Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Babson Sig Ep Works for Autism Research

All for Paul
Three quadruplets champion autism research out of love for the fourth
By Bella English - Boston Globe

The Morris quadruplets are now 20. From left: Paul, Jesse, Sabrina, and Tyler in their Weston, Conn., home. (Jennifer S. Altman for the Boston Globe)

WESTON, Conn. - It's a brisk autumn morning, and Jesse Morris has been at it since 5 the evening before: flipping burgers, dragging couches outdoors, setting up plasma TVs and online video games, checking the supply of free food and live music, shaking down passersby for donations.

A junior at Babson College, Jesse is vice president of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, which recently held a 24-hour fund-raiser to support autism research. It raised nearly $3,000 - not bad for a quickie campus campaign. At Philadelphia University, Jesse's sister Sabrina is in the thick of planning an autism fair, and at the University of Richmond, brother Tyler has been working all semester with autistic children. In the past six years, the Morris family has raised $100,000 for autism research in an annual pledge walk.

Jesse, Sabrina, and Tyler are three of the Morris quadruplets, the first in vitro quads born in New York State. The fourth quad, Paul, is at the center of their efforts, and his siblings describe him as "the heart of our family" and "the glue that holds our family together."

Paul is autistic.

The Morris quadruplets, now 20, were born Aug. 16, 1987, at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island. Robin Morris was 37 when she gave birth to four babies, each a minute apart. Husband Dan was 38.

First came Sabrina, then Jesse, then Tyler, and finally Paul. Born at 31 weeks, they weighed less than 2.5 pounds each. At six months, Paul, who had a cyst in his chest, went into cardiac arrest and lost oxygen for more than 20 minutes before being resuscitated. Doctors then removed most of his right lung.

Robin and Dan Morris hoped that was the worst of it. But as Paul grew, he didn't seem to hear. His language was delayed. Finally, the diagnosis: atypical developmental disorder. Autism.
It is one of the worst words a parent can hear. "I was going, 'Not the A-word, not the A-word,' " says Robin, who writes a thrice-weekly blog - called "The A Word" - on the disorder for the online site revolutionhealth.com. Autism is a brain disorder that can impair social interaction, cognition, and communication.

While his siblings grew into active, articulate children, Paul did not start speaking until age 6. But he's chatty now. "He's making up for lost time," says Jesse, sitting in the living room of the southwestern Connecticut home with his sister, brothers, and parents. They've all come home for Thanksgiving: Jesse from Babson, Tyler from Richmond, Sabrina from Philadelphia, and Paul from the College Internship Program, a private school in the Berkshires for young people who have learning and social disabilities.

Indeed, Paul doesn't need anyone to speak for him. Unlike many with autism, he's both verbal and affectionate. "I have high-functioning autism," he declares. "At my school, there's a lot of Asperger's. I'm the only autistic kid at school." Asperger's syndrome is a milder form of autism.

He's cuddled on the couch with Sabrina, who is petite. He wraps his arms around her. He is free with hugs and kisses for his brothers and his parents, too. As Robin puts it: "Autism is a disorder of extremes - either hugging too much or hugging too little; talking too much or talking too little."

Fiercely protective
The quads have always been close, with the three fiercely protective of Paul. During a high school play rehearsal, Sabrina says she "went ballistic" when classmates mimicked Paul behind his back. She has chewed out people who casually use the word "retarded" and once lectured a guy at a bar who whined that he looked "autistic" in his fake ID photo.

Jesse plays the role of Paul's older brother, trying to teach him various things such as how to talk - or not talk - to people. In a crowd, it's Tyler who will keep an eye on Paul, Tyler who worries most, says their mother. At home, the siblings take Paul on their own social outings when they can, though often it's not possible. Paul's behavior can be - often is - odd.
"One of the things with this disorder is that all social rules have to be taught," says Robin. If Paul is "inappropriate" with her friends - talking incessantly, for example - Sabrina will tell him to stop, and he does.

Paul interrupts: "Like, the H-word is not appropriate, for example." As he launches into an explanation of "hell," his mother says sharply: "Paul, cut it short now! Paul, look at me!" At another point, she chides: "Excuse me, Paul, you're interrupting." Each time, Paul stops.
Sometimes, autistic people have surreal gifts: memorizing numbers or lists. Paul is a sports fanatic and can name every Heisman Trophy winner, with the year. He's also a film buff and knows every Oscar-winning picture, actor, and actress since the awards began in 1929. He has a special fondness for James Cagney.

" 'High Noon,' 1952, with Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper is a great movie," he says.
"But who won best picture that year?" asks his dad.

The immediate reply: " 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' with Charlton Heston."
Paul is also a directional savant, a walking GPS. Once, when his father got stuck in gridlock on the Merritt Parkway, Paul directed him home via a labyrinth of back roads. "He saved me over an hour," Dan says.

One for all
Jesse considers himself the older brother to all three of his siblings, not just Paul. The other three repeated kindergarten - they were preemies with a late summer birthday. The teacher said that Jesse, however, was ready for first grade. So throughout school, he has paved the way for the others, warning them about tough teachers, counseling them on their college applications. While he's now a college junior, they're sophomores.

During his senior year in high school, when he was interviewed by a Tufts track coach, Jesse's entire family was invited into the office. The coach asked the time-honored question: "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?" Jesse looked at Paul and then back at the coach: "I don't know exactly where I'll be, but I know it will be close to my brother."

Indeed, Jesse, who is majoring in entrepreneurship at Babson, says he would never take a job outside the Northeast because of Paul. "I just hope he can live by himself one day. That's the goal. But if not, I want to help take care of him. I want to get a good job and be able to pay for him."

Tyler, who is a teaching assistant at a school for the autistic in Richmond, says he'll be the first to volunteer to take Paul in. "I think I'm a more compassionate person because of Paul," he says. In a paper he wrote in high school, Tyler credits Paul with teaching him everyday courage.
Sabrina says she could see Paul living with her when their parents are no longer around. "I would never, ever marry someone who didn't respect Paul, and he'd have to let him live with us if anything should happen." Paul kisses her cheek. Robin wipes her eyes. Dan says softly: "We don't want to put that on them. We want him to be independent."

Naturally, things aren't always warm and fuzzy among the four. Robin, a former soap opera actress, and Dan, a stockbroker, say they've worked hard to treat all their children equally. "We needed to have the rules apply to everyone," Robin says. "The others couldn't resent Paul, because he had to comply. We didn't make him the poor, pathetic autistic kid."

Unexpected visitor
There are times when his siblings have been angry at, or embarrassed by, Paul, who often interrupts. And when he calls them on the phone, it's a one-way monologue: He talks the entire time. "It frustrates them," Robin says. "They get mad at him just like they do each other. If he's too loud, they tell him to be quiet, just like they do each other."

In November, Paul called Jesse and told him he wanted to visit him at Babson the next morning. But Jesse told him not to come, he had to work; he travels from store to store in the Boston area doing marketing for Adidas. He was in his car on his way to work the next morning when his cellphone rang. "I love you so much, and I'm in your dining hall," Paul told him.

Jesse turned his car around and found his brother in the cafeteria wearing a big smile and a Babson cap. Jesse himself wasn't so happy. "My initial reaction was anger, because I told him I wasn't going to be there. I turned around and went back, and I was late for work." He adds quickly: "I think it was a misunderstanding."

Paul says: "I surprised him. I missed him. I wanted to see him. I wanted to see Babson. I take the bus from [school] and transfer in Springfield, Mass. I love being with him a lot." The three boys have always shared a room; when they're all at home, they still do, sleeping in two sets of bunk beds. The house is large; they could spread out but have chosen not to.

There's a definite family resemblance: those four dark heads together - though the four sets of eyes are four different colors. There's space on both ends of the couch, but the quads squish together. "I think maybe that's from being a multiple," their mother says.

And then they launch into a song - they all love to sing, and Paul especially knows all of his father's favorite hits from the '50s and '60s. This time, it's "I Wonder Why" by Dion and the Belmonts.

The chorus goes: "I wonder why / I love you like I do / Is it because I think you love me too . . ." Their voices are sweet; Paul croons the loudest. Their parents smile.
Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company