When my daughter Mary was diagnosed with autism in 1995,” says actor Gary Cole, “all I had to go on was RainMan.” Today, an estimated one in 150 American children under age 8 are diagnosed with autism or related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome -- all with symptoms such as an inability to relate to others, the insistence on rigid routines, and engaging in repetitive behaviors. “It seems you can ask any friend, any relative,” says Cole, “and they’ll be able to tell you about someone they know with autism. Or direct you to a good doctor who can help.”
Best known for playing a hilariously toxic boss in 1999’s comedy film Office Space, as well as uber-agent Ari Gold’s oldest friend and newest hire on HBO’s hit Entourage, Cole is happy to use his fame as a platform to help other parents facing what can be a challenging diagnosis. The actor supports The Help Group and Autism Speaks, two organizations that work to meet educational needs for autistic kids and their families, raise funds for global biomedical research to find a cure, and promote awareness -- with increased efforts in April, Autism Awareness Month.
If your child -- or the child of a close friend or relative -- has just received a diagnosis of autism, you are probably feeling baffled and overwhelmed. It is never easy to learn that someone you love has a serious health or developmental condition. Learning all you can about the disorder -- and where to get help -- will ease your fear and confusion. It can also provide the tools you need to find the support that children with autism -- and you -- really need.
When a child has autism, “your original agenda as a parent is set aside,” says Cole. He and his wife, actor Teddi Siddall, first noticed something was amiss with Mary, now 16, when she was nearly 2 years old. They started their daughter on a variety of therapies. “Mary didn’t process information like you or I do, and did not pick up on social cues,” says Cole, who believes the most important thing parents can do if they suspect something is going on with their child is to “seek answers, and the earlier the better.”
With the help of a personal aide, Mary successfully attended public elementary and middle schools in Studio City, Calif., and now goes to a special learning facility for her high school years, run by The Help Group.