When Christopher Xu turned 2, his mother’s worst fears were confirmed. The other babies at her son’s birthday party babbled, gestured and used simple words as they played and interacted with their parents and each other. But Christopher was different.
“He was locked in his own world,” Sophia Sun recalls. “No eye contact. No pointing. No laughing at cartoons or looking at me when I talk to him.”
In fact, Sun says, she and her husband, Yingchun Xu, both Chinese-born computer engineers who earned their graduate degrees in Vancouver, British Columbia, had never known anyone with this kind of remote, inaccessible child.
The couple were living with their older daughters, Iris and Laura, in a Chicago suburb when Christopher was born. Both girls were interactive, affectionate babies, but Christopher paid little attention to his mother, his family or his surroundings. As a toddler he spent most of his time lining up his favorite toys in order or spinning himself in circles — over and over again. When the Xu family went to an air show, his mother pointed to the planes roaring overhead, saying, “Christopher, look at that! Look up!” but the little boy just spun around and around, oblivious to the noise or the world surrounding him.
Now Christopher is 11, and he will soon graduate from the fifth grade at Madison’s John Muir Elementary to head off to middle school. Thanks to the love and persistence of his family, powerful early training, insightful teachers and accepting classmates, his story has changed dramatically, and his remarkable abilities are increasingly apparent.
He is among Wisconsin’s most gifted math students, recently earning top state honors among 1,477 students in the American Mathematics Competition for grades 8 and under. In another math competition, he placed third against high school students. He is his school’s chess champion, and his recreational reading includes such books as “Freakonomics” and “The Mathematical Universe.” He is an excellent musician with perfect pitch who’s composing his own work with the help of a UW music school doctoral candidate. And he’s a top city speller.
Equally important, Christopher has become a loving brother able to tell jokes with his sisters. He’s been a treasured student for two years in a combined 4/5 classroom taught by Tammy Hughes and Jane Allen-Jauch, whom he fondly calls “Mrs. AJ.” His classmates seem appreciative of his gifts, and he has a best friend.
But despite his prodigious talents, Christopher still has plenty of challenges, and so do those who work with him. He finds it particularly hard to navigate the murky waters of adolescent social interactions. He becomes easily frustrated, and his reactions can be abrupt and extreme. Although he’s able to understand complex intellectual notions far beyond his age, when he acts out his behavior mimics that of a much younger child.
Christopher, himself, recognizes his shortcomings. After playing a graceful, precise rendition of “The Wild Horseman” at home recently for a small audience, he accepts compliments graciously. “Thank you. It’s Schumann,” he says. Then he blurts out: “Sometimes I still have trouble controlling my temper.”
Although Christopher’s journey from unresponsive toddler to brilliant student has been nothing short of amazing, his family recognizes the road ahead may be rough, particularly when it comes to interactions with other people. “When I think middle school and high school and his social skills, I worry,” Sun says. “I ask myself, ‘Can this kid survive?’
“I want to tell his story not for bragging,” she adds softly. “But to thank his teachers, thank his therapists, thank his school for all they have done. And I want other parents to have hope.”
During Christopher’s withdrawn first two years, Sun tried to downplay her concerns about her third child.
“I wanted to believe he would outgrow it. I wanted to deny he was not like other babies,” she says. She grew so eager to have her child respond to her that she once blew up a balloon and pricked it with a pin to try to startle Christopher. Even that loud, abrupt sound failed to cause any reaction.
But after Christopher’s birthday party, when he was surrounded by other children his age, Sun admitted to herself that there was something wrong with his development, and it was serious. “I decided I’d educate myself and learn what we could do to help him,” she says.
She talked to doctors and found information on the Internet and in libraries about the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. The family did what they could to try to reach Christopher. “The girls, especially Laura, were like his little therapists,” Sun recalls. “But we did not see much progress or have much hope.”
As Sun and her husband began exploring options and possible interventions for Christopher, they took him to specialists for tests and evaluations. Sun says she worried when her toddler scored 67 on an IQ test, knowing that such a low score might prevent him from attending school.
Just months after his two-year-old birthday party, Sun left her job in Chicago and moved with Laura, Iris and Christopher to Madison. Her husband continued working in Chicago, traveling between the states and China and joining his family in Madison when his schedule allowed.
Sun had learned through her research that Madison has a strong national reputation for cutting edge research on autism and related developmental disorders. A substantial part of that reputation rests with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Center, a leading scientific research center on human development, developmental disabilities and neurological diseases.
With autism rates skyrocketing — latest statistics from the Wisconsin Early Autism Project predict one out of every 58 boys will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder — the Waisman Center is a magnet for families who are looking for answers. As a result, Dane County has become known as a place to live where there is a range of treatment options, some offered under the auspices of the Waisman Center and others through various clinics or organizations. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction also emphasizes early intervention for children with learning or developmental problems, and the Madison school district, as well as several other area school districts, are known for their progressive approach to special education.
In June 2009, Wisconsin enacted legislation that requires insurance to provide coverage for autism treatment services; it’s now one of 20 states with similar legislation on the books. “I think Wisconsin is a compassionate state for children,” Sun says.
Beginning when he was 2 1/2, Christopher began seeing therapists for up to 35 hours a week through the Wisconsin Early Autism Project, a program and clinic for the treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders. Its focus is an approach known as applied behavior analysis, which uses imitation and repetition to help children with autism learn a progressive, specific series of skills. The approach, which boasts scientifically proven results for many children, was developed by Ivar Lovaas, a clinical psychologist at UCLA; the Wisconsin program is under the direction of Glenn Sallows and Tamlynn Graupner. Both studied with Lovaas in California, and the Wisconsin program, with five clinics statewide, has been able to replicate many of Lovaas’ successful results.
Sallows, a clinical psychologist and board-certified behavioral analyst, is quick to note there’s no cure for autism. But he says children like Christopher, who doubled his IQ score from age 2 to 4, show that huge improvements are possible and that early interventions can be very helpful in allowing children to reach their potential.
“One big predictive variable for success is whether a child can learn to imitate,” Sallows says.
Christopher’s therapy focused first on learning gross motor skills, then fine motor skills and next oral skills, followed by words, speech and language.
“When a child doesn’t pay much attention to other people, that creates a real and basic deficit because so much of what we learn early on is through constant interaction and imitation of others,” Sallows says.
A child with autism might not appreciate hugging or eye contact, but could enjoy more physical play like chasing, running or tickling, adds Sallows. Building a relationship with a therapist that is fun for the child is an important first step in treatment, he says.
Various skills are built precisely and progressively through play, interaction and repetition for between 30 and 40 hours every week in this kind of intensive ABA treatment. In Christopher’s case, it went on for about two years.
When Christopher enrolled at Muir in kindergarten, teachers knew he had special needs, both because of his high-functioning autism and tests that showed he was “off the charts” in his intelligence.
But Allen-Jauch welcomes the challenge. “One of the things I especially love about teaching right now is that we really try to reach and teach every child at their own level. There’s no one saying, ‘Don’t teach that because it’s next year’s curriculum!’ ”
Allen-Jauch is particularly passionate about teaching mathematics, and she loved having Christopher’s sister Laura, also a gifted math student, in her 4/5 classroom for two years. So she eagerly anticipated getting Christopher as a student, especially knowing she’d have help from Tammy Hughes, a special education teacher assigned to her classroom.
“I rely on Tammy for many of the strategies for our students with special needs. She’s the expert so I follow her lead,” Allen-Jauch says.
As a fifth-grader studying pre-calculus who is also obsessed with nutrition and environmental issues, Christopher sets the academic bar high in his classroom. But the exchange goes two ways, with Christopher learning social skills through his interactions with his 10- and 11-year-old peers. Most of his classmates have been patient teachers, according to Allen-Jauch.
Besides, Christopher brings some highly unusual but practical talents to his class.
“He’s fascinated with roads and highways,” Allen-Jauch says, adding that one of his hobbies is shooting road videos from a car window.
“If you need directions anywhere, he can tell you how to get there. I was planning my first trip to the Mall of America, and I was looking for a map. Chris said ‘Oh Mrs. AJ, you don’t need a map, I can get you there. Just write this down.’ He gave me every exit, every turn between my house and the mall. It’s like he has a built-in GPS. By the way, he was exactly right.”