World Autism Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day! On World Autism Awareness Day, we recognize and celebrate persons with autism and neurodiversity, and the roles of families, caregivers, and support networks in their lives.

 By Rachel Burks | April 2, 2023

Hi! My name is Rachel Burks, and this is my daughter, Raena.

When Raena was 18 months old, she still wasn’t talking. I spoke to her pediatrician and raised my concerns.  He insisted this happens often and we should “just wait and see what happens.” As a teacher, that didn’t sit right with me. I knew the sooner you address a gap, the better chance you have at closing it. I insisted on formal evaluations, which led us to the New York City early intervention program.

Never in a million did I expect an autism diagnosis. I was expecting, at most, a speech delay. I was in shock, scared for her future and picturing all the hurdles she would face. Not my baby! I cried. I grieved. And then I did what mothers (and teachers) do – I got to work!I bought the books, I did the research, I put her in activities and play groups, and I found her amazing therapists. I quickly realized that an autism diagnosis was just the beginning of Raena’s story. At 2 years old, she was nonverbal and cognitively only as developed as a 9-month old. She started speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavior therapy. I love my daughter for exactly who she is, but I knew I had to act fast to make sure every window of opportunity would be open to her down the road.

Her therapy was constant – 6 days a week, at daycare and at home. Every night for a year, after working long hours as a teacher, I would come home with Raena to meet her behavior therapist, Ms. Smith. Every night, Ms. Smith worked with Raena on different skills: communication, social connections, motor skills, self-care, even how to play with her toys. Ms. Smith endured meltdowns and tantrums with a patience I’ve never seen before. When I felt helpless as a mother, not knowing how to teach my own child, Ms. Smith knew exactly what to do. She became part of our family.

By the time Raena turned 3, she was talking, playing and ready for preschool! Her therapist changed her whole life. Her therapist, Ebonqiua Smith, was also a social worker at Uncommon Bed-Stuy Collegiate Middle School.

Today, on World Autism Awareness Day, I want to say to all of our educators who care for our extra special kiddos. You show up every day with creativity, patience, and love – and you change lives!

Rachel Burks serves as a Director of Operations Fellow at Brownsville Collegiate Charter School.