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Embracing the Spectrum: Celebrating Autism Awareness Month with Family Love

April is here, and along with it comes the strange Washington, DC weather (hot and cold), vibrant colors of spring, blooming Cherry Blossoms, and a special focus on understanding and celebrating neurodiversity during Autism Awareness Month. During this time of the year, I like to advocate, highlight, and bring awareness to the unique talents, perspectives, and challenges of individuals on the autism spectrum while promoting a culture of acceptance and support. And what better way to explore this topic than by delving into the crucial role that family support and acceptance play in the lives of those with autism?

My son, Eric was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old. At this age, my happy, healthy, and energetic 1-year-old was doing all of the things toddlers like to do. Ran, everywhere! He walked at 9 months old. Played with his cousins and ate everything from everyone’s plate; because he was too busy to sit down and eat his own food. He was always yelling, “See!” whenever he saw something interesting for the first time. He was an average toddler, with an adequate vocabulary and did well in communicating his wants and needs. I saw nothing wrong with his development. He was lovable and independent and then at 18 months, I began to notice a change.

Eric was speaking less. His vocabulary wasn’t increasing. He cried more and began throwing temper tantrums over the slightest little thing. If he couldn’t open something or if he were unable to get a toy to work, he’d just start crying. When he couldn’t get his way, he would bang his head on the walls or the floor. Instead of running everywhere, he went back to crawling. Initially, I thought it was strange and by his 2nd birthday, he was barely talking, barely eating, and just seemed to be whiny, fussing, and unable to tell us what was wrong. And it was like he wasn’t developing at all. What does any of this have to do with genealogy? Genealogy is about family, and family has been my greatest gift, my best resource, and a source of support on our autism journey.

Imagine a puzzle, each piece representing a different aspect of the autism spectrum. Within this complex pattern, families serve as the stabilizing force, providing love, understanding, and a safe haven for their loved ones with autism. Like the diverse colors in the picture, the puzzle pieces create each family's journey with autism is unique and filled with its joys and challenges.

For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of family support has been the ability to create a nurturing environment where Eric has been able to thrive. I am blessed that my immediate family, extended family, friends, and co-workers have always offered words of encouragement, especially in the very beginning, when I sometimes felt completely lost. From the earliest stages of diagnosis, all families embark on a journey of learning and adaptation. Trying to find the best ways to support Eric was a struggle, especially as a single parent.

But beyond those challenging aspects, there's something truly magical about the bond between families and individuals with autism. It's created with empathy and unconditional love, patience, and acceptance. In a world that often misunderstands or marginalizes those who are differently abled, family becomes a refuge—a safe place where quirks are celebrated, and differences are embraced. Eric gets love and support from so many family members. Many have supported his love of art from a very young age. Coloring books, crayons, colored pencils, paint sets, etc., have probably been the greatest gift he could receive. He is an avid lover of LEGO. Big sets, small sets, and personal designs can hold his attention for days!! Our family has attended art shows, purchased some of his work, and continues to send art supplies because he can NEVER have enough. They help us celebrate his gifts.

Another heartwarming example of family support in the autism community is the concept of "autism acceptance." Instead of viewing autism as a set of deficits that need to be corrected, acceptance encourages seeing it as a natural variation of human diversity. I share our story with everyone and anyone who asks. I have other family members who are on the autism spectrum. I try to offer an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, and even a strong drink if necessary. Nobody understands what we deal with on a day-to-day basis, so I highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not for the sake of gaining sympathy, but so that if they meet others who have family members on the spectrum, they can share their stories and be a light to someone who feels like they are on this journey alone. Families champion the concept of autism awareness and acceptance by celebrating their loved one's unique strengths and talents, whether it's a passion for music, an exceptional memory, or a keen eye for detail. Eric possesses all of these characteristics, and it has allowed him to connect with various family members who enjoy talking about these things with him. He never feels excluded at family events because our family understands and knows how to engage him. And yes, he knows a lot about our family history!

Through their unwavering support, my family also serves as advocates, raising awareness and promoting inclusion within their communities. They share our story with people that they meet. Several of them are teachers and have students on the autism spectrum. From organizing awareness events to educating others about autism, families play a vital role in creating a more accepting and understanding society. I celebrate Eric’s milestones, proud and out loud, every small victory—from securing a seat in a program or registering for college courses, and our family reaffirms their commitment to ensuring that Eric knows he is loved and makes his family proud. It has helped to build his confidence.

Of course, it's essential to recognize that supporting a family member with autism isn't always easy. Every journey has bumps along the road. But it's precisely during these challenging times that the strength of family bonds shines the brightest. Whether it's rallying together in the face of adversity or simply sharing a laugh to lighten the mood, my family demonstrates incredible resilience and love in the face of challenges.

Whether it's finding the right therapies, advocating for inclusive education, or simply offering a listening ear, my “kinfolks” have played an essential role in facilitating Eric’s growth and development. Again, I am blessed to have the support I needed to help Eric achieve some successes and significant milestones.

Early intervention was key to Eric’s current well-being. Eric graduated from high school at age 21 in 2014. The 3 extra years allowed him to meet the requirements to obtain a Maryland State High School Diploma. He also completed Montgomery College’s Graduate Transition Program and the Arc of Prince George’s County’s Office Support Program. At age 30 He is self-sufficient and independent to a certain degree. Eric has held a few jobs over the years. He travels via Metro Access by himself to the Art Enables program in Washington, DC where he has been a resident artist since 2020.

Also, the lessons I’ve learned from supporting my son and his friends with autism extend far beyond the confines of the family unit. They have taught me about empathy, patience (which I’m still working with), and the beauty of embracing diversity. In a world that often values conformity, the autism community reminds us of the richness that comes from embracing our differences.

As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month, take a moment to honor the families who play such a vital role in the lives of individuals with autism. Their love, support, and acceptance are not only a source of strength for their loved ones but also a beacon of hope for a more inclusive and compassionate society.

So, here's to my family who have rocked the color on World Autism Awareness on social media with us, participated in the 3K or the 5K runs to raise money for various autism organizations or simply called to say, “Hey, I just called to check on you and Eric.” We thank you and appreciate you being a part of our world and doing it with love and understanding!

We love you all!

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