By Daniel J. Vance


  Chris Messina of Berea, Ohio, dearly loves his son Andrew. "But I'm frustrated sometimes because I have been patiently waiting for him to say 'Dad,' and the words just aren't there," Chris said to me last week after a Joni and Friends retreat for families affected by disabilities. "And it's frustrating when he's sick and he can't communicate what's wrong."

  Andrew is, according to his dad, "severely" autistic. At 13 he does not talk, but he does differ from most severely autistic persons in that he can give and receive affection.

  The Autism Society of America (ASA) calls autism a "complex developmental disability" that arises from a neurological disorder affecting brain functioning in the areas of social interaction, and verbal and non-verbal communication. Its severity varies widely from person to person.

  ASA estimates that autism affects up to 1.5 million Americans, and at current rates the number could increase to 4 million by 2020. In California alone the number of children diagnosed with full-syndrome autism doubled from 1999-2002. Boys are four times more prone. The annual rate of growth during the last decade has been in double digits. If it were a communicable disease the government would call its spread an epidemic.

  No cause or causes are known, though genetics and childhood vaccines are key suspects. There is no known cure.

  "Very few people (out in public places) have a clue what is going on with Andrew," Messina said. "People look at us and through their body language wonder why we can't control him."

  When standing in place Andrew rocks back and forth, and he's always reaching for objects, regardless of how many times his father tells him no. He can be noisy in a restaurant or library, and when he doesn't calm down, "we just have to leave," said Messina.

  Andrew attends school at a "developmental center" in northern Ohio, where he receives music and occupational therapy.

  Despite the frustrations and awkward social situations his son places him in, Messina reiterated that he dearly loves his son. "As for Andrew, he's really a joy to be around," he said. "He's a good-natured boy. He knows he's loved immensely and he returns it in kind."

  As for raising a child with autism, he said, "These kids don't ask for a lot, and they don't have high expectations. They just want to know they are loved."

  For more information, visit www.autism-society.org or www.danieljvance.com.