October 20, 2008 12:00 PM

As her son Connor tossed the last bag in the back of his blue Mustang convertible and prepared to leave home for college, Dena Higley willed herself not to cry. Last August, when Connor kissed her goodbye and drove off from his family’s home in Pasadena, she flashed him a thumbs-up sign, then waited until he turned the corner before bursting into tears. “I was not going to let him see that,” she says. “I wanted it to be business as usual.”

Yet the entire scene was so out of the ordinary that Higley, the Emmy-winning head writer for Days of Our Lives, and her husband, Mark, 54, couldn’t quite believe it had really happened. Diagnosed with autism at 3 and possessing severely limited verbal skills, the young Connor often walked around in circles. Now, 16 years later, his incredible turnaround has led not only to personal pride for his mother but a professional achievement for her as well.

This summer Higley crafted a story line for Days of Our Lives in which one of the show’s most popular couples, Abe and Lexie Carver, learn that their son Theo has autism—making Days the first show to have a toddler character receive that diagnosis. It is only now that Connor has come so far, Higley says, that she finally feels comfortable writing about autism at all. When an NBC exec first asked her to create the story, Higley agreed, with one caveat: “I had to be sure it was okay with Connor.” At first, Connor questioned why his mom would write about autism. “I’m not autistic anymore,” he argued. While not exactly accurate, as subsequent tests still place him within the autism spectrum, Higley says, “he has never let autism define him.”

That message is one Higley, 50, hopes to send viewers as they tune in to watch the Carvers come to terms with their son’s special needs. Seeing this story play out on daytime television, advocates say, will raise awareness and help parents dealing with autism feel less alone. “It’s important for daytime dramas to tackle this because so many new mothers are watching,” says Alison Singer of Autism Speaks. “The message that there is hope, that you can make progress, is very important.”

It certainly proved true in Connor’s case. As a child, he couldn’t carry on a conversation and would say strange words, such as “momsko,” which Higley later figured out meant “Come on, let’s go.” He also insisted on carrying an item in his left hand at all times—first a G.I. Joe action figure and later a coffee-stirrer. For her part, Higley says, “I was so guilty and grief-stricken. I thought that somehow I crossed the wrong street, gave the wrong shot and I had to undo it. That’s ludicrous, horrible thinking.”

Finally, Higley realized it would take a team effort to help Connor. She and Mark—a former Days writer whom she met when both were tour guides at Universal Studios in 1984—recruited specialists, and Connor became increasingly verbal and social with the help of rigorous speech, occupational and behavioral therapy. “We had amazing people come into our lives,” Higley says. “That’s when Connor really started to blossom.”

It’s also when the couple were able to start thinking about adding to their family. They already had a daughter, Jensen, now a freshman at University of Southern California, who was born 17 months after Connor. But rather than becoming pregnant again, Higley talked with her husband, and together they decided to adopt.

“We had become such advocates for Connor,” Mark notes, “we knew that there were kids out there that needed parents to open doors for them. So we wanted someone who wouldn’t necessarily be the child parents were looking for.” They ended up adopting a baby from Vietnam, daughter Adelle, 12—who was born with fused fingers and without part of her right leg—and later a son, Helio, 13, who was 8 when they adopted him from Ethiopia. “Now,” says Higley proudly, “we have the perfect family.”

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