Autism is not just one disability, but a full spectrum of disorders. It is big. It can be overwhelming. And so, the first time we meet someone with autism, it suddenly becomes personal. We don’t meet the disease — we meet the person.

Fifteen years ago, I had never met a person with autism. It was more rare then (affecting one in every 500 children) and less understood. Public discussion of autism most often had to do with the movie Rain Man and “autistic savants.” People just didn’t know what autism was or what it meant — myself included.

And then I met Nick.

Never lose HOPE.

As a college senior, I took a paid internship helping a family with their little boy. Nick wasn’t quite four years old, and he had recently been diagnosed with autism. He could only say a few words. Nick rarely connected with others. He had a limited ability to read body language, gestures, or facial expressions.

There were days when I was afraid of Nick’s behaviors — his tantrums and yelling never seemed to end. There were also times, driving home from my internship, when I would think, I just lived through the longest six hours of my life.

I kept returning, though — if only for those very few moments when I felt I was really starting to connect with him.

Nick’s parents had been searching for a special school where Nick could receive the treatment they knew he needed. They wanted him to learn basic skills, to connect with people, and to interact more with the world around him.

They wanted what every parent wants for his or her child: for them to be happy. I remember how excited they were when Nick was accepted into one of May Institute’s schools for children with autism.

At his Mom’s request — and more than a little reluctantly — I joined the school as an intern. I was hesitant because I felt I hadn’t been very successful in helping Nick. I wasn’t seeing him make progress. I didn’t believe he could get better. I was worried it would be too hard to watch him fail. But, I didn’t have the heart to say no to his Mom. So, I went.

Care, love… and evidence-based treatment.

I will never forget my first day at May Institute. All morning, I observed Nick. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! He was listening, talking to his teachers, and doing things I had never seen him do. It was breathtaking! He was a different boy.

I asked the May staff, ‘How are you doing this?’ That’s when my own education began in “effective autism treatment” and “applied behavior analysis.”

Over time, I would learn how to help our kids learn, manage their negative behaviors, and develop their potential for success and fulfillment. Most important, I fell in love with the work, the field, and the students. Soon after graduating from college, I joined the staff and never looked back.

Believe in making a difference.

Today, I direct that school where I was an intern. I have had the great joy of watching Nick learn enough at my school to eventually leave, and attend his local public school.

He’s a young man now, social, and doing great. He and his family still face challenges related to autism. But Nick has come so far from that little boy I first met years ago, who was so secluded from the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that one in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. It is almost five times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

These numbers are startling, but Nick made me a believer. I know that with the right treatment, hard work, love, and patience, our children can — and do — have bright futures.”

— Erica Kearney, Executive Director
May Center School
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