Adoption and Autism lead to Action and The Northern Illinois Center for Autism

What happens when you try to get a couple of adoptive parents together to write a story for National Adoption Awareness Month in November? The story gets finished in December. As any parent, adoptive or otherwise, knows: kids keep you busy. However, when it’s discovered your child has autism, if you’re like my friend Arnie Quast, you get busy. And by this I mean Arnie’s amazing work in helping to create the Northern Illinois Center for Autism.

Nine years ago, Arnie and his wife adopted their son Thomas from Korea when he was five months old. When the foster mother placed Thomas in his wife’s arms for the first time, Arnie says, “This was where it reality hit me as I realized that I had just officially become a parent. It was an exciting feeling!”

Thomas and his sister Brianna

When you adopt a child, just like birthing a child, it’s forever. There’s no going back. And of course this means you must be willing to accept and parent this kid no matter what obstacles get put in front of you. For Arnie and his wife the above-normal parenting challenges began when Thomas was around two. As Arnie describes it:

Between his second and third birthdays, we started realizing that Thomas was not talking or socializing as much as other children his age. He also developed some unusual mannerisms that concerned us. We had a developmental physician evaluate Thomas to shed more light on his condition and the doctor advised us Thomas was physically healthy, but some of the things we were seeing could be indicative of a condition called autism.

Our life soon took a rapid change.

We enrolled Thomas in our school district’s early childhood program and ramped up occupational and speech therapies. About a year later, Thomas was officially diagnosed with autism and we became involved with a parent support group near us called the McHenry County Autism Group. This group of parents helped provide support and information to each other and we learned we were not alone, that approximately 1 in 150 children born are diagnosed with autism.

After several months our support network started to grow, and as it did we achieved status as a 501 3c non profit. We formed a board and started to grow our network of parents. People from areas outside of McHenry County started to network with us, and about three years ago we decided to change the name of our group to Northern Illinois Center for Autism.

Annette Gallagher, the current President and CEO of NICA, says, “It's kinda funny how fate takes a hand sometimes. All of us parents didn't choose to have children with autism...for whatever reason, it chose us. But what we do with the autism...that's where our choices lie.”

NICA UPS Fundraiser 2011 Annetter Gallagher and Arnie Quast are on the far right.

Annette started out working a variety of night jobs to help pay for the medical expenses involved with her two sons and their autism, while spending countless hours during the day attending therapy with them, and learning everything she possibly could to help them overcome their many challenges. After a few years of very little sleep, she decided to open an in-home day care to help create some social interaction for her sons, while earning an income to pay for their therapies and medical expenses. And it had the added benefit of allowing her to get some much needed extra sleep!

Annette describes how her role as a parent of two autistic children transformed into her current position at NICA.

While running my daycare, I happened to take on some children of employees that worked at the local special needs non-profits in our area. These "Moms" were frustrated in their work, as there was no support agency available to refer families living with autism. As a result, they started to refer them to me. I have always been happy to help a fellow family, and truly believe in the power of parent networking and education, but I became wayyyy outnumbered by parents in need. It was my hopes that with the development of our organization, we could help many more families in a much more efficient way, which is exactly what we have done!

These families are soooo worth our efforts. The parents are becoming educated, and many of their loved ones with autism are making great gains as a result. People with autism have incredible potential, as long as they receive the assistance that they require. Providing that assistance is our first priority. It's what allows NICA to achieve their mission of “integrating community and loved ones."

The Northern Illinois Center for Autism in Lake in the Hills

“As funding became available,” Arnie says, “our group decided to take a bold move. We leased a building in Lake in the Hills where we could provide further networking and build a platform to provide services to families with autism. “

Gallagher, who took a leadership role in creating the center, says, “Providing the specialized assistance that people with autism require, costs money…and our families living with autism are running out. The expenses involved in raising a loved one with autism are extreme. NICA is making a gallant effort to make this assistance available, in the most cost effective way possible, so that all children with autism can have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential and live a full and productive life. As an organization, which is currently run 100% via volunteers, we are limited as to the amount of assistance we can provide. Our organization has grown to the extent that we must raise funds to develop and sustain the operating income required to assist these families full time. It is with this goal in mind that we ask the community to get involved in helping our many families in need, by helping us raise the funds we require to operate full- time.”

You can make a much appreciated donation to NICA here: NICAutism: How can I help?

“Despite the challenges that this adoption has presented us” Arnie says, “we often think about where our son would be without a loving family. Nobody could have ever forecast that he would be the way he is with a diagnosis of autism. We take each day as it comes, and give him the love and attention that he deserves. I have full confidence that our son will someday thrive and function independently. He is a neat kid who has a contagious smile and brings lots of love to our family.”

If only Arnie's kind of love and commitment to action could be as contagious as Thomas' smile.

Thomas and his contagious smile
Thomas and his contagious smile!
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