Image Credit: Photo provided by Heather Bensch

SPARK Article: Finding Answers for a Daughter’s Autism through Research

McKaela was an exceptionally quiet baby. She did not cry when she was hungry or when her diaper was wet. In fact, sometimes the family dog would let her mother, Heather Bensch, know that McKaela needed something.

“From the very beginning, I knew that something was different about her, and I brought it up to the doctor,” Heather recalls. The doctor referred the baby to early intervention therapies when she was only 6 months old, an early age for a child without a diagnosis.

When their children were young, Heather and her husband, Brian, served in the Air Force, and they moved often to bases across the United States. Heather made sure that McKaela, her first-born, continued to receive care from a changing cast of doctors and therapists.

When McKaela was 3, she was diagnosed with autism.

But autism did not answer all of Heather’s questions. Why did McKaela have traits that autism did not explain, such as low muscle tone? Why didn’t she respond to therapies the way other children did?

Those answers would come many years later, from the SPARK autism study. In 2022, SPARK had genetic news for McKaela, who is now 21. Her mother only wishes that this information had been available when McKaela was young. “It would have saved us years of frustration, and helped her and her development, if we had known sooner,” Heather says.


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