78: The Biggest Losers Win Big

78: The Biggest Losers Win Big

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Biggest Losers Win Big

It is never too late to be who you might have been.

~George Eliot

“So your son’s autism drove you to overeat?” The woman asking the question was a casting director for NBC’s reality-TV show The Biggest Loser.

A week earlier my wife Amy had “tricked” me into attending a casting call in Atlanta on Valentine’s Day for the popular prime-time weight loss show.

Amy’s proposition to me went something like this: “Honey, we need a romantic weekend away, and, by the way, while we’re there, I want us to stand in a line with 600 other fat people.”

We went, and were chosen for a second audition. And that’s how we ended up in a hotel room talking about our struggles with an NBC casting director.

Our son’s autism had, indeed, driven us to food. Together, we weighed 560 pounds.

I’d always struggled with weight, but Amy’s battles with emotional eating began in earnest when autism turned our world upside down.

Sometimes I’m struck by how dramatically life can change in an instant. Life can be going one way and, in a heartbeat, everything can change and you find yourself heading in entirely new direction.

That’s exactly what happened to us in the spring of 2002.

Our third son, Rhett, was two and a half, and everything about how our little guy was developing was right on track.

Then one day everything changed. Rhett regressed in skills and vocabulary. He stopped making eye contact and began to withdraw into himself.

In the hardest two years of our lives, we pleaded with doctors for answers. When Rhett was finally diagnosed with autism at age five, we were devastated, but relieved to finally have an explanation.

By then, Rhett was sleeping very little and we couldn’t reason with him at all. When he did talk, he “parroted” what he heard. If Amy asked, “What color is this apple?” he repeated, “What color is this apple?” He couldn’t answer simple questions, like what his name was or where he lived.

He was unpredictable and had no concept of danger. We lived in constant fear that he would climb out a window or wander away, unable to tell anyone his name or where he lived. We nailed shut the windows in his upstairs bedroom to keep him safe. And when Rhett wasn’t awake in the middle of the night drawing on walls, he would lie in bed peeling the sheetrock paper off the walls.

Teachers told us Rhett would probably never read phonetically, nor could he follow simple instructions like “get your backpack from on top of the dryer” because he couldn’t understand abstract concepts like “on top.” Every night we worked with him for hours on homework, eventually giving up and telling him all the answers.

Depressed and exhausted, Amy started eating for comfort. I called her every day on my way home from work to gauge her level of sadness. Should I pick up Rocky Road ice cream? Or should I pick up ice cream and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups?

Amy was obsessed with “fixing” Rhett, and increasingly burdened knowing there were therapies out there we couldn’t afford. Plus, we’d been told there’s a window of time when an autistic child is very young when you can make a difference. After that, it’s too late.

Soon Amy was spending every Tuesday night in bed with a big bowl of ice cream, watching The Biggest Loser on TV and crying.

I’d never felt so helpless as a husband or father.

We told our story to the casting director. Two months later, we got a call saying we were perfect for the show.

Earlier I said that life can change in a heartbeat, that in an instant you can find yourself on a brand new path. It happened, tragically, when Rhett began showing signs of autism. It happened again, this time for good, when we were selected to participate on The Biggest Loser.

Amy and I were different: I had no idea what a calorie was, and Amy was an experienced dieter. But we were both stuck, and desperately needed someone skilled who could coach us through the changes that would make our lives better.

Out of sixteen contestants, Amy came in second and I third in weight loss percentage, dropping a combined total of 256 pounds. Suddenly we had more energy. We had more hope. We even parented differently, for the first time emphasizing healthy living.

We were also getting e-mails from parents of other autistic kids, saying they’d seen us on TV and been encouraged by our story. Daily challenges still overwhelmed us, but we didn’t feel as alone in our struggles.

One day we got an e-mail from a local tutoring and brain training organization that wanted to help Rhett. At this point Rhett had officially been in kindergarten for three years, with little hope of being promoted to first grade. After the tutoring, the changes were so dramatic that Rhett was admitted into first grade and has advanced every year since.

Today Rhett is in fifth grade, and is in regular classes most of the time. He loves to read. He does his homework by himself in about half an hour. And when he’s looking for his backpack and we tell him it’s in the living room on top of the bookshelf next to the couch, he knows immediately where to look.

We recently had a birthday party for Rhett. Surrounded by friends and family, he read every card aloud, then thanked each guest one by one. Watching him shine, I thought, “He still has autism, but he has friends. He has skills and dreams. He has a future, and it’s brighter than we imagined it could be.”

We’re so thankful for the coaches who so dramatically changed our lives — Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels who helped us change our bodies, and our local tutors who helped Rhett catch up to his classmates.

Life really can change in a heartbeat. Things can be really hard, then something happens and you find yourself heading in a whole new direction.

~Phil Parham

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