely every child can reach their true potential with a mother’s love.
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