Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Environmental autism

Detectives had discovered her in a Plant City home in July 2005, when she was almost 7. She was curled in a tiny, roach-infested room, covered with her own feces, unable to speak or make eye contact, afraid to be held. A child protection officer had raced her to Tampa General Hospital. Dani weighed 46 pounds.

Investigators determined she had been left alone, in that dark, filthy space, for most of her life. They called Dani a "feral child," like Tarzan or the wolf boy.

Police charged Dani's mother with child neglect. A judge terminated her parental rights, sentenced her to community service and two years of house arrest...

She weighed 46 pounds. She was malnourished and anemic. In the pediatric intensive care unit they tried to feed the girl, but she couldn't chew or swallow solid food. So they put her on an IV and let her drink from a bottle.

Aides bathed her, scrubbed the sores on her face, trimmed her torn fingernails. They had to cut her tangled hair before they could comb out the lice.

Her caseworker determined that she had never been to school, never seen a doctor. She didn't know how to hold a doll, didn't understand peek-a-boo. "Due to the severe neglect," a doctor would write, "the child will be disabled for the rest of her life."

Hunched in an oversized crib, Danielle curled in on herself like a potato bug, then writhed angrily, kicking and thrashing. To calm herself, she batted at her toes and sucked her fists. "Like an infant," one doctor wrote.

She wouldn't make eye contact. She didn't react to heat or cold — or pain. The insertion of an IV needle elicited no reaction. She never cried. With a nurse holding her hands, she could stand and walk sideways on her toes, like a crab. She couldn't talk, didn't know how to nod yes or no. Once in a while she grunted.

She couldn't tell anyone what had happened, what was wrong, what hurt.

Dr. Kathleen Armstrong, director of pediatric psychology at the University of South Florida medical school, was the first psychologist to examine Danielle. She said medical tests, brain scans, and vision, hearing and genetics checks found nothing wrong with the child. She wasn't deaf, wasn't autistic, had no physical ailments such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

The doctors and social workers had no way of knowing all that had happened to Danielle. But the scene at the house, along with Danielle's almost comatose condition, led them to believe she had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held. She was fragile and beautiful, but whatever makes a person human seemed somehow missing.

Armstrong called the girl's condition "environmental autism." Danielle had been deprived of interaction for so long, the doctor believed, that she had withdrawn into herself…

The Lierows said none of that mattered. They brought Dani home in the spring of 2007, just in time for Easter. Six months later, they adopted her. She was still having tantrums almost every night, stealing food and screaming when anyone tried to touch her.

But Bernie and Diane hoped their attention and affection could help make her whole…

Today, the Lierows live on a 26-acre farm east of Nashville. Dani, in sixth grade now, is taller than Bernie. She still looks a little haunted, but she will look you in the eye…

They search for small signs that things are getting better. Dani can tune you in, when she wants to. And she often checks out. You can't tell if she is oblivious or just ignoring you.

She can't read, but she knows how to hold a book and turn the pages. She sits through an entire story about Maisey mouse. Does peg puzzles on her own. She can climb a fence, pour a cup of water, sleep through the night. She can't get dressed but she can rip off all her clothes and stuff them into the laundry basket.

"She doesn't chew off her dolls' arms any more," Bernie said. "Now, she just spins them by their hair."

Six years after that detective found Dani, four years since the Lierows adopted her, she still can't talk. She has spent as much time away from her birth mother as she did with her. Maybe, even with constant conversation and professional therapy, you still can't rejuvenate parts of the brain that were never stimulated.

Still, Dani seems much more aware now, more trusting. She notices when a police siren streams past but she doesn't freak out. She let her camp counselor braid her hair.

Speech therapist Vicki Graham works with Dani at her school four days a week. She is trying to teach her American sign language, words like "thank you" and "pull." "She signs for 'eat' and 'drink' and 'more,' but they're her own signs, not standard," Graham said. "I don't anticipate her ever doing finger spelling. But I want to give her a way to communicate, whatever that is."…

Flying elephants and spinning spiders. Giant slides and a Crazy Mouse coaster. Popcorn and corn dogs and chocolate chip ice cream. Dani and Emily rode a dozen rides with their dads, and Dani ate all the junk food she could stomach. She held on until after 6 p.m.

The meltdown came in front of the old school house. Dani dove into a parked golf cart, groaning and thrashing. She was hot and tired and apparently sick of the fair. Two elderly women stared. A man in overalls shook his head. A boy in a ballcap asked, "Is she okay?"

"She's okay," Bernie told them all. "You're okay," he told Dani. "Let's go say goodbye to Mom and Willie and we'll be done."

He tried his soothing voice, his impatient voice, even bribed her with super sour candy straws. Finally, he half-dragged Dani out of the cart and propped her against his hip, staggering beneath her weight. "Mmmm," Dani moaned, her fists pounding her thighs.

On the way to the goat barn, she grabbed a woman's Coke right out of her hand. She took a pink balloon from a 2-year-old. Then bonked it against the back of man's head. She stopped to watch the sun slip behind the Ferris wheel.

"Come on," Bernie pleaded. "Let's get you home."

She looked at her dad, lifted her hands and cupped his chin. Then the girl who had gone so long without love, whom everyone worried might never love, leaned close. And licked her dad's beard.

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