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Placement: Health & Disease, Los Angeles
Dad's dream leads to autism research breakthrough
By JENNIFER GEORGE
Chuck Gardner's son Chas hardly slept for the first four years of his life.
Chuck, a general contractor, and his wife Sarah, a television newscaster, took turns staying up to care for their son as he moaned in pain from various gastrointestinal ailments, and couldn't even respond to the sound of his mother's voice.
The cause was autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by severe difficulty interacting with others, poor language skills, violent tantrums and a spectrum of immunological problems.
Their son's autism, according to common wisdom, was their fault. Many people believed that autism was a tragic, untreatable mental disorder caused by bad parenting. Doctors told Chuck that he should find an institution and send Chas away for the rest of his life.
Instead, Chuck decided to take matters into his own hands. The result is the MIND Institute - the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, which is working to help people with a broad array of disorders, including cerebral palsy, Tourette's syndrome and dyslexia.
"We decided we'd be our own doctor," Chuck said. "The more research we did the more obvious it was that this was a medical disorder and there should be some treatment out there. So we set out to find out what 'they' were doing. To our dismay, there was no 'they.'"
Before the MIND Institute, there wasn't much of a coordinated effort on behalf of a cure for autism, and few even thought a cure was possible.
"You were definitely an outcast if you thought your child could be cured," said Chuck. "Even today, some people don't like to use the word cured. If a kid no longer has symptoms of autism, he's called 'recovering.' It's too difficult to cope with, too unfathomable, and you don't want to get your hopes up."
The Gardners, however, never stopped believing. "If you're a parent and you're watching your child suffer night after night you'll go to extremes." Chuck said. "You'll do anything."
The MIND Institute was established by Chuck and three other fathers seeking to create a research institute that would take a multidisciplinary approach to curing autism. The fathers presented their idea to the University of California, Davis, and worked tirelessly to raise the more than $6 million needed to make their dream a reality.
Founded in 1998, the institute includes a clinic specially designed for the needs of autistic children. It also works to educate parents and care providers, and makes research grants to scientists.
Over the past two years the institute's research grants have helped foster discoveries, including recent research by the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program confirming that a predisposition for autism is present at birth. The discovery is a tremendous step forward in the search for a cure for autism.
"I don't use the word 'breakthrough' lightly," program chief Dr. John Harris told the Los Angeles Times, "but that is what this looks like to me. This could potentially have a huge impact on society."
A bill currently under review by the California State Senate would provide the institute with an additional $36 million, raising its annual budget from $4 million to $10 million and allowing it to make expanded research grants. This fall, UC Davis will break ground on a new building for the institute, which will house a school, the clinic and research laboratories.
Chas Gardner, now 8, is beginning to learn a few words, and can even smile and play with his dad.
Chuck Gardner, still actively involved with the institute, is modest about his accomplishments: "To people who say this is extraordinary, I say that if it was your child, you'd do the same thing."
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