Heroes: 10 Moms Who Are Changing the Face of AutismInstead of choosing the path of despair when their children were diagnosed with autism, these inspiring moms took action.
Holly Robinson Peete
FUNDING NEW TREATMENTS
When Holly Robinson Peete's son, Rodney, was diagnosed with autism in 1999 at age 3, she was stunned. "The pediatrician laid out everything our son would never do: He'd never say 'I love you' unprompted or have a spontaneous conversation," Holly recalls. "If I'd read a story at that time about a child with autism who'd done those things, that would have given me such hope."
In 2004, the actress took hope into her own hands when she and her family founded HollyRod4Kids — a new branch of her charitable foundation, HollyRod — to fund new autism treatments, such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy and nutritional therapy, for families in need. "Autism is often approached like just a brain disorder, but it's important to explore other therapies," says Holly, who's often up late at night answering emails about the disorder from parents.
Holly's future plans include creating the HollyRod Miracle House, a center with tools families need to fight autism — from musical-theater therapies to a kitchen where parents and children can learn how to cook gluten-free, casein-free meals, which may improve symptoms in some kids.
Holly loves seeing how her work and family have inspired others. "A woman came up to me with her 15-year-old son and said, 'I can't tell you how long I've waited for an autism advocate — for someone to share her story,'" she says. "But she's the one who worked two jobs to get her son the therapy he needs. She's the hero."
For more information on HollyRod4Kids, visit hollyrod.com.
BLASTING CULTURAL BARRIERS
When her son Zachary was 2, Mariame Boujlil learned that he had autism. Mariame, who grew up in Morocco and later moved to Charlotte, NC, felt isolated, embarrassed, and lost. This grieving period was short-lived, though. "I realized that if I wasn't out there advocating for my child, no one else would be," says Mariame.
She figured out the steps to get services for her son, but didn't stop there. Knowing that in many cultures the disorder is seen as taboo — parents may even call children with autism "possessed" — Mariame made it her mission to strip away the myths and educate immigrant families on what autism is and how to get a child help. She also wanted to help these parents see that they're not the only ones in their community dealing with the diagnosis.
So Mariame formed the Charlotte Autism Foundation to do just that. She organizes monthly meetings for parents and kids with guest speakers, offers a fun summer program for the children, and holds fund-raising events to keep her organization going. A former interpreter who speaks five languages, Mariame can break through the communication barriers immigrants often face; at times, she even tags along when families have their child evaluated by state agencies to determine the services they'll receive. "It helps when someone's there to explain the process in their own language," she explains.
At last count, her volunteer-run organization is assisting 42 members from 15 countries. "The families are so relieved to know that they aren't by themselves in this journey," says Mariame.
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