Once a boy who could not look directly at anyone, Sean Barron now faces people and cameras all over the country and the world.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR HEALTH WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The mostly young parents of autistic children sat spellbound, nodding in recognition as Sean Barron spoke about his victory over autism and described his childhood symptoms, which mirrored those of their sons and daughters.
Some cried, or perhaps cringed, when Barron talked matter-of-factly about his feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration, possibly for the first time beginning to understand what's going on in the minds of their own children.
"He brings hope. I hope my son [4-year-old John] turns out like him," said Holly Hahn of Austintown.
"Sean's book ["There's a Boy in Here"] is a good starter because it explains what was going on in his mind, and it helps you understand your own child. It's so empowering," said Louise Pallerino of New Castle, parent coordinator at the Rich Center for Autism at Youngstown State University, where Barron spoke last week.
Wendy Davis, an occupational therapist at the Rich Center who is certified in sensory integration and who works with autistic children, took notes through most of Barron's presentation.
"I hope to use his knowledge to help parents understand why their autistic kids act out the way they do," she said.
But toward the end of Barron's story, she put her pen down and sat rapt, tears filling her eyes.
"Awesome. A miracle," she said of Barron's self-recovery.
Barron, who once could not look directly at anyone, preferred objects over people, and could not stand to be hugged, now faces people and cameras all over the country and the world. As a result of his book, Barron and his mother have traveled to Iceland, France, Germany and England and given presentations on his recovery.
Barron, 40, of Poland, was diagnosed as autistic in 1965 at age 4 1/2. Autism is a neurological disorder that negatively affects a person's social functional abilities. Although not the case with Barron, mental retardation can often be present.
Barron had typical symptoms, such as a need for sameness.
"If someone moved a table, I'd get upset," he said.
He had impaired ability to socialize and extreme sensitivity to touch, particularly his fingertips and toes. He didn't speak until he was 4.
"It was very frustrating as I got older. I had things in my head, but I couldn't express them," he said.
He went to school in Boardman and in California, and even spent nine months, at the age of 10, in a special school for children with emotional problems.
A light goes on
His parents, Ronald and Judy Barron, of Milford, Pa., had told him there was something that made him behave differently from other children. But he never really understood until at 17 or 18 he saw a movie, "Son Rise," and identified with a character in the movie with autism.
"I finally had something in front of me. I didn't have to imagine anymore. For years, I had wanted to make some changes, but I didn't know how," he said.
The movie was to jump-start his 10-year climb out of autism, which he said he could never have accomplished without the help and support and patience of his mother, father and sister, Megan Barron.
Autism robbed Barron of a normal childhood, and, determined it wasn't going to do that to his adulthood, too, he began the recovery process.
"I consider myself recovered because autism doesn't affect my day-to-day life. I've gotten to the point where I'm completely over it," he said.
Long, hard work
But, he said: "There was nothing instant or magical about it. I had to isolate things and work on them."
For instance, he watched how people shook hands and embraced. He watched how they smiled and then practiced his own smile in the mirror.
Among the symptoms of autism are a fascination with objects as opposed to people and an affinity for repetitive movements and routine.
Until he began recovering as a teen-ager, he was unable to discern voice inflections.
He talked like a robot, and his hearing was off kilter.
"I could hear my mother's voice and it seemed like I was ignoring her. But in reality, I had problems filtering out extraneous sounds," he said.
He said school was an easier environment to deal with than home because it was more structured. He did relatively well in school, particularly in math and the sciences.
But his social life was less successful.
"I had very concrete, literal ways of thinking, and couldn't adequately or accurately put into words what I was feeling." he said.
Even when students made overtures, he didn't know how to differentiate between someone who was being nice and someone who was a tormentor. "I missed out on friendships."
The family moved to California when Barron was 16 or 17, in effect giving him a fresh start.
He returned in 1983 to Boardman, partly to face the painful past and to take some of the sting out of those childhood memories.
About the book
"There's a Boy in Here," written by Barron and his mother, was first published in 1992. It was republished last month by Future Horizons of Arlington, Texas, and is available at area bookstores.
"It was never about money or making a name for myself. I wanted to reach out to others," he said.
Barron wrote from his memory, and his mother relied heavily on a diary she kept during those turbulent, painful times when Barron was autistic.
"It was very interesting. When the book came together, my mother and I finally knew each other for the first time," he said.
An unintentional benefit of the book was that, somehow, reading about his own life had a positive effect on him. He said he can now talk about autism more objectively.
"It was very healing for me, and actually completed my recovery process. It helped me rise above my guilt," Barron said.
Barron leads an active life now. He obtained a bachelor's degree in early childhood education from YSU in 1987 and has returned to pursue a degree in journalism.
Besides his school work, Barron works as a correspondent for The Vindicator. He worked 12 years at Austinwoods Health Care Center, where he was a restorative therapy aide who helped patients regain mobility.
Once locked in his own little world, Barron now reaches out to help people in other ways. On the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, he traveled to Shanksville, Pa., site of the crash of Flight 93, to attend a memorial service and offer comfort and support. He also volunteered at the Salvation Army near New York's ground zero.
Barron said he does not think every autistic person can recover as he has.
"I wish that was the case. But in reality, not everybody has the same capacity or same circumstances," Barron said.
He said, however, "I think everyone can make a certain amount of progress."