Texans Tackling Autism

Tyler Jackson walked into the grocery store and immediately fell to the ground screaming. As his ears started hurting from his own noise, Tyler covered them tightly with the palms of his hands but kept yelling. His 6-foot-4, 302-pound father stood helplessly watching.

As an offensive lineman for the Texans, Scott Jackson lines up without fear each day in practice, going head-to-head against 6-foot-4, 322-pound defensive tackles.

But there at the grocery store, a 2 1/2-year-old standing 40 inches and weighing 45 pounds rendered him helpless. Scott had no idea what triggered the tantrum. Maybe it was the Lightning McQueen birthday balloon, which made Tyler all of a sudden want to see "Cars" the movie. Maybe it was something else.

Sensing disdain in the stares of fellow shoppers, Scott peeled his screaming son off the floor, threw him over his shoulder and quickly walked to the refrigerator to get the gallon of milk they needed. With Tyler still kicking and screaming over his shoulder, Scott paid for the milk and rushed outside.

As he loaded his son into their car, Scott knew he wouldn't take Tyler back to the grocery store. The previous few trips had been nightmares as well.

Keeping Tyler home didn't stop the tantrums, though. It didn't solve their concerns that he still wasn't talking by 2 1/2. It still didn't make sense why he fell so deep into his own world sometimes that his parents worried he was deaf.

Doctors told Scott and his wife, Ashley, that Tyler was just a late developing boy. They were told Einstein didn't talk until he was 3. But they kept pushing the doctors to look closer, until finally in March 2007, Tyler was diagnosed with autism.

"At first, I was skeptical," Scott said. "I didn't want to see anything wrong with our boy. But my wife was saying, 'Hey, while you were at practice or while you were on the road trip, I saw some things that scared me a little bit. Some things he was doing.'

"It was amazing how Ashley could say early on, 'This is difficult that we're getting this diagnosis. But we can help him a lot. He's a beautiful boy and we're going to help him have a meaningful, rich life.' For me, that optimism and that faith in Tyler was something that has helped us work as a team to raise him. That's been something huge."

It didn't take long for Scott to start preaching the same message as Ashley. And this past Father's Day was clearly a celebration in the Jackson household.

It marked the completion of Tyler's first-year of therapy, which was so difficult for Tyler in the beginning that he would cry for hours until he eventually fell asleep in the middle of the classroom. It hurt his parents too much to even watch.

The offseason has also marked the culmination of a year of change for Scott, who was placed on injured reserve with the Texans and devoted his free afternoons last fall to attending therapy with Tyler so he could learn how to help his son at home.

After all, Scott's knowledge of autism at the time of his son's diagnosis was what he saw in the 1988 movie "Rain Man" starring Dustin Hoffman. He thought of a person who memorized the phone book, and he immediately envisioned taking care of his son for a very long time.

Texans special teams coordinator Joe Marciano tried to thwart those concerns as soon as he heard about Tyler. Marciano, a single father, received the same diagnosis six years ago about his adopted son, Joseph, who is now eight.

Marciano recently pointed to a Texans practice field where a handful of little kids had played catch during the final day of OTAs. They waited through the two-hour practice session to get autographs and see their favorite players.

Marciano admitted his son couldn't do that.

"That's not him," he said. "He has a weakness when it comes to the social aspect of life. He can do things other kids his age can't do. He types faster than me. He text messages. He can pick up the phone and call me. You can give him as many numbers as you want, line them up horizontally or vertically, he'll add them all up for you fast. Reading, spelling, math -- that's his niche."

Joseph also was placed in intense therapy at age 2. He slowly started seeing the benefits. At four, he spoke at the level of an 18-month-old. Now, he speaks at the level of a 5 1/2 year old, but is thriving in a public school where he is mainstreamed. He has friends, and is preparing to enter the third grade after receiving As and Bs on his latest report card.

His interests are similar to other eight-year-olds. The Kung Fu Panda movie is his current passion, and he loves to sing the theme song, "Kung Fu Fighting."

Such updates from Marciano have comforted Jackson, who was so concerned about getting his son into the right therapy he struggled to concentrate on his own career during OTAs last year.

"We have a lot of meetings, and your mind clearly wanders," Scott said. "How do you focus when you know your son is at home and if you don't help him immediately he may digress further and sink deeper into a deeper form of autism?"

After a two-month search, the Jacksons settled on a facility. For the past year, Tyler has attended school for more than six hours a day, five days a week. About two or three months into therapy, Tyler said, "da-da" for the first time. About three months after that, he started saying phrases.

Tyler still battles issues unique to autism, but he has reached the major milestones for a typical child his age.

"When he said, 'Daddy, I love you,' it was unbelievable for me," Scott said. "Once he learned how to use words as sort of tools, that was the biggest breakthrough. Because before he'd just scream and we didn't know what he was screaming for. Now he says, 'I want milk.' Or, 'My pants are wet.' Or, 'I want to go for a bike ride.' That was what bothering him before. He'd just sit here and scream about who knows what."

Joseph Marciano's tantrums have decreased from 20 minutes to sometimes just five seconds. The head banging, hitting, punching and biting that used to accompany each screaming session also has subsided. Joseph now often scoffs his feet at the ground and pouts, a reaction Marciano realizes is similar to a typical eight-year-old.

"His issues aren't academics," Marciano said. "His issues are always going to be social. He's gotten a lot better. I don't think he's ever going to be the life of the party. But he just can't be disruptive when he doesn't get what he wants or his needs aren't met or they change the routine."

Since Joseph's diagnosis, Marciano has become a spokesman for Autism Speaks. He has received hundreds of letters and emails from parents of autistic children, and he replies to all of them. Some of them he has met. Many he has not. Through it all, he has learned it takes a special parent to raise an autistic child.

Watching Scott Jackson up close, Marciano said Tyler is "absolutely" lucky to have his father.

"I can honestly say I've seen a commitment from Scott," Marciano said. "He asks all the right questions. He's going out and seeking all of the right resources. Plus, he's gone to another level than I have, and he's gone and gotten outside help to help him. He's doing all the right things and taken all the right steps."

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