Autism Awareness {so much to celebrate!}

today is a good day lisa leonard-01

Before I had kids, before my first baby was born with a disability, I taught 3rd-5th graders with disabilities. Maybe I should back up even more. In college, while working on my degree in Psychology, I did an internship with kids who had Autism. The internship was through UCLA and we used Applied Behavior Analysis {ABA} to teach new skills. It was awesome and I loved it. Of course, the internship paid almost nothing–but it sparked something inside me.

After college I worked as a wedding coordinator for a couple years, then at a group home and eventually worked my way back to special education in the public school system. For two years, I had my own classroom, teaching 3rd-5th graders with special needs. Then I became an advocate for kids who were fully included in typical classrooms. My job title was ‘Full Inclusion Specialist’. I had found my niche, I loved my job and I loved my kiddos. They changed me. At the time I had no idea that in a few years I would have my own baby with special needs.

Although a diverse group of students, most of my kiddos were diagnosed with Autism. Some were non-verbal, some were very high functioning, each in his own way, gave me a glimpse of their soul. I connected and bonded with each student. My husband, Steve and I, would have long talks about what it meant to be a soul stuck inside a body that wouldn’t cooperate. We talked about the value of each person–regardless of what he or she ‘contributes’ to society. We talked about knowing another person, even if she can’t talk or share their heart with words.

In the days following David’s birth, after we were told he had Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, I remember thinking, “Each of my student’s parents went through a similar experience. Each of them had a ‘diagnosis day’. Each of them has experienced heartbreak and fallen in love with their child in a new way. I wished I could go back and hug each of them. I wished I could ask them to share their story with me. What was it like when you heard the word ‘Autism’ for the first time? How did you move forward? How did you find hope?

Last week we celebrated Autism Awareness Day with a fundraiser in the shop. And friends we raised over $5500!!

My kids with Autism prepared me to be a better mother when my first baby was born with his own disability. My kids with Autism showed me their souls and gave me hope that I would need to lean on heavily once David became part of our family. My kids with Autism were {and still are} amazing, brave human beings who make the world a much better place.

Thank you for helping us raise over $5500 for Autism Speaks. I am so grateful for this community and the way we care about each other.

Do you love someone with Autism or have Autism yourself? I’d love to hear about your journey!


  1. I’ve taught children with autism for about 7 years and now I am managing teacher professional development at my school. Acceptance is the biggest obstacle for our students…

  2. I work as a school based occupational therapist. A good 1/3 of the students on my caseload have varying degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I adore each and every one of them. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. It’s neat to hear about your background in education. I used to teach professionally as well. I had a student with autism when I was teaching 4th grade one year. He had a sly, witty sense of humor and it always cracked me up! 🙂

  4. I own the wide silver sunburst ring with a cz. It is so pretty, and looks better every day! thank you!!!

  5. Wow! I just fell upon your blog and have to say, I felt a connection immediately. About 16 years ago, I was looking for a part time job while my kids were both in school. I was offered a job as a 1:1 aide at their school, so I thought it was perfect. I was assigned to a little boy who had Cornelia deLange Syndrome. I had no idea what that meant and the school didn’t provide me with any information on how to help this little boy. I did all kinds of research, connected with the parents and reached out to his OTs, PTs, and all the other professionals who worked with him. I kept that job for two years and while I was told he was nonverbal, non communicative, and the cognitive ability of a 17 month old, I knew, without question, there was a very special little soul in their. I worked every day with that little boy on using a sign for “more.” You see, he loved, loved marshmallows, so we would play a game hiding marshmallows under stack cups and if he found them, he could have them. His smile was so heartwarming and his giggles would melt my heart! I knew he was in their, I knew he had a sense of humor and most of all I knew he knew who I was by the way he would hug me. I will never forget the day he first “signed” for “more” without my prompting. I remember telling his mom and dad and the excitement we had, because now he could express when he was hungry! It’s been 17 years and I still keep in touch with the family. I finished my degree and I am now a Special Education Finance Specialist. My job is to make sure there is money coming into my district to make sure we have plenty of funding for all of our students with special needs. This little boy, with Cornelia de Lang changed my world. I will forever be grateful for the love and support his family gave me. Thank you for sharing your family in this blog.

    ***In my spare time, I am runner. I love to run 1/2 marathons and run with a group called, “I Run for Michael.” You can find them on Facebook. It’s a community of runners who get matched with a special needs child/adult and we run for them! The medals we receive, we send to our buddy and we keep in touch through social media…it’s kind of like pen pals! It’s a wonderful group and very supportive. I currently run for a little boy in Pennsylvania, who I am planning on meeting in person and plan on running a 5k with him in a jogging stroller!

  6. Hi Lisa,

    I am a board certified behavior analyst, and I share your passion for working with children with autism. I specialize in early intervention services, and often, I am working with families before or at the time of their initial diagnosis. I see the parents working through the pain and hard times you are talking about. However, I see it as my job to offer hope by teaching these children something new each and every day. It makes the joys of first words, imitating different actions, and playing with friends almost magical. I am in the business of celebrating what may seem like small successes each day with families and turning those small successes into huge and life changing gains! I wish I would have seen your post last week. I love your jewelry! I’ll make sure I get on your list so I don’t miss the opportunity next year. Thank you for talking about autism and about children who learn in a different way. My journey to become a therapist was inspired way back when I was in 1st grade. A little boy named Scottie, who has Down syndrome, was in a special education classroom. At such an early age he taught me so much. He allowed me to be his playmate on the playground, and he taught me how a smile can brighten someone’s day, to find joy in the small things, and to love others for who they are. Scottie was my biggest inspiration growing up, and I wish I could see him decades later to tell him and his parents how much he influenced my life. We all have gifts to give one another. May you continue to be blessed with your “gifts” as well.

  7. I’m not an autism mom, but I am the sibling to a brother with special needs that inspired me to become a special needs teacher. For the last 15 years, I have been a preschool inclusion specialist to children with autism and other special needs. Without a doubt, each child, and often their family as well, has left their mark on me. It is the best job in the world and while I will soon be retiring, I am a much better person for having known these students!!

  8. I love this whole story. Yes, I have a son with autism and yes, I had a day when the word autism literally took my breath away. But since then, I’ve focused on his capabilities and getting him the help he needs and 8 years later he is flourishing. Thanks to amazing teachers and therapists.

    I am a photographer and love working with children. In the early days of my son’s therapy, I realized I needed to photograph children with autism and tell their stories of accomplishment and hope. It’s led me to create a project called Faces of Autism, Stories of Hope and later this year I’ll be publishing a book with the photos I’ve created with these amazing children. You can find more information on my website or Facebook page.

    Thank you for this wonderful blog post!

  9. I’m a Full Inclusion specialist in the SF bay area, working exclusively with elementary students with autism (before that, did in-home ABA in SLO). Would love to hear about the time you spent in the classroom!

  10. Thank you for this beautiful blog. I’m a mom of two teenagers with autism and a high school special education teacher. My husband is also a special education teacher and has a BCBA certification. Our lives is all about autism and special needs day and night. But we are so greateful to be there and support parents and hug them because we know how it is to have a special needs child. We also have a 4 year old “typical developing” son. I love every time you post something about your son loving his brother Dave and I pray and hope that my four years old will be as thoughtful and accepting as your son is. We are just an ordinary family very busy with our three sons and dedicated to our important jobs as special education teacher. I never comment on blogs not because I don’t thing they are great but is overwhelming sometimes. I secretly cry when I read things that reminds me of the early years but it gets better. Yes we will always have struggles to make sure our boys have the best life they deserve but we learn to appreciate the little things. You might not read this but I feel so much peace and love by reading your blog that I finally decided to write something. Thank you!

  11. Hi Lisa,

    I’ve just started following your blog after admiring your jewellery for a few years. You really inspire me with your kindness, as well as your passion for your family. My two sons both have autism. They are my light and love, and the most amazing souls. One is currently out of school in IBI, but will be back in his integrated classroom next year. The other is in an integrated class as well. Both move along at their own pace. Both will move their own mountains someday. ?

  12. Yes, I have shared this before. I’ve documented our journey on my blog I answer all of the things youve asked in it. I havent posted recently,because I’ve been living it, but will get back to it again soon, as I believe it is important to share with each other…brings greater understanding. Bless your family.

  13. This rings true for me, and brings up memories and a few tears. Our daughter was just diagnosed with Autism a few months ago. I will forever remember sitting at that table and hearing the doctor say the words. It changed everything. And nothing. She’s the feistiest, most creative soul I know and I’m so glad to be her mom.

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