Star power sheds light on autism

Actor Ed Asner attends the 45th NAACP Image Awards presented by TV One at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Feb. 22 in Pasadena.
(John Sciulli, Getty Images)

Ed Asner was in the throes of a custody battle when a psychologist examining the family remarked that his son seemed to lack empathy.

Two weeks later, doctors at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment revealed that Charles, then 7 or 8, was on the autism spectrum.

“I thought he was utterly charming, and I was in love with him,” Asner, 84, said. “I was his slave, so I don’t care what title you put on it. He was my boy and I would do whatever I had to do to treat him.”

Today, his boy is 26 years old, and the Emmy recipient and former Screen Actors Guild president also has a grandson, Will, who is similarly afflicted, although to a different extent. A longtime supporter of the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, Asner finds that people living with the disorder have wonderful qualities — including phenomenal brain power and honesty — that more than make up for their struggles with interpersonal relationships.

“They believe there’s a pony in the tent someplace,” he said, deeming such people “a motherlode of discovery.”

On Wednesday, the Santa Ana-based Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders will host Asner at “Autism and the Arts” from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. To commemorate World Autism Awareness Day, the actor, known for his portrayal of newsman Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and voice-over work in Pixar’s “Up,” will discuss his association with the condition as well as the therapeutic effects of art on autistic children.

The invitation-only fundraiser will kick off with a reception, followed by the screening of “Through the Heart of Tango,” a documentary in which students living with autism and Down syndrome connect through dance. Afterward, Asner will take the stage for questions and answers, and Joseph Donnelly, pediatric neurologist and Center for Autism medical director, will conclude the event with a speech.

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder and pervasive developmental disorder, is marked by difficulties with communication and social skills development as well as repetitive patterns of behavior. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 88 children in the United States is on the spectrum.

Studies also indicate that autism is four to five times more prevalent among boys than girls, with approximately 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls being diagnosed.

Irvine resident Liza Krassner, a parent ambassador who will moderate the conversation Wednesday, first encountered Asner at a film workshop catering to youths with neurological disabilities. Her 16-year-old son, Mark, is one such example.

“It’s my own personal journey to find out what is out there for those who are entering the workforce,” she said. “What happens to these kids when the yellow bus stops picking them up, when they are thrown out into the world?”

Autistic children have different abilities and need adequate preparation so they have better job prospects and can be self-sufficient when their adult caregivers die, Krassner added. It was with this in mind that she teamed up with the Center for Autism to develop an event spotlighting its in-house wellness program, which aims to provide training in dance, yoga, drama, painting, music and more — skills that can pave the way to hobbies for the creatively inclined and, just as easily, full-time careers. Key priorities and goals of this initiative, which also includes a summer camp, will be discussed at the fundraiser.

According to Senior Director of Development Jennifer Smith, the Center for Autism debuted as For OC Kids in 2001. It started out as a clinic in Orange where children 6 and younger were evaluated and diagnosed. But the organization underwent a transformation a year and a half ago because of an investment by the Children and Families Commission of Orange County and matching donation by the Thompson Family Foundation.

Last October, the team relocated from an 8,000-square-foot facility to a Santa Ana location spanning 21,000 square feet — with a gym to boot. Now the center is able to work with autistic individuals until they are 22 years old, conduct research and offer a wide range of services including psychiatry, social work, behavioral intervention, special education and speech-language and occupational therapy. The wellness program, another recent addition, is being rolled out in stages.

Smith drew attention to a growing body of research that suggests a connection for autistic children between physical and creative outlets and improvement in academic performance, behavior and social skills.

“Art is a wonderful way to free individuals,” Asner said. “And with those facilities at hand, the autistic child who is blocked in terms of communication and contact may well find a means of expressing himself that he never would have found through conventional means.”

Krassner took the sentiment a step further. Art benefits parents as well, she said, by creating a new language — one that employs hands, eyes and other parts of the body — with which they can communicate with autistic offspring, who are sometimes non-verbal.

Sophie Embrey, a development associate at the Center for Autism, finds that people from all parts of Orange County pour through the doors. There is a genuine need in the community for a broad-based wellness program such as this one, she said, expressing hope that guests at “Autism and the Arts” will be inclined to support the ongoing efforts.

“The time for grieving is over,” Asner said. “The order of the day is to celebrate, not mourn, if you find your child is autistic. They are treasures and will give you gifts that you never expected to receive from a child.”

If You Go

What: “Autism and the Arts”

Where: Center Club, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday

Cost: Free, but donations are requested