Together as a team

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The noise level inside the Mann family basement is deafening as nearly 20 boys race around the room, colliding and jumping and yelling. A quadruplet birthday is four times the party.

It is a testament to the work Doug and Leslie Mann have put into the boys in overcoming various features of autism that -- if not for their blue "Birthday Boy" badges -- it would be difficult to tell them apart from their friends.

Upstairs in the living room, Mark Mann holds court at the end of a long table full of pizza-chewing boys. Aidan sits quietly across from him, munching on a slice. Alex stands at the far end among a knot of friends while Michael sits to the side at a small table with his three buddies.

Getting the boys out among other kids was something the Manns decided early on was going to be important to help them combat their autism.

"We had children over all the time. We had play dates all the time," Mrs. Mann said. "Our first consultant said because they're boys, just try to get them to be as physical as possible."

Mark and Alex play baseball and other team sports.

"My husband is always the coach, and we are always very close around," she said. "But that's been great for them."

Their forte is evidently not rolling lemons with a stick, however. After splitting into three teams, Mark and Michael end up on Team Destroyer while Alex is on Team Colts. Both lose out to Team Hippopotamus as the boys scream at the top of their lungs, exhorting each other through the party games.

The egg relay goes no better for Team Destroyer, as Michael drops his egg halfway through.

"I cracked it," he said, laughing.

The breakthrough comes in the corn kernel relay, as the boys try to take corn from one bowl and fill another.

Mark drops his corn and starts back a little too leisurely for Dad.

"Keep going Mark, this is a race," he says.

Aidan, who had been sitting in the corner, decides to help. He sneaks over to the Team Hippopotamus bowl and starts pulling corn out before Mrs. Mann turns around and catches him.

"Wow, it is really close," Mrs. Mann says, bending over the bowls and counting. "But it's the Destroyers."

"Whooo!" Mark shouts. "First place."

GETTING OUT AND PLAYING with others was especially important with Michael, who has always tended to keep to himself, Mrs. Mann says.

"Michael will just want to go and be by himself, go be in a corner and play whatever he wants to," she says.

When he was in kindergarten, therapist Tiffany Brashear would bring over a few of his classmates to play with him after school.

"I would go over and do a circle of friends with him with three other little boys from his classroom and play hot potato or something that would invoke language and communication between the students," she said.

Now, seeing some of the boys on the same swim team as her child, "it is amazing to see all three of them, and Aidan as well," Mrs. Brashear said. "How much progress they've all made in the years that I've been here."

Michael has also been taking karate lessons for the past nine months or so.

"The karate really helps with the focus," Mrs. Mann says. "Just being in sports, he's not been able to participate in that. He avoids situations where he knows he can be overwhelmed easily. That's why we really wanted to picked something that could be very singular for him, that he was not going to be judged against other people and have to keep up with other people."

In November, Michael appeared a little tentative at Seigler's Karate Center in Martinez as he tried to follow the moves of instructor and co-owner Jennifer Waters.

"One-two," she shouts, and Michael, lying on his side, hesitates before kicking at the target.

His shouts are drowned out by the other kids.

The other day, "he kicked his dad pretty hard when Doug was not expecting it," Mrs. Mann said as she watched from the sidelines. "He was pretty proud of himself."

By late April, Michael is an orange belt and is joined in the class by Mark, who is a yellow belt, one step lower. Michael moves fluidly through the kicks and poses, but Mark's shouts are a lot louder and more enthusiastic.

"We are motivated! We are dedicated!" the students shout together. "We are on a quest to do our best."

When they buddy up to practice kicks, Michael runs over to his friend, Sam, who is also on the baseball team and goes to Blue Ridge Elementary with him.

And Michael is smiling out on the mat, something he didn't do in November.

Mark is left wandering around in the middle, looking for a partner and looking a little confused.

As they practice sidekicks, Mark holds the pad while his partner kicks from the floor.

When it comes to the "fighting combination" of kicks and thrusts, Michael moves expertly through the moves, but his yell is easily drowned out.

Mark, at the far end of the room, moves a little more wildly and violently, and his yell echoes through the room.

Mark keeps his eyes on the other kids to keep up while Michael looks ahead with determination.

It is an evaluation day, and some students are going to be given a red stripe on their belts to signify progress.

"I hope they get it," Mrs. Mann says under her breath as Mrs. Waters begins to call out names. Mark pops up to get a stripe.

"Sam, John and Michael Mann, let's go," Mrs. Water yells with a smile.

"Yeah!" Mrs. Mann cheers softly. "Whew."

In fact, Mrs. Waters said after class, both Michael and Mark have been nominated to join the center's Black Belt class because they have progressed so much.

The karate is important not just for the confidence but because it is helping them get in better tune with their bodies, Mrs. Mann said.

Learning not just better coordination and balance but how to better integrate their senses into how they interpret the world is an important hurdle many autistic kids must overcome, she said.

"This is everything that sensory integration teaches them," she said.

AFTER KARATE, THEY JOIN Mr. Mann and Alex and Aidan at Famous Dave's restaurant, piling into a wide booth whose table is immediately littered with crayons, cups and kids menus with coloring sheets.

Michael looks at a game, trying to identify identical drawings of carousel horses. He immediately spots a problem with the answer.

"They say it's these two, but that's not right," he says, brow furrowed. The horses are identical, but they are at different heights going up and down -- they are not literally identical.

Sitting down together is a chance to catch up.

"They say only four people in the whole school didn't pass" the standardized CRCT test they took last week, Michael says.

"Did you think it was you guys?" Mrs. Mann teases them.

"One, two, three ..." Mr. Mann points at Michael, Alex and Mark.

The boys appear shocked, then indignant.

In fact, third grade wasn't too bad, Mark says.

"In fourth grade, it is all different," he says. "We're going to have to go to different classes. This is the math class, and this is the reading class."

"You still have your homeroom, though," Michael tells him.

"You're going to have to be really organized, because you're going to have to take your stuff from class to class," Mrs. Mann said.

Aidan, pinned between Mrs. Mann and Alex in the booth, hears a crying child and gets up on his knees to look over the back of the booth.

"He really likes babies," Mrs. Mann said.

Going out to eat with Aidan can be a challenge.

"He will walk by somebody, and he will just eat something off their table," Mrs. Mann said. "Or he'll get really close to people. And the way people are nowadays, they'll get really offended."

During spring break in Charleston, a man walking by him on the sidewalk growled at Aidan, "Kid, if you touch me, I'll deck you."

There's a certain T-shirt Mrs. Mann wants. It says, "I have autism. What's your excuse?"

Aidan is having trouble getting his straw into his cup.

"Alex, help Aidan with the straw," Mr. Mann said.

It hurts Mrs. Mann the way people look at them sometimes.

"You have done so much, and people treat you like you're the worst parents in the world," she said. They don't realize "you live in sheer terror of what's going to happen to this kid when you die."

The future is something that is difficult for them to gauge. Three of the boys are doing well in school now.

"It doesn't seem out of the ordinary that I think that they would hopefully keep progressing in school and that they would go on to college," she said.

But kids with autism can do well in school because it is such a structured environment. College is not.

"The problem kids with autism have is the dynamics of life and taking into account all of the millions of things that go on," she said.

For now, they take it one day at a time, Mrs. Mann says, sitting at her kitchen table with Alex as he does his homework. They just try to keep them active and stay involved.

"That's what we tell them all of the time: Whatever you want to do, I will help you do whatever it is you want to do. Dad or I will help you," she says.

"Mom," Alex says, hearing that, "How do you make e's in cursive?"

"E's? Just like that."

"Like this?" Alex says, showing his paper.

"Yes."

Aidan is a thornier situation. It's not clear how much longer he can stay in Columbia County schools, Mrs. Mann said. The therapy program he attends only goes up to the sixth grade, Mrs. Brasher said. And he is getting bigger and in some ways more difficult to control.

"They think he does know that he is different from his brothers," she said. "And that he is so anxious about things that he does want to do things with his brothers."

Aidan is afraid sometimes of getting left behind, Mr. Mann said.

When Aidan knows they're going somewhere, "he'll run out and sit in the car," Mr. Mann said, while his parents are looking for him everywhere.

Ultimately, it might be up to his brothers, Mrs. Mann said.

"The other night, we talked about what to do with Aidan when I died, and Mark said, 'I'll take care of him,'" Mrs. Mann said.

Outside the house, three of the brothers are jumping on their trampoline and shouting. Next to them on the ground, Aidan is jumping and shouting, off in his own world.

The sun has just set and a long shadow stretches across the backyard. The boys look no different from any other kids in the neighborhood. And they look happy.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

ABOUT THE SERIES


SUNDAY: The Mann boys are diagnosed with autism, and the family researches therapy to find the best treatment.


MONDAY: Teachers and therapists say early intervention has helped the boys adjust to school.


TODAY: The Manns ensure the boys get to interact with other children in sports and other activities outside the home.


SUNDAY: The Mann boys are diagnosed with autism, and the family researches therapy to find the best treatment.


MONDAY: Teachers and therapists say early intervention has helped the boys adjust to school.

Comments (2) Add comment
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change display name
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change display name 05/13/08 - 11:15 am
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Why is mom talking about

Why is mom talking about dying with a bunch of 3rd graders? Does she have some issues with the children? Contemplating suicide? That's scary.

gnx
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gnx 05/13/08 - 02:32 pm
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She's discussing the child

She's discussing the child who isn't progressing like his brothers - is he going to eventually be normal and able to care for himself or will there be problems when she does eventually die. She is worried about what will happen to the one son when he is grown and she is no longer around to care for him.

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