I saw a 60 Minutes segment last night re: a doctor researching and trying to establish criteria for diagnosing at 12 months of age. It was encouraging. If you missed it, I believe it can be viewed at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/15/60minutes/main2483414.shtml ___ http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/yourhealth/2007-02-18-your-health-autism_x.htm Autistic kids can be helped Nathan Katzman is a 6-year-old Rhode Island boy who goes to kindergarten. He loves goofing around with his three siblings, playing on the computer and taking long hikes with his family. In other words, Nathan sounds like an unlikely subject for a newspaper column. But I'm writing about Nathan today because I wrote about him once before, in 2003, when he was 2 and was diagnosed with severe autism. The 2003 story was about how some children with autism were being diagnosed at younger ages, amid hopes that early intervention would allow them to reach their fullest potential. In the story, Nathan's parents, Nicole and Gary, described a child who "screams when he is frustrated, spins in circles to entertain himself and bangs toy cars against the wall." Despite glimmers of progress, Gary feared a future in which Nathan "never really talks and is always the way he is now: infantile." That was the last I heard about Nathan until a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail from his mother. "He has made amazing progress," she wrote. I called Nicole and heard what she and her husband say is a story too seldom told. It's the story of a child with autism who gets the help he needs and makes thrilling gains but is neither cured of his autism nor revealed to be an autistic "savant," wowing the world with musical, mathematical or artistic genius. "You don't hear much about the Nathans of the world," Nicole says. Nathan, she says, isn't composing symphonies and does not entirely blend in with his classmates. But thanks to years of intensive speech, behavioral, play and occupational therapy and an intelligence his parents suspected from the start Nathan is doing things they did not think possible back in 2003. Among them: He rides the same bus as the other kids in the neighborhood and attends the same kindergarten, with an aide. (He goes to a special-education class for half a day, too.) He reads and writes and shows a talent for math. He talks. Though he does not keep up a long conversation, he can ask questions and tell his parents what he wants to eat, where he wants to go and more. "About a year ago, he said 'I love you, Mom' for the first time," Nicole says. Gary, a cardiologist, says simply, "He's a very loving boy." He speaks proudly of the day the family was out hiking, an activity that seems to calm and center Nathan, when their son saw another child fall along the trail: "Nathan walked over and said, 'Are you OK?' " It was a nice show of empathy for any young boy, but it was a true sign of growth for Nathan. Nicole says Nathan remains "mildly or moderately autistic," though he is considered "high-functioning." But for the Katzmans, labels matter less than the day-to-day reality that their son now can join in routine family activities and go to stores, movies and restaurants outings that used to be derailed by epic tantrums or frightening escapes. The Katzmans know that they are fortunate in some ways. They've been able to pay "thousands and thousands" of dollars for private therapies, Gary says. And Nathan went to an excellent, specialized preschool, something that doesn't even exist in many places. They also know that Nathan still may never do many of the things his two brothers and his sister will do. But Gary says he hopes other parents will see the hope in Nathan's story. "You get this tragic diagnosis and you just cannot see how it's going to get better because it's so bad," he says. "But it does get better."