Parents give thanks for autistic son

Instead of bowing to news of little hope, couple rejoice in child's accomplishments

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE - For some parents, a child diagnosed with autism brings fear and uncertainty. But for Rick and Marisa Bentley, their autistic 6-year-old son is a daily blessing.

The Bentleys know their attitude is different than that of other parents who have a child with autism. They don't attend clinics or sessions nor do they believe they were given a challenging situation.

Instead, they're genuinely grateful to have their autistic son, Lincoln, in their lives and feel they would be different otherwise.

"It's not easy to have a son with autism, but we're feeling how grateful we are instead of how hard it is to have a child with autism," Rick Bentley said. "We spend a lot more time being grateful for what we have and what he's doing than what he has."

Lincoln, a blond-haired boy whose eyes brighten at the sight of his mother, was 15 months old when his parents realized his vocabulary and behavior had increasingly regressed since he turned 1. By 18 months, he was diagnosed as severely autistic, a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.
At the time of diagnosis, doctors told the Bentleys, "Good luck, there is nothing you can do for him," Marisa Bentley said.

"They even mentioned that there are group homes for when he gets older," she added, lowering her eyes.

Autism affects one in every 166 births, usually boys before the age of 3, according to the Autism Society of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, with a 10 percent to 17 percent annual growth rate.

From December 1998 to December 2002, the number of people with autism in California's Developmental Services System nearly doubled, an unexpected and unexplained rise in the number of persons with autism.

Before Lincoln turned 2, his behavior quickly depicted the traits of autism. He kept to himself, had limited, if any, vocabulary and seldom uttered sounds. He spent hours making repetitive movements, such as stacking toy animals, lining them up or continuously hitting vertical blinds.

But Marisa Bentley had hope for her son.

The sun also rises

Before moving to Travis Air Force Base 3.5 years ago, the Bentleys lived in Las Vegas, where they learned through a friend of a program called Son-Rise Program, a home-based, child-centered program emphasizing acceptance of an autistic child's behavior.

"We help the child create a desire to connect with people first rather than teaching abstract or academics," said Cat Houghton, a Son-Rise teacher at the founding facility in Sheffield, Mass. "Once they are connected and excited, we can teach them the other things, like academics."

Son-Rise was developed three decades ago when Barry Neil Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman were told their son, Raun, had severe autism.

Instead of succumbing to the news of little hope, the couple created a program that would enable them to enter their son's world through love and acceptance. Raun would later graduate from Brown University and become director of the Autism Treatment Center of America, a nonprofit which opened its doors in 1983 to persons with autism.

Although the program doesn't have scientific studies to back their success stories - studies are currently being done at the University of Lancaster in Northern England and won't be available for a couple of years - the Bentleys are firm believers and say they have seen a significant improvement in Lincoln.

"We tried school but we were not interested in a child who is compliant and can sit and listen," Marisa Bentley said. She has already spent more than $20,000 in the program. "Instead, we want a child who we could have a relationship with. What more could you ask for?"

Today, Lincoln can spell various words, such as "dinosaur," "complex" and "Lion King" and can do addition, although Marisa Bentley confessed to not teaching him the fundamentals of math.

He can say more than 1,000 words and makes complete eye contact with his family members, she added.

More importantly, Lincoln's social skills are greatly improving, a blessing his parents count continuously.

"As a father, the most rewarding thing is for Lincoln to want to be with me by grabbing my hand, taking me to wherever he's playing, whatever," said Rick Bentley, who lives at Travis Air Force Base. "Getting to know him has been the coolest thing."

The Bentleys are looking for volunteers to help with Lincoln. They can be reached at 437-7924.

Information on the Son-Rise program can be found at