Claudia's choice: A family torn apart by autism

If there truly is such a thing as fairness in this life, Claudia Sheppard has been badly shortchanged. Within a 17-month span God gave her two sons, two little boys whose brains would be different.

Not so long after diagnosis her husband deserted, never to be seen again.

"He went back and lived with his mother in Utah, no child support and he's gone," said Claudia.

Alone, Claudia reared two boys challenged with developmental disabilities - different degrees of Autism, but Autism none the less.

For the public school teacher in Cy-Fair, it would be a sacrificial life, every spare dollar for therapy, every spare moment keeping watch.

"If I had to go back and do it again I honestly don't think I could do it, but when you are in a fire you put out the fire. You don't wait and think about it," she says recalling the struggle.

Time would deliver no ease. On the contrary, the neurological condition the Sheppard boys shared would serve as a wedge between them, pushing them further and further apart.

You see, Zachary is far more affected.

"He doesn't want friends. He doesn't want a wife or his family. He wants his food, his cartoons and his computer and that makes him happy," explained Claudia.

On the other hand, William's Autism allows very high function and an intellect that's often exceptional.
But in this young man what's missing, what Autism has taken, is compassion for a brother whose verbal quirks he views as simply intolerable.

"He made most of my life miserable. He just talks and talks all day about stuff he sees on TV. It's like he's speaking another language I don't understand," said William

"Living with him is like trying to have some peace and quiet in a rock concert," he added with emphasis.

For this family which had survived so much, the consequences were nearly catastrophic. Tormented by his brother's symptomatic behavior Claudia says William regressed badly and began acting out.

"He was stifled, He couldn't grow," said Claudia of William.

What came next was the most difficult decision of her life, one no mother should be forced to make.

"They just can't get along with each other. I had to pick one."

It was, Claudia's choice.

"I realized I couldn't serve them both. I had to separate them. And William, the happiest day of his life was the worse day of Zachary's life," said Claudia.

And so, to give William a shot at self-sufficiency, Claudia surrendered her oldest son to a state funded group home.

The move broke his heart, hers too. He begged to come home.

"He kept trying to run away, and he kept trying to fight the attendants and they are big strong heavy men and they are not therapeutically trained to hold him. I had to lie and I had to tell him i don't live there anymore," said Claudia.

For William, the separation has proven a turning point. He's attending college and learned to drive. The plan is working.

"He never wants to see his brother again. He's glad he is gone and he likes his life," said Claudia of William's estrangement from his brother.

As for Zachary three years have brought acceptance, if not contentment. On most Fridays mother and son share time. In the hours together Claudia feels both his love and his pain

"I am the only that gets his anger because I'm the one who put him there," said Claudia.

It is suffering she quietly, almost stoically shares. A mother who wakes most nights wondering if her firstborn is safe and why life couldn't have been just a bit kinder.

"Every Mother's Day I think I have to have two Mother's days, two Christmases, two Thanksgivings because they can't be together," said Claudia, her voice cracking with emotion.

Can't be together.

Not now, not ever, except in her heart.