Like most parents, Jill Briesch’s heart belongs to her kids.
But her brain?
"It'll belong to science," Briesch said with a smile. "Whenever any member of our family is no longer using our brains, when we have passed on, we have committed to donate our brains for autism research."
Briesch, of Dallas, agreed to donate her brain for medical research being conducted by doctors involved with the Autism BrainNet.
"Brain study is the key to solving autism, and our mission is to urge families to make the heroic decision to register for brain tissue donation," is the opening message on the Autism BrainNet homepage.
"The way we like to say it is that these people have super brains," UT Southwestern Medical Center Department of Psychiatry chair Dr. Carol Tamminga said. "The brains are very important. And we’d like the chance to be able to take a look at these brains after they are done with them."
Autism BrainNet — a consortium of five research hospitals across the country — has collected 170 brain tissue donations so far. Eight of those brains are from Texas. Only 206 Texans, like Briesch and her family, have registered with the program.
Briesch has two sons - 5-year-old Alexander and 2-year-old William. When Alexander was 2, he was unable to speak, understand language, feed himself or even tolerate being outdoors, which prompted Briesch to take him to a specialist.
"And then we heard the words, 'We believe your son has autism,'" Briesch said, fighting off a tear. "It's not the word you want to hear, and it’s frightening. But once you know what it is that your child has, you know what you can do about it."
That attitude propelled the Briesch family to involve Alexander in intensive autism therapy, which he attends 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year.
It also better prepared Jill and her husband for the word that came when the same specialists looked at her younger son, William.
"[William] is the youngest child who has ever been diagnosed in Dallas-Fort Worth," Briesch said. "He was given a provisional diagnosis of autism at 12 months old."
Briesch told NBCDFW it was an easy decision for her family to participate in the Autism BrainNet program for one very good reason.
"Because we don’t believe that you get to choose what happens to you in life most of the time, but we believe that you can choose what you do with it," Briesch said. "And we believe in turning every experience that comes our way into a force for good."
Tamminga told NBCDFW she and other autism researchers are appreciative of the decision to donate their brains and she is hopeful more people step forward and make the same decision.
"We’re not going to be able to understand that brain mechanism without the very, very generous support of families like this," she said. "All of our autism research is extensively driven by our relationship with families and with people like Jill."
For more information, contact the Autism BrainNet at UT Southwestern: