Autism and Me!

It was Mother’s Day 1991, when I received a handmade Mother’s Day card and a check with a note that would change the direction of my career. The greeting card read, “Happy Mother’s Day from the staff of Jackson Communications,” later changed to OWN: Onyx Woman Network. My unofficial employees consisted of my husband Daryl and my 5-year-old son, Armon. At the time, I was a freelance consultant working for small organizations in need of planning and public relations services. I coordinated media coverage for ribbon-cuttings, ground-breaking ceremonies, community events and business affairs. When the opportunity to work with these organizations full-time presented itself, I seized the moment.

The little boy who signed his name to the greeting card was the impetus behind my desire to branch out on my own. When Armon was about 4, he was diagnosed with autism. At the time, the condition was rarely publicized, and resources weren’t as bountiful or accessible as they are today. Launching my own business would allow me to dedicate more time to meet his ever-changing needs. Although Daryl often joined me, we knew that at least one of us needed to be available to attend the meetings, doctor’s visits and appointments that were required to lay a solid foundation in the beginning stages of early intervention. We also realized the importance of being available to advocate on Armon’s behalf. We understood that sacrifices would be necessary to allow me to undertake my new venture, but the benefits outweighed the risks. Armon’s well-being was our priority and his needs were not up for negotiation.

Now that two decades have passed, the business has evolved to encompass broadcast forums, educational seminars and online marketing. I am often asked what has been the best part of my journey. My response? Being at my front door at 3 pm when Armon arrived home from school. That response was often met with perplexed looks. As corny as it may have seemed, being at that door meant the world to me and fulfilling my commitment and responsibility to Armon’s well-being, while having a fulfilling career, was my true definition of success.

As my business has transformed and matured, so has my son. There is nothing as gratifying as seeing a plan that was organized, assessed, reassessed and carefully monitored come to fruition. My once nonverbal little boy is now a 25-year-old man. When he peppers me with a laundry list of demands, requests and inquiries over the phone, I am reminded of the speech therapist who told my husband and me that Armon would never speak. When Daryl and I can’t figure out how to hook up electronic equipment or find ourselves perplexed in the face of technology, we place them aside knowing that Armon can answer any and all things technical with a simple glance at the manual. Seeing Armon surpass our expectations is a testament to what having faith, hope and belief can do. The commitments, dedication and love that go into running a business are similar to those needed to nurture and develop an individual, especially one with challenges.

I learned about teamwork through my experience as an unexpected member of a private (yet growing) club of moms with the unique responsibility of overseeing the development of an autistic child. I learned how to capitalize on a person’s strength and not see vulnerability as a weakness. Over the years, my team didn’t just consist of assistants, consultants, and freelancers. My team included my neighbor who would watch Armon for me if I was caught by unexpected business and couldn’t make it home in time to greet him after school. My mother stayed over when I had business trips. Friends stepped in and wore many hats, especially those who also helped me produce shows and, like me, had one eye on Armon and one eye on their clipboard.

Now, twenty years later, the journey continues. Still by my side is my wonderful husband Daryl who continues to help with the business, critique my ideas and encourage me. We’ve made a dynamic duo through the years going head-to-head with a system that wasn’t always fair when it came to addressing the needs of those with disabilities. Now that we are here, twenty years later, we have enjoyed watching Armon grow and become a confident young man. At the same time, I have watched women of color who have read and written for Onyx Woman Magazine, attended our events and lent their expertise, network to build a positive, independent culture of entrepreneurship. Whenever someone thanks me for providing insight into their own ability to take the reins and define their work-life balance, I realize that this will be the legacy of the Onyx Woman Network—a legacy left almost by accident because it was the only way that I could find to support my family with the time, attention and focus that it needed to succeed.

It can feel both awesome and humbling to contemplate one’s legacy. Nothing defines you more than what you leave behind, however, what is left behind is not always your choice. Instead, actions cause reactions that bring about change. As long as the focus is clear—the non-negotiable love of one’s family, health, well-being and independent spirit, one’s legacy will be positive but certainly can not be predetermined. A popular pastor of a mega church talked about the ways that people can be so wrapped up in a destination that they fail to stop and appreciate the journey. On the rockiest roads of this life journey, I have never asked, “God…why me?” I simply asked, “Now what?”

While it is impossible to know what the future will bring, as long as the journey has been uplifting, educational and, hopefully fun, one can only move forward with faith, hoping and working for the best. Speaking of the best, I would like to thank all of the people who have been instrumental in helping me live a dream that was spun out of my unexpected reality. Your well-wishes gave me courage, your inspiration gave me strength; your motivation lifted me when I was falling and your prayers never let me hit the ground. On behalf of all of us, I thank you for being there for me and my family.

Comments

  1. I came across your press release for your upcoming Philly conference Helping Women Get Out of “Stuck”. What an amazing title! I felt like you were speaking directly to me.
    Although I am not able to attend, I decided to learn more about you and your mission. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about your personal experience with Autism. I, too, have a beautiful little boy who continues to defy every limitation that has been foolishly set. My little guy Preston is 5 years old going on 15 years old. Just like you twenty years ago, I am now searching for a way to be able to support my son while pursuing my career goals. Your story came at the right time to keep me encouraged. I have had to make some hard sacrifices but I would do it again to see him flourish. I always say I know that I am ok. My job is to make sure that Preston will be ok when I am gone. I had always believed that there were opportunities out there. Sometimes the cares of this life have a way of blocking your vision, your hopes and your dreams. Your story has helped to clear those clouds away and has encouraged me to keep moving forward. As my son reads every morning “With God All Things Are Possible.” Thank you, Ola for sharing your story.

    • New Network for Women says:

      Hello Candace,

      Thank you for taking the time to write. I can identify and relate to your experience. Yes, you must always keep him first. Take your time and explore various opportunities that will enable you to pursue your own happiness while fulfilling your commitment to be there for Preston. Do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed with worry. You can only do the best you can.

      You have a long road ahead of you and I certainly share your concerns about worrying about Preston when you are gone. Just make sure you do your homework and investigate every avenue and get involved with organizations that will teach you how to advocate on your own behalf and prepare Preston to do as much as he is able to do. Be sure you understand what his legal rights are and make your wishes known to your family members.

      That story was written a while ago and Armon is now 28 years old and doing wonderfully. No, he cannot live on his own. but everyday I see the results of the handwork and dedication that we put into him being the awesome independent young man that he is today. Sure, it was a huge sacrifice and many risks had to be taken and compromises as well. We stayed focused on his well-being and making sure he reached his fullest potential; just like you appear to be doing. Preston is blessed to have you.

      As I once told my husband; we didn’t chose Armon, but I think somebody upstairs chose us. Armon is a strikingly handsome young man with a polite personality, gentle, well-disciplined and obsessed with all things technology; especially Apple.

      You sound like me many years ago. If you ever have any questions…just email me directly at: ola@onyxwoman.com

      Thank you,

      Ola

  2. Great Story…you’re the “best” Ola..

    BB

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