Sitting at the kitchen counter, playing a game on his mother's cellphone, Nick Brooks looked like any other 13-year-old, except for an occasional hand clap and the burbles that his brothers affectionately call "Nicky noises."
Soon, he got bored with the cellphone and motioned for the laptop on his mother's lap. Jean Brooks was willing to give it to him, but with one caveat.
"I'd like a sentence from you," she said.
"Mom's computer, please," Nick said.
That's a long sentence for the Roland Park youth. Nick is autistic and reads at a first- or second-grade level, but is not retarded, said Brooks, who is on the planning committee for Kennedy Krieger Institute's upcoming "ROAR for Autism" fundraising festival and walk April 28, in honor of National Autism Awareness Month.
Exactly what is going on with Nick is unclear, because the cause or causes of autism spectrum disorder, a mental condition that makes it difficult to communicate and form relationships, are in large part a mystery, Brooks said. Theories about the causes range from stress in the mother to environmental triggers, she said.
"To me, autism is a massive learning disability," she said. "It's a big monkey on your back."
Brooks, a homemaker and her husband, Tom, a partner in Anthem Energy, are determined to give Nick the same happy home life as his normal brothers, Josh, 14, and Caleb, 16, both of whom are students at Friends School of Baltimore. Jean Brooks said the family wants Nick to feel "safe, happy, confident and independent."
Toward that end, Tom Brooks serves on the board of Kennedy Krieger, which includes the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, founded in 1995 by Dr. Rebecca Landa.
Jean Brooks is active in planning ROAR and contributed an article to a recently published book called "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum."
The ninth annual ROAR event will be held at Oregon Ridge in Cockeysville, featuring a 25-mile bike ride, a 5k run and a family fun walk. An accompanying festival will include food, face-painting, balloon art, a coloring station and a bean-bag toss. An iPad mini valued at $330 will be raffled off. The registration fee is $25 in advance or $30 on the day of the event. Last year's event raised more than $280,000, organizers said.
Brooks and her son Josh planned to sit outside Tuxedo Pharmacy on Roland Avenue last week and sell raffle tickets.
Jean Brooks had already put her career as an anthropologist on hold when her older sons were born. She wanted to go back to work eventually, but when Nick was diagnosed with autism, just shy of his third birthday, "that was all she wrote."
The family home-schooled Nick until this year, then enrolled him at St. Elizabeth's, a special education school in northeast Baltimore, because he wasn't socializing with other children.
"We couldn't provide him with other kids, because all the other kids are in school," she explained. "Autism makes communication difficult, but it doesn't make you want company any less."
Nick appears to interact well with other children.
"We're working on friendship," his mother said.
She said Nick mostly communicates when he wants something — like McDonald's Chicken McNuggets or a trip to New York — or when he is responding to a request.
"He gets better every year with understanding words," she said. "And more and more, he shares comments. I was weeding one day and he said, 'The sun is hot.'
"The effort to put words together and share them is growing with time."
In many ways, Nick is more functional than other autistic children in daily living skills. He can use the bathroom, make lunch, and loves to ski. Autism seems to have made the stocky, 5-foot-4 youth an "extreme athlete," said Brooks. He loves heights, spinning and riding roller-coasters.
As a child, the family worried about him hurting himself, but he has settled down.
The family is always getting tips from other families with autistic children about everything from where to find a good therapist to how to rig doors so that they would hear it if a child tries to go outside without permission.
"Because autism is a mystery, parents learn all the important stuff from other parents," Brooks said. "There's a sense of camaraderie."
Many autistic children the family knows have better communication skills than Nick — "but they can't put on their own socks," Brooks said. "I have to remind him to wash his hands as much as I do my 16-year-old."
But there are differences between Nick and non-autistic children. He has co-occurring medical disorders that are common in children with autism, including gastrointestinal diseases. Last year, he had a massive grand mal seizure. And, he takes sedatives at night to help him sleep.
He eats a lot of "white foods," like bread, corn chips and French fries — "the national food of the autism community," his mother said. The only meat he likes is hamburgers, but he is picky about the ones he will eat (McDonald's are a favorite).
Making lunch last week, he fixed bread and pretzels that he heated in the microwave.
"It's too hot," he said.
He later requested corn chips and his mother obliged. She stood on a step stool in the kitchen, reached up to a cabinet above the refrigerator, unlocked a padlock and brought down the chips.
In a chapter called "The Market," for the "Chicken Soup for the Soul Book," Brooks tells of taking Nick to one of his favorite places, the Eddie's of Roland Park market on Roland Avenue. There, Nick runs through the store and gets all the groceries he can carry in his arms, from ice cream sandwiches to a toilet brush. He also loves the deli with its prepared foods.
When he started showing up with little containers of his favorite prepared foods, "I realized that he was somehow — with almost no expressive language — interacting with the people behind the prepared food counter," Brooks writes.
At home, where Nick flopped on a sofa after lunch, his mother said she thinks Nick will always be dependent on his family and friends to some extent, but that he has already come a long way.
"I think the future is bright," she said.
Upon leaving. a reporter said goodbye to Nick.
"Goodbyeeee," Nick said cheerily.
For more information about the ROAR for Autism event, go to http://www.roarforautism.org or call 443-923-7300.