Autism: Breaking Down Barriers

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- More than a month after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, debates over gun control and the mental health of young people took center stage.

Somewhere behind the curtain though, another discussion started brewing among parents of Autistic children, fearful the tragedy would have grave complications for their own kids. This is the story of one local family's struggle.

Inside Methodist Therapy Services, an Occupational Therapist named Crystal Edwards placed silly putty into the hands of Morgan, not yet 3.

Edwards said, "Here squeeze and pull, ooh what's in your hand?"

Sometimes silly putty, or even life itself, can be right in front of us, yet still tough to see. This was the case for Morgan. The feeling of something unfamiliar in his hands caused alarm, and sensory overload. He screamed, and Edwards told him, "You're okay I know different is hard but look Morgan, squeeze and pull."

Throughout the therapy session, Edwards was constantly looking for a connection with Morgan, through eye contact. She said children with Autism sometimes lack spacial awareness, and thus, the ability to look someone in the eyes.

But every so often, Morgan would see exactly what was in front of him, and he would react. At the end of the session, he connected with his father Scott Houston, running into his arms, and even giving him a kiss.

After therapy, Morgan arrived at a local Olive Garden with his parents, Scott Houston and April Roga.

Roga said, "When people start getting closer to him he'll get louder and the hand flapping will get more intense. It's like a sensory overload, the environment being too bright, too loud, too crowded."

As it turns out, Autistic children like Morgan aren't the only ones who have a hard time seeing things for what they are.

Roga said her son is usually misunderstood by the public, "We'll look over and see someone give the eyeball roll. You feel like you're disturbing people or they think you're a bad parent or there's something wrong with your child."

Scott Houston recalled a time when a stranger went as far as mocking his son, "We were in a fast food restaurant and there was a teenage girl motioning what Morgan was doing, flapping his hands."

Roga said, "That's the point in time you want to say what is your problem this is my child."

In the days following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, fear grew for Scott Houston and April Roga.

Roga said, "A lot of people focused in on the fact that the person had Asperger's which is on the Autistic spectrum and they immediately make the connection that that's what caused that behavior."

But different does not mean violent. The Autism Society said there's no evidence linking Autism to planned violence.

At home, Roga and Houston tossed a ball to their son with the hope of establishing eye contact, and developing Morgan's coordination. Early Interventionist Chase Davenport, with Emory Valley Center, helped them brainstorm and implement ways to improve Morgan's function.

Roga beamed at his progress, "Ready catch! You see how long he looked at me? That's great!"

It was a glimmer of hope for Chase Davenport, "Six months ago Morgan was not walking not making eye contact, not playing games now he's initiating games, making eye contact waking and climbing."

As Morgan faces the world, and learns to see it for what it is, his parents wonder if the world will see the same in him.

Roga said, "I feel like I'm trying to force people into seeing what this looks like but if everyone would just open their hearts and their minds and care about what's going on in other people's lives then the world would be a better place for us and our children."

April Roga is so passionate about spreading awareness, she created a webpage called

If you suspect your child is struggling with similar developmental delays Roga has another resource to share. A state program called "Tennessee Early Intervention System" provides free services to families with children under 3 years of age. Assistance is based on your child's need, not your families finances.