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A mother's journey through autism leads to helping other families with special needs

March 31, 2018

Shirliene Navarro is a family resource specialist at the Developmental Center for Infants and Children/Early Steps, a program offered by the Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families. She is also mother to Marcello, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. Shirliene has helped countless families who have children with special needs by offering support, education and advocacy, but it's her personal experience as the mother of a child with special needs that allows her to come alongside families in a truly unique way.

Learn more about Shirliene in this quick question-and-answer session, and find out what she most wants parents of special needs children to know!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in The Bronx, NY

Do you have any hobbies?

I love to read, play with my children and cooking delicious gluten-free food for my family.

Do you have children?

I am a parent to a total of 6 children. Two are biologically mine, and four of them I have had the privilege of raising.

What do you like to do as a family?

Go for bike rides, play on the trampoline, cuddle and play Xbox 360 with my boys.

What brought you to the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families?

I realized that my son had some delays and I heard about the Early Steps program from a friend. I brought my son for an evaluation and he was diagnosed with autism at 20 months of age through Early Steps.

How has Marcello’s diagnosis with autism changed your perspective in life?

Things that I thought mattered before the diagnosis are no longer important to me. I have learned to appreciate and celebrate the little things. My son works so hard and puts forth so much energy and effort to accomplish things that come easily to other children.

Describe the transformation you have seen in Marcello and your family as a result of being a part of The Developmental Center for Infants & Children/Early Steps Program.

My son’s transformation has been incredible! My son was non-verbal, would constantly spin in circles, sit in a corner by himself, hand flap and refused to be touched.

My family and I attended every workshop, playgroup and event that Early Steps had to offer. I have seen our family grow closer as we have learned how to help and support one another through this journey called autism. This diagnosis doesn’t only affect Marcello, but it affects the entire family. I have seen my older son Julian become an amazing cheerleader and role model for his younger brother.

Today, Marcello is talking non-stop, telling jokes, has friends, is a math wiz, reads, loves to write, loves playing/interacting with others and loves to cuddle!

How long have you worked at the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families?

I have been working at Early Steps for over 3 years. I started a couple of months after Marcello turned 3 and transitioned out of the program.

What is one thing that other team members might not know about you?

I am scared of heights and hate to fly!

What is your role as a family resource specialist?

It means that I am a mother that has been through a tough journey. It means that I empathize and understand the emotions and hard work that goes into being a mother of a child with special needs.

It means that I am a teacher. Teachers change lives. Being the right person at the right time may be enough to change a person's life forever.

It means being an advocate- aperson that works for a cause and supports that cause on our parent’s behalf.

What do you love most about your job?

I love being a strong support for our families. I love meeting families at the beginning of their journey and continuing my relationship with them even when they transition out of our program. I love seeing the amazing advocates they become for their children.

How has your son’s diagnosis allowed you to help other families in their journey with autism?

One of the requirements to become a family resource specialist in Early Steps is that you have a child who has been through the Early Steps program. I cannot stress enough the importance of this requirement. It doesn’t mean that I know exactly what parents are going through because each of us take a different journey. What it does mean is that although our experiences have differences, they are similar. This gives me great insight and perspective. It also helps me gain the trust and respect of families who know that I am talking from experience. It brings them hope to see that I have made it through this stronger and wiser.

What are five pieces of advice you would give to a family who has learned that their child has autism?

The first things that I tell parents who receive this diagnosis is:

  1. You need to go through a roller coaster of emotions that includes feelings of loss, grief, anger, and sadness to name a few. It’s okay. You will need to experience these emotions before you can accept the diagnosis and realize that although the dreams that you had for your child have changed, it doesn’t mean you have to stop dreaming.
  1. This will affect the entire family. You can try hard not to let it, but it will. Especially if siblings are involved. Involve siblings in the therapies and talk openly about the diagnosis. Let them know the struggles that their sibling is going through. Most importantly, take the time to spend one-on-one time with the typically developing sibling. They will see things. My older son asked, “Mommy, how come all these people (therapists) come to play with Marcello and no one comes to play with me?” That broke my heart! I never saw it from his perspective. From that point on, I included my older son in all of his brother's therapies, and he loved it! He even started doing his own little therapy sessions with his brother while they played!
  1. Start marriage counseling, regardless if your marriage is great or not. The stresses and strains of raising a child with special needs puts additional stresses and strains on a marriage that can destroy it. Take time to spend quality “alone” time with your spouse.
  1. Learn how to accept help when offered. Don’t do it all yourself! When someone offers to help you, immediately say yes! This was the hardest thing that I had to learn. It took me a long time but I am finally saying yes and what a difference! Even if it means allowing a friend or family member to watch you child for 15 minutes while you sit and enjoy a cup of coffee in silence!
  1. Do not lose hope! Like I mentioned before, you WILL go through a rollercoaster of different emotions. You will have amazing days with great progress and then you will have days that seem like your child is falling backwards. There will be days where you are so mentally and physically exhausted that you just want to throw your hands up in the air and quit. Those feelings are okay and there is no need to feel guilty about having them. You are entitled to feel this way. The main thing to remember is to continue to focus on that light at the end of the tunnel.

Learn more about the Developmental Center for Infants & Children/Early Steps, here.

To connect with other families whose child has been diagnosed with autism, join our online community group, here!

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