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Don’t give up on milestones: A CNN Hero’s message for Autism Awareness Month

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Every April, during Autism Awareness Month, Debra Vines and her nonprofit field a surge of calls from parents needing autism-related services and resources. It’s a phenomenon she says she would prefer to see year-round.

She and her organization, The Answer Inc., provide support, services, and education for Black and Brown families in the Chicago area who are impacted by autism. Vines’ 35-year-old son, Jason, has autism, and she knows first-hand the everyday struggles that families face.

“Children and adults that live with autism are very repetitive – everything that they do, it’s the same way. But when you have a career, or are parents that have other children and other responsibilities, sometimes it can be very, very, very, very challenging,” she said.

Vines and her late husband, James Harlan, co-founded The Answer Inc. 16 years ago after realizing they were not alone in their struggle to find the support, resources, education, and services Jason desperately needed. Since then, their nonprofit has helped more than 4,000 families in underserved communities. She notes that the need continues to grow.

“With the numbers going up every day, we need support from the community every day.”

According to the CDC, about 1 in 36 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. And research shows that early intervention services can improve learning, communication, and social skills, as well as brain development.

For Vines, Autism Awareness Month helps her advocate for families who are unsure what to do after receiving an autism diagnosis.

“I think it opens up eyes to this disability and the things that we need,” she said. “We would have to work even harder as providers to get the word out about autism.”

One area where Vines sees the greatest need is for adults with autism, who age out of many programs at 22.

“It’s almost like they fall off the face of the earth,” she said. “There’s hardly any resources available for them.”

The Answer Inc. addresses this need with programs like Spectrum University, which helps participants ages 13 to 40 enter the workforce by connecting them with employers.

Her organization is also working to educate the community at large about autism, including training first responders and other public workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism.

“I would like to see (families) have more integral resources within the community, within the park districts, within the businesses,” she said.

Vines says her son, Jason, is doing “amazing” and reaching new milestones. She has been working with him on social skills like saying “please” and “thank you.” The other day, she swept up some trash at home and asked Jason to help her pick it up. He surprised her by asking her to “say please.”

It’s moments like this that remind Vines why she and others in the autism community continue to do the hard work, year-round.

“I encourage families every single day not to give up because you never know when that light bulb is just gonna go off, and they’re gonna hit another milestone.”

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