Michelle Cheney on her son's return from autism
Michelle Cheney is a busy woman.
Trained 10 years ago as a massage therapist, Cheney was thrust into the position of researcher when her son Raja was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. A seemingly normal child until about a year and a half into life, aside from inexplicably intense colic, Raja began to withdraw. He didn’t speak and was highly destructive.
In her new job of researcher, Cheney began to experiment with Raja’s diet and found that certain foods were aggravating his condition. This discovery spread to normal household items like soap and shampoo. When she removed those objects from Raja's life, he began to show dramatic improvement in his condition. Now, at 9 years old, Raja attends public school and seems to have come a long way. Cheney now runs a holistic health center, has written a book on autism called Climbing Out of Autism One Bite at a Time, and this week will premiere a documentary, Reaching Raja, which chronicles her son’s remarkable journey.
Last week, the Alibi sat down with Cheney to talk about autism, healing and the space in between.
Is your film directed toward people with autistic children or relatives, or would anyone find it interesting?
Everybody has found it interesting [so far], but then again they all know me, and they know my son, or they’re related to Victor [Proo, coproducer]. They describe it as warm and touching and uplifting and moving. It’s about a human being overcoming the odds. He just happens to be autistic.
I read that your son was first diagnosed as autistic in 2000.
He was diagnosed in 2000 as a result of being looked at prior to that by the Preschool and Infant Evaluation (PIE) Team. They said he was developmentally delayed and charted him at almost two years less than what he was chronologically.
What were the symptoms he displayed that first led you to believe he was autistic?
When the PIE Team looked at him, at 2 1/2, he had a major drop off, so from birth to a year old, he had basically hit all his gross motor milestones. He learned to crawl. He made eye contact. So that’s basically what the diagnosticians are looking at--how does this child perform when compared to normally developing kids?
What behaviors was he exhibiting?
He started getting giddy, bumping into furniture. He was antisocial. He began slapping people. He was noticeably different from any other time he had ever been with me.
So what does autism do, exactly? I've heard that it kind of locks a person up in their head?
In their own head, in their own experiences, in this totally overwhelmed and terrifying world where the lights are too bright, sounds are too loud, smells are too overwhelming. They’re just completely overwhelmed. So this is the point where he was diagnosed, and they said, "Don't bother with any interventions and consider institutionalization. There’s no way he’s getting better."
More or less he was just doomed?
Doomed, totally doomed. I mean this was an absolutely terrifying prognosis for your child because you had seen this beautiful individual progress and then he mysteriously just falls off the face of the planet to something that’s unrecognizable. It’s so hard and, like most parents of autistic children, I stopped taking pictures, because you work so hard to see some kind of joy in your child, and there’s no joy. They can’t communicate. They won’t point. They won’t make eye contact. Everything’s just grumpy and crying and walking around the house, or in Raja's case, running around the house usually destroying things because there’s nothing else he can do.
Is the destructive behavior in autistic children caused by their own frustrations?
It’s very possible. I used to think it was the highest expression of what would be creativity. All he could do anymore was destroy things. He could not build a block tower anymore, but if I built a block tower, then he could destroy it.
Is that how you related to him at the time?
No, no, I knew he was in there somewhere. I related to him from the time of birth so I knew he was in there somewhere.
I read that you discovered that your son had food allergies.
Food allergies. Very, very severe food allergies.
And you believe that's directly related to his autism?
I believe that it is. In my book, I wrote that I believe it’s a progressive systemic allergic response. It gets worse and worse and worse, and what you see in autistic kids is a self-limited diet.
What foods would he eat?
Beef, broccoli, onions, eggs and rice.
When you took away the food he was allergic to from his diet, did he bounce back fairly quickly?
I mean, if he wasn’t diagnosed until he was 3 and this is him a year and a half later (looking at a current picture of Raja), he looks like a pretty happy little kid.
It’s amazingly difficult to keep going, but if you take the pictures as a document, it doesn’t seem like it takes very long. It’s possible to affect huge change, especially for him, especially in his mood and demeanor and he loves learning. He has this voracious appetite for learning.
And all this came just from changing his diet?
Changing his diet and removing all the environmental toxins.
Soap, shampoo, toothpaste. All kinds of household products--anything scented had to go. I got rid of all my leather furniture, anything leather. I got rid of all the plastic [in the house] except for the TV, the VCR, the phone, the major things. I got rid of all the toys, ironically: Woodie, Darth Vader. They all had to go because they were all made out of plastic. So I got rid of huge boxes of plastic. Went to reverse osmosis water. Water was a big deal. What I did was get rid of one thing at a time, so I could see the effect.