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CNN Larry King Live

The Mystery of Autism

Aired March 21, 2007 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Bill Cosby doing his part to try to solve the mystery of autism, the fastest growing developmental disability in America.

TONI BRAXTON: My oldest son, who's five, his friend says what's wrong your brother? Your brother is weird. Just think, I mean he's five. I mean when he's six (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?


KING: It locks kids in a world of their own and drives moms like Toni Braxton to tears.


BRAXTON: I just want my child.


KING: More children will get the devastating diagnosis of autism this year than AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined. And not only is there no cure, nobody is even sure what causes it. Now, heartbreak and hope with Bill Cosby and the parents of children with autism. Some you'll recognize. Others could be living right next door. A powerful, emotional hour is next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Good evening.

April is Autism Awareness Month.

And on April 9th, Bill Cosby headlines "The Concert for Autism Speaks," an unforgettable night of comedy and music in New York City.

NBC news man Tom Brokaw will serve as master of ceremony.

The event takes place at Lincoln Center.

And by the way, throughout tonight's show, we'll be showing you clips from a documentary titled, "Autism Every Day," a fascinating film about autism. And it features some of the guests who will be with us this hour. The documentary was also an official selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

In our first segment, we offer you Bill Cosby, the legendary comedian and TV star, who will headline that major concert. And here in Los Angeles, Toni Braxton, the six time Grammy award winning singer. Her youngest child, Diezel, was diagnosed with autism at age three. She will sing at that concert.

And also in L.A. Gary Cole, the multi-talented movie and television actor. His daughter Mary diagnosed when she was 18 months old. He's also involved in The Help Group, which you can find out more information on the Web at He'll start work soon on a new drama series called "Twelve Miles of Bad Road."

Bill, why are you -- why are you involved in this, Bill?

BILL COSBY: Well, it's about children. And it's about friends and it's about people who are born with something, as we all did -- not born with something, but as we all grew up -- in my time it was polio, tuberculosis, a whole bunch of things that people didn't want to talk about, didn't want to deal with.

But then, as the organizations began to make more noise about the situations -- polio, T.B. etc. -- we, through the money to research, we began to find the reasons, the cures, what not to do.

And if you see families and if you see a child and this child has this particular behavior, it sounds cold, but you -- you have to understand that there's someone inside.

KING: Yes.

COSBY: And you have to understand that that person is trying to convey and trying to talk. And they -- they become frustrated.

KING: Have you had it affect you personally in your family at all?

COSBY: No. We were just crazy.

KING: Oh, just naturally crazy?

COSBY: Yes, just naturally.

KING: Toni, tell me about your child, Diezel.

BRAXTON: Oh, my son Diezel is three years old now. And we found out he was autism -- he was diagnosed, actually, last year, September, in Vegas. We had to...

KING: What were the signs?

BRAXTON: For me, he wasn't developing like his older brother. He wouldn't do eye contact. We took him to the doctors, the developmental pediatricians, and they said oh, he has something called apraxia, which is a fancy label for a speech delay.

We put him in O.T. occupational therapy and speech, everything we needed to do. But things just weren't right. He just -- he didn't talk. He stopped saying words. Just -- he just wasn't different than his brother.

KING: And now?

BRAXTON: Much better. We had -- because we were able to diagnose, we knew what the problem was and we could get him all the help that he needs.

KING: What kind of treatment?

BRAXTON: Oh, gosh, he's in ABA, O.T. speech behavior, everything. He has like almost 80 hours a week therapy with different therapists.

KING: I guess we know autism, Gary, through the movie, right?

GARY COLE: Right. Right.

KING: With Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. COLE: Right.



TOM CRUISE: Do you know how much 312 times 123 is?


CRUISE: He's right.


KING: Is that a classic example of autism?

COLE: Actually, to my understanding, it is not. That's a pretty rare situation that that character was, not only his intellect, but, you know, that it was a combination of his intellect and his condition. But I don't...

KING: What about your daughter?

COLE: Mary is 14 and as Toni was talking, you know, it was pretty much a carbon copy of what we were going through when she was -- she was actually diagnosed at two years and four months. But a lot of the signs were lack of eye contact, inability to get her attention, lack of focus on things. She went through occupational therapy, behavior therapy...

KING: And now?

COLE: ... speech therapy.

Now she's doing remarkably well. I mean she's -- she's been in public school since she entered school as a kindergartner. She's always had an aide with her, a shadow in the classroom that is...

KING: Would I obviously know she's autistic if I met her? COLE: No, you would not. No. Maybe when she was younger, if you observed her in a group of other kids three and four years old for a bit of time, you would -- you would maybe ask a few questions about her behavior. But now it's not really all that apparent. No.

KING: Bill, I know you get millions of offers to do things and a lot involve children.

Why did you take this? Why are you doing this in April?

COSBY: Well, first of all, it's -- there was an opening. And Mrs. Wright and my old boss, her husband, they came to me. But I have a loved one by the name of Michelle. And I've known her son for quite some time. And in a way, I've enjoyed watching him get better and I've also enjoyed watching her as a parent going anywhere, anytime, anyplace to see if there was an answer for her.

And I've enjoyed her talk about how she found something wonderful for her son. And the latest thing that I got was that he is beginning to say things specifically to her about something. And that's when we all smiled.

KING: We need to take a break.

But first, if you'd like to learn more about autism, just visit our Web site, There you'll find additional links to some really great Web sites.

And we'll be right back.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They didn't want to say the "A" word right away. They kept saying pervasive development disorder.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: David was diagnosed with PDD-NOS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I went on the computer and everything that had PDD-NOS said autistic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I remember my heart stopped beating.

I said autism?

Like, god, do -- is David autistic?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I went home, I got out a DSM and I looked up PDD-NOS and I saw the horrible referral to autism. And then I felt sick to my stomach.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got frustrated and I just said listen...


Joining our panel now is Dr. Ricki Robinson, M.D. and M.Ph. She's a pediatrician specializing in children with autism. She's an expert on biomedical approaches to autism spectrum disorders.

Definition, Dr. Robinson.

What is autism?

DR. RICKI ROBINSON, M.D. PEDIATRICIAN SPECIALIZING IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM: Well, autism is a developmental disorder that significantly affects a child's ability to relate and to communicate.

KING: It always starts in childhood?

ROBINSON: It always starts before the age of three. And there are many symptoms that have been talked about here already. But they usually fall into four main categories.

KING: They are?

ROBINSON: The first category is the major delay in the development of language that children can understand and then also use. So, we're not really talking about the child who understands everything that's going on around him and follows directions but doesn't use language. We're talking about the child whose parents may be yelling their name and there's absolutely no response.

The second category falls into sort of a need for sameness and ritual and repetitive behaviors. So a typical one a young child might do is instead of taking a toy and zooming it like zoom, zoom, they'll line the toys up. And those of us who observe the children notice that they line them up in exactly the same way each time. And if it isn't the exact same way they can get -- they get frustrated.

The third category, which is really the core of the issue, is that there's a huge major delay in the social development of the child. And I know you have young children and, you know, it's that connection that you have with your child. So when a child is young and has that first smile and you know that feeling you feel as a parent and you have that connection with your child?

That's the connection that's missing in these kids. And I call that the gut factor. Most of my parents come in and they say in my gut I know something isn't right.

KING: Yes.

ROBINSON: And that's what we have to respond to, because they know they don't have that connection.

KING: And the fourth?

ROBINSON: And then the fourth category is these unusual responses to sensory stimuli. And that... KING: Like?

ROBINSON: Well, for example, that little boy that I talked about who doesn't respond to his name?

An airplane will fly over at 35,000 feet and he's the only one who will look up. So it's almost that what we consider our foreground, which is often the social communication, is their background.

KING: It's a disorder?

ROBINSON: Well, it's a disorder...

KING: It's not a disease?

ROBINSON: Well, it is a disease but because we don't yet know what really causes it, it could be many diseases that lead to this end game.

KING: Toni, is it frustrating?

BRAXTON: Yes, as a parent some time it can be, because you want the best for your kid and you don't know what to do sometimes. When I heard his story of his daughter being in school, it made me so excited because I think of my little boy and he's in a special education program. And I think of the road of recovery. And when you have kids, you just -- I want the best for him.

So when I heard his story, it was so uplifting for me. So I thank you for that so much.

KING: It must be fantastic to know she's in school.

BRAXTON: We just found out. It hasn't been a year yet. Thank you for that.

COLE: Yes. Yes. No, she's come a -- she's come an incredibly long way and, you know, it takes me back when I hear stories early, because it is -- it's -- it's difficult enough when you have a small child to see their personalities emerging and to try to identify that. And that's why it is very frustrating, because thrown on top of that is -- is just behavior that you -- you can't explain nor can you figure out how to deal with until you get help from people that are experts at it...


COLE: ... and other people that have gone through the same thing.

KING: Bill, your friend will be with us later in the program.

But is her child doing better?

COSBY: Well, as I've told -- one of the things I think the doctor may have left out is the lack of eye contact. And I think some of the people on the panel had said that the eye contact -- it's -- it's sort of like that, but at a younger age. They won't -- they won't look when -- it's like they're not in the room.

But what I have seen is exactly what I've said, about the -- the person getting better. I've even talked to some who are grown and in college at U. Mass Amherst. I was addressing students who have -- who are ADD-ADHD, dyslexic. And we had -- there were at least four in -- in the auditorium. And it was quite interesting the -- what the person wanted to say and what kept coming out. And then you'd see the anger...

KING: Yes.

COSBY: ... from, because of the sadness that -- they were sad because what they wanted to say they couldn't get out.

KING: Yes.

COSBY: So they became frustrated, angry with themselves. So you have to be patient.

KING: Doctor, do...

COSBY: Everybody...

KING: Doctor, do they know -- as Bill points out -- do they know something is wrong?

ROBINSON: Yes, they do.

KING: So...


KING: ... particularly frustrating?

ROBINSON: Yes. And I think that they've never, in the past, they haven't been given credit for all that they know and all that they feel. And I think that what you start understanding is that because of all these differences in the way in which they process the world around them, that the world for them can be very threatening, very frightening.

KING: But when you see someone like -- like Gary's daughter, now in public -- how do you explain that?

ROBINSON: Oh, well...

KING: What's improved?

ROBINSON: Well, Gary's daughter has done a fabulous job. But she has had incredible support from her family and incredible support from her entire team and she has done -- she has worked incredibly hard to get to where she is.

KING: Are there any drugs used in this?

ROBINSON: Well, yes. We can use all of the medicines that we would use in all the neurobiological disorders, but it's not necessarily the first thing that we would go to.

KING: Was "Rainman" really off the mark or are there a lot of people like that, who can add figures and that?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, there are so many individuals with autism in the country today, that, yes, a certain percentage of them might look like "Rainman."

KING: Who could go to Vegas and count cards?

ROBINSON: Yes. Yes. That would be a savant skill...

KING: Right.

ROBINSON: ... something that -- but yet they couldn't care for themselves on a daily basis.

KING: What's autism spectrum disorder?

ROBINSON: Well, if you look at all of the characteristics of autism, you can either have a major hit and be majorly challenged in all of the areas, or you could have less of a hit and be less challenged in all of the areas. So there's a spectrum.

KING: How many people have it?

ROBINSON: Oh, we -- well, the new CDC statistics say it's one out of 150 children in this -- in this country.

KING: That is very high.

ROBINSON: Oh, to put it in perspective, there will be more children who are born with autism this year than AIDS, diabetes and cancer all put together.

KING: When we come back, television's Lou Grant and his real life wife share the story of how their family has been affected by autism.

The panel remains.

Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like when your child dies, you know, there is a finality to that.

But how do you mourn your own child who's alive?

He's still alive and breathing, but the boy that I thought would be there, the boy that I had in my heart and in, you know, in my thoughts and thought the future is gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The dream of a -- of a normal life was really what was lost. All the things that you expect will be part of your daily life went away at that time.



KING: Joining us now, Ed and Cindy Asner.

You know Ed as, among others, the series television's Lou Grant. He and Cindy have a young adult son, Charlie, who has Asperger's Syndrome, a "high-functioning" form of autism.

What do you mean by "high-functioning," Ed?

ED ASNER: Well, I've got to correct you. Charles is "high- functioning" autistic.


E. ASNER: And by "high-functioning," he is in many ways, shapes and forms brilliant intellectually -- in physics, mathematics. He writes well. He even draws well. He's a man of -- a man for all seasons in terms of that.

But his autism expresses itself in its difficulty to -- to empathize, to identify, to occupy the brain of the next person. And yet, at the same time, we -- thanks to Cindy, who has practically raised him from -- from being totally disconnected to being connected now, he displays empathy and it's almost as if he wouldn't necessarily feel it on his own, but he has been acculturated to do so.

KING: Why is it called Asperger's, doctor?

ROBINSON: Well, Asperger was the name of the psychiatrist in the 1940s who described a group of children who had these kinds of high intellects, but very poor social skills.

KING: Lou, that must have driven you nuts.

You've got this brilliant kid that's anti-social.

E. ASNER: I thought he was just a brilliant individual, you know?

KING: But he's anti-social?

E. ASNER: Thanks to Cindy and psychologists that eventually came -- and believe me, the task force out there didn't -- never picked it up. A neurologist didn't pick it up. Teachers didn't pick it up. He was under therapy. The therapist didn't pick it up.

So it's -- it's so -- when they're "high-functioning," it's very difficult to nail. KING: How independent can Charlie be?

E. ASNER: I think he can be more independent than his mother does, but...

CINDY ASNER: I don't think so.

E. ASNER: But that's all...

C. ASNER: That's not true.

E. ASNER: That's always...

KING: Does he go to college?


C. ASNER: He went to college.

E. ASNER: He's taking courses at Roosevelt College now. We -- we had him for three years at the Orthogenics School in Chicago.

C. ASNER: Oh, you're going to talk about that.

KING: This would seem to be the most puzzling, wouldn't it, Toni?

BRAXTON: But it's so hopeful as a parent when I hear that because...

C. ASNER: Well, he also...

BRAXTON: His daughter is great.

C. ASNER: He also went to the University of Chicago in high school. So he's very bright. But this is the -- he's incredibly bright. But what's important is -- I have to say this, because it's very important for all teachers. There's a wonderful Academy Award film called "Educating Peter" out. And every school I've gone to, I've brought it to the schools.

It's about a Down's Syndrome child in Tennessee somewhere and a teacher was given this child somewhere in the third or fourth grade. And this teacher decided that she was going to make all the children in the class responsible for helping this child. And this child was exceedingly aggressive -- hit all the children with the lunch pail and was really difficult.

Those children accepted that child and that child became loved. And the teacher, who knew nothing about special needs, made the children feel responsible for that child. And this was a way of looking at how to integrate somebody different into our society.

And those children, in the end, cried when he had to leave. And they said they learned more from Peter than Peter learned from them.

KING: When we come back, the grandmother who is determined to teach the world about the disorder that affects so many young people.

That's next.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he would sometimes stare up at lights in funny ways or he examined the hardware on a door with such intense interest we said this is not right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As the weeks went on, he became more and more, what I've referred to as distant. And I didn't quite understand it. My husband didn't really understand it. And I kept going back to this very prominent, by the way, Upper East Side pediatrician, who kept telling me, oh, he's upset. He knows he's here. He's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So we went to the doctor and he just said oh, don't worry about it. He's just, you know, he's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got the whole boys talk late thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not exactly meeting the milestones, but I was told not to worry.



KING: We're dealing with a major program tonight on autism.

Our guests are, in New York, Bill Cosby, the legendary comedian and TV star. Always great to see him. He will headline next month's "Concert for Autism Speaks" at Lincoln Center.

In Los Angeles, Toni Braxton, the six time Grammy winning singer. Her youngest child, Diezel, was diagnosed with autism at age three.

Gary Cole, the multi-talented movie and television actor. His daughter Mary was diagnosed at 18 months old and has progressed very well.

Dr. Ricki Robinson is a pediatrician specializing in children with autism.

And joining us now in New York is Suzanne Wright, cofounder of Autism Speaks." Her grandson Christian was diagnosed with autism in 2004 at age two. Her husband is the famed Bob Wright, the former head of NBC/Universal.

How is Christian doing, Suzanne?

SUZANNE WRIGHT, COFOUNDER, AUTISM SPEAKS: Well, thank you both so much for asking. Christian is doing much better, thank you. And I want to thank especially Toni and for Bill for doing concert for Autism Speaks. This is so important to the Autistic community. And especially important that Bill has decided that the proceeds from this benefit will go to the research in the environmental triggers that might be causing Autism. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

KING: How do you explain, Suzanne, that this is not taught in medical school?

WRIGHT: I don't explain that. I think it's absolutely deplorable. I cannot believe in the day of the Autism epidemic. As somebody reported before, Polio was in the 50's when we were growing up. It was 1 in 3,000 and was a national health crisis. Everyone rallied around the fact that we needed to find a cause and a cure. Now, we have 1 in 10,000 -- it was 13 years ago -- 1 in 166 is three years ago. The CDC numbers are now 1 in 150, 1 in 94 boys will be diagnosed with Autism. This is truly a national and a global epidemic.

KING: Are either of you shocked by this? Toni, aren't you shocked...

BRAXTON: I was shocked.

KING: ... that they aren't teaching it in medical school?

BRAXTON: Yes. Suzanne, she reached out to me immediately. She heard about my son and she called me. And she's a pioneer. I love it when I hear her. I can do this. We can beat this. I mean she's like the best person ever. So when I heard the numbers I was definitely surprised.

KING: Suzanne, you have the financial wherewithal, Bob Wright and the like to take care of Christian.


KING: What about people who don't?

WRIGHT: That's exactly why we founded Autism Speaks. It was unconscionable that millions of family across the country were not being accepted into the community that needed help. They were just ignored and that's why we fought so hard. And I want to thank my friend Deidre and Don Imus because without them we wouldn't have gotten the Combating Autism Bill passed, which is going to give us almost a billion in research and education over the next five years. It was historic to get this passed.

And I need to get the grandparents of this country galvanized around their autistic family because you know as well as do I we don't have any time in our families. They don't have any time. We have time to give them to make sure that this legislation gets through and we get the appropriations.

KING: Where can they get further information, Suzanne?

WRIGHT: Go to our website,, and we will be there with anything you need. We have to get the country's attention focused on this epidemic.

KING: The Imuses are good friends and I'm glad to see that they're involved.

WRIGHT: Yes, I couldn't have done it without them.

KING: What does Autism Speaks do?

WRIGHT: Well, we pretty much do everything and anything. We're a 2-year-old operation. We're coming up on $60 million. By the end of this year, we will have given away 35 million in research, education, and treatment. So we're really on a roll. And Hillary Clinton is introducing a bill, $350 million for treatment and services to be done, I believe, starting next year. And we're thrilled because this is what is we need. We need national attention on this epidemic.

KING: Doctor, who's more likely to get it, boy or girl?

ROBINSON: Four times as many boys get it.

KING: Four times as many boys?

ROBINSON: Yes, and that's why Suzanne -- I mean listen to the rate that Suzanne said. One in 94 boys will be affected with autism.

KING: If your brother has it, will you likely get it if you're his brother?

ROBINSON: Well, we know that autism has a genetic predisposition. We don't yet know, you know, exactly how it's inherited or what those genes are. But part of the research that is being so actively funded by Autism Speaks is into this very issue.

KING: Is Autism Speaks it?

ROBINSON: Autism Speaks is it.

KING: And there's nobody else doing it?

ROBINSON: Well, there are many other organizations. The beauty of Autism Speaks is they brought all of the organizations together so that we can speak with one voice.

KING: I gather this would not be done without Suzanne.

BRAXTON: Yes. She is a pioneer. I love her. She's incredible.

KING: When we come back, we'll refresh your memory about an autistic high school student who made headline as athletic hero. What a show that was.

And a little later a mom with three young kids, all three have autism. Don't miss her inspiring story. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My big dream is for him to recover and be the way he used to be, to be able to talk to him again.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So he can express what he wants and what he likes to do. And you know he used to say, "I love you."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's very, very loving to me. In his own way, he expresses that.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jason or J-Mac, as he is known, is medically diagnosed as highly functioning Autistic. He's also loved by his teammates and fellow students. That's why they came to the game with his face on signs. And when he entered the game, they went crazy.

Jason got in the game, took a pass and took a shot. He missed badly. One minute later, he got his hoop, a three-pointer that set the gym on fire.

JASON: I was very excited. The team was excited. Everybody else was excited.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But J-Mac wasn't done. He kept shooting and kept hitting another three and another three.

JASON: I was on fire. I was hotter than a pistol.


KING: All right, apparently it has no affect athletically, Dr. Robinson?

ROBINSON: No, actually it often does have affects athletically.

KING: Is it good?

ROBINSON: No, actually not too good.

KING: So what happened there?

ROBINSON: My guess is he's worked very hard at that in order to develop that as a skill. And it's just wonderful.

KING: Bill, you're an athlete. What do you make of that?

COSBY: I'm telling you, that it's difficult. I don't care if you have nothing wrong with you; it's tough to make that shot three times. Hey, man, three out of four. You know some of the people might say, "Listen, give me some of that." KING: You are not kidding. What is that little blue pin you're wearing?

ROBINSON: This is Autism Speaks pin and it's also our logo. And it represents the pieces of the puzzle. Right now, we are getting some clues. Each one is a piece. They're not yet connected as to the whole but that's what all of the emphasis on raising the funds, getting the government involved, is so that we can put this mystery together and figure out what's going on.

KING: Gary, was your daughter treated differently by other people?

COLE: We never wanted to keep it from anybody and especially in the school setting. And when she went into school, my wife decided to write a letter to each teacher and to all of the parents of her classmates explains Mary, and the history of her, and what we had been through, and we had done in terms of therapy and intervention. And the same thing took place. These kids in the classroom took it upon themselves as their responsibility to help her, to help her get better. And they each affected each other. So a lot of those kids were walking tall after, you know, their experience with her.

KING: How is your boy treated?

BRAXTON: It's been challenging. My oldest son, who's 5, his friend is like what's wrong with your brother. You're brother's weird. Just little things like that. But he's 5. What is he supposed to ask? So that can be hard to explain to my 5-year-old who says how come Diesel doesn't talk or why does he act that way. So that hurts my feelings a lot. But it's getting better.

KING: Suzanne, what happens when people come and see Charlie? What would you notice first?

WRIGHT: My Christian.

KING: Christian, I'm sorry.

WRIGHT: He doesn't really speak a lot. And he runs around a lot. And he has to have one on one therapist with him most time. Christian unfortunately had a very sad regression of autism. He was developing beautifully. He hit all his milestones. He had a wonderful vocabulary. He was potty trained. So for this to happen to him was so very sad to see this child escape into the darkness of Autism. He lost his language. He lost his ability to potty train. He basically went into the darkness of Autism right in front of our eyes, which was very, very sad to see.

That's why I want to empower grandparents or anybody in the family that thinks there's something. Most likely there is. We suspected something at about 18 months but because a baby was born and they had moved, you know, boys will be boys. Boys will regress. Many of the doctors said don't worry about it.

In the day of the autism epidemic, you cannot accept anything but second and third opinions to make sure that nothing is wrong with your child. And go to my -- our website where we have all of the developmental mile stones. And you can look for yourself to see if your child is meeting those.

KING: Suzanne, thank you so much. Congratulation on all you're doing. Anything we can do to help.

WRIGHT: Thank you so much.

KING: Suzanne Wright.

Just ahead, tree cases of Autism in the same family. Not as uncommon as you might think. Stay tuned.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're just judged more harshly and more constantly, and expected to do things that no human being should be expected to do.

It's really heartbreaking when your child is having a meltdown and other children are playing and behaving normally.

And even today when Jodie was on the swings and crying, the other moms started looking and wondering why this 8-year-old girl was screaming and carrying on because she didn't want to get on the swing. It's impossible not to feel the judgment.




MICHELE IALLONARDI, MOTHER OF 3 AUTISTIC BOYS: We set up the basement like a classroom for Jackson. I want him to get used to what it's like being in a school environment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nice trying, put in.

IALLONARDI: We spent $50,000, you know, on this room.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can put a "C" for -- can you say "Mama." Nice talking. Here's "C."

IALLONARDI: This wouldn't have been what we want into debt for. It represents 40 hours a week of one to one intervention where my kid is crying, you know, a good part of the time.


KING: Joining us now in New York is Michelle Iallonardi. Her three sons all have Autism. Five-year-old son Jackson and 3-year-old twins Luca and Bennett. Did you expect after you had Jackson that it would affect the other two boys when they were born, Michelle? IALLONARDI: I didn't expect it, but I did worry about it. It was definitely something that we asked doctors about and they said not to worry. But they were wrong.

KING: How is Jackson doing?

IALLONARDI: Jackson is very affected. He's 5 1/2. He just spoke his first words about a month ago. He's had such intensive therapy. He works harder than any adult I know. He has, you know, had over 40 hours of therapy since he was 2. You know it's all relative. He's doing better but he's very affected. He struggles every day.

KING: These three boys and Michelle are featured in the film we talked about earlier, "Autism Speaks Presents Autism Every Day." Let's watch a clip.


IALLONARDI: He grinds his teeth. He makes this clicking sound. You just want to be like, shut up, shut up. I can't take it. It drives me crazy and then couple that with feeling guilty because that's the only sound he can make.


KING: Toni, I know this is hard for you to watch for you having a young boy. What do you think it must be like with three?

BRAXTON: I couldn't imagine the strength she must have. I mean sometimes I get emotional and I cry about it. But my tears don't mean that I'm weak or I'm feeling sorry for myself. It's more of my strength to fight for your children. And I watch her and what her day must be like. So for me as a parent, it's a little hard for me to watch.

KING: Are those the only three kids you have?


KING: What must it be like, doctor?

ROBINSON: What these families go through are the most I have ever seen in all my clinical practice. Not only do they have to deal with the diagnosis itself, which means a total reorder of what your expectations are for your children, but then you have to learn how to become an advocate for your child. And you have to advocate with everything. And then you have to figure out how to finance this. The financial burden is overwhelming. When I prescribe a program, I prescribe a program that will be anywhere from 40 to 60 hours per week. In there is lots of expert care. And so, a typical...

KING: How much?

ROBINSON: Forty thousand, 50,000, 60,000 a year. And most of it is not covered by insurance. KING: With three, we triple that. Why is it not covered?

ROBINSON: Good question. It should be. It ought to be.

KING: Are yours covered?

COLE: The same reason it's not taught in medical school I'm gathering. Some of it through because Mary goes to public school and her needs are different than they were when she was younger. But we are doing less therapy and more is take place at school. But when she started, I mean this kid was booked, you know, eight hours a day.

KING: Bill, these parents are incredible people, aren't they? They're unsung heroes.

COSBY: But you know what I'm wondering, for instance, with Michelle, what's the comparison of the boys that they --parents could e-mail, get with each other and different age levels and different levels of the way they've been -- I'll use an incorrect word but the way they've been hit and talk to each other so that just in case nothing is coming, that they would be able to exchange.

I mean your thing -- this is the first sound with this young -- and what's irritating, what the others are doing. His daughter, who now seems to appear like she may be out of the woods a little bit, and then the other with the kid who seems to be OK -- but just so many different...

KING: Exchanging all of the ideas.


KING: Could that work, Michelle?

IALLONARDI: Of course. I mean, just my children alone, I have three children on the spectrum but they're all very different. So it's not -- I really can't even draw on my experience from one child to the other because the spectrum is do different. My oldest child is the one who's very affected. He has global problems. He has stomach problems, medical problems. You name it, he has it.

And my younger two are different, you know. One of my twins has a lot of behavior issues and my other twin is higher functioning. So you know it's very different and you know it's great. I mean Autism Speaks has done a lot of. You know if you go to their website, there is a way to, you know, hook up with other parents and learn information and things like that, which is very helpful, you know, for parents who are new to this now.

Years ago, I mean even with my son Jackson who now is diagnosed, over three years ago, didn't have nearly as much access to information and support as I did with my twins.

KING: Coming up, the mom who helped inspire Bill Cosby among others to raise awareness of Autism. We'll also tell you how you can get tickets to see Bill and Toni and others perform in New York next month. That's when we come back.


IALLONARDI: I look at Jackson especially in like the nice moments where he's hugging your or you're putting him to bed, and I think he could have been OK. I mean he could have been OK. And you close your eyes for a minute and life would be completely different. It would be completely different.




MICHELE PIERCE-BURNS, SON HAS AUTISM: Danson, did you brush your teeth good? Danson, it would really be good if you helped me. Good. Here's let's put it on your teeth, though. Thank you.

I have been brushing Danson's teeth basically every day for six years.

Sweetie, please give me some teeth.

The thing I try to tell myself is like this is a moment that I can interact with him and I can make it really negative and a huge fight, which some days are, or I can just do it because it has to be done.


KING: Joining us now is Michele Pierce-Burns. Her 7-year-old Danson has Autism and that all inspired Bill Cosby to become involved in April's fundraiser. How did you and Bill get involved in all this, Michele?

PIERCE-BURNS: We met when I was a child briefly on "The Cosby Show." And he's been a great mentor in my life ever since.

KING: And when Danson was born, did Bill become uniquely aware of this?

PIERCE-BURNS: Absolutely. And he was on the phone with me actually when my Danson got diagnosed at Yale University. He's someone I've reached out to over the course of my life and much like a second father.

KING: Bill, is it difficult for you to be around Danson?


KING: Not hard?

COSBY: No, no. You know Nicole said something that I have to go back to. When children like this have to go into the public or be around people, it's best to let the people know about your child, the behavior, et cetera, et cetera. And then the people become better behaved around your child also.

KING: Knowledge is beneficial.

COSBY: But the love -- they keep saying the same thing that's very important, that the kids give more love when they understand because kids want to help. If they see something and it's not explained to them then so-and-so is weird. But if you explain it and you give them a chance, you know, you can help. Man, they jump in and it's wonderful.

KING: Bill is a noble man. You've learned a lot about him just from listening to Michele.

Michele's also in that film we spoke about. Let's watch that clip.


PIERCE-BURNS: Come on in your seat.

This morning, I wanted Danson to sit with me and do a puzzle.

Is that a new puzzle?

He could care less. You know when he feels like doing it, he will sit there and do that whole puzzle in 30 seconds, or he won't.

My first teaching assignment was all of the children who failed high school English grades 9 through 12 repeating summer school. That was my first teaching job. And this is even much harder than that.

Sit here, beautiful. OK, now you're ready. Can you put the "W" in? Wow, Danson, good job.

I think he's really starting to come out more and more every single day and seeing that motivates me.

Nice, the "U" and the "V," fabulous.


KING: Michele got her doctoral program in education at Harvard. Did you know a lot about Autism?

PIERCE-BURNS: I never heard the word Autism until my son was diagnosed. And I think it's absolutely terrifying as a high school teacher, a principal of schools, that educators are not being taught what to do and they're being thrown into classrooms with our children and it's absolutely tragic. And I actually home schooled my son for the past year and a half because I was unable to find an educational setting for him. But I'm proud to say he began school last week at a wonderful institution in New Jersey. We moved to attend it. It's called Celebrate the Children and he's doing beautifully.

KING: Do you think your marriage might have ended because of it? PIERCE-BURNS: It's definitely a factor. Eighty percent of parents who have an Autistic child end up getting divorced. And I think it's a high level of stress. It's a high level of sleep deprivation. And it requires from you so much that there's not a lot left to give to your partner. So I think that is a factor.

KING: Well said. Did that affect you, your marriage?

BRAXTON: But it's great. But I remember the stressful period when we first found out.

KING: Gary?

COLE: I don't know. It seemed to be a mission from the beginning, you know, that we were going to take on and go forward with. And I think it might have strengthened our relationship.

KING: All right, if you want tickets to see Bill Cosby and Toni Braxton and a great crew on April 9, that's Monday night, April 9, The Concert for Autism Speaks at Lincoln Center, you can call 212-721- 6500, or you can go online at That's