Courtesy of Subject

Helen Shafer

Helen Shafer's least favorite word is can't, especially when it comes to her son, Hayden, who has autism. Before he turned 3, Helen began exploring options for him in the private and public school systems. What she learned was disheartening. "The expectations seemed so low," says Helen, of Baltimore County, MD.

Hayden had to be given the chance to reach his potential, Helen decided. So she dipped into her private funds to start the Shafer Center and hired a board-certified behavior analyst to be the program director. The facility has an early-intervention program for children ages 18 months up to 7 years old who've been diagnosed with autism, and the curriculum helps them thrive in mainstream situations; they go on field trips and even put on a holiday musical. There's also a resource center for families with older kids. The facility opened in August 2006 and Hayden was in the inaugural graduating class.

Hayden entered the first grade at a public magnet elementary school. "Opening the Shafer Center was the right decision," she says. "You just have to steer your own course."

To find out more about the Shafer Center, visit

Jordan Strauss\

Toni Braxton

When six-time Grammy Award-winner Toni Braxton first belted out "Un-Break My Heart" in 1996, she never imagined how much the painful lyric would resonate a decade later, when her then 2 1/2-year-old son, Diezel, started slipping away from her. "His speech regressed, he wouldn't make eye contact, and he often got hyper," says Toni. "As his mother, I knew something was off."

For two years Toni went from doctor to doctor to find out what was wrong with her boy, but his problems remained a mystery until she tried to enroll him in a mainstream school; the dean directed her to Child Find in Las Vegas, where Diezel was diagnosed with autism. "At first, I felt bewildered and defeated," says Toni. "When Autism Speaks reached out to me to help my son, it was a lifesaver. And then I wanted to do something to help them too." In 2007, Toni became a spokesperson for the advocacy organization — and last year she performed in A Concert for Autism Speaks Featuring Bill Cosby, which raised money to examine the disorder's potential environmental causes and for research on treatments. "When other parents tell me that I've inspired them," says Toni, "and when I look at Diezel and see how much he's progressed, I feel so hopeful."

To learn more about Autism Speaks, visit