It was at about six months that Councillor Melinda Vega Maldonado first begin to suspect something was different about her youngest son, Akyllis, now 4.
She began to think that he might have Autism, and it soon became a very difficult situation that she said has been overcome after advocacy and understanding and a speaking out against the stigma associated with Autism – especially in the LatinX community.
“I started seeing what I would say are red flags or things that made me think, ‘Hmmm, something is up here,’” she said. “One of the biggest challenges I had was to get him diagnosed early. In all my research, it said the earlier the diagnosis and interventions, the better the outcome. Autism is not curable, but there are supports and that is the best chance for success in their lives is to get help early on.”
That said, she said she got pushback early from her pediatrician and from family members as well. When she looked for support and help, it was hard to find at first. Being an outspoken activist for years though, she was certainly up for the fight and found success. Yet, she worries those with less of a voice, or those blanketed by the stigma in LatinX cultures might not find that early help.
“The stigma that comes with it and culture in the LatinX community that is that this is something that’s shamed and looked down on,” she said. “Even in my own household, I don’t know if everyone was prepared for what this meant in terms of a lifestyle for us. There were many tears and moments of desperation.”
Akyllis, who was diagnosed at 2 with Autism, didn’t babble as a baby, wouldn’t make eye contact, had trouble with loud noises, and didn’t talk until after age 2. In fact, Vega Maldonado recalled having to ask family members to whisper the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, and not to clap or cheer around him.
On Monday night at the Council meeting, Councillor Vega Maldonado made history in bringing the first resolution to mark Autism Awareness Month – signified by the color blue. She said she wanted to draw attention to those with Autism like her son, and let people out there know that it’s okay and kids with Autism no reason to despair.
Nowadays, they have learned how to manage the “meltdowns” that sometimes occur, and are very mindful of defined triggers that will set off Akyllis. However, he talks and reads voraciously. With the help of a nurse from BMC, they have a plan and they do a lot of work to help him communicate his emotions.
“As soon as he talked, it was full-blown sentences,” she said. “He’s our baby genius now.”
Lately, his interests are in planets, and he is very good at self-educating and learning things very fast. As a councillor, she said it’s an issue that is part of her private life, but one that she wants to use her platform as an elected official to spotlight – especially for those that might be struggling and need to know there is help out there.
“It’s very personal for me, but I think it’s necessary,” she said. “I know that Chelsea is majority LatinX and knowing my culture, this is something still viewed with so much stigma. We need to undo that and break these cycles and do what’s right by our children and for these children.