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GSHS students learn about autism from two caring dads

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – What could a retired legend of the National Football League and a British-born horse enthusiast have in common?

For one thing, Rodney Peete and Rupert Isaacson each has a son beset by the challenges of autism, a spectrum of brain disorders that is estimated to affect one out of every 88 children in the U.S. today.

For another, they both spoke to a crowd of 10th-graders at Glenwood Springs High School on Monday, April 2, the third observance of World Autism Day.



“I think it was just great to have two men sharing their thoughts and feelings about the issue,” said Allison Johnson, co-founder of the Roaring Fork Autism Network, one of the sponsoring agencies that brought Peete and Isaacson to the valley.

Other sponsors included the Extreme Sports Camp Network, in Basalt, and the Autism Treatment Network, operating on the Front Range.



Johnson noted that over the past few decades, many of the activists pushing for research and treatments for autism have been women.

“But I think the men need support, too,” she said.

Among the methods of commemorating the event was the Light It Up Blue campaign, which involved bathing in blue light a large number of iconic buildings, ranging from the Hungarian Parliament Building to the New York Stock Exchange, Sydney Opera House in Australia, Bahrain World Trade Center in Manama, Bahrain, and the Al Faisaliyah Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The blue lights also drenched some of the world’s natural wonders, such as Aspen Mountain and Niagara Falls, as a precursor to presentations such as the one at GSHS.

Peete, who spoke first to roughly 200 students, rattled off the names of at least five NFL teams he played for over a 16-year career. He wore the jerseys of, in no particular order, the Dallas Cowboys, the Oakland Raiders, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins and the Carolina Panthers.

As the students sat in nearly complete silence, paying rapt attention to Peete’s remarks, he spoke of his childhood trailing after his dad, a professional football coach, to games and into locker rooms, to training camps and other fabled venues of the game.

“The one thing I definitely wanted to do,” he said, “was give my son the same experience.”

He married actress Holly Robinson (who appeared on the original “21 Jump Street”), and the first addition to their family turned out to be twins, a boy and a girl.

By the age of 2, their son, Rodney Jackson Peete, began regressing, losing the ability to speak what few words he had learned, withholding eye contact with his parents and “spending more and more time alone. His focus was gone, and it kept getting worse.”

The youngster was diagnosed with autism, and for a year the family struggled with the situation, particularly Peete himself.

“The reason was, I didn’t educate myself,” he told the students. “I knew I had to change. I wanted to understand. But to really understand, I needed to look at the world through his eyes, not my eyes.”

So he learned, he connected with his son, and he started talking to others about what he and his family had gone through.

Now 14, Rodney is in a mainstream school, playing team sports and learning about girls.

Isaacson, born in Britain but now living in Texas, has a very different story, but with a similar ending so far.

That story is chronicled in a book and movie titled, “The Horse Boy.”

Isaacson explained to the students that autism was much more rare when he was a young boy, when perhaps two in 10,000 were diagnosed with the disease, compared to one in 88 today.

“So that does mean, quite a lot of you are going to be autism parents,” he said.

Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, were struggling to deal with the difficulties of life with an autistic child when two unconnected developments occurred.

The son, Rowan, was experiencing “demonic” tantrums, speechlessness and incontinence. At a horse ranch one day, Isaacson put his son on a horse after witnessing what seemed to be an instantaneous rapport between Rowan and the “boss mare.”

The boy instantly calmed down, his troublesome behaviors disappeared, and he started speaking, Isaacson said.

Some time later, Isaacson took his son along on a visit to a conference of African shamanic healers, in connection with Isaacson’s work as a travel writer.

A shaman worked on Rowan, the boy improved for a short time, and Isaacson spent a few months looking for a place where he could find a horse culture that adhered to shamanic traditions.

“That turned out to be Mongolia,” he told his audience – the place where the horse was first domesticated, and where shamans remain a dominant cultural force.

Crossing the vast and isolated country on horseback, “visiting shaman after shaman,” Isaacson and Neff watched their son’s symptoms diminish.

Now 10 years old, Rowan is learning and interacting, but he still is not socially adept and still is exhibiting signs of autism.

But, the proud father said, Rowan recently conceived a television show about endangered species that is about to go into production.

“It’s all about animals with him,” Isaacson said.

“The reason we are here,” Rodney Peete told his entranced audience, “is because it is about awareness, it is about tolerance.”

He urged students to get up and move when they see a student sitting in a corner, alone, not communicating.

“Bring him into your group, bring him over to your lunch table, say hello,” he said. “Educate yourself, and you’ll find the gifts that each one of these kids has to offer.”

Isaacson, at the end of his talk, told the students, “You have to start to exercise the muscle of human kindness. Try learning to be a champion to the kids you have amongst you. You demonstrate a certain kindness, which also shows a certain strength.”

The events surrounding World Autism Day are meant to raise awareness as well as money to fund research and treatment.

To donate, visit the website lightitupblueaspen.org, or call the Extreme Sports Camp Network at 927-3143.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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