Daydream Achiever
A Diagnosis of Autism Was Conquered by (Master's) Degrees
By AMY OAKES, Times Staff Writer

CANOGA PARK--He was diagnosed with autism at age 5, and by his junior
year in high school Chris Craig was so severely depressed and filled
with suicidal intentions that he grew his fingernails out and gouged his
wrists with them. He was told that if he got a job at a fast-food
restaurant, he'd be reaching his potential.

     But Craig didn't listen. In fact, he has far exceeded expectations.

     The 26-year-old Canoga Park man will receive a master's degree in
marriage, family and child counseling today at USC's spring
commencement. It will be his second graduate degree. He already holds a
master's in educational psychology from USC.

     By July he should complete a doctorate in educational psychology,
which he hopes will lead to a career working with children.

     Craig credits intense therapy during his 24-month stay at Vista del
Mar in West Los Angeles for helping him control the anxiety and
depression caused by autism, a condition characterized by daydreaming
and disregard for external reality. The treatment at Vista del Mar
enabled him to work his way through undergraduate and graduate courses,
he said.

     Vista del Mar is one of the state's largest psychiatric residential
treatment programs for abused, neglected or abandoned children. It also
works with emotionally disturbed, learning disabled or developmentally
delayed patients.

  "I got a lot of support at Vista in a low-pressure, high-structured
environment," Craig said. "It's been really instrumental in where my
life is now."

* * *

     With encouragement from staff and routine counseling sessions,
Craig, who entered the center at 17, was able to earn a high school
diploma, train and compete in two marathons and enroll in college.

     "This is a kid who could have been dead," said Amy Jaffe, a social
worker at Vista. "It's remarkable that he would be able to attend
college and not engage in any self-destructive behavior. He's come a
long way."

     Normally, the Vista residential treatment program is meant for
children 6 to 18, Jaffe said, but Craig wasn't ready to leave after he
obtained his high school diploma. "He was still anxious and depressed,"
she said.

     He continued to live at Vista and attended Santa Monica College for
one year before transferring to Loyola Marymount University. But he said
he found the atmosphere there too socially intimidating, so after a year
he transferred to Azusa Pacific University in the San Gabriel Valley.

     During his undergraduate years he discovered a love for psychology.
And, combined with a desire to work with children, Craig said he pursued
graduate studies at USC, earning his first master's degree there in
August 1995.

     "It's rare for an autistic child to go this far," said Sil Orlando,
executive director at Vista del Mar.

     Orlando estimated that about 12% of Vista's current 140 residential
and day-care patients are autistic. In all of the center's experience in
dealing with autistic children, Orlando said, Craig has been an

  "We're thankful for him," Orlando said. "He got a lot of help from us,
and he's been giving back."

     Although Craig left Vista nearly seven years ago, he sometimes
returns to talk to parent support groups, telling them his personal
story and explaining how he overcame his problems.

     "He's been great about letting parents know that it can be done,"
Jaffe said.

     He's even done something against his introverted nature to help
Vista, Orlando said. On two occasions, Craig has stood before 300 people
and told his story at a support group meeting.

* * *

     This kind of behavior used to be unthinkable for Craig, who while
growing up viewed social interaction as excruciatingly painful.

     Craig said his depression began when he entered regular school at
13. Prior to that, he had been in special education courses, where he
excelled academically but not socially. He said he would withdraw within
and do things that he thought would establish order, such as flicking a
light switch on and off or staring at his reflection in hubcaps in a
parking lot.

     By his early teenage years, Craig said, "Things weren't working out
at school or at home."

     His parents divorced before he started high school and his
relationship with his mother, with whom he lived, was strained.

     In his junior year at Cleveland High in Reseda, he said, the
academic and social pressures became too much.

     He and his mother decided to voluntarily admit him to the
Neurological Psychiatric Institute at UCLA, where he was diagnosed with
severe depression.

     Craig said his relationship with his mother is now strong. The two
also have found a spirituality to help them deal with his condition and
the day-to-day problems that he encounters.

     Three months ago, Craig said, he stopped going to counseling,
although he admits there are tough times and there's a chance of falling
into the depression again.

     "I still have that fear to this day, but it's subsiding gradually,"
Craig said.

Copyright Los Angeles Times