Valley Life for All column: Becoming an advocate for her autistic son
Valley Life for All
Editor’s note: The Aspen Times, in conjunction with Valley Life For All, continues a monthly series of profiles about people in our community who meet challenge with courage and perseverance.
Nora Gomez felt lost and powerless when she began the journey for parents with autistic children, but she discovered resources in surprising places.
When her son Derek was diagnosed with autism at age 3, she was devastated. “I felt like the world was crumbling on me. I didn’t have any information on autism because of the language barrier,” says Gomez, who speaks some English but uses help from her friend, Cecelia Rios.
Her pediatrician told her to get help from a social worker along with an autism therapy program called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) — both used Spanish speakers who helped her with Derek’s diet, occupational and speech therapy, scheduling his day, and helped Derek with his fears.
“He feared going to the park, how to cross the street, and to get on public buses,” recalls Gomez. “The lights really turned on for Derek with ABA. He was more independent, he talked more, he was happier.”
Unfortunately, when the therapist left the area, a void in resources returned.
When Derek entered elementary school, Gomez noticed he wasn’t progressing academically, and no paraprofessionals (aides for those with special needs) were available. Gomez fed Derek his special diet at school since no one else could and witnessed him running around the hallways unattended. “I cried a lot when I saw that.” She spoke with the principal about her son. “The principal offered me no resources.”
It was imperative that she advocate for her son. Her resource this time was her friend, Cecelia Rios.
“I told Nora we’re going to do this together. Let’s talk with the special needs director and be very prepared with Derek’s individualized needs plan. We were so nervous,” Rios said. “When we met him, he was nervous. He helped us enormously. Suddenly, we had help from everyone. Derek got two Peras that were specially picked. It was amazing. We need to empower ourselves, to know our rights to overcome any discrimination or language barrier so we can help our kids.”
Nora Gomez nodded with pride, “Cecelia was my advocate.”
Rios pointed back to Gomez, “She goes to all the school board meetings now. She’s there to say, ’We’re here.’”
It turns out the most powerful resource Gomez has is herself.
“I introduce myself and say, ’I represent parents with special needs kids.’ I remind them, ‘What about special education needs?’”
Her own empowerment, through advocating for her son, inspired Gomez to obtain her GED and continue learning English. “So I can help Derek and also myself. A lot of families will be able to relate to our story.”
For information on ABA, go to AutismSpeaks.org and for La Esperanza de Emily, call 562-484-4813.
Local nonprofit Valley Life for All is working to build inclusive communities where people of all abilities belong and contribute. Find us at ValleyLifeForAll.org or on Facebook.
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UPDATE 5:27 p.m. — Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has reopened in both directions Saturday evening after a safety closure due to a flash flood warning. There were no reported mud/debris slides.