About five years ago Leif Hope — known in these parts as the impresario behind the annual Artists and Writers softball game and former owner of the popular Laundry restaurant — started studying neurological dysfunction. A nephew of his suffers from bipolar disorder, and Mr. Hope’s research into that subject quickly jumped to the larger subject of autism.
“The more I read about it,” said Mr. Hope, “the larger the problem got.”
As a result, Mr. Hope organized a forum for educators that was held Friday at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Three dozen attendees representing districts from Montauk to Hampton Bays engaged in a discussion over this little-understood and only recently diagnosed condition.
There are many symptoms of autism, which is a bio-neurological disorder that usually shows itself in the first three years of life. Better-known symptoms include reduced social interaction and communication skills. There are also different levels of autism, and those who have it range from “high cognitive” autistics — formerly known by the offensive moniker “idiots savants” — to those who cannot speak and refuse to be touched, even by those closest to them.
Recent studies in the United States show that possibly 1 person in 150 is autistic, and a study released in South Korea only last week showed that in that country as many as 1 in 38 may exhibit some autistic traits. Globally, boys are diagnosed four times more frequently than girls.
“Some deal with it reasonably well,” said Mr. Hope. “But what happens after they leave school? Many who have been diagnosed have a great deal of difficulty in getting work, making friends, having a decent life.”
His hope is that educators will be the first step in offering some form of supplementary familial support. “This all falls on the parents,” he said. “What do they do, who do they turn to?” The divorce rate among parents of newly-diagnosed autistic children is very high, he said. “Perhaps the men don’t know how to deal with it.”
The fact that so little is known about the disorder leaves Mr. Hope to wonder how long it had been misdiagnosed as other ailments, or if those with a lower-functioning autistic child simply kept them at home.
He is also interested in the theories of the geneticists versus environmentalists. Some believe it is passed down hereditarily, while others present a strong argument for foods and toxins causing more cases in recent years. Some still believe that mercury in a vaccine that was administered to babies in the mid ’90s brought forth a rash of autism-like traits in kids across the U.S.
In parts of Europe, red dye 40 has been illegalized, as studies there have pointed to the possibility of its causing children to mimic the symptoms of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diagnoses related to autism. In the U.S., 1 in 10 children is now diagnosed with A.D.D. or A.D.H.D.
Sidney Baker of Sag Harbor is recognized for his work with autism, including the start of the Defeat Autism Now! Project, and attended Friday’s get-together.
“The world of autism is full of polarization of opinions and personalities,” he said. “It was refreshing to see people come together with a common purpose.”