Sharon Cotliar
February 04, 2008 12:00 PM

Settling into a booth at the Arctic Circle burger joint south of Salt Lake City, Robin Kirton leans over to her husband and whispers, “I wonder how many dirty looks we’ll get this time.” For a short moment, their six kids are relatively quiet. But Robin knows it won’t last. Mary, their 3-year-old, starts screaming for no apparent reason, just before her brother Ammon, 4, dashes for the door, with his dad in pursuit. Six-year-old Sarah sneaks over to a table and snatches a soda from a diner and begins drinking from the straw. The woman glares at her at first, but then notices what’s written on her T-shirt: “I’m autistic. What’s your excuse?”

Raising a child with autism can mean facing an endless list of challenges. Temper tantrums, obsessive habits, violent behavior, children so seemingly removed that they may never say “I love you”—all can be part of the equation. Now multiply those challenges by six, and you’ll begin to understand the lives of Robin and John Kirton of Murray, Utah. All six of their children, ages 3 to 14, have what experts refer to as autism spectrum disorders. The three eldest have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, the next two are severely autistic and do not speak at all, while the youngest has PDD-NOS, a milder variant. “Autism is unrelenting. It is every minute, every hour, every day,” says Suzanne Wright, cofounder of the Autism Speaks advocacy group and grandparent of a child with severe autism. “I know how heartbreaking it can be to raise one child with autism. I can’t imagine six.”

Robin Kirton, 37, and John, 51, have battled depression and near-bankruptcy. Just getting through the day—in a house with eight people and one bathroom—is a triumph. In 2006, their kids were removed from their home after a judge challenged their suitability as parents; they got them back after two weeks. “This is the most challenging situation that I have ever seen,” says Sigrid Nolte, a Utah state social worker assigned to the family. “Yet what’s remarkable about Robin and John is how much they accept and love their children.”

Their three-bedroom rental house is a scene of barely controlled chaos. One recent afternoon, Robin was hurriedly making club sandwiches when her son Ammon, known as “The Destroyer,” wiggles out of his high chair, climbs atop a counter, grabs his favorite cereal, then spills it everywhere. Says Emma, 9: “Our family is different. We’re not like other kids.”

Before the Kirtons had kids, Robin says autism was a word she had only heard attached to an unruly child at her Mormon church. She met John, out of the Air Force and working as a car salesman, at a church dance in Edgerton, Minn., in 1995. She was 25 and the mother of a 2-year-old, Bobby, from a previous marriage. He was 39, going through a divorce, with four children who lived with their mom. Robin recalls thinking, “Awful skinny, combs his hair stupid, he’s probably a jerk—but he’s kind of cute.” She invited him to her apartment a few weeks later and John fixed all the appliances. “At that point, I was definitely falling in love.”

They married the next spring and started to raise a family while John worked as a handyman and bus driver. By 2002, when they moved to Utah so John could be closer to his older kids, they had four children: Bobby, Emma, Nephi, now 8, and Sarah. Robin noticed that other kids in the neighborhood didn’t like playing with hers. “Bobby had always been painfully shy,” she says. “I remember one family reunion where he was following around the other kids saying ‘gaga’ over and over. He thought it was funny.” In Minnesota, his kindergarten teacher wondered if he had ADD.

Despite the signs, Robin didn’t want to believe what relatives and teachers were saying. “I thought he’d grow out of it,” she says. Once Emma and then Nephi started kindergarten, she found herself fielding calls from the school. “I would cringe every time the phone rang because I knew it was the school asking me to come calm them from one of their temper tantrums.”

Finally, after a nudge from church leaders, the Kirtons took Sarah to be examined in 2005. She had passed her third birthday without uttering a word and was exhibiting odd behavior, like licking rocks covered in dirt. The finding: severe autism. The next year John took Ammon, then 2 1/2, to be evaluated. As the boy lined up blocks rather than stacking them, John asked, “Is he a little autistic or a lot? On a scale of 1 to 10, what is he?” “A 10,” the doctor told him. John thought of his other kids. That night he and Robin stayed up late: What about Bobby? Emma? And Nephi? “We were in despair,” he says.

Looking back today, Robin says both she and John fell into a paralyzing depression—until a crisis forced them to confront the truth. With John at work during the day, Robin was home with six kids, surrounded by piles of laundry, dirty diapers and hundreds of tiny pieces of paper that Ammon habitually shredded. “He and Sarah were destroying everything in the house,” she says. “I kept thinking it would get better.” Instead it got worse. One August afternoon in 2006, as she was picking up a pile of sticky raisins from her kitchen, Robin says, “I just started screaming at God. I told him he better do something right now, that I couldn’t take it one more day.”

The next day she confided to a social worker working with the children how overwhelmed she was feeling: “I said the house was such a mess I should just burn it down.”

Concerned about her mental state, investigators from the state Division of Child and Family Services arrived at the door within minutes. “They were asking me all these questions,” says Robin. She and John were ordered to appear in court, and a week later, the kids were taken away in three cars. They got them back two weeks later, after Robin agreed to a psychological evaluation, counseling and to set up a support system of family and friends to help her when John wasn’t there. (The case was closed last summer.) “When the kids were taken away, it was almost as if someone killed my daughter,” says Robin’s mother, Janice Anderson, 61. “No one loves those kids more than Robin.”

Robin, who began taking an antidepressant, can now say the ordeal was a mixed blessing. It opened the door to services she didn’t know existed, such as disability benefits and early intervention programs. It also taught her an important lesson: acceptance. “I felt I had to accept the diagnosis and accept them as they are because it was just too painful to be in denial or be upset that they’re not normal.”

Now, on good days, the Kirtons find humor in what Robin calls their children’s “little quirks and oddities,” and even blog about them on the Web site they named after Ammon bit Mary. Each day, Robin says, her children make progress. Mary is starting to say a few words at a time, though others her age speak in sentences. Ammon carries around his cereal these days, instead of spilling it. And the older ones are better at helping their siblings, even if they struggle to make friends their own age.

Robin admits she blames herself for her children’s autism since, as the mother of all six, she is the common denominator—even though scientists are only beginning to learn about autism and genetics (see box). John is quick to defend her. “Who knows what caused it? It could have been me.” Even at the worst of times, he says, the marriage was never in danger. “If we knew our kids were going to have autism,” says Robin, “we still would have had them. We believe we had these children so they can teach us to be better people.”

Back at the restaurant, Robin grows tense when she hears another child cry. “Did Ammon bite someone?” she says. This day at least, her son has done nothing to worry about. Later at home, the Kirtons gather around a recliner for a bedtime prayer. John, now a credit card scanner salesman, holds hands with Bobby, Emma and Nephi, while the others climb into their mom’s lap. “Father in heaven, we’re grateful for the blessings we have,” John says. “We pray you’ll help us get a good night’s rest. And we’re thankful for all the fun things we did today.” The family, those who can speak, join him in saying, “Amen.”

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