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Sanjay Gupta MD

Adults Living with Autism; Should Parents be Responsible for Their Children's Weight?; More Television Equals More Calories for Kids

Aired April 21, 2007 - 08:30   ET


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ...It's not like he called her a vulgar name or anything and didn't physically hit her, so no, I don't see any reason why he should lose his parental custody rights over a moment of frustration and bad words."
And finally, this one from Louie, who says "parenting class, yes, loss of custody, no. If that happens, then that will cause far more detriment to the child than Alec's harsh words."

So as you can see, they kind of run the gamut, Betty. A lot of people also saying, you know, it's kind of not our business. People should just mind their own bee's wax. And unfortunately, that's what happens when you're in the public eye.

So we're going to be reading more of those e-mails. is where you can send yours. Betty?

NGUYEN: Yes, people are definitely opinionated on this one. And you know, people really weigh in on both sides.

I've been talking about it a lot with folks here in the NEWSROOM. And you hear people who say, hey, look, my parents talked to me like that and even worse.


NGUYEN: So this is nothing. But then, this is kind of shocking. He did call her a thoughtless little pig.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I mean, you can't deny that. But it is sad.

NGUYEN: We'll hear more about it. Thank you.

HOLMES: All right, also, what to do if your child's school comes under attack. We'll be talking about that in the next half hour.

NGUYEN: But first, "HOUSECALL" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta starts right now.

SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning, I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to HOUSECALL.

New numbers from the CDC show one in 150 children has some form of autism, remarkable numbers. And we usually talk about the children. Rarely do we talk about the adults living with autism. About 600,000 do as well.

We found Amanda Baggs on YouTube. Now Amanda doesn't talk, but what struck me most about Amanda wasn't her silence. It was what she had to say.


GUPTA (voice-over): This is Amanda Baggs, rocking back and forth. She does not make eye contact. Her movements are erratic. Her behavior eccentric. She can not speak. And for most of us, this is precisely what we expect when we see a person with autism.

But Amanda will absolutely change your expectations. Would you define yourself as an autistic person, Amanda? As you'll see, Amanda has a lot to say. Her brilliance is laced with a wry sense of humor. We first came across Amanda on YouTube. Her appearance there so startling, I wanted to meet her. I had so many questions.

AMANDA BAGGS (through translator) : The way I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider thought at all. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.

GUPTA: Amanda calls herself bilingual. For other autistic people, she has movements and gestures to communicate. But for the rest of us, she made this video to teach us how it works.

She jokingly calls us neurotypical, meaning we do not have autism. She communicates with the keyboard and her computer. And for visitors, a voice synthesizer.

So you've seen the video with your own eyes. I want to show it to you through Amanda Bagg's eyes. She lives in this building and she lives alone.

This is where Amanda made the video. She shot it, edited, and posted it on the Internet, all completely on her own. Surprised? If we must label her, she won't like it, but medically, she is a low- functioning autistic. . Part of the reason people watched it was because they were so stunned that a person who carries this label of autism, who doesn't speak, could put together such an astonishing video.

BAGGS: I put together several videos before and not a lot of people watched it.

GUPTA: But this time, she got through. Amanda, when you hear about people with autism that are institutionalized, that no one has really ever made a concerted effort to try and reach out to to communicate with in some way, what do you say to those people?

BAGGS: Everyone interacts with this society. And if you shut off from interacting with society, then you shut it off because it sure doesn't seem to me that I've ever seen someone who doesn't interact with society. GUPTA: In fact, Amanda interacts with everything around her. What about this? This was interesting. You can read, obviously, but you're actually putting your face in the book. Why? What does that mean?

BAGGS: I like the smell and the texture of that particular paper. That book has really rough paper.

GUPTA: Amanda says this is her natural way of thinking, in patterns and in colors, thinking with language and written words as we do is not natural for her. Therefore, she struggles with it. If you wanted to talk to me, could you do that?

BAGGS: I could make speech sounds. At this point, I could not make them mean anything I was thinking.

GUPTA: Does that frustrate you?

BAGGS: Not really. I type really very fast.

GUPTA: Yes, you do.

Yes, she types very fast. When she's feeling good and not distracted, Amanda types about 120 words a minute. But her ability fluctuates. Some days she can only type with one finger at a type. And occasionally, she can not type at all. On rare days, Amanda can become catatonic. Distractions, interferences, sensory overloads all present huge obstacles for Amanda.

So she is most secure and most comfortable here at home with her dog Billy Jean and with all of her computer equipment as well. But when she leaves here, she's assaulted by too much stimulation.

I went with her to see her dentist. She uses a wheelchair, not because she can't walk -- she can -- but she says the very act of balancing herself proves too distracting.

And you'll notice she's focused on her keyboard. In the dentist chair, the buzz and flicker of the fluorescent lights are overwhelming for her. They can trigger migraines. So Amanda soothes herself. She fiddles with her blocks. They are familiar and calming.

When Amanda hit herself, I was startled, but not surprised. It is a familiar autistic behavior. She must be so frustrated. Such a bright woman, so trapped. And yet I wondered, how is it is that Amanda has been able to reveal so much about herself? And how many more people are there just like her?


GUPTA: It's really remarkable to meet her. Amanda is technically a low-functioning autistic. That's her diagnosis. The hallmarks are obsessive-compulsive behaviors, that erratic hand flapping that you saw, occasional head banging, even regression. They will lose some of their abilities as they get older. In fact, that was the case with Amanda as well. When she was younger, she actually talked.


GUPTA (voice-over): It's a bit disconcerting talking to Amanda. Typical of people with autism, there is no eye contact.

BAGGS: There is problems I don't know on my meds.

GUPTA: Until she responds with her keyboard and voice synthesizer, it's hard to know if what I'm saying actually registers.

If you didn't have this, how would I communicate with you? How would I understand what you're trying to tell me? How would you guide me or at least help me understand you?

BAGGS: I tend to kind of bludgeon people over the head with that kind of communication. Not sure.

GUPTA: Growing up, Amanda attended regular public schools. She could read at an early age. It's called hyperlexia, and it's common for people with autism. She says she learned spelling by reading. She learned to type with a teaching software. Then in her teens, she slowly lost her ability to talk. Would you say that people would be surprised to find out how well you can communicate being a person with autism?

BAGGS: Generally, if they see me first before they see me talk, they are surprised, and sometimes disbelieving. And then sometimes if they first see me, right, they think that I'm not autistic.

ERIC HOLLANDER, DR., AUTISM CENTER OF EXCELLENCE: What's extraordinary is that some individuals that you think are mentally retarded and have no language, once they're able to communicate through a keyboard, they have high-level processing and thinking about the world. And they're able to communicate in an expressive fashion.

GUPTA: Remember, that's how we first found Amanda, via her computer on YouTube. In fact, the Internet has allowed her to leave her secure and orderly, little apartment to meet others with autism. For example, she likes to go to an online community called "Second Life," where she's created an animated alter ego, who looks and acts like her. Even here in her virtual world, she's typing and rocking back and forth.

HOLLANDER: The big advantage of the Internet for people with autism is it does filter out all of the facial expressions and the body language. So people don't have to spend time trying to disentangle or understand the non-verbal forms of communication.

GUPTA: What are we missing here? Why has autism been this, something that people have not really been able to get their arms around in terms of being able to communicate, be able to understand it fully?

BAGGS: There's a communication gap that goes two ways. It's not a one way street. And so part of the problem is that the people are not thinking. If they don't understand us, it's because we are broken. And if we don't understand them, it is because we're broken.

GUPTA: As for communicating with others who have autism, Amanda said it's not about words. I asked her about an autistic woman she wanted to meet. Why didn't you just look at her and make a motion, like hello or hi or wave the hand or something to acknowledge her at the time?

BAGGS: That would be a bit invasive, wouldn't it?

GUPTA: Well, it happens all the time. I mean, I think a lot of people would understand that sort of gesture. Do you think that she would have been offended by it or that it would have been too invasive to her?

BAGGS: When I'm around other autistic people where the meaning is known already, why bother with forcing an arm to do all that when you can already make the meaning clear? It's redundant.

Why would I spend not only the physical energy on doing the motion, but the cognitive energy working out which particular motion is the one you want out of me right then? It's like running calculus in your head to say hi. And it's not usually work it in the long run.

GUPTA: In other words, meeting our expectations is not important for her. It can actually overwhelm her.

What is the message then, for the parents, for the people who are providers? I mean, try harder to communicate?

BAGGS: Listen to other autistic people. In fact, expose autistic children to a wide variety of autistic adults. It may be the autistic adults who do have neither typing or speech, who are far more equipped to be able to communicate with other autistic people.


GUPTA: You know, as a doctor, this was a remarkable experience just getting to sit down with Amanda. You can read all about my thoughts about the interview and tell me yours as well by going to my blog, Also on that health page, you're going to find out how computers are helping adults with autism and a link to Amanda's video that first intrigued us so much. First, stay where you are, though.

Straight ahead, a child almost taken from his home because he's overweight. How far should society go in holding parents responsible?

Then, one group calls it extreme eating. And they want the government to step in. We'll explain, ahead on HOUSECALL.


GUPTA: He's eight years old, he lives in England, and he weighs more than 200 pounds. Connor is obese. And his weight has gotten the family into trouble. Get this. The British authorities almost took him away from his mother. The question this morning is should parents be held responsible for their child's weight? It's a good question. Helping us answer those questions is Dr. Melinda Sothern, director of the Pediatric Obesity Clinical Research Section at LSU's Health Science Center.

Welcome back to the show.

MELINDA SOTHERN, PH.D., AUTHOR, "TRIM KIDS": Thank you for having me, Dr. Gupta.

GUPTA: She's also the author of "Trim Kids." Interesting. This is sort of an amazing story to me. First of all, do you think that it's appropriate for them to remove the child from the home?

SOTHERN: No, absolutely not. There's very little scientific evidence that parental neglect is what's driving the childhood obesity epidemic. And if anything, I think parents need help. They really don't understand nutrition and this obese condition as well as they should. And I was glad to hear that they were going to match this family with a nutritionist to guide them. And I think we're going to see some positive changes if they do that.

GUPTA: I mean, you know, to get to this point, though, doctor, it's -- could it be endangering his life? I mean, he's put on a lot of weight. Obviously, it puts him at risk for all sorts of different things. Is there a point where you just say, look, it's just not going to work?

SOTHERN: Well, you know, if you remove a child from the environment, they will lose weight, but usually that weight loss is temporary. And then when they're placed back in the environment, they gain it back.

But that's true of any environment, not just the home environment. So I'm not sure that disrupting the entire family by removing the child from the parental supervision is the way to go.

And again, we don't have the tools and the healthcare industry -- and this is also in England -- to provide the kind of support that families need to tackle this problem. This is a very stubborn problem.


SOTHERN: And it's multi-factorial.

GUPTA: Sure.

SOTHERN: It's got a lot of genetic and physiological basis to it. It's not just the fact that he's eating fast food, unfortunately.

GUPTA: Well, you know, it's interesting, because I think a lot of people are probably watching, doctor, right now and saying well, look, I mean, we've tried everything. We've have a child who just -- we just seem to get a hold of their weight. And you're say we're going to arm them with information, arm them with tools.


GUPTA: Are there things that are actionable today that, you know, parents can sort of act on?

SOTHERN: Well, I tell parents to watch out, because the minute their child walks out the door in the morning, the rest of the world's trying to make them overweight. Not that I want them to be victims.

What I'd like them to do is become more powerful, and take control of their home environment, and make sure that they're doing everything at home to keep the child healthy. Put some pressure on the community and the schools to make sure that the children are getting 60 minutes of physical activity every day. And also that there's healthy offers in the cafeteria and in the vending machines.

But parents certainly can skip the soda aisle, skip the cookie and candy aisle, take the children down the fruit/vegetable aisle. Have them select one favorite to cook and serve at home. Give them water when they're thirsty. Schedule their meals so they don't have unlimited access to the refrigerator. Re-establish family meals in the evenings. Set up, you know, play areas inside the house and outside the house. I mean, they have to do a little bit of work, but I think that they really can make enough changes in their home environment to keep the child from gaining any more weight.

GUPTA: Right.

SOTHERN: And certainly studies have shown that.

GUPTA: Well, it's a vexing problem for a lot of people out there. I'm glad you're helping out with the efforts.


GUPTA: Because it is -- we're trying to get control of this childhood obesity epidemic. And we appreciate your efforts as well. Dr. Melinda Sothern, thank you so much for being with us.

SOTHERN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

Extreme eating. That's what one consumer group calls it. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says some restaurants are helping fuel the obesity epidemic by offering big meals full of fat and calories. This group is urging government officials to make restaurants to list nutritional information on their menus. More information there.

The National Restaurant Association was quick to point out this, though, people have options. Most places offer healthy dishes. You've got to order them. We'll be talking more about invisible calories later in the show.

But next up, some women are at risk of getting aggressive breast cancer when they're younger. Find out who. And later, how one group is making it fun and accessible for kids to play every day.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSECALL. Judy Fortin joins us now with this week's medical headlines. Judy?

JUDY FORTIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Sanjay. The FDA has approved the first vaccine to prevent H5N1 bird flu in humans. The vaccine would be used if this bird flu virus becomes easily transmitted from human to human. The shots will not be sold commercially, but instead, stockpiled by the U.S. government. H5N1 is primarily found in birds with no reported human cases in the U.S. But 172 people have died worldwide from the virus.

Arthritis sufferers may be wasting their money on a popular dietary supplement, according to European researchers. Chondroitin is widely used in the U.S. to relieve joint pain or osteoarthritis. A new report looked at results of 20 different studies and concluded Chondroitin doesn't work any better than a placebo.

Ohio state doctors claim the benefits of treating children and teens with antidepressants outweigh the risks. The team reviewed more than two dozen trials and found kids with depression and anxiety treated with these types of drugs have less than a 1 percent rate of attempted suicide. The FDA mandated label warnings be added to pediatric antidepressant drugs back in 2004.

New research shows Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced and aggressive breast cancer than Caucasian women. Investigators believe the higher risk is not caused by access to care, but instead, by biological or genetic factors. The study is published in the journal "Cancer".

And eating bacon, sausage, cured ham or luncheon meats 14 times or more a month can lead to lower lung function and increased risk for COPD. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. Researchers believe additives in cured meats may cause damage to the lungs, similar to emphysema.

Sanjay, back to you.

GUPTA: Stay where you are. Coming up on HOUSECALL, why watching television is packing on childhood pounds. And a way to blast your kids off the couch. All that's ahead.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSECALL. The more television your kids watch, the more calories they're going to consume. That's the gist of a new Harvard study. Get this. It looked at recommended limits for TV watching and found that for every extra hour, kids consume almost 50 extra calories a day.

Most of it -- no surprise -- was in those sugary soft drinks. So parents, it really is time to get your children off the couch.


GUPTA: These elementary school kids in Fairfax County, Virginia have their groove on. Every day they dance. The purpose -- to get kids moving and fight obesity.

VAL TAGUDING, DANCE/PE TEACHER: We work on strong muscles and also working on building their hearts and their aerobic capacity as well.

GUPTA: That's so important. Some school systems who had canceled physical education classes are thinking of bringing them back, making exercise as essential as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

SUSAN OWNER, PH.D., ISLAND CREEK ELEM., PRINCIPAL: A lot of it is how the kids feel about themselves, that feeling of dignity and self respect that they get from physical activity.

GUPTA: The Partnership for Play Every Day agrees. The group is made up of private, public, and non-profit organizations, and is tired of watching kids get heavy.

AUDREY TAYSE HAYNES, YMCA OF THE USA: We're asking parents, teachers, public citizens to begin to think about involving children outside.

GUPTA: Along with researchers from Stanford University, the coalition has come up with a community play index that measures which barriers keep kids from participating in physical activities.

WILLIAM HASKELL, PH.D., STANFORD UNIV. SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: Which will allow communities to assess how well they're prepared to really support this idea of 60 minutes of activity every day.

GUPTA: Play Every Day hopes to raise millions of dollars for new programs across the country. That means, for example, more money for school playgrounds and funding for a greater police presence in community parks, now deemed unsafe places for kids to play.

The partnership hopes to give get more students up and grooving to the beat.


GUPTA: We're going to bring you the latest on what's working and what's not in the battle against obesity. We're really committed to this issue. One you're going to want to check out is on my blog. A group advocating that Girl Scout cookies should be banned. Hmm. Take a read of that. under "paging Dr. Gupta's blog."

I'd really like to hear your thoughts on that. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) GUPTA: For health information 24/7, just click on You're going to find the latest news, a medical library, and access to all my weekly podcasts. And for resources and information on autism, click on the Autism Society of America's Web site, at Find some amazing things there.

Unfortunately, we're out of time for this morning. Make sure to watch HOUSECALL every weekend for the latest news about your health and the answers to all of your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.