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Bringing Up Mason

"B.J., what are you doing?" Polly Surhoff calls from a seat in the shade by their backyard swimming pool. It's not a question. What Polly is really saying is, "B.J., please don't do anything that might require a trip to the emergency room."

The Orioles' elder-statesman outfielder has been standing on the diving board, letting daughters Kendall and Jordan -- ages 10 and 8, respectively -- jump off his shoulders, the ones he uses to make a living by batting and throwing a baseball.

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Now he has 12-year-old Mason by the arm, trying to coax him into the water. The kid's stubbornly holding his ground.

"When Mason's mad at you," remarks older brother Austin, 13, who's sitting on the sidelines with his mother, "he'll say, 'You're out of the herd!' "

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That's a favorite line from the film Ice Age. Mason loves movies. In the family car, there's a box containing some 60 DVDs that he keeps in a do-not-disturb sequence that nobody has been able to decipher. ("Maybe it's alphabetical according to production company," Polly sighs.)

But this is his Dad's herd, so the two wind up doing a super cannonball, holding hands as they go airborne.

After splashdown, Mason doggie paddles to the shallow end, where something on the lip of the pool catches his eye.

"Oooh, frog!" he exclaims. He scoops it up, eyeballs it, then turns it loose in the chlorinated water.

Unfortunately, it's a baby tree frog, half the size of a thumbnail and sorely in need of a tree right about now.

"We gotta get him out," B.J. tells his son. "He won't live in this water, Mase."

Mason cups the frog in his right palm, scrambles out of the pool and flings it into the grass. Hardly a Nature Channel moment, but the Surhoffs have come to regard these kinds of mundane afternoons as answered prayers, as do the parents of most autistic children.

For years, Mason was adrift in the world, as out of place as a tree frog in a swimming pool. His mother and father had doubts he'd ever talk. He threw ferocious, marathon tantrums they referred to as "tornadoes." Jordan has a scar over one eye where her brother, then about 8, clawed her like a cougar.

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These days, however, Polly says of home life, "We never could have expected it to be this good."

Mason can put himself to bed now. He plays with his siblings and surfs the Internet.

And some nights, he'll gaze at a Technicolor sunset painting the horizon beyond their backyard pool and the rolling hills of Baltimore County and he'll gush, "That's heaven!"

'Wired differently'

The government is about to conduct the most comprehensive study of autism ever undertaken in the United States. Field research could begin in January and encompass some 6,000 case studies.

"There's more that we don't know than we know," says Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, a medical epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control, which is coordinating the project.

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Autism is a developmental disability believed to be largely genetically based. Experts don't have a clear picture of the physiological effects, only that there's a disruption of brain activity.

"There's something going on with how the neurons align themselves," says Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, who is doing her own study on early detection.

As Polly Surhoff puts it, "These kids are wired differently."

How different? Is Mason experiencing what amounts to brain static? Do things around him seem to move too fast or too slow? Does he have a fully developed sense of self?

On the low-functioning end of this so-called "spectrum disorder" is the mute child seemingly lost in a hypnotic trance, mesmerized by his or her own fluttering fingers or a dangling string.

On the high end are those savants made famous by Dustin Hoffman's movie portrayal in Rain Man, the data sponges who memorize the encyclopedia but can't grasp the humor of a knock-knock joke.

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Between those two extremes lies a gray zone that the Surhoffs are navigating.

A sign made of jumbo letters cut from brightly colored construction paper hangs over a bookcase in a spacious second-floor room of the house. It reads: "Mason Surhoff's Public Library."

For the past two years, the library's sole member has been home-schooled by Allyson Black, a cheery, 25-year-old tutor who doubles as a sort of big sister extraordinaire.

She and Mason bought the bookcase and arranged the books in precise order according to subject: Comics, Sports, Places, Movies, Dinosaurs, Animals. That last category looms large in Mason's universe.

"How many years till we go to Africa?" Allyson asks.

"Nine," Mason answers. His parents have promised to take him on safari when he turns 21, as he reminds them almost daily.

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"What will we see there?" says Allyson.

"Wildebeests and zebras are the mammalian herds."

"Where will we find them?"

"On the Serengeti."

Mason has a near-photographic memory and performs at an advanced level in math and science courses.

At times, he's indistinguishable from any other 12-year-old with a crewcut. At times, his words get tangled and his body betrays him -- arms and wrists flapping as if convulsed by a sudden surge of electricity.

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Some autistics are self-abusive, and many are tactile sensitive in strange ways. A caress can be repulsive, a rib-rattling bear hug soothing.

Temple Grandin, a 56-year-old professor at Colorado State University who's achieved cult status by writing frequently about her autism, built a "Hug Machine" that resembles a giant book jacket made of plywood. She regularly climbs inside and presses herself like a leaf.

Mason prefers conventional hugs and kisses. Lots of them. Still, he's the ultimate creature of habit, a telltale sign of autism that his tutor thinks is one reason they hit it off so well.

"I understand a lot of his quirks, I guess you could call them," Allyson says. "I'm very structured, and he craves structure."

Lunch must be at noon, dinner promptly at 6 o'clock. Friday afternoon is the weekly pilgrimage to Blockbuster Video. Sunday wouldn't be Sunday (can't be Sunday) without the New York Times movie section.

He won't take refills on drinks, hates the feel of sand on his hands, gets upset if an Orioles game goes beyond nine innings, and usually refers to himself in the third person. "Mason's brain's on fire!" is his way of announcing a headache.

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Surprises are not welcome. Ever. The recent emergence of body hair was a crisis that required B.J.'s repeated assurances that everything was OK: Dad's got fuzzy legs, too.

These quirks could become obstacles to social acceptance as Mason gets older. He sees a psychologist and occupational and speech therapists, but Allyson makes a point of working on his life skills. They take field trips to the beach, Boston and Broadway shows, sometimes accompanied by her fiancee.

She makes him order and pay for restaurant meals. She tells him it's really not polite to turn to someone in an elevator, as he did last summer, and say, "Excuse me, sir, you smell."

Family and friends keep reminding Mason that his prodigious memory is a gift. He realizes he's different -- and is beginning to understand others know, too.

Last year Allyson took him to a party at her sister's apartment. Somebody in the room whispered that Mason was a "Rain Man." He heard.

"I'm not Rain Man!" he stammered. "I'm Mason! I'm Mason!"

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Bad news

Polly Winde was raised in Ellicott City; William James Surhoff in Rye, N.Y. Both now 39, they started dating during their freshman year at the University of North Carolina.

She was an elite collegiate swimmer who placed fourth at the 1984 Olympic trials and later was inducted into the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame. He was the top pick in the 1985 amateur baseball draft, chosen by the Milwaukee Brewers ahead of Rafael Palmeiro and some string-bean outfielder named Barry Bonds.

The Surhoffs have complementary, cog-and-gear personalities. Polly is extroverted, the family's unofficial spokesperson. B.J. tends to wear his game face 24 hours a day -- a gracious, low-key man more at ease on the fringes of a cocktail party, if not behind the drapes. He and his youngest son take their time sizing up strangers.

"B.J.'s a private guy," says close friend Cal Ripken. "It does take awhile to get into his inner circle. You don't always know what Mason's thinking, either."

For a long time, the Surhoffs never knew what Mason was thinking. Austin's birth in 1990 had been blessedly uneventful. His brother's was too, but, as is common with autism, something went awry at about 18 months. Those tantrums kicked in. Mason stopped vocalizing and started to withdraw.

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Polly's stepfather rang a dinner bell near his ear one day to check the reflex response: nothing.

The Surhoffs, then living in suburban Milwaukee, had Mason's hearing and blood tested. Polly took him for a CAT scan, triggering an epic tornado. She got in the car afterward and just kept driving. Something about being in motion soothed her hysterical son. She drove all the way to Chicago and back.

In early May 1994, B.J. met with a pediatric neurologist who delivered the official diagnosis. No small talk. Just a shotgun blast of bad news.

"It was kind of, 'This is what your son has. Now go deal with it,' " B.J. recalls.

Stunned, he went home and told his wife, who had only recently learned she was pregnant with Kendall. Those days are a blur to Polly. B.J. felt helpless.

"You're scared to death," he says. "There's not a pill, a surgery, a treatment. It's a lifelong neurological disease. All that goes through your head. Was it me? Was it us? Did we do something wrong?"

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Luckily, they had the financial resources to pay for whatever professional help might be needed. But Polly thinks their sports background proved just as valuable. Athletes are accustomed to dealing with adversity, to not accepting limitations.

Polly devoured books about autism. She attended seminars. The quest for hope nearly consumed her.

"It's almost," she says, "like you're looking for a drug to make you feel good."

Breaking down the walls

"Sit in chair!"

"Come here!"

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"Clap!"

An unflappable child psychologist -- a Jim Henson look-alike with a bushy, brown beard and floppy hair -- sits in one of two chairs inside a room stripped of practically all furniture. He directs command after command at a befuddled 3-year-old.

Watching this videotape of Mason almost a decade after it was shot can still make his mother wince. "I know it's brutal and it looks really cold," says Polly as bad memories fill the wide-screen TV in the family's living room.

While autism can't be cured, it can be tamed. Just as a ballplayer takes thousands of practice swings to groove a batting stroke, it's possible to, in essence, etch new pathways in the brain by sheer repetition.

In 1995, after months of comparative shopping, the Surhoffs selected a therapy they were willing to try: a one-on-one, conditioned-response regimen that would continue nonstop, 40-plus hours a week, for some five years.

The first session took place in their basement, seven months before B.J. became a free agent and signed with the Orioles. Polly videotaped it herself. That child psychologist directed only one command at her: Don't pick up your son no matter how much he cries.

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Mason cried buckets. He also whimpered, wailed and yowled like a coyote; so long and so loud his shirts got soaked with sweat; so much you can hear his mother on tape, weeping in the background.

The Surhoffs chose a variant of Applied Behavioral Analysis, developed in the 1970s by UCLA psychologist Ivar Lovaas. They hired aides to work with Mason up to six hours a day. The goal was to break down the walls of autism by forcing him to focus and communicate for extended periods. Popcorn, puzzles and juice were used as rewards.

"Sit down." "Come here." It's the language of obedience trainers, in this case words used to rebuild a boy from scratch.

The chances of achieving any success with Lovaas techniques are about 50-50: bad odds for gamblers, pretty good ones for distraught parents. B.J. would sit in the kitchen upstairs and try to ignore what sounded like an exorcism being conducted in the basement.

Gradually, the noise subsided. Mason sat without resistance. He listened and learned. A year into Lovaas, he was cooking imaginary meals on a toy stove. By year two, the family had moved to Baltimore and he'd entered a special class at Timonium Elementary School.

There was never any need to explain autism to the rest of the Surhoff children. They lived with it every day, helping with their brother's therapy and absorbing some of the subliminal messages.

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Polly tells this story: Austin was playing rec-league basketball and had a teammate with Down syndrome who finally managed to score two points in a game -- by mistakenly shooting at the opponents' basket.

The rest of his teammates were miffed, all except Austin. He understood. "He was the only one who cheered for him," Polly says proudly.

Hard times fracture reality like chinaware elbowed off the dinner table. The challenge is to glue as many pieces as possible back together. Some won't fit right, ever again.

Polly and B.J. had talked for years of buying a getaway apartment in New York. That's no longer a priority. Conversely, she cherishes the Christmas Eve before Mason's fourth birthday when he started singing his ABCs as they were getting him ready for bed.

"It was the littlest thing for a normal child," Polly says, "but B.J. and I started crying. It was a miracle."

Funny, going hitless in four at-bats wasn't such a tragedy anymore.

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"You look at things very different," says B.J. "I'm much more patient and empathetic. I'm a better person for it."

Fans got a rare peek at that private person in August 2000, when B.J. was traded to the Atlanta Braves in a salary dump of veteran players. He'd come to Baltimore as a free agent because he wanted to put down roots, because of the medical care available for Mason. During his farewell press conference at Camden Yards, his game face crumbled. He cried.

"I had no idea how I'd react," B.J. says. "It was just a lot of stuff that hit me all at once," he adds. "I was so happy here. We'd decided this was going to be our home."

Atlanta? The Yuppie South. The goofy "Tomahawk Chop" cheer. His Braves uniform seemed to fit like grab-bag clothes. B.J. never relocated. He commuted two years, then the Orioles re-signed him for the 2003 season.

Now he is back home full-time, watching his children bloom. The hardest part of dealing with autism, he explains, is accepting that the family dynamics have changed, that he and his wife can't think as a couple, that Mason may never be able to live on his own.

That's not an unbearable burden, however. Mason may talk in circles and wring his hands when stressed, but that's no measure of what lies deep within his head and heart.

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"Some people look at him like he's crazy," says B.J. "But if you get to know him and accept him for what he is, he's a lot of fun to be around."

That's a bit of wisdom that the Surhoffs hope to spread as founding board members of Pathfinders for Autism, a local nonprofit organization seeking to raise awareness of the disorder. Polly and B.J. hold an annual planning session of the board at their house, help organize fund-raisers and have recruited Ripken and swimmer Michael Phelps for radio and TV spots.

They also occasionally allow Mason to step into the spotlight.

"He's a ham," says B.J.

Nonetheless, he and Polly have mixed emotions about Mason playing a role in educating the public.

"I'm very particular about not turning my son into a poster child for autism while trying to help the cause," says B.J. "There's a tradeoff there."

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Team Surhoff was out in force at a Pathfinders golf tournament this spring. Polly was on the organizing committee. B.J. played and spoke at the dinner afterward. Mason read a brief statement, noting "Pathfinders helps moms and dads find the best places for kids like me to keep learning, growing and being happy."

He got a standing ovation. Stuart Spielman, a Potomac attorney who serves on Pathfinders board, was among those clapping. His autistic son, Zak, is 10 and has never uttered a complete word.

"When I hear Mason speak," says Spielman, "I hear my son."

Stepping out

Before pronouncing them man and wife, the rabbi standing before Craig Lestner and Allyson Black tells the friends and relatives gathered at Temple Oheb Shalom in North Baltimore on a recent Sunday that the couple's first date was two years ago -- at an Orioles game.

"By the way," notes the rabbi, "they won today."

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Indeed, the O's came from behind on the road to beat the Detroit Tigers 7-3. B.J. singled home the tying run in the ninth inning.

Jordan, Kendall, Austin and Mason are in the wedding party. Mason has double duty. He's going to dance the fox trot with Allyson at the reception in front of 180 guests. They have been practicing for a month, gently swaying to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me."

When the wedding band begins playing that song and Mason springs to his feet, Polly Surhoff blows a few composure fuses. This is the baby they were told might end up in an institution, the wild boy who wouldn't sit in a chair. Wearing a tuxedo. Ballroom dancing.

You were my eyes when I couldn't see. You saw the best there was in me ....

His mother thinks this is a fairy tale. Her eyes fill with tears. What does the future hold, she wonders. Will he get married someday?

Is his bow tie straight?

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The bride, meanwhile, murmurs in her partner's ear, "Remember to turn when we get to the edge of the dance floor." He remembers. She has faith in him, and his tomorrows. He will find his place in the herd.

... I'm everything I am because you loved me.

When the music ends, the young man in the bow tie squeezes his tutor tight. He rushes over to his mother with arms open wide and engulfs her like a Hug Machine.

Then he says softly, "Mason is proud."

Autism at a glance

* In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, identified autism as a unique condition. Until then, it was mischaracterized as childhood schizophrenia.

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* According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 to 6 people per 1,000 exhibit signs of autism. CDC avoids firm numbers because spectrum disorders like autism are difficult to diagnose.

* The state Department of Education estimates that 4,500 autistic children live in Maryland.

* Autism is about four times more prevalent in boys than girls.

Resources

For information about autism, contact:

Pathfinders for Autism

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120 Allegheny Ave.

Towson, MD 21204

410-769-9500

www.pathfindersforautism.org

* The Towson resource center has information on everything from medical care to summer camps. Pathfinders also offers stipends to aspiring therapists.

Autism Society of America

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7910 Woodmont Ave., Suite 300,

Bethesda, MD 20814

301-657-0881

www.autism-society.org

* The organization has 20,000 members nationwide and eight chapters in Maryland.

First Signs

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Box 358

Merrimac, MA 01860

978-346-4380

www.firstsigns.org

* A nonprofit group that educates parents and physicians about early-warning signs of autism.

Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention

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11500 West Olympic Blvd.,

Suite 460, Los Angeles, CA 90064

310-914-5433

www.lovaas.com

* Nationwide program that specializes in teaching children with autism and other developmental disorders and disabilities.


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