Home and Garden/Local Living editor

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. Blue lights will be everywhere to raise awareness of the condition that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects 1 in 68 kids. “Sesame Street” is debuting Julia, a Muppet who has autism, April 10.

While the increased awareness is great, we’d also like to think of it as a time for greater acceptance and understanding of those with autism. So in honor of kids (and adults) with this neurological disorder that can affect social skills, speech and language and motor skills, we asked five of our contributors to tell us what makes their child with autism awesome.

Andrew. (Courtesy of Kristin Jarvis Adams)

Success, wrapped in cinnamon and yeast

During a recent visit to the mall, my 23-year-old son Andrew, who has autism, discovered yeast. Andrew dreams of becoming a chef, and yeast’s ability to transform flour into an edible ball of yumminess was intoxicating. While inhaling the sweet perfume of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, he fell in love with the cinnamon roll.

“What’s in the mix?” he asked the Cinnabon employee. “I need to know the ratio of flour to yeast.”

Next time, he took a notebook and pen. “I need to know about the yeast. And what kind of cinnamon do you use?” he asked in the friendly tone I taught him. The same employee pointed to bottles of cinnamon for sale. He placed six bottles on the counter. “I just want to make cinnamon rolls like you,” he said, avoiding her eyes.

She smiled and brought him a list of ingredients included in the commercial mix. The one thing he recognized was yeast.

Soon, malted barley flour, dried buttermilk and industrial-sized cakes of yeast joined his growing collection of cinnamon. I was desperate for him to be like other kids his age, but he chose to spend his days studying baking on YouTube and searching for the perfect cinnamon roll recipe.

One afternoon I arrived home to the unmistakable scent of cinnamon tangled with yeast. My kitchen looked like a war zone.

“Sit here, Mom,” he said. “Meet my master creation! I call them Andrew’s Cinnamon Bites.”

I sat, fork raised, understanding my son had realized his dream. I saw on his face a deep sense of satisfaction and knew he was happier than many of the other young adults I knew. I took a bite and savored the sweet taste of his success.

— Kristin Jarvis Adams

Charlotte. (Courtesy of Jody Allard)

Empathy in spades

My 9-year-old daughter has brown eyes and a curtain of brown hair she hides behind. She fills her math work sheets with kitten faces instead of numbers and she loves to roller skate. In many ways, she blends into the crowd. But unlike her third-grade classmates, Charlotte is autistic.

It’s easy for Charlotte’s peers to see her differences. She leaves school early every day for therapy, and her classmates sometimes ask me why. They are curious, not judgmental, but there is an otherness there. It is difficult for them to get close enough to Charlotte to get to know her.

Charlotte’s progress has been substantial in the two years since she began therapy, but I hesitate to dwell too much on it. Charlotte isn’t valuable because her tolerance for riding in a car has increased or she’s learned to initiate play with preferred peers. Charlotte has always been valuable, whether she’s melting down in the corner of the classroom or quietly working on her reading.

I often see autism described as having a lack of empathy, but I find that hard to believe. Charlotte lacks a sophisticated understanding of how other people think, but she has an innate sense of how they feel. She finds ways to comfort people who are hurting, even when they do their best not to show it, and she is the first one to draw a picture or make a card for someone in need.

When we pass a homeless person on the street, she is moved to tears at the thought of someone living without a home. Charlotte doesn’t suffer from lack of empathy; she is overwhelmed by it.

— Jody Allard

Jonathan. (Courtesy of Nikkya Hargrove)

Focusing on strengths rather than struggles

He is long and lanky. His hair is woolly and his smile is bright. He hates getting haircuts and says he wants an Afro. Really, he wants to delay getting a haircut. He is kind, loves history and enjoys playing with his sisters every morning before school. He is their big brother, and takes pride in that.

He is my son Jonathan, and he has autism, something I was in denial about for much of his life. Once I accepted it, I pushed him to not allow his deficits to define him. I encouraged him to focus on his assets, such as his voice, which gets exercise in our church choir almost every Sunday, or his strong arm, which will be tested this spring in baseball. I have pushed him to think about what he has to offer the world instead of the things he’s trying to improve, such as his social skills.

He is 10, and is becoming a young man with dreams and aspirations. He wants to go to college and to have a family someday. He is my first baby, my boy who slept easily as a newborn. As a toddler, he ate anything we offered him and took countless risks on the playground.

As the years have rushed by, his strength in the face of adversity has grown. When he sees someone being mistreated or hurt, he steps in to help. If his sisters fall down, he rushes over to tell them it will be okay, asking to see where they are hurt. His empathy is delivered in a soft tone as he eases their discomfort with a phrase and a kiss, something only a big brother can do.

Jonathan is brave, honest, strong and, most important, loved.

— Nikkya Hargrove

Dominic at the beach. (Courtesy of Nicole Jankowski)

Savoring the journey

My son Dominic loves to ride in the car.

If he sees me putting on my coat or rifling through my purse, he will suddenly appear nearby, holding his shoes, looking at me with his blue eyes, expectantly.

“Do you want to go bye-bye?” I say to him.

“Yes,” he answers.

That is how it goes. Wherever I go, Dominic goes, too.

It’s my favorite thing to do with my son.

At 13 years old, Dominic’s autism is profound enough that he rarely talks. He spends his days straddling the edge of the neurotypical world: a loud, cluttered universe that doesn’t understand him.

When we received his diagnosis, I thought my job was to urge him to change his perspective. I believed autism had robbed Dominic of real joy and it was my job to make him “whole.” But the more I firmly nudged him out of his world and into mine, the more miserable he seemed. And that made me miserable.

I’m grateful for the progress he’s made and the skills he’s acquired. But I’m also certain that Dominic is content with who he is and what he loves. And what he loves most is riding shotgun in my minivan. He puts his seat belt on and watches as I start the ignition. He flaps his arms and says “go.”

Riding with Dominic is different than driving with my other children. He’s content just to be in the moment — to him, the trip is always greater than the destination.

My son has taught me it doesn’t matter what you love — just find something and love it with abandon.

At the stoplight, I grab Dominic’s hand. I want to be connected to him when he is at his happiest. I want him to know that I see him beside me, content. And that I am content, too.

When the light turns green, I turn the radio up. And then off we go, bridging the distance between us, one car ride at a time.

— Nicole Jankowski

T.J. with his mom. (Courtesy of Lauren Swick Jordan)

Pride and joy

My son, T.J., is 16 and has autism. He is one of the coolest kids I know.

He is really passionate about the things he loves, such as animals. On a recent vacation we had a guided tour through a rain forest. When our guide trained his scope on a creature and asked whether anyone knew what kind of lizard it was, T.J. piped up.

“A helmeted basilisk!” he announced. “It’s different from a plain basilisk because his head looks like he’s wearing a helmet. And the regular basilisk is also called a ‘Jesus Christ lizard’ because it appears that they can walk on water!”

T.J. also has a great sense of humor and loves to make people laugh. On that trip, as we all were playing in the water, a big wave knocked T.J. down. He stood up, looked at us, and yelled “I got beach-slapped!” We all laughed as T.J.’s grin stretched from ear to ear.

And T.J. knows and loves who he is. He struggles with anxiety, and when he was diagnosed a few years ago, he met with a new therapist. It wasn’t a good match, which we realized when he told T.J., “You are here so I can help you learn to be as normal as possible, so you can blend in better.”

“I don’t want to blend in, I blend in fine!” T.J. responded. “I like myself just the way I am and I don’t need to change anything!” I was overwhelmed with pride. I return to that memory frequently, any time I’m worried about T.J.’s self-confidence. I was so proud of him then, and I am so proud of him now.

— Lauren Swick Jordan

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