Mother Uses Grief Over Autistic Son To Do Something For Others Like Him

by Ann Samuel on Sep 14 2007 3:35 PM

As clichéd as it may sound, it is worth repeating. Tough times don’t last, tough people do.

Take the case of Minneapolis-based entrepreneur Jennifer VanDerHorst-Larson. She overcome depression and shock when her only son turned autistic, supposedly after a MMR (Mumps- Measles-Rubella) vaccine, and one for influenza and chicken pox on Oct. 15, 2001, when her son Cade Larson, was 15 months old.

Cade fell into a deep sleep that lasted 14 hours, and when he woke up, she says, he was a different child. “He stopped looking at me,” VanDerHorst-Larson remembers. “He had lost his speech.” She believes he had a huge seizure that resulted in brain damage.

Her only mission became to somehow heal her son. A few months later, her school district told her that Cade had the severest case of autism it had ever seen. “This is my only child. I can’t describe the pain”, she says.

Though the idea that vaccines cause autism has been widely rejected by mainstream scientists, some doctors are investigating it and many parents of autistic children remain convinced of a link.

Yet, VanDerHorst-Larson’s entrepreneurial spirit did not allow her to remain hurt and victimized. In 1996, she had opened a Pilates studio in Minneapolis. In 1998, she had started Vibrant Technologies, a buyer and seller of information technology hardware that now has 40 employees and expects revenue this year of $45 million, up from $37 million last year. Now, in the five and a half years since Cade’s condition has been diagnosed, she has thrown herself into the challenge of giving meaning to his life with all of the classic weapons of the entrepreneurial personality: superhuman energy, bottomless self-confidence, bulldog tenacity, a compulsion to be in control and a knack for spotting opportunities in even the most disheartening reversals of fortune.

For two years, she traveled the country, attending seminars and taking Cade to neurologists, immunologists and other specialists, until, she said, she realized she would never find the cure she was seeking. “By then, I was running a home program for him, nine people in all: a behavioral analyst, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a psychologist, a social worker, a special education teacher and three behavioral therapists,” VanDerHorst-Larson says.

In April 2003, she started the nonprofit Holland Center in Excelsior, Minn., for children ages 2 to 8 who have autism, including Cade, whose face is on the Web site’s home page. The staff consists of a behavioral analyst, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a special education teacher, a music teacher, two psychologists, 15 behavioral therapists and VanDerHorst-Larson as the business manager.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz who founded the Boswell Group, a New York consulting firm that specializes in business culture issues, opines VanDerHorst-Larson’s approach to her son’s disability is a case study in “the uncanny ability of entrepreneurs to see obstacles as challenges and to jump over them instead of being stopped by them.” “Many mothers might react to the discovery that their child has autism with depression,” Dr. Sulkowicz says. “Jennifer didn’t because she had pre-existing resources that she could call upon to seek a solution to the problem.”

Asked how he interpreted her statement that her son became her investment and she the manager, Dr. Sulkowicz suggests it is “ a depersonalization of something that is extremely personal.” He continues: “It’s kind of like saying: “On one level, I’m not going to think in terms of mother and son, I’m going to take a half step back and approach and deal with that as a business problem. Because that way, I will be more likely to find a solution. “That approach, in turn, has probably made her a sturdier and more satisfied mother”, he believes .