Advertisement

The Inner Child : After Discovering Problem, Dodger Pitcher Gott and His Wife Work With Autistic Son

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He lives in a world that is scary and unknown, at least to those on the outside trying to get in.

So little is known about the way Christian James Gott thinks, or what he hears. And experts can only surmise what he feels. All anybody really knows about CJ is who he is, an innocent 6-year-old locked in the mystery of autism.

Jim Gott knew early on that there was something wrong with his son, but it would take years for somebody to tell him what. He had just signed a lucrative contract as a pitcher for the Dodgers, but off the field, things weren’t that easy.

CJ looked like his three siblings--twin brothers and a sister--but he wasn’t like them. He didn’t like to be held, as they did. When it was time for CJ to start talking, he didn’t. And when it came time for CJ to start walking, he simply looked different.

Advertisement

Some experts thought it was cerebral palsy, others Attention Deficit Disorder. Nearly all said CJ was hyperactive. But Gott thought, actually hoped, that CJ’s problems stemmed from poor hearing.

“We talk about denial, well, the denial that I went through was that CJ’s ears were a problem, but they really weren’t,” Gott said.

“But you see, with bad hearing, that tells me he wouldn’t respond to me, he wouldn’t talk to me, he would be very awkward with his ability to coordinate his body, and that was the answer I was looking for. That was something that could be taken care of. His future would be safe.”

Gott and his first wife, Clenice, had four children before they were

Advertisement

divorced prior to his joining the Dodgers in 1990. The twins, Ryan and Tyler, were born when CJ was 2, and their daughter, Jenice, was 5. The twins and Jenice still live with their mother in Lower Burrell, Pa.

Before his first season with the Dodgers in 1990, Gott sent for CJ to live with him. He wanted to take his son to the clubhouse, to eventually play catch with him on the field, like other players did with their sons. So CJ had tubes put in his ears, and moved in with Gott and a nanny.

“I had no idea what he needed, I just wanted some semblance of the family to be with me, and I had the (financial) ability to have him,” Gott said. “But I was lost.”

CJ lived with Gott through the All-Star break of 1990 before he returned to his mother. By then, he still wasn’t talking, and when he tried, his speech was garbled. He fixated on one thing for a long time, playing with a toy, for example, and humming incessantly while doing it.

It was clear he could hear, because normal noise levels seemed to pierce his ears. And his tantrums were countless. He would throw himself down and bang his head when his father would leave the room. When Gott left with the Dodgers on trips and left CJ with the nanny, it was worse.

“I felt so bad for the little guy,” Gott said.

CJ did not stay with his mother for long. He returned to Gott shortly after Gott remarried.

“It was on professional advice that I called Jim and asked him if he would take CJ,” said Clenice, CJ’s mother. “It was a critical time for CJ (when the twins were born). We knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know what. He needed special attention, and I had the other three children.

Advertisement

“As a mother, I wanted him with me. But I had to put the adult agenda aside and do what was best for him.”

The experience of CJ’s first night with the Gott’s was a wakeup call for Gott’s second wife, Cathy.

“I thought I was the fixer and the rescuer and I was going to show Jim what a wonderful person I am,” said Cathy.

“But I remember the first night CJ was with us. We picked him up from the airport (a relative had accompanied him on the flight) and he was really happy to see us and he was feeling good. We got home and it was really hard to get him to sleep, to wind down and get all the energy out of his body. But we get him to sleep and we got to bed and you know, here we are newlyweds and on this ballplayer schedule--out til 2 eating dinner after the game and then up at 10 or 11 the next morning.

“So it’s probably about 9 o’clock in the morning and I start to hear something, and my contacts are dry and foggy and I can’t see anything and I walk out and the first room I see was his sister’s, where she slept when she visited, and it looked like a cyclone went through it. The mattress was off the bed, the lamps were turned over, it was a disaster.

“Then I start walking through the hall, and I see the nursery for the twins, who were all back with their mother--and there was powder all over the walls, diapers strewn everywhere. It was amazing. Then I go to CJ’s room and it’s a disaster. And I am freaking out, where is he?

“So I walk downstairs and there is CJ on the floor in the pantry, and he had every cracker and cookie on the floor and he is chomping away. He just wanted something to eat and didn’t know what to do.

“And here we just thought he would wake up and walk in our room.”

Advertisement

*

In 1993, CJ was nearly 5 when the Gotts walked into the office of Tom Miklusak, a Pasadena psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. CJ was in deep depression, having fallen into a funk during a Christmas vacation in Utah, where he spent 10 days with his brothers, sister and father. Cathy didn’t make the trip because she was pregnant with Daniel, now 13 months.

When he first started seeing Miklusak, CJ would run and hide under the desk and describe a frightening sound, like thunder. Miklusak would give him pillows so CJ could make his fort safer. CJ would tell Miklusak not to come in, and, once he was assured Miklusak wouldn’t force himself into his world, CJ would emerge.

By then, Cathy thought she had made some headway with CJ. She enrolled him in speech therapy twice a week, enabling CJ to learn how to follow directions. She started taking him to a developmental therapist, and they determined that when he was 3, he was at the level of a 1-year-old. Now 6 1/2, CJ is at the level of a 3-year-old.

A social worker friend who specialized in parents of handicapped children was used as a referral resource. But what resulted was a tiring daily ritual for CJ, who had three types of therapy treatments every day, all in different places. Also when he was 5, he was enrolled in a special education class in public school, which didn’t go well.

There was improvement, but Cathy began to question why she was pushing so hard.

“CJ loves to eat with his fingers, he doesn’t like to use his fork, he doesn’t like to sit down when he eats,” Cathy said. “If there is a bowl or tub of cottage cheese right there, he would like to dip his hand in it and moosh it all over and get it in his mouth every which way.

“That’s how he learns, through touch. The social context doesn’t mean anything to him--embarrassment is not a feeling that they experience. Fitting in, peer pressure, none of those things mean anything to him, which in its own way is very beautiful about these children. It’s all very innocent.

“So I had this behavioral therapist over to help potty train CJ, and she was explaining to me how CJ’s world is with eating and was raising questions he might have like, ‘Why should I sit down to eat when it’s easier to get my body into the food? And why should I poop in the potty when I can just poop in my pants? It doesn’t bother me, who cares?’ It all makes perfect sense to him. Then I started thinking. Why should I push him so hard? It’s so hard for him to use that fork, what am I doing?

“And the therapist said to me, ‘You know what, it’s your responsibility to teach this boy how to live in our society. If you as parents do not teach him, he will never learn it anywhere else.’ That gave me a sense of empowerment and made me feel that it is OK to insist he use a fork. Because if we don’t he will go off to a restaurant and sit there and moosh food all over.”

Miklusak, who also is an assistant professor of child psychiatry at USC Medical Center, said, “I remember I called an expert at a center for autism and I was told by him that the therapies (I was discussing) would not likely help CJ and he would probably end up in an institution. I didn’t refer the Gotts to this place.”

Miklusak was the one who diagnosed the condition, determining that CJ originally had pervasive developmental disorder with symptoms of autism. But since then, Cathy said, the categories of PDD and autism have become somewhat interchangeable.

Autism ranges from mild to severe--CJ leans toward mild--and afflicts about one in 1,000, causing difficulty in communicating, a propensity for repetitive actions and an inability to interact socially or to understand feelings.

The cause of autism is disputed. One theory suggests autism is caused by damage to the brain cerebellum, and might be genetic. A new theory suggests autism can be caused by a virus. Other theories revolve around immunological or environmental factors.

“We aren’t smart enough to know the different causes,” said Ricki Robinson, a pediatrician in La Canada whose son is autistic.

There also is the occasional unusual case of delayed autism, where a child is developing quite normally, and then, suddenly, autism sets in.

“The important thing is that it is not a lost cause if you have the right programming for that child for regaining skills or developing skills,” said Alicia Elliott, a speech therapist who works with CJ. “There are married autistics and they can make some of the most dependable employees.”

Robinson says that on average, children speak about 10 words by the time they are 18 months. Between 18 and 24 months there usually is a language explosion.

“You may not realize until a child is well into 18 months that something is not working,” Robinson said. “Parents will think that this child doesn’t seem to be relating to me, doesn’t seem to have two-way communication, early eye contact and gestures and later on, language.

“Parents usually say to me that there is something different about my child, he is not relating to me and we are not being called momma or dadda.”

Gott was one of those parents.

*

CJ’s class at Villa Esperanza school is preparing to play musical chairs, and he appears to be excited. He is sitting in a chair, waiting for the music to start, something he would have never done when he entered the program last December. He couldn’t sit still a year ago, he didn’t wait his turn, he couldn’t express his needs.

Now he can concentrate on one task for 10 to 15 minutes.

Now, CJ talks.

When the music starts, CJ claps his hands and spins around and walks around the circle, waiting for the music to stop. A child yells to turn it off. A teacher obliges. CJ stops, but he doesn’t take a chair. The next time, he gets the hang of it.

“CJ probably didn’t process the fact that the music stopped,” Elliott said. “For a normal child playing the game, they listen to the music, then their body stops when the music stops and then they know to go find a chair because they know if they do that then they are a winner.

“But for a child like CJ, the music keeps going until they are able to process that it stopped, then they have to sequence the fact that they have to look for a chair and then they have to be cognitive that they need to find the chair because I have to be a winner. The simplest task turns into a 10-stage ordeal.”

It was through a referral that CJ enrolled at Villa Esperanza in Pasadena, a private school that serves children and adults with special developmental needs. CJ had attended a special education class in public school, but Cathy said the situation turned into a nightmare.

“We did the best we could with the schools and they did the best they could for us, but it didn’t work,” she said. “It was a special education class, there were 12-14 children in the class and four special-ed children and a special teacher and aide. But with CJ’s hyperactivity it wasn’t the right place.

“He was very frustrated in the classroom, there was too much stimulation and he got so wound up. There weren’t other autistic children in the class. When I went to pick him up, I would get notes about how disruptive CJ was, and he was. When I pick him up at Villa, they tell me how wonderful he is.”

Cathy found out about Villa’s autistic program, different in that the children stay in the same place and the therapists come to them. The class, which is held from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week, has a student-teacher ratio of three to one.

“If a public school does not have an appropriate program for a child, the law says they are to pay for a free education at an appropriate place,” said Diane Howard, director of education at Villa.

Howard said Villa’s program cannot accommodate all the requests. She receives calls from concerned parents almost daily.

“A parent will say my child doesn’t want to bond, doesn’t want me to hold him,” she said. “They will tell me that the doctors said he is just slow, but there are a lot of times that children are just late bloomers. For example, it is a statistical fact that generally, boys talk later than girls.

“But sometimes parents have that gut feeling that something is wrong. In my 25 years here, I have never had a parent say to me, ‘I had no idea.’ ”

Jim Gott never said it, either.


Advertisement