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As a Somali immigrant and single mother of three children with special needs, Ilham desperately sought a connection to her children and to her community. She found both at St. David’s Center, through a journey of discovery that began at a particularly difficult time in her life.

As a toddler, Ilham’s middle child, Layan, was nonverbal, avoided eye contact, and would rock back and forth. Family members brought this atypical behavior to Ilham’s attention along with an unfamiliar word: autism. Ilham reflects on this pivotal moment in time with gratitude, thankful for the early signs that pointed her in the direction of life-changing services for her child.

Ilham threw herself into learning all she could about Layan’s diagnosis of autism but didn’t know where to turn for help. She was juggling a major surgery for her oldest child, Lujain, and welcomed a new baby, Nooh, all amidst the pandemic, which effectively cut Ilham off from her community. By the time he was one year old, it was clear that Nooh’s development was also atypical. “I knew right away,” she states. With now two children diagnosed with autism, Ilham felt lost and frustrated. “I was in a very dark place,” she recounts.

At this point, friends in her community introduced her to St. David’s Center and the significance of intervening as early as possible in a child’s life for optimal outcomes. “They just told me how important early intervention is,” she says. “I had no idea that there were awesome centers like St. David’s Center. If they didn’t come to help me, I would’ve been lost by now.”

Layan and Nooh enrolled in Harman Center’s Autism Day Treatment program at the same time. At first, they both struggled with engagement—with adults as well as with peers—which translated to difficulties in communication and reciprocal play. Both were prone to severe meltdowns that couldn’t be calmed, and Nooh would often run away from his mom and other adults, posing a significant safety concern.

One year later, the difference is palpable, according to therapist Edman. I“Now [Layan] loves engaging with us. She’s a lot more interested in her peers now. Before, Layan was very distant with [her] mom and was very specific about when she would approach [her]. Over the past year, Layan has shown a lot more love outwardly to her mom, whether that’s hugs or asking for kisses. Nooh, too, is able to attend to daily tasks, such as sitting down for snacks or music, or playing with Play-Doh—all important foundational skills for school readiness.” One of Nooh’s therapists, Hannah, recalls, “I remember the first day he held [his mom’s] hand and walked to the car with her at the apartment. She called and left a message, brought to tears, so excited that she had just gotten out of the apartment and to the car, and he didn’t try to run away—completely blown away that her little boy is now safe and holding her hand and noticing that she’s there.”

The biggest change for both kids is communication. Now, four-year-old Layan and two-year-old Nooh are able to use words to tell their mother what they need. “Them being able to communicate—even with one thing—is a major thing as a mom,” she discloses. “One of the things that made me happy is that now [Layan] can tell me what she wants to eat. We never had that. “[Nooh]’s saying more words now, too. He never used to talk before St. David’s. But now he says words and he’s communicating with me. I know what makes him happy.”

With her children thriving, Ilham is now an advocate for other parents in her community, working to reduce stigma surrounding autism and paving the way for others to intervene earlier. Her message is one of acceptance, action, and advocacy. “In my community, we come from a different background. We believe different things about disabilities. So, I tell them first, to accept that your child needs the help, [which] is a major thing in my community for them to start with the services. I tell them about the science, and I always talk to them about how it helped me as a mom. I will advise every mom that is in my shoes or [who] even has one kid with autism to [start services] because the earlier you start, the better it is.” For Ilham, her children are a daily reminder of the critical difference an early start can make– “Early intervention is the best thing I ever did for my kids.”

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