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Son-Rise for Suzie

Autism program breaks through for Tigard family
by: Jaime Valdez, SHARING A LAUGH — While reading a story, Suzie Duncan-Winn shares a laugh with her mom Bonnie Duncan, who with her husband Michael Winn works with the 7-year-old autistic child on expressing emotions

Excitement, energy and enthusiasm are pretty much the norm at the Bull Mountain home of Bonnie and Michael Duncan-Winn, who have an autistic daughter, Suzie Noel.

Bonnie and Michael probably lavish more praise on Suzie than average parents would on their kids, but Suzie is blossoming under their system of consistency, persistency and praise.

In early December, the couple spent a week at the Option Institute, which is affiliated with the Autism Center of America in Sheffield, Mass., learning about the Son-Rise program, which teaches parents how to communicate with and improve the socialization skills of their autistic children.

The couple adopted Suzie four years ago through the Oregon state foster-care system.

Suzie had been neglected as an infant and toddler, and Bonnie recalled her first months with Suzie, now 7, as similar to tutor Anne Sullivan learning to communicate with the deaf, mute and blind Helen Keller.

Now Suzie is a regular chatterbox and an accomplished reader, but it took all of Bonnie and Michael's wits and patience to turn her around.

'My mother was a very progressive lady,' Bonnie said. 'She exposed me to a girl with Down Syndrome. Our ironing lady was deaf and dumb (mute).

'Kids who were challenged - or other-abled, which is now the politically correct expression - intrigued me. I felt empathy with them.'

Bonnie became a teacher and also got her special-education endorsement, teaching at the middle school and then the high school level in Eastern Oregon, when she was named Oregon special education teacher of the year.

So why, her friends have asked, would someone want to adopt a child - let alone one with special needs - at age 54?

'I wanted a girl,' said Bonnie, who also has two grown sons. 'I am a believer in zero population growth, and I wanted to be a positive influence on a child.'

Michael had no children before he adopted Suzie, and the couple feels they were led to her after he brought home an article about the state foster-care system that featured a photo of Suzie.

'She was our angel,' Bonnie said. 'But we needed to figure out how to connect with her. Twenty-seven years ago, I saw the film 'Son-Rise' about how a couple entered their autistic son's world. I kind of instinctively, subconsciously knew I needed to join with Suzie and slowly integrate her into our world.

'Persistence and consistency paid off. These kids just want to control their world, so they do it in any way they can. It's a matter of joining with them and accepting them where they are. I worked one-on-one with her, and the first four months were intense.'

Bonnie and Michael still consistently work on socialization and communication skills with Suzie, and she has been mainstreamed at Mary Woodward Elementary School.

The Duncan-Winns also have put Suzie, who as an infant was given only cow's milk, on a specialized diet that is wheat- and dairy-free. They also take her to an enzyme specialist.

Providing lots of stimuli also is important, and for years Suzie has been swimming and participating in gymnastics, ice-skating, dancing and singing, and drama.

'The leaps and gains she has made are so noticeable to people,' Bonnie said. 'Suzie is very comfortable in front of crowds, and her classmates are wonderful with her.'

Last June, the Duncan-Winns listened to a speech by Raun Kaufman, who is the son of author Barry Neal Kaufman, author of more than 20 books, including 'Son-Rise.' Through the techniques spearheaded by Barry Kaufman, Raun was transformed from an autistic child into a fully functioning adult.

The Duncan-Winns were fortunate enough, along with 198 other Northwest parents, to be awarded scholarships to attend the Option Institute for a week. The Pollick family of Portland, whose autistic son was greatly helped by the program, provided 150 scholarships, and the Option Institute provided 50 more.

What the Duncan-Winns gleaned from the institute was that they were already on the right track with Suzie, thanks in part to Bonnie's training 27 years earlier.

'The beautiful thing was parents from all over the world at the conference now saw their children with total love and acceptance and were ready to go home and to enter (their children's) world, so in time with consistency, persistency and lots of praise, (the children) would in turn enter (the parents') world,' Bonnie said.

Michael added, 'The autism institute was an incredible place. It was in a big estate with a half-dozen residence halls and a nice meeting hall. The training classes were four hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. They send you home with information on how to work with your own child, and there are more programs available. You also can bring your child there.'

Michael also gained insight into the techniques that Bonnie, with her special-education background, was using with Suzie.

'I didn't understand what Bonnie was doing,' he said. 'Now I understand a great deal more, and I am able to give more input to Suzie. For instance, they taught us to praise her a lot with energy, enthusiasm and excitement - to go overboard. I'm reserved, so when Suzie has really done well, I go out of my way to really praise her.'

When the Duncan-Winns left to go to the institute, Suzie's schedule and daily routines were changed somewhat, which is hard for autistic kids to deal with. But when the couple returned home, they were amazed at how well Suzie was doing.

'She stayed with her big brother and her best friend, and it sparked a lot of brain cells,' Bonnie said. 'She was more talkative.'

According to Bonnie, Oregon has the highest rate of autism in the nation, although there are no definitive reasons why.

However, Bonnie said that some parents with autistic children move to Oregon knowing that their kids will receive superior care, and 'autism is diagnosed sooner here.'

As for Suzie, she has gone from not wanting to touch pencils, crayons and paper to creating her own line of note cards, calendars, posters and an affirmation book.

She even has her own Web site, suz-line.com, with proceeds going to her college fund except for 5 percent that goes to the Autism Center.

First and foremost, Bonnie and Michael want parents to know that there is help and support out there for their autistic kids.

For more information on the Autism Center, visit www.autismtreatmentcenter.org, or for more information on the Option Institute, visit www.option.org.