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The hardest punch Sly Stallone ever took wasn't in the ring, but in his living room three years ago. Rocky III had just opened to smash box office, Sly and wife Sasha's off-and-on marriage was on again and Sly celebrated by posing for the cover of PEOPLE with his towheaded younger son, Seargeoh, then 3. It was a perfect time for the family, including older son Sage, then 6. But the doctor visiting the Stallone home in the Pacific Palisades at that time had devastating news.

Sly and Sasha had sought help when they thought Seargeoh was having trouble communicating. Since he could draw, write letters and repeat certain words at an early age, they called him their "silent genius." But the problem was worse than they feared. Seargeoh, the doctor announced, was suffering from autism, a disorder that strikes at least five in 10,000 children and is characterized by a lack of development in social and communication skills (see page 96). Many autistic children are violent and self-destructive. There is no known cause or cure.

The Stallones reacted as any other parents might. "We both broke down," says Sasha. Then, in the Rocky tradition, they decided to fight. Ignoring advice to place Seargeoh in an institution, they resolved to shoulder the responsibility themselves. "I knew that Sly couldn't get as involved because of his work," says Sasha. "We do what we have to do. So I just said, 'Give me the money, and I'll take care of it.' " He did, and she has.

Though the Stallones have separated (the divorce will be final in two to three months), Sly's fortune—his commitments over the next 26 months alone will net him a reported $56 million—provided help that didn't stop at home. The Stallones set up a research fund administered under the National Society for Children and Adults With Autism. "Sasha does the hard, in-the-trenches warfare," Sly said two weeks ago. "I use my films to have premieres that raise money for the fund." So far, through two premieres (Staying Alive, Rhinestone), a telethon and private donations, the Stallones have raised about $1 million. "I believe any success in life is made by going into an area with a blind, furious optimism," he said. "I am not the richest, smartest or most talented person in the world, but I succeed because I keep going and going and going...."

Until suddenly he can't anymore.

The irony could not have been more telling: Just as Stallone began talking with PEOPLE for the first time about the sad ordeal of raising an autistic son, pains in Sly's chest put him on notice of how vulnerable even Rocky can be. He was on location in Vancouver when it happened, after shooting the climactic fight scene of Rocky IV. "I got some pain right here," he said, punching his puffed-out chest. "I can't believe this is happening to me, not now," Stallone added, glancing up as if appealing to a higher power. Two hours later he was lying on his back in the cardiac unit of St. Paul's Hospital, listening to the irritating ping of an electrocardiograph monitor. With a hospital-drab gown masking his Master-of-the-Universe torso, he looked weak, almost mortal. He'd had a warning two months earlier while filming winter training scenes in Wyoming. "I was pulling this sled loaded with 1200 pounds of rocks through the snow, and I just felt something snap. I ignored it at the time, and now I guess it finally caught up with me."

Filming of Rocky IV was suspended for 10 days while Stallone underwent more tests at St. John's Hospital in L.A. The diagnosis ruled out a coronary, but what he found out was worrisome enough: The muscle of his heart was bruised, the result of all the beatings he had taken in the ring as Rocky and of his habit of chronic overwork.

His other major setback of late also has been intensely personal. The Stallones' 10-year marriage, which had survived a split in 1978, finally seems over for good. By mutual agreement, Sasha filed for divorce six months ago. Stallone's work and Sasha's battle with their son's autism had certainly put them in different worlds. "It really was the turning point in Sasha's life," he says. "Her dreams and aspirations have been rechanneled into dedicated research. She is a driven person in that area. All of her priorities are geared toward finding a cure. There is no fun in the future that way."

Since then, Stallone has been going out with Danish model-actress Brigitte ("Gitte") Nielsen, 21, whom he called after she sent him a letter with her picture enclosed. When he is in L.A., they share his Pacific Palisades home, but even when he's there, he's usually busy working. He is concerned about the future of the relationship, saying, "We have gone out to dinner together maybe three times since we met. It's insane. My work schedule allows almost zero time for a personal life." To help matters, he gave Gitte (she makes her feature film debut next month in Red Sonja) a role in Rocky IV.

In spite of all his problems, Stallone, at one month short of 39 years old, seems to be facing a renewal in both his personal and professional life. With his latest movie, Rambo: First Blood Part II, just out, his film fortunes have provided him with, among other things, a comfortable Malibu beach house and the L.A. mansion (Sasha and the kids rent a home only six blocks away).

Unfortunately, his hectic work schedule has made it difficult for him to take advantage of his unlimited visitation rights. "I'm sure after this film it will be weekly," says Sasha. "Right now Sly just doesn't have the time to sit down and play and say, 'No, Seargeoh, that is not the red block, that's the blue block.' "

Sly's distance from his son visibly pains him. "There is no real father-and-son thing there," he says. "I have to become his playmate. With a child like this you have to put away your ego. You can't force him into your world. I sort of go along with whatever he is doing. Sometimes he likes to draw, mostly abstract things, and he has puzzles that we work on together. After he gets to the point where he trusts you, a little more communication can start. The primary therapy is the repetition of words and instructions. He has shown an extraordinary memory, but he can't apply what he has learned."

Stallone has lived with his son's condition for three years, continuing to refuse photo requests that might interfere with Seargeoh's life. Sly has learned to control his emotions but not to hide them. "To have a child in this predicament is extremely sad," he says. "It's almost like a radio station—he fades on and off of the signal." When Sly does see the boy ("a couple of times a week when I'm in town"), his major effort is to keep his son tuned in. "I have tried to build my yard into a New England playground environment, where Seargeoh can go outside and relate to nature and hear the flowing water. That seems to bring him out a little.

"He can pretty much feed himself now," Stallone adds. "Many autistic children are violent, Seargeoh is not. We're lucky. A brain scan showed there was no deterioration of the brain. So there is a chance that he conceivably could recover." Meanwhile, there is his elder son, Sage, to whom Sly has kept close (à la Gitte) by giving him the role of his son in Rocky IV, and he showers on this child, now 9, all the paternal attentions he cannot pay Seargeoh. "Sage needs to learn that he can be bigger and better than I am," says Stallone. "I really want to develop single-minded-ness in him. He should never introduce himself saying, 'My father is...' I am also trying to help him develop physically with weights and exercise. I want him to be able to handle himself. He will have encounters just because he is Rocky's kid." Sage will fight the battles that Seargeoh could not face. About Seargeoh, Sly tells Sage, "Listen, God and nature made him different. We have to accept Seargeoh the way he is and understand that his way is just more quiet and reserved."

For Sage, having an autistic brother has not been easy. "It's like being an only child," says Sasha, "and it is lonely for him. I try to compensate by having lots of sleepovers with Sage's friends." Inevitably, too, Seargeoh takes plenty of Sasha's attention. "It's like having a child who never gets out of the helpless stage," she says. She is preoccupied with, among other things, all of Seargeoh's experimental medical treatments—about a dozen so far. The latest was a steroid called methyl-prednisolone. Like the other treatments, it didn't work; Seargeoh's speech got better, but a major side effect—hyperactivity—forced his doctors to discontinue it. "It's frustrating," says Sasha. "We don't know what we're looking for."

Sasha's compensation comes from providing Seargeoh with as normal a life as possible. There is genuine joy in her voice as she describes his typical day: "He has his own room, gets up early and, like most kids, drags out all his toys. He is enrolled in a special-education class in a public school in Pasadena and is driven there by one of his teachers. They come home together at 3:45 p.m. Twice a week they have a therapy session on the way home. He might go to a store and buy something and then give the cashier the money himself. Or they'll go to a park or the zoo. All this therapy is geared toward communication. He is integrated with other children and has been diagnosed as being a 'high-functioning' autistic."

Sasha's smile broadens when she speaks of Seargeoh's activities at home. But she never exaggerates his progress. "His communication is very simple—'Open this. Close this. I want this'—but it's enough to take care of his most basic needs. He likes music and will sometimes say, 'Music, please.' And when he comes home he loves to watch TV, especially Charlie Brown." Sasha recalls once showing him a videotape of his father in Rocky. "During the fight scene, Seargeoh cried out, 'Oh no, help, please.' He's a very gentle child."

Six blocks down the road, Seargeoh's dad—just out of the hospital—is enjoying a few days of "down time" before resuming his duties on Rocky IV. "I am already dying to lace on the leather," he says. All the media flap about his hospital stay merely amuses him. "I have had serious injuries in all the Rocky films. This was bound to happen. With each sequel you have to jack up the voltage. I take it as a good omen. Every time I've failed, people had me out for the count, but I always come back."

The Stallone braggadocio, almost spoken in Rocky's elemental desedem-dose, doesn't quite disguise his distress. "I know I'm going to have to diminish my intensity, or I am going to diminish," Sly admits. His future career calendar doesn't bode well. There's another Rambo flick coming and a saga of father-son wrestlers called Over the Top. And no one believes there will ever be a final chapter for Rocky. Later, perhaps Stallone will get to his pet project—the life of Edgar Allan Poe. His fans may not be ready to see a dark side of Rocky, but Sly is. "I can identify with Poe's tragic loss of people, his drive and his loneliness." Stallone says he admires the poet most because "he never gave in."

Stallone too has battles he won't stop fighting. One concerns a son who just celebrated his birthday. Sasha brought the cake home a day early and opened the box to let Seargeoh look. The inscription read: Happy Birthday Seargeoh—No. 6. "When I started to close the box," Sasha reports, "Seargeoh said, 'Open, please,' and stuck his finger in the icing to taste it. He knows."

For Sly, that kind of knowing is a victory that makes Seargeoh the real contender in the Stallone family. "Life is more than sunglasses and hit movies," says Sly. "Reality, that's the main event."