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Jett Travolta's death feeds rumors of autism

In an undated handout photo from Rogers and Cowan, John Travolta and Kelly Preston pose with their children, Ella Blue, left, and Jett, who was found dead Friday.

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In an undated handout photo from Rogers and Cowan, John Travolta and Kelly Preston pose with their children, Ella Blue, left, and Jett, who was found dead Friday.

The death of Jett Travolta last Friday was so sudden, so unexplained, so entangled in Hollywood celebrity, it couldn't help but unleash amateur detectives the world over.

Tall and strapping, 16-year-old Jett looked a lot like his famous father, John. He was found unconscious the morning after New Year's celebrations on the bathroom floor inside the Travoltas' vacation villa on Grand Bahama Island.

The family has said almost nothing about the circumstances of the death. An autopsy in the Bahamas was kept secret, except for the finding that the death was not a homicide. A Bahamian undertaker claimed to have glimpsed the cause off the death certificate: brain seizure. Meanwhile, a family spokesman confirmed that Jett suffered seizures for years and had been on — and then taken off — the epilepsy drug Depakote.

In this vacuum of facts, imaginations run wild. Did Jett have autism, and might that disorder have contributed to his demise? Did something called Kawasaki disease play a role in his death? Did the Church of Scientology dissuade his parents — among the world's most famous Scientologists — from getting the right medical care?

The Travolta family hasn't addressed any of these questions publicly, and maybe never will. Today they're hosting Jett's funeral at their home in Ocala.

But many parents and neurologists see aspects of the tragedy that seem familiar, and surprisingly common.

This is their best guess: Jett died the same way 50,000 ordinary Americans — Christians, Scientologists, Buddhists — die every year: of seizures.

• • •

A video from last November may reveal more about Jett Travolta than all the speculation. Just two minutes long, the encounter between paparazzi and the Travolta family takes place outside a Paris restaurant.

The paparazzi surround John, wife Kelly Preston, son Jett and daughter Ella Bleu, 8, as they're getting into an SUV. The mood is friendly, but John and an attendant — possibly one of the omnipresent nannies — flank Jett. John takes the boy's hand. Jett has a distant look. He makes no eye contact. John and the attendant guide him into the SUV and gently buckle him in. The boy says nothing, but raises his hands to his head.

Millions of people have seen the video on TV and the Internet, but to Dana Ando of St. Petersburg the scene seems familiar. She watched it several times and recognizes the distant look, the hand gestures, the parents' protectiveness. In the paparazzi video she saw Cameron, her 10-year-old autistic son.

"A parent like me can spot an autistic kid a mile away."

Like a third of autistic children, Cameron has seizures. And like Jett, Cameron had taken the drug Depakote to control them.

For years there has been speculation that Jett suffered from autism, but the Travolta family never spoke publicly about the unsolicited armchair diagnosis. The only illness the parents have talked about was Kawasaki disease, an affliction Jett developed at age 2. Untreated, the disease can cause heart damage, but it appears Jett recovered quickly and completely.

When news came out that Jett died of a sudden seizure, however, rumors buzzed about links connecting seizures, autism and the Church of Scientology. People wondered whether the Travoltas, in not acknowledging autism, might have put their son at risk.

Some critics even claimed that the Travoltas never spoke about autism because the diagnosis is not accepted by Scientology.

Autism United, a national group representing 15,000 parents, urged the Travoltas to become advocates in a statement Monday. The release repeated the claim that Scientologists view autism as nothing more than a "psychosomatic" disease.

But Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said these conclusions were a canard.

First of all, he said, the church has no policy on whether autism is real or fabricated. It is not addressed in church practice.

Beyond that, Davis, a Los Angeles-based spokesman, said the church would never interfere with a doctor's prescription for a medical condition such as seizures.

The church would have told the Travoltas to do whatever their doctors prescribed, Davis said. He has known John for 30 years and Kelly for 18, and was present for Jett's birth. The boy, he said, has always received the best medical care.

The confusion may stem from the church's well-known opposition to psychiatry, which it considers a practice not based in science. Members may not take "mind-altering" psychiatric drugs, Davis said.

But how about a drug like Depakote, which is prescribed for seizures but also sometimes used for psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder?

"Sure, if they had seizures, why not? If that was what was advised by a doctor, why not?"

There could be a problem, however, for a Scientologist engaged in the practice of "auditing." In a 1972 lecture, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard said that spiritual counselors ran into conflicts when auditing church members taking drugs for epilepsy. Church members are required to "go off the drug" during auditing.

For epileptics, abruptly "going off the drug" can be dangerous, said Dr. Erasmo Passaro, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at Bayfront Medical Center. Stopping medication is likely to trigger serious seizures and could even be fatal.

There is no information about whether Jett was ever audited, or why his use of Depakote was discontinued. It's possible another drug was substituted. The family has said nothing.

Even Bruce Hines, a harsh critic of Scientology, who worked for the church in both Clearwater and California, doubts the church would have blocked Jett's medical treatment.

"I'm very much opposed to Scientology now," he said, "but I see no reason to believe the church inappropriately interfered."

• • •

But the boy did die.

When he did, Jeanne Donalty felt a special sorrow. Her son, Christopher, 21, died of a seizure seven years ago while attending Stetson University in DeLand.

He was a big, strong kid. He was taking epilepsy medication. He had once taken Depakote. She thought he had been free of seizures for two years.

Donalty, who lives in Utica, N.Y., has since learned that about 50,000 Americans die of seizures every year. She now is a board member of Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, based in Chicago. Epilepsy is an inexact term. It applies to anyone who has had at least two unprovoked seizures. That includes 3-million Americans. It included Jett Travolta.

Sometimes seizures kill, for no apparent reason. It's called Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy. Theories include an obliteration of normal heart rhythms, or a form of post-seizure apnea that stops an otherwise healthy person from breathing.

The Travoltas haven't said what Jett's autopsy found.

But Donalty has learned enough to grieve for them. "I see another boy dead of a seizure," she said. "My heart goes out to them."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Jett Travolta's death feeds rumors of autism 01/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:02pm]

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