Meet Aubrey Hamilton
Photos by Myra Downey Photography
Felicia Hamilton of Haymarket remembers feeling disappointed but not surprised when her daughter was diagnosed with autism at age three. As a one year old, Aubrey wasn’t walking or crawling or even emulating behaviors. But the official diagnosis “cemented it into our reality” and we were, “sent on our merry way” with no advice, resources, nothing. After she cried, Felicia says, “I went into attack mode.”
She connected with the Autism Society, attending its Autism 101 class, and departed armed with an endless list of resources, information about Medicaid waivers, opportunities for one-on-one classes with professionals in the field, and a list of events designed for autistic children. Meeting and being able to share their experiences with other families was the icing on the cake for the Hamilton family. To this day, they participate in the annual Autism Walk as ‘Aubrey’s Angels’ to support the organization, get more information to families, and network with other parents.
The next step in the Hamilton’s journey was getting Aubrey into school. This early intervention was key, and the structured environment has resulted in a growth and maturity Hamilton doesn’t think Aubrey would have had without it.
But the access to these services didn’t come easy. “I feel like I am always fighting. My daughter deserves everything she should get by law,” Hamilton declares. Dealing with the school districts has been grueling – first in the Hampton Road area where the family lived until about three years ago, then Fairfax, and now Prince William. The district will often offer the bare minimum, she says, but it’s up to the parents to push for what their child needs.
After witnessing so many overwhelmed and uninformed parents, Hamilton started helping other families, becoming an advocate in her own right, and was appointed to the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities in 2015. Her position as Chair of the Policy, Research and Evaluation Committee allows her to impact change by looking at the developmental disability laws for our community and advocating for changes.
Yet another challenge was finding a provider for ABA therapy. At one time, there was a year-long waiting list. Another time, the provider simply wasn’t a good fit for Aubrey’s specific needs. Fast forward to today and the move to Northern Virginia; Aubrey now has a fantastic ABA therapist who comes to the house daily. Hamilton recommends that when searching for your own ABA provider, seek input from other families and evaluate provider personalities carefully. Also, since Prince William County doesn’t allow therapists to provide services in school, make sure the provider has flexible scheduling, including before and after school and weekends.
Hamilton also highly recommends Fairfax County’s Therapeutic Recreation Programs. “Being able to send my child to interact with other children while being cared for by trained staff has given Aubrey some of the best experiences.”
As for a “fix” for autism, Hamilton says, don’t look for it. Instead she counsels parents not to focus on one thing because if you do, you may miss discovering what could be the most helpful.
The Hamilton family follows the motto ‘how do we make life better for Aubrey?’ and answering that question has not been easy.
One of the most arduous aspects of Aubrey’s autism is that she is nonverbal. Add to that a diagnosis of epilepsy that resulted in having a pacemaker implanted in her brain to halt her seizures and the use of a magnetic device to bring her out of breakthrough episodes, and the fact that she’s thriving is nothing short of miraculous.
Doctors said Aubrey wouldn’t walk but she “sprints like she’s in the Olympics” and loves to “dance her little heart out,” says Hamilton. She’s also “one of the happiest kids you will ever meet,” says her mom. One particularly unique trait Aubrey has is the ability to sense a person’s character. “She is a very good people judger” explains Hamilton, “with senses even better than mine.”
Now 10 years old, Aubrey is super spunky, sassy, and loving. She shares hugs and kisses and has incredible eye contact and although she doesn’t process like her peers and exhibits behaviors not typical for her age, Aubrey is very independent. “She doesn’t need your pity,” says Hamilton, who spends a good deal of time helping Aubrey make friends. Her nonverbal state impacts so much of their lives and often leads to some awkward interactions. If children were taught to approach Aubrey and ask, “can we play with her?” their lives would be enriched as much as Aubrey’s. Says her mom, “Just give her the opportunity and she’ll show you.”