One father shares his story of how he helped his autistic son connect with the world, and how it inspired him to help others like him.
By Jack Howarth
One in 68 kids in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and my son Brandon is one of them. Brandon’s ASD was very serious, and he was completely nonverbal. As a parent, you want your kids to be happy, but my son didn’t engage with smiles, nor did he return them. He didn’t get excited the way a normal baby would get excited, but instead would just hold out his arms and shake. The neurologist told us he would never be a normal functioning person.
We didn’t know what to do, particularly because back in the 80s, when Brandon was diagnosed, we knew even less about autism than we do now. My wife at the time tried to institutionalize him. As soon as I found out, I rushed to the hospital and demanded they release my son back to me. The next day my wife had packed her bags, and that’s how I became a single father of two boys, the older of whom had autism, and the younger of whom was still in diapers. I wasn’t going to give up on my boy. I knew my son was bright, that he was trapped inside of himself and needed help to get out.
I’ve always worked as a technician, and I can debug computers down to a component level. At the time I worked for IBM, and I brought Brandon in to see the computers. I had access to incredibly advanced technology at the time, and I built a digital version of a human on a computer screen. Brandon would sit in front of it for hours as it talked about facial expressions over and over, teaching him by sheer repetition. I wasn’t a psychologist. I was just a dad doing whatever I could think of to help my son.
Gradually, Brandon learned to communicate and speak. He started by using signs and abbreviations (for instance, he called a Ferris wheel “buckets away”). I didn’t let him keep these crutches, though. I knew he knew how to speak. I incorporated more and more vocabulary into his digital lessons. I would have the digital person repeat words and sentences over and over, and his communication improved even more. We also did a lot of science experiments at home, and Brandon loved them. Even my younger boy, Mark, appreciated them. Every day was a lesson in communication and connecting to the world around us.
Today Brandon is 39, and he owns his own business manufacturing wine cellars and installing them in people’s homes. He still has his quirks, but he’s an extremely focused young man, and incredibly intelligent. He’s taught himself many incredible skills, including playing the piano and speaking Mandarin. (He can also code in Mandarin,) All of Brandon’s friends on the autism spectrum are similarly brilliant (one is converting his Honda to run on steam). I believe all kids with ASD have this kind of potential, and letting that potential go untapped is like letting a diamond sit around unpolished. I think one of these kids will find the cure for cancer. One of them will find the solution to endless energy.
As a parent who used technology to help my child who was deemed non-functioning, I was fascinated when I discovered the work RoboKind was doing with their Robots4Autism curriculum. It was very similar to the program I created for my boy (of course mine was more rudimentary). I watched the video of Cole they have on their website and I cried like a baby. I thought, “I’ve got to be part of this.”
When it comes to kids diagnosed with ASD, Milo is the ambassador from our world to theirs. After I had been hired by RoboKind, I was doing a demo at a school. It was in a gymnasium, and there were kids running around everywhere while I showed the adults how Milo worked. Milo gave his usual introduction: “Hello! My name is Milo. How are you?” A young boy ran right up to him and responded, “Hi, my name’s Noah.” The teachers behind me started weeping. Noah had never spoken a word until then. Noah’s mom called the school that night overjoyed, asking about her son’s new friend, Milo.
As a parent, nothing makes me happier than to see my boy succeed. I want every kid like him to succeed, too. As a society, I don’t think we can afford to not help these kids. For one thing, if they can’t become contributing members of society, the money to take care of them in adulthood is going to come out of our pockets. Even more importantly we want these kids to be productive members of society because each one has something incredible to offer, if only we can give them the ability to share it.
Jack Howarth is a regional sales manager at RoboKind.