The Perez Family

Told by Coleen R. San Nicolas-Perez

The day Joaquin was born was one of the happiest days of my life. Holding my child for the first time filled me with indescribable joy. I gave birth to a darling, sweet, and perfect baby boy, and life at that moment was … well, it was blissfully perfect.

All the nesting I did beforehand, all the motherhood books I read, and all the stories I heard from moms of typical children did not prepare me to be the mother of my special son. Nothing really prepares you for that moment when a doctor sits you down and says the word “autism”.

Joaquin was almost 3 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. Before that, he was thriving, even excelling in some areas. He would easily match picture cards before the age of 2, and boy! he did babble nonstop while doing his best to articulate words. He could recite the alphabet and count to 100. More importantly, my dear son had a special sparkle in his eyes.

That began to change after his second birthday. He wouldn’t respond to his name, constantly walked around in small circles, and stopped making eye contact. What was heartbreaking was that he became very quiet—barely a whisper.

That sparkle in his eyes quickly disappeared. He was a shell of his former self, lost in a world I couldn’t penetrate as much as I wanted to.

It took many years of therapy, tests, school meetings, advocacy, prayers, and a lot of hard work on his part to get to where he is today.

He is considered non-verbal, although he does verbalize a handful of words. The popular word he says these days is “cheeseburger”, which is one of his favorite foods. He can write his name and trace other words. He knows how to make the sounds of many animals. I find it adorable, even today, when he says “moooo”. He can point at objects and usually says “that one”. He doesn’t read or write, but we know he is super smart.

Joaquin turns 17 soon. My little baby boy is no longer little and far from being a baby, but in many ways, he still is.

Several years ago, Joaquin was also diagnosed with intellectual disability. His IQ cannot be determined because he is unable to be evaluated using a standardized test. Even with modified tests, the data shows he is way below average in comparison to those of his age and those much younger than him.

Every year, we go through the data with his schoolteachers, and every year, I am left with an ache and void in my heart and soul. It is difficult to put into words how exactly it feels when educational professionals, across the table, basically tell me every year that my darling, sweet, perfect child is far behind where he needs to be. No parent wants to hear this, but many do.

My family’s story is not unique. As I write these words, I know there are thousands of moms and dads out there who are trying to do their best for their children with special needs. I also know that somewhere nearby, a mom is learning for the first time that her child is autistic. According to the CDC, 1 out of 36 kids are diagnosed with autism. That’s not a typo. 1 out of 36.

Data after data. Tests after tests. Results after results. This is a tough life. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. This life has pushed me to the edge and will continue to do so. What keeps me and my husband going is and will always be Joaquin—our perfect child.

He is the sweetest young man you will ever meet. A gentle giant, many have said. When this boy loves, he does so with his whole heart and being. He is kind and respectful, and oh boy! Is he resilient? … more resilient than his independent, career-oriented mommy, that’s for sure.

He enjoys going to school and being with his classmates and teachers. He is all smiles and hugs when I pick him up after school, probably because we often grab a yummy treat on the way home.

Joaquin can also be impatient, vocal, and demanding, which he gets from me. As for his sunny disposition and good looks, he gets that from his daddy who happens to be my childhood friend and husband for 25 years.

As hard as this life may be, I would not want to be on any other journey. I am absolutely in love with my autism family.

Not only are we an autism family, but we are also a Jill’s House family. We joined Jill’s House a few years ago. In the beginning, I was very reluctant and nervous for my non-verbal son to spend a couple of nights under the supervision of strangers.

The first time he went to Jill’s House Blue Ridge camp, I was convinced the staff and volunteers would call me in the middle of the night to pick him up. There was no way he would want to stay. Plus, there was no way the Jill’s House staff would take care of him the way he needed to be cared for.

I was wrong. I was completely and utterly wrong.

That first weekend, the Jill’s House team never called. They did, however, texted me a few photos of Joaquin to reassure me that he was doing fine. He was more than fine. The pictures showed him smiling, laughing, and having as much fun at camp as he should, as any teenager should.

Fast forward to today, Joaquin now walks into camp as if he owns the place. If I could read his mind, I am pretty sure he says, “Hey, sup fam!” to every Jill’s House staff member and volunteer as he settles in for a fun, safe, and positive weekend.

Jill’s House is a place of “rest, renewal, and relationships for kids with intellectual disabilities and their families.” For me and my family, Jill’s House is also about saving lives, because that’s what they do. The founders, staff, board members, fellows, volunteers, sponsors, and contributors of Jill’s House save lives … and they bring life back into families.

Note: Coleen R. San Nicolas-Perez is employed with the Department of the Navy. The opinions stated in this editorial do not reflect that of nor is an endorsement by the U.S. Navy.

Thank you for making stories like Joaquin’s possible.