Confronting Autism: One Woman's Efforts to Help Others Cope

For Elizabeth Taliaferro enhancing community knowledge of autism is not limited to April, which is designated National Autism Month. This county resident and Garrett College student is, most importantly, the mother of Hayden, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 24 months. Since that time she has advocated on behalf of the individuals and families of those afflicted with the challenges of that diagnosis.

“I have made it my own personal mission to bring awareness about autism to Garrett County,” Taliaferro said.

Taliaferro described her disturbing journey into the unfamiliar territory of autism. It is one that probably resonates with other parents who have also traveled this path. “When my youngest child Hayden was 18-months-old he started to regress in his growth. Finally, when he was 24-months-old the doctors wanted Hayden to be checked for autism,” she said.

Hayden’s parents took their son to Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore for the extensive testing that would indicate if their child would be considered to be on the autism spectrum. Results of these assessments would not be given to the family for three months at which point a package of information arrived by mail.

“I opened the package which contained a stack of papers of all the tests my son had endured during his brief stay at the hospital. I read through it all. The last section stated that Hayden had Autism Spectrum Disorder. After reading the report I had no idea what it was or how it was going to impact Hayden and his little life. Now what?" she said, describing the confusion and lack of information on how to proceed.

Taliaferro’s next inquiry was directed to a representative of the Garrett County Health Department’s Infants and Toddlers program. The woman she spoke with told Taliaferro that there was not much support available at the time in Garrett County for children with autism and that she herself had a child that was on the spectrum. “At this point I was at my lowest. Who do I turn to? What is autism? How do I help my child succeed in life? I read many books but I did not understand what I was reading,” she said.

Finally, someone introduced Taliterro to a a woman named Lexi whose son was two years older than Hayden and was on the spectrum. This meeting became a turning point for Taliaferro. “I felt lost. Lexi helped me understand what Autism Spectrum Disorder was and what the packet of papers meant. The most important thing she said to me that day was ‘he is still your little boy and it will not change the way you love him, it will just change the little things like how you care for him.’ Lexi and I have become very good friends.

Taliaferro said the she was surprised that so many people in her community of Garrett County were unaware of autism. “At the time (2011) it affected 1 in 110. Now the number has risen to 1 in 68,” she noted. And so she launched her personal quest to reach as many people as she could to increase the awareness and the understanding of this disorder that was so prevalent yet so unknown. “In   that first year I went around to all the businesses in Oakland and passed out flyers, I also stood up at Wal-Mart and passed them out to whoever would listen to me,” she said.

By the following year, Taliaferro was determined to reach even more people with her message. “My husband and I bought a case of blue light bulbs and had about 30 signs printed. I also held a meeting at the Oakland fire Department for anyone that needed more education on A.S.D. (Autism Spectrum Disorder),” she said.

In the third year the Taliaferros increased there outreach efforts by printing 50 signs and giving away over one hundred blue light bulbs. “My husband paid for all of this. He believes that the more people that know the better. Businesses all over Oakland showed their support and ‘lighted it up blue.’ I had many people come up to me and say that they did not know what Autism Spectrum Disorder was until I   brought it to their attention,” she said.

Taliaferro found yet another way to not only spotlight the prevalence of autism but to bring attention to the challenges that face those with this disorder. It was through a fundraising walk across Garrett County that symbolized the everyday obstacles that an autistic child encounters. “I raised over $11,000 with this walk to help Camp Mountain Magic - a camp held at Yough Glades for Children with Disabilities,” she said.

So far this year, Taliaferro has passed out over 150 blue light bulbs most which have been donated by a a good friend who supports her cause.

Explaining some of the daily challenges for an autistic child, Taliaferro created a scenario of sights and sounds. “Imagine for a second going to Kennywood and smelling popcorn, candy, hot dogs, pizza, and hearing people screaming, the music playing, the sounds of the roller-coaster, and seeing lights, people, and all the wonderful things that happen at Kennywood. Now imagine sitting down in the middle of all that and trying to do your homework. This is what life seems like for many autistic children. They use all of their senses all of the time at 100% level. It is mentally and physically draining for autistic children. That is why many have ‘melt downs,’" she said.

In the intervening years since Hayden’s diagnosis his parents have seen a growth in services and support groups for families of children with autism in Garrett County. Family members and friends also now provide more support because there is greater understanding of the challenges faced by parents and how to help alleviate some of the burden, Taliaferro explained.

Recalling her feelings of loss and desperation when she learned of her son’s diagnosis, Taliaferro is committed to helping others who find themselves in that same situation. The sense of hope that she gained through meeting her friend Lexi is what she wants to be able to provide for others. “When Hayden was diagnosed I did not know what to do, or where to start, there was no one to help. I never want anyone to feel the way I did. I want to be everyone's ‘Lexi,’" she said.