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I'm on a Mission to Get My Son Better — and Help Others


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Nancy Rones
Redbook Magazine Logo
As Ryan faces new and frightening setbacks in his struggle with autism, his parents search for answers and find both purpose and peace in their new life.

For the past several months, REDBOOK has followed the Kalkowski family as it grapples with the challenges of battling 3-year-old Ryan's autism. In our last installment, Ryan's parents had a lot to celebrate: his birthday, his placement in a preschool class for the upcoming fall that would include both typical children and those with developmental delays, and the major strides he was making in intensive one-on-one therapy sessions at home. This month, the Las Vegas family is filled with mixed emotions as it faces the long-term reality of Ryan's disorder.

The day after Nicole Kalkowski's son, Ryan, took his first dose of medicine to treat an overgrowth of yeast in his little body, he woke up crying and extremely cranky. Nicole, 36, was worried but continued rushing around the house to get her two girls, Ciera, 9, and Ella, 7, ready for school.

Suddenly, Nicole heard a door slamming upstairs and ran toward the sound to investigate. What she saw made her heart sink: Three-year-old Ryan was standing at the entry to her bedroom, methodically opening and closing the door. Nicole was shocked — and scared. This was the type of repetitive behavior Ryan had started to display when he was a little older than 2, while in the grip of what's often referred to as a regressive autism; by that time he had also lost some developmental skills, such as responding to his name and waving. But thanks to intensive treatment, Ryan had managed to regain several of those skills, and many of his repetitive behaviors, including spinning and door slamming, had vanished — until now.

Nicole tried to redirect her son's attention. "Let's have breakfast," she said in a cheerful tone, gently pulling him away from the door. Ryan cried and refused to budge. Nicole grabbed a nearby toy and handed it to him. He couldn't be distracted. Finally, she pried him off the door and carried him downstairs as he screamed angrily.

After a few minutes of watching television, Ryan calmed down, but in the tense days that followed, a worried Nicole and her husband, Tim, 39, noticed that their son was moody and lethargic — plus, he wasn't talking much. They were also unnerved when they observed that Ryan was flicking his fingers in front of his face with increasing frequency. (This flicking is an example of "stimming," a behavior that a child with autism is thought to use to soothe himself or express his wants, such as the desire to be left alone.) Another disconcerting setback: Sometimes Ryan would lie down on the floor, pushing on his gassy stomach and screaming, "Ouch, I hurt" — a scene that was common before he'd started on his gluten-free, casein-free diet a year earlier. (This regimen is believed by some medical experts to alleviate symptoms of autism.) Ryan's therapists voiced concerns too. During their sessions with the little boy they'd nicknamed "Mr. Giggles," he now seemed less motivated to follow directions and perform tasks.

Ryan's new yeast-fighting regimen had been prescribed by his doctor, Geoffrey P. Radoff, an M.D. and a doctor of homeopathy who practices the Defeat Autism Now! (DAN) treatment approach. DAN doctors look for underlying medical issues that may be triggering autistic symptoms and remedy them primarily through supplements and dietary changes. Radoff had warned Nicole that the anti-yeast drug might temporarily trigger some problematic symptoms as Ryan's body adjusted to the new medication, but he also explained that this treatment was vital, because an overgrowth of yeast often leads to inflammation of the bowels and other medical conditions that could potentially fuel autistic behaviors. Still, Nicole couldn't ignore the guilty voice in her head that kept asking, "Did I make a mistake by giving him the medicine? Could I be jeopardizing all of the progress Ryan has made?"

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