Autism is a word Sharell Cooper heard frequently, but like many other parents she did not know the particulars of the disorder. As Cooper sat nervously with her youngest daughter, Skylah, in a pediatric doctor’s waiting room, her mind flooded with questions and an overall fear of the unknown—what is autism and does my daughter have it?
Within ten minutes of seeing the doctor, Skylah was diagnosed with severe autism at age three. Autism, also called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex category of brain development disorders. Some of the core symptoms associated with this disorder are problems with communicating, social interactions and averting direct eye contact.
ASD is a broad umbrella of categories, but each listing in the spectrum is classified by its severity and impact. Skylah is one of the 20% of people on the autism spectrum that have classic autism (the most severe type).
Cooper is a mother of three, so when she noticed her youngest started developing differently from her other two daughters, she knew something was wrong. “Skylah would start talking then stop for a long time. She knew how to ask for juice, but then just suddenly stopped asking and would just point and cry. She wouldn’t make eye contact and didn’t want to play with her older sisters,” Cooper said.
Autism is a complex brain disorder that affects a child’s development, whether it is their interactions, communication skills or behaviors. There are no known causes of autism. Scientists are trying to determine if the disorder is caused by certain mutated genes and/or the environment, but without being able to identify a cause, no cure has been found.
The rate of autism has increased 10-fold since the 1990s in the United States; about 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with ASD, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The stay-at-home mom was determined to not let autism define her daughter. She explained to her eight-year-old, Saryah, and her 11- year-old, Shaniyah, that there is nothing wrong with Skylah—she is just special. “I give my daughters all the same attention and love, I want them to know that they are each special in their own way,” Cooper said.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), a research division of the U.S. National Department of Health and Human Services, states there are several therapies and behavioral interventions that can help treat autism and bring about substantial improvement in a child’s development. One plan involves educational or behavioral interventions through structured sessions with a therapist to help the child to develop social and language skills. Cooper enrolled her daughter in many of these early intervention sessions, which have helped immensely.
Cooper wanted to do more for not just her daughter, but other parents trying understand their children’s ASD. So she decided to create t-shirts that help spread autism awareness. “I wanted to honor Skylah, and celebrate her with my daughters. I wanted to show that we are not ashamed of Skylah having autism, we embrace it,” Cooper said.
The longtime Spring Creek Towers resident decided to make her cause a family effort that involves all three children. Cooper’s three daughters helped design autism awareness t-shirts, which they hope will get more people involved in shining light on this disorder. The three girls each picked out a color scheme, graphics and even came up with catchy quotes about supporting autism awareness. “The t-shirts are a conversation starter. Someone can see me wearing it, ask where I got it and I can share Skylah’s story and let other parents know they are not alone,” Cooper said.
Cooper and her family have been spreading autism awareness through their t-shirts for about one month now. In that time they have sold about 60 shirts, half of the profits are donated to the Organization for Autism Research and the other half goes towards the production of more shirts. “I want the shirts to be a celebration of those who have autism, and recognize that there is nothing to be ashamed about,” Cooper said.
You can find out more about the t-shirts at www.sjharlow.bigcartel.com
By Amanda Moses