The Backstory

I don’t remember any of this, but I was diagnosed with autism when I was 2. This diagnosis was later refined to Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), which means highly functioning but still on the autism spectrum.

I don’t recognize the kid captured on the Pacing at Yale video, but that was me living almost entirely in my own world. My parents got help from experts at the Yale Child Study Center. They guided the therapies intended to address my developmental deficits.

My parents went to extraordinary lengths to try to redirect the course of my development, using behavioral therapies that helped my brain re-wire itself around whatever wasn’t right. Even in my autistic phase, I had more in common with typically developing children than with autistic ones.

Over time, I learned how to deal with frustrations without massive tantrums. I learned to look at the person talking to me, and I learned how to play with kids my age. I participated in a study by the University of Connecticut that estimated 10 percent of children correctly diagnosed as autistic could recover, if treated properly.

When I was featured in an article about the study my picture went around the world. My mother wrote a book about our family’s experience called Act Early Against Autism: Give Your Child a Fighting Chance from the Start (Perigee, 2008) that sold more than 10,000 copies.

These days, I have no clinical diagnosis of any kind. I have a circle of close friends I feel that I am a typical teenager in a regular high school, and I have the confidence to perform on stage.

Pacing at Yale

Leo paces back and forth along a wall during an evaluation for autism at the Yale Child Study Center in 2001.

Four years into my therapy, I began to acquire language and engage with others. I cringe when I watch this video, “Big Fat Man from Tennessee.”

Big Fat Man from Tennessee

Leo sings, "I'm a big fat man from Tennessee" to please his mom.

Mom says I was always a funny, little guy. For my fourth birthday, I dressed up as Robin Hood and hung out in a back yard shed eating a piece of wheat bread.

Leo

Leo dresses up as Robin Hood.

Leo and his mom

Leo and his mom share a kiss to celebrate his 4th birthday.

 

 

At 13 years old, I debuted as a stand-up comic at the Bethesda Hyatt. Unfortunately, the videographer didn’t check her equipment and didn’t catch all of it. Here is a snippet.