NYCM Families: Coming Together to Recognize Autism Awareness Month - NYCM Insurance Blog

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Apr 16, 2021

NYCM Families: Coming Together to Recognize Autism Awareness Month

NYCM employees join together throughout the year to recognize and rally around various causes. As April is Autism Awareness Month, one specific cause close to the hearts of many, we are sharing inspiring and courageous stories of employees and their families to bring awareness to autism. Continue reading below to learn more.


A Different Way of Navigating the World

Peter French, a member of our Distribution Team recalls the early days of his 26-year-old son, David’s, diagnosis with autism. “I think we were a little more equipped than some other parents might have been at the time. My wife was a special education teacher and had a lot of experience with children with special needs.” Peter explains there has been major growth in the community, as well as resources over the past few decades. “Twenty years ago or so, the experience of having a child with autism and the process of getting a diagnosis was very different than it is today. For a long time, there weren’t very many pediatricians trained in this area in general, let alone programs or resources. We had to travel pretty far across the state to find support,” Peter explains. At the time, it was not uncommon for autism to go undiagnosed until the individual was of school age, which in turn meant that a person would go on without support or resources for long periods of time.


“We learned about the spectrum scale over time. In the beginning there was one (stereotypical) way that autism was known to present. For a while we didn’t think David had autism because his signifiers didn’t “check the right boxes.” 


Before he was diagnosed, David’s pediatrician told Peter and his wife Kristen that David was fine and not to worry about him. With today’s technology and research, Peter knows that David’s autism would have been recognized much sooner, as more and more doctors are becoming familiar with the condition. The truth is autism doesn’t manifest the same way in every individual. Peter goes on to say that almost immediately after David’s diagnosis, they were able to get him into an integrated pre-school with proper services and support. Peter knows that this was the best possible thing for David and that it helped propel his success.


“Once there were professionals involved who knew how to approach the situation - we started seeing truly remarkable results.” Peter noted that although it was an emotional and at times nerve-wracking time in their lives, they recognized how fortunate they were to have gained the support they did, because not everyone who was experiencing this has had the same resources.


Upon receiving David’s diagnosis, Peter and Kristen decided that in order to put David in the best possible position for growth, they would need to move somewhere he would be well supported - not only in the community but in resources as well. Peter says that they knew David would need to live somewhere that was walkable, and that had a strongly connected inner community. David would need to live in a town that made sense for him and that was not an additional challenge. Knowing this, they decided to move into Cooperstown as this was an area David was already familiar with, and a community that was already familiar with him. Peter and Kristen say that this was just a part of parenthood for them, and just like any other parent, they wanted to give their child the best opportunities available.


When asked if there was anything he wished people outside the community knew about autism, Peter says that “Autism is not a lack of capability but a different way of navigating the world.”


Leaning on Community

Autism Awareness is important to Debra Conrad of the NYCM Finance Services Team. “My 15 year-old son is autistic. He has things that he does a little differently. For example, he has a tendency to “stim” and flutter his hands in excitement or emotion. This sometimes triggers others to make fun of him.” For those who aren’t aware, “stimming” is a repetitive movement or noise, and is a coping mechanism that helps some people with autism manage emotions and deal with overwhelming situations.


Debra goes on to tell us that Matthew was diagnosed at the age of four. “We had noticed a few signifiers before we really knew what that meant. A woman we went to church with at the time had two grandchildren with autism and was able to share some information that led us to take Matthew to get some testing done though the Kelberman Center.” Once Matthew was diagnosed, they were then able to enroll him in the Upstate Cerebral Palsy Center’s preschool class for children with special needs. Debra knows just how hard it can be to seek out help when you are used to handling so much on your own. To parents of newly diagnosed children, or to those who are still navigating the process, Debra has this to share, “Even though you might be nervous about what the future has to hold, you need to know that you are not going through this alone. Autism is a lot more common that you might think, there are people to reach out too, there is a community, and it gets so much easier once you have that support in place.”


Advocating for Resources

“We first received a diagnosis for my son about 15 years ago when he was three years old. At the time, we didn’t know what the spectrum was as it pertained to autism. There is so much more research and information now than there was back then,” shares NYCM Fitness Coordinator/Trainer, Karen Fagan about her connection to the autism community.


“We struggled early on due to a lack of resources. Essentially, we were told that there was nothing that could be done for my son and my concerns were written off as behavioral issues.” Karen explains. This interaction with her son’s doctors is what drove the family into advocacy for support and awareness. Karen continued fighting to find support for her son and eventually met with a local physician named Dr. Lopez, who later was able to come to their school district and help create resources for children with autism like her son.


Because autism exists on a spectrum, there is no “one size fits all”. Although it can often come from hearts being in the right place, many people may not realize that the help they are offering is in fact perpetuating the intolerance of autistic behavior rather than acceptance. For example, Karen shared that her son often likes to wear the same outfit because it is comfortable and familiar to him. Karen had been contacted in the past out of concern by someone looking to offer financial assistance to help them afford new clothes. Unbeknownst to them, Karen had actually purchased ten sets of the same outfit for her son, and washed them through the week so that he could wear what he wanted to.


Karen points out that oftentimes the biggest hurdles with autism aren’t something you can necessarily see. People with autism can find a disconnect when it comes to the more social aspects of life.  For example, noise pollution can be overwhelming and many may prefer to stay away from large groups of unorganized people. For Karen’s son, this means eating lunch in another room with a teacher or in the library rather than in a crowded cafeteria.


“The truth is that many individuals with autism are fully capable of living independently,” Karen explained. “Autism is not a cookie-cutter condition, it looks different on everyone. My son is extremely bright, a straight-A-student who will be graduating at the top of his class this year. Having autism doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful, it might just mean finding another way.”


Inspiring Kindness

“My goal has always been to give Sam as much support as possible and to take as much consideration around his needs as possible. I’ve never looked at my son any differently because he’s just that - my son,” shared Matt Johnson of our IT Infrastructure Team. Matt tells us that Sam was diagnosed at the age of three and will be turning 21 within the next few weeks.


“Something that no one really prepares you for when you have a child with high-functioning autism is that as they get older, there are less and less resources available and support available. Although Sam is a talented artist who has completed an art program through the local BOCES Program, the job opportunities available to him are somewhat limited due to the lack of autism awareness and acceptance in the workforce.


Sam attended counseling through The Kelberman Center, which is where they were first introduced to the various Autism Awareness walks and events. “It was such a cool opportunity to get involved because it was something we could do not only for our health, but also to support my son and the community.” Since then, Matt and his family have participated in several different organizations' events in an effort to help spread awareness and provide a connection to the community for Sam. It was important to Matt that Sam had a community as he doesn’t always seek out social interaction for himself.  For many years while the program was still running, they would participate in the Dragon Dates Program, at SUNY Oneonta, where a group of students with different abilities are able to come together and interact with each other in a judgement free space.


When asked if there was anything Matt wished other people knew or would consider about autism he had this to share, “This doesn’t just pertain to autism, but I do think this is an opportunity to remind each other to approach one another with kindness. You truly never know what someone is going through. If we can all try to understand each other and respect the different perspectives that we each bring to the table, the world would be a much more welcoming place. We all have our own unique value to share.” 


How You Can Get Involved

Team NYCM will be taking part in the Walk for Autism, which is a virtual event taking place throughout the month of April. This event was created in an effort to support and inspire a kinder, more inclusive world for those with autism. For more information on how you can participate, check out this link.