It’s the title of a painting chosen by the United Nations after a worldwide search for its 2012 Autism Awareness Stamp. The fact that it was painted by 20-yearold Hannah Rose Kandel—who was diagnosed with autism at age two— comes as little surprise to her father.
“While our daughter was profoundly impaired initially, she is now a young, successful adult,” said Joseph Kandel, M.D. (’85). “She has blossomed into a beautiful woman and has discovered that her autism also provides a handful of gifts. She sees the world differently. She is able to do her art in the way she does it because of her unique perspective.”
Hannah’s “Crazy Love” painting is that of a red heart rimmed with a fireworkslike display of green, blue, and orange streamers. It is an expression of the love Hannah feels inside herself and for her friends.
The painting was part of a project at Masterpiece Mixers Paint and Party Studio in Naples, Fla., where the Kandel family lives. It was about 19 years ago that Kandel and his wife, Merrylee, noticed that Hannah was developing at a different pace than the couple’s oldest child. Kandel believed that Hannah simply had a developmental delay, a learning disability or possibly some deafness. The autism diagnosis came as a shock because at the time it was estimated that only one in 10,000 people had autism.
“My wife and I were stunned,” he recalled. Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder that can short-circuit communication, cripple social interaction, and result in repetitive behavior such as hand flapping, spinning, and rocking. Milder versions of the disorder result in less obvious, but still interfering symptoms. About one in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder according to estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Development Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
Building a program in Florida
After Hannah’s diagnosis, the Kandels’ pediatric neurologist suggested that Kandel close his practice and move to the Carolinas, a strong area for autism research and treatment. However, the couple instead decided to build a program in southwest Florida.
They enlisted an expert in autism therapy and intervention who currently works at the Cleveland Clinic to train people to do applied behavior analysis.
Communicating through pictures
“We spent hours and hours with behavior modification to help Hannah begin on her road to improvement,” Kandel said.
Hannah was also helped by speech and occupational therapists.
A major breakthrough came when Andy Bondy, Ph.D., originator of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), was brought in to help Hannah, who was three and essentially nonverbal.
“We used the picture program to enable her to communicate,” Kandel said. “This helped tremendously in reducing her tantrums triggered out of frustration. Once she was able to communicate by her communication pictures, she was much calmer, much more relaxed.”
Fun Fridays and super Sundays
Since Hannah had trouble communicating, socializing, and interacting with others, the Kandels turned to a specialist—Beth Solzer-Azaroff, Ph.D. She helped the family set up “Fun Fridays,” in which other young children—some with special needs and some not—came to the Kandel home for games, food, and social activities.
“We intentionally sabotaged some of the interactions so they would have to learn to communicate with each other,” Kandel said.
“Fun Fridays” grew to include “Super Sundays” and “Camp Kandel,” a summer camp that included sessions such as Kids in the Kitchen and Weird Science. Through the program, Hannah made friends who remain very close to her.
Currently, Hannah is attending school and working on her G.E.D. She has given a number of speeches, both at the Florida Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) for 400 educators in Orlando and at Florida Gulf Coast University for a speech preceding that of Temple Grandin, renowned for her autism advocacy.
Hannah’s goals are to go to college, raise a family, become a teacher and an artist, and be famous. She is involved in gymnastics, horseback riding, Irish step dancing, and art projects.
Hannah’s penchant for staying active mirrors that of her father, going back to his boyhood.
At Eastmoor High School in Columbus, Ohio, Kandel was sports editor, and tennis team captain, took college courses at Capital University, and was named student with the “Most School Spirit.” He attended The Ohio State University on a Battelle Scholarship and graduated with a degree in psychology, with honors, and a degree in zoology, with distinction.
A lifetime of passion
His career plans had been written in stone for awhile.
“When I was five years old, I was asked by my grandmother what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I stated without any hesitation, ‘I want to be a family doctor,’” Kandel said. “I feel that someone who has had a lifetime passion for becoming a physician often makes a more dedicated and passionate individual.”
Kandel described his start at Wright State’s medical school as “a bit shaky.” He was elected class president his first year and found the responsibilities of the office combined with the academic rigors “overwhelming.”
“I was spinning my wheels and sleeping too little, studying too much and being very narrow,” he recalled. “When I started to relax, enjoy the classes I was taking, get enough sleep, and start to socialize, everything seemed to fall into place.”
Kandel especially enjoyed getting to do clinical assessments early in his career. He was paired with a family physician and allowed to see patients on Fridays.
“It was almost like the dessert at the end of the week,” he said. “I worked hard, studied hard, and then was able to take a little bit of what I learned and applied that towards patient care.”
Kandel particularly enjoyed the camaraderie at Wright State and the support from other students.
“One of my fondest memories was meeting up with one of the other students the Friday night before the first gross anatomy practical at midnight, studying until 4 o’clock and then going to Young’s Dairy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget a study session like that.”
After medical school, Kandel did his internal medical transitional program at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus and then his neurology residency program at the University of California Irvine Medical Center.
Building a practice
He moved to southwest Florida, where he established a neurology/neurosurgery practice group in 1996 that has grown into five office locations and more than 120 employees. He usually works seven days a week nearly 12 hours a day, arriving in either his Naples or Fort Myers offices at 6:30 a.m.
Kandel, 52, and his wife have become tireless advocates for people with autism, providing encouragement and support. They also work to educate the public and demystify the diagnosis. Early intervention, Kandel says, yields tremendous improvements and can change the course of not only the individual, but society as well.
Kandel offers hope for parents of children with autism. Finding others who are supportive, nurturing, persistent, and optimistic is extremely important.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Kandel said. “Children with autism have special needs, and they mature and develop at their own pace. Hannah’s curve is her own curve for growth and development, and she is still making strides forward. I am still awed by everything that she learns and does on a daily basis.”
Kandel says his family motto is “dream it, believe it, achieve it.”
“Every day we see Hannah Rose never giving up, continuously trying, no matter what, and always challenging herself,” he said. “She continues to dream it, believe it, and achieve it.”
Top Photo: Hannah receiving a stamp sheet that includes her stamp.
Bottom photo: Joseph and Merrylee Kandel at the U.N. unveiling one of their daughter’s stamp.