The Enemy Within | PEOPLE.com

September 23, 1996 12:00 PM

“No baby was desired more,” says Jonathan Shestack of his son Dov. His birth in 1992 was going to mark another happy chapter for Shestack, producer of an upcoming Harrison Ford thriller, and Portia Iversen, an Emmy-winning art director turned scriptwriter. After a seven-year courtship, the couple had married in 1991, and Shestack was already like a father to Iversen’s daughter Emily, now 18. But their joy turned to despair when, at 21 months, Dov was diagnosed as autistic.

A neurological developmental disorder, autism has no known cure or cause, though it is thought to be genetically based. Says Dr. Pauline Filipek, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at Irvine: “The symptoms range from mental retardation, lack of awareness of people, mutism and repetitive or self-injurious behavior to normal or above-normal intelligence, poor or inappropriate communication skills, and fewer obsessive-compulsive or ritualistic behaviors.” (Only a tiny percentage of autistic people possess the inexplicable mathematical talents displayed by Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Man or are gifted musically or artistically or demonstrate astonishing feats of memory.) Afflicting nearly 20 people in every 10,000, autism is more prevalent than multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome.

Now 4, Dov “is very limited, “says his father. “He can barely do two or three actions in a row. He can’t talk. He can’t tell us what he wants. “Determined to help their son—and others—Shestack and Iversen set up CAN (Cure Autism Now). Based in Los Angeles, the 10-month-old organization raises money for biological research and, through mailings, conferences and a Web site (http://www.canfoundation.org), serves as an information exchange for families affected by autism. With a membership numbering 4,500 families, it has raised $200,000, funded seven pilot studies and started a collaborative gene bank to help develop treatments and find a cure. “Every day there are advances in neurology, genetics and molecular biology,” says Shestack. “It’s our task to focus these new techniques on autism. Once there is research with good results, agencies like the National Institutes for Health will fund further research.”

Source: The Enemy Within | PEOPLE.com

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