SHEFFIELD — They come to the Son-Rise Program hopeless, angry and defeated. They arrive with broken hearts and, in the case of one mother, with a broken nose, courtesy of her 6-year-old son. Broken not once, but four times, she admitted with a sheepish smile.
"My son (Kyle) is violent," the mother, 27-year-old Kacy Crenshaw, explained. "The doctor said Kyle was going to be a vegetable, but to me, he's already a genius."
Crenshaw, who lives in Oregon, said she came to The Son-Rise Program® at the Option Institute because she was sick of doctors dismissing her — and her autistic son — with careless negativity.
She told the other parents sitting with her at the cafeteria table that a doctor once told her to cure her son's outbursts by buying him a live chicken.
"The doctor thought maybe Kyle could chase it," Crenshaw sighed.
Crenshaw was one of about 100 parents from Oregon who had come to the six-day Son-Rise workshop to learn how to heal — or perhaps cure — their child's autism.
Roger Pollock, the owner of Lake Buena Vista Homes, Oregon's largest homebuilder, paid the $2,200 Son-Rise program tuition for every parent attending the six-day intensive "Start-Up" Son-Rise workshop. The parents were responsible for their own airfare and car rental.
According to his business's Web site, Pollock, who has an autistic child, offered the scholarships because he was "inspired" by the Son-Rise Program.
Pollock's generosity was not lost on Crenshaw, who said she quit her job so she could care for Kyle.
"I'd rather have a nice, happy family rather than (have the money) to shop at Macy's," she joked. "Or shop anywhere, for that matter."
The program ended yesterday, and several of the parents said they would be paying their own tuition — $2,500 — for the five-day "Maximum Impact" advanced training seminar offered in April 2008.
The Western medical world insists that the disorder is incurable, but that does not dissuade the parents who seek out the Son-Rise Program, which offers a home-based teaching method where the parent, not the physician, knows best, and the autistic child is the teacher.
Parents using the method try to engage the child by creating a calming play space devoid of electronic toys or busy wall decoration; by maintaining a positive, nonjudgmental attitude; and by mirroring the child's repetitive behavioral "isms" — the rocking, the spinning, the hand-flapping — and, instead, entering the child's world through trust.
"We accept them, we flap with them," Crenshaw said.
Oregon is the state with the highest reported rate of autism in the country. One in every 250 youths between the ages of 6 and 21 has been diagnosed with the disorder, and in Lane County, where Eugene is located, one in every 91 youths is autistic.
One Son-Rise attendee seated with Crenshaw blamed the spike in the state's autism cases on the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption of 1980; another blamed the mercury routinely used in immunizations.
According to statistics provided by the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Education, 1.5 million Americans are afflicted with the disorder. According to the New England Center for Children's Web site, it's the fastest-growing developmental disability.
The Option Institute — and the Son-Rise Program — are the brainchildren of Barry Neil "Bears" Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman. The husband and wife team created the teaching method in the early 1970s when Raun, their third son, was diagnosed with severe autism.
Back then, Kaufman said, the disorder was known as "infantile childhood schizophrenia" — a mental illness.
"We were the first to say it was a neurological challenge," he said yesterday. "We were the first to use nutrition as a method of treatment."
He also noted that the medical community, which was "warehousing kids in rooms" and using electroshock treatment, looked upon the Kaufmans' methods with contempt.
" 'Strange' was one of their flattering words for us," he said.
Seated next to Samahria yesterday in their office, the walls of which are lined with family photographs, Kaufman said that Raun's spectacular recovery from unresponsive toddler to Brown University graduate, teacher and popular motivational speaker is proof positive to many frustrated parents that fostering their own good attitude actually can make a big difference.
The first part of Raun's transformation was detailed in "Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love," a television movie broadcast on NBC in 1978. Watched by almost 22 million people, it succeeded in putting both the Kaufmans — and autism — on the map.
The pair are not without their critics. Kaufman, with some relish, said that just the title of his "Autism Can Be Cured" motivational tape makes doctors "go nuts," and that a Web site called Freedomofmind.com, featuring scathing commentary from two "disgruntled" former Option Institute employees, can be found lurking in cyberspace.
"The Kaufmans are usually very nice to people who have money," snarls one such testimony.
Kaufman, for his part, is unfazed.
"You can say anything you want on the Internet," he said. "It's the Wild West out there."
And to the notion that one has to be rich to foot the four-figure tuition for the Option Institute's myriad educational workshops (a sample: "Empowering Yourself," "Radical Authenticity"), Samahria pointed out that the Institute — which has attracted students from 72 countries — gave out $850,000 in scholarships last year.
Concrete success rates for autism recovery using the Son-Rise method are not publicized by the institute — and such numbers do not seem to be given much weight — but Kaufman emphasizes that he does not make any guarantees to desperate parents about miracle cures.
"You dream your biggest dream, we'll walk beside you," he said. "And you'll never look back. You'll have no regrets."