Raising Connor

He is easy to love, affectionate, and friendly. He is moody and unpredictable. Vulnerable, sweet, devoted to family. Impulsive, strong, and overflowing with emotion. Dreaming of home, always. Never quite at home, anywhere. This is Connor, a puzzle his family and caregivers have worked long and hard to solve, a boy who lives at the intersection of autism and mental illness. It isn’t so much a rare place — as many as half of autistic children suffer from mental health problems — but it can be a deeply baffling one. The overlap between these afflictions is hard to untangle; diagnosis and treatment can be very difficult. And a health care system meant to help can instead be frustrating, even harsh. Photography by Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff -- Read the Story --
Connor Biscan stood atop a small rock and searched the sky for the balloons he had lost at a family gathering in Nelson, N.H. on Labor Day weekend. Connor had flown the balloons in an open field behind his great-grandfather’s house. When the kite string broke and the balloons snagged on a tree, Connor became anxious. His mother, Roberta Biscan, praised him for remaining calm. As a baby, balloon was his first word. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor yelled at his mother, Roberta, as they returned from an excursion during a family gathering in in Nelson, N.H. Connor had shouted an expletive at his sister, resulting in his first warning from his mother for the weekend. Ten warnings and Connor has to return to school. He begged his mother to take it back. “Take it back, please take it back,” he screamed in his mother’s ear. Connor’s cousin, Kara Quinn, 8, was at left. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor rested in his “sensory closet,’’ while his mother let in the dog at home. Roberta explained that Connor suffers from sensory processing disorder, meaning “he doesn’t know where his body is in space.” The closet under the stairs is filled with comforting objects: pillows, blankets, stuffed animals, toys, and balloons. He buries himself among his favorite things. Roberta said their weight signals his nervous system to calm down. “He can stay in there for hours,’’ she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta said goodnight to Connor after his 13th birthday party. Earlier, he had a conversation with an imaginary friend of sorts about why he couldn’t move back home. “You’ve been too unsafe,’’ he said. “You could really hurt Mom.’’ But later, in bed, Connor told his mother he really wanted to come home. It’s a familiar conversation. “I tell him that it’s not safe for anyone right now, including him, but when it is, he can come home,” she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor sat quietly next to his grandmother, Karen Francis, as his aunt, Shawna Bickford, served dinner during a family gathering in Nelson, N.H.. Connor was worried about his mother after a family disagreement. He said he was concerned “she might have a heart attack.” While Connor throws punches and objects when’s he’s angry, he is also loving and sweet toward his family. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor and his mother pulled away from the Maple House in Waltham, a group home owned by the Guild for Human Services. Connor had been living at the residential school for autistic children for nine months. But his mother felt he spent too much time watching television and playing on his iPad, rather than participating in community activities. She enrolled him in a new live-in school, the New England Center for Children in Southborough. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor stared at a balloon he flew overhead at his house in Wilmington. The balloon was a gift from an employee at the Guild for Human Services, a residential school Connor had moved out of that day. He was concerned he wouldn’t be able to bring balloons to his new school later in the week. His mother said Connor was torn about the transition. “I think it’s mixed emotions. He’s happy to be leaving but now that he’s leaving there’s some sadness. Saying goodbye is always difficult,” she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Will Biscan, 11, left, complained to his mother after she gave her winnings of 250 tickets to his brother, Connor, while visiting the Playland Arcade at Hampton Beach, N.H. Will, who used to share a bedroom with Connor, has struggled with his brother’s autism diagnosis. “Will feels that Connor gets a lot more than he does,’’ his mother said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor flew his new kite while visiting Hampton Beach, N.H., with his family. “Kites are so cool. I think I’ll fly this kite all day,” he said. Connor has always loved kites and balloons. He sat quietly then began a conversation with his imaginary friend about the importance of not letting go of the string. “You’ll be really upset if you lose that kite.” Connor said. “I know, it’s brand new.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor yelled at his mother as they left Hampton Beach. When it was time to leave, Connor quickly picked up his boogie board, two turtles he had won at the arcade, and his kites. He grew impatient as the rest of the family got dressed and gathered coolers and umbrellas. The conversation escalated and Connor exploded, a typical scenario that creates stress in his family. Friend Nathan Ford, 12, watched the exchange. Later, Roberta explained that “ending any type of activity and transitioning into something different conjures up a lot of anxiety. Maybe the fact that we were leaving caused a lot of emotions that he didn’t know how to deal with, he just became frustrated and that’s how it comes out,’’ she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta Biscan decompressed after putting Connor to bed at their home in Wilmington last July. It was a stressful day. She had moved Connor out of his residential school. He would be moving into a new school later that week, and had yelled and sworn at her when she said balloons were not allowed there. Her family worries about the impact of Connor’s behavior on her. “She handled more than most people could ever handle,’’ said her sister, Shawna Bickford. “She was close to the breaking point’’ before Connor moved out. Now her stress level “is not at a 10 constantly. She is at five,’’ she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta carried Mr. Bear into her son’s new home owned by the New England Center for Children in Hopkinton. Connor would live there with eight other boys with autism, all of whom attended the center’s residential school. It would be Connor’s second live-in school - and his family fervently hoped it would be a good fit. As Roberta moved in her son’s belongings, including his extensive collection of stuffed animals, she reflected on her decision. “I want him home but I know right now I can’t provide what he needs. It’s bittersweet. I didn’t give up on Connor. I can honestly say I tried everything,” she said . (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta hugged Connor before leaving him with Dana Kelsey, left, at the New England Center for Children in Southborough. It was Connor’s first day at the residential school, and he was unhappy because they don’t allow balloons. He would not be able to visit home for six weeks. Roberta forced herself to pull away from his embrace and walk out the door. “It’s never easy to leave your child anywhere, especially with people you don’t know, and trust those people will treat him as you would,’’ she said. “I know in my heart of hearts I have exhausted every option of support. ” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor curled up to watch a video on his iPad in his classroom at the New England Center for Children. IPad time is a reward for good behavior. The school practices applied behavior analysis, a type of behavior modification that breaks down desirable conduct into steps and rewards children for completing each step. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta and Connor danced before saying goodbye at her parents’ home in Malden. Karen and Jeff Francis agreed to babysit for the night so she could attend a New Kids on the Block concert at Fenway Park with her two sisters. “Thank God I have the parents I do,’’ Roberta said. “No matter how challenging things can be with Connor, they’re consistently there to help.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor watched his sister Ayla, 11, sew closed a tear in Mr. Bear at their home. Ayla is patient with Connor’s unpredictable behavior and mothers him. She had secretly created a behavior chart to provide incentives for her older brother to stay in control, but her mother worried it was an adult burden she should not have to shoulder. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor chased his brother Will during a tag football game at their home. Their mother’s dreams for Connor are typical parental goals but they are hard for Connor -- that he finish school, land a good job, live independently. Most importantly, that he is happy, said Roberta. But Connor has a long road ahead. “The unknown -- that is what’s really hard,’’ she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor drew a sympathy card for a family friend. Connor is a complicated child, sometimes angry and impulsive, but often loving and sweet. Connor understands death and often worries that he or family members will die with little warning. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor soaked in the bathtub. He has been diagnosed with autism, a mood disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As many as half of children with autism also have a mental health disorder, and the combination makes treatment more complicated. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor and his sister, Ayla, played in her room Connor is close to Ayla, who seems largely unfazed by her brother’s unpredictable behavior. She is motherly toward him, often mending his stuffed animals, teaching him how to make animal balloons, and helping him calm down. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor waited for his father, Billy Biscan, and his sister at the Wellington train station in Medford. The family traveled to Boston Common for the Autism Speaks Walk, a fund-raising event. When Connor was first diagnosed with the condition, his father didn’t believe it – or didn’t want to. “I thought he was a little different. Then school was a disaster for Connor,’’ Billy said. He said Connor is not what people typically think of when they think of autism; he makes eye contact, he carries a conversation, and he is coordinated. “He’s in a good stretch right now. I tell him if you want to come home you have to be safe at school and you have to be safe at home,” he said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Teacher Kelsey Richardson served Connor corn during dinner at his group home in Hopkinton. Connor lives with eight teenage boys, all with autism. The New England Center for Children takes on some of the most challenging autism cases in the world. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor swore at his teacher, Matt Souza, after a misunderstanding at the New England Center for Children in Southborough. Souza had erased the checkmarks on a chart that Connor had earned for good behavior the previous day. Connor was quiet for a moment then tried to punch Souza. He later threw chairs, then retreated under a desk. Souza was eventually able to calm Connor and they cleaned up the room. “You can’t get flustered,’’ Souza said later. “You never know when it’s going to come. When it does you have to know how to react.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor played a Super Mario Brothers video game in the leisure center at the New England Center for Children in Southborough. At the residential school for children with autism, even play time is an opportunity for adults to teach students social skills. Teachers talk through game strategy and cheer successful moves to encourage the boys to follow directions and to promote good sportsmanship. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor flew balloons he attached to a kite string at his 13th birthday party. Connor has loved balloons since he was a baby. When one blew away outside his home in Wilmington, he started a dialogue with his alter ego, a sort of imaginary friend. “Once it’s gone it’s gone,” he said. “But I want it back. I want that balloon back. It’s gone, dude, it flew up to heaven.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor passed under staff and coaches on his way to accept a medal during a New England Special Olympics Winter Games event. Connor attended with his father, Billy Biscan has simple dreams for Connor’s future, “I hope he can be more independent, not need to be watched all the time. Really, I want him to be happy.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor searched for salamanders during a family gathering in Nelson, N.H. His mother brought her children to her grandfather’s farm because it was a positive experience for her when she was young. It’s also a way for Connor, who struggles in school, to develop more independence and skills he can be proud of, like kayaking. “It’s an opportunity to just run around in the fresh air,’’ she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor screamed at his mother because she wouldn’t allow him to fly a drone at their home. When she threatened to take him back to his residential school if he didn’t calm down, he cried. Roberta explained that Connor was home for just one night this weekend -- rather than the usual two -- because he had been aggressive on a previous visit. “It was hard for me to not pick him up yesterday, it was breaking my heart,” she said. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor laughed as his brother Will, right, tickled their grandmother during Connor’s 13th birthday party. Connor had been angry because his mother denied his request to buy 30 balloons with birthday money. He later calmed down, and the family celebrated with a chocolate ice cream cake. Relatives often step in to help Connor’s mother manage his unpredictable behavior. “I am really happy you pulled it together,’’ said his grandmother, Karen Francis. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor hugged his sister after he arrived home for the long Thanksgiving weekend. It would be his longest visit home since enrolling in the residential school at the New England Center for Children that summer. Later, Connor turned to his mother and said, “I want to live at your house.” Roberta replied, “I know, and you will one day. That’s what we’re aiming for.” (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor grew anxious and upset as his mother tried to fix the drone he received on Christmas morning. Connor is easily frustrated, and even fleeting annoyances can explode into anger. Overall, he said, he had a good Christmas. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Roberta and Connor embraced while resting by the fire during a family gathering in Nelson, N.H. It had been a tough day. Connor struggles to manage his powerful reactions to disappointments, often taking out his anger on his mother. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Connor walked the beach with an inflatable alien while visiting Silver Lake with his family in Wilmington. His mother, Roberta Biscan, suspected soon after Connor was born that something was wrong, but her family thought she was being dramatic. He had rituals, such as counting ceiling fan blades, and an obsession with balloons. He was diagnosed with autism at age 2. “He was my first grandchild and I saw nothing but perfection,’’ said his grandmother, Karen Francis. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
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