Jennifer Jones never thought of herself as a community activist, but when her 15-year-old son, Dylan, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder 11 years ago, Jones’ course in life took a profound turn. The mom of two was working as a graphic and product designer and first became involved with Autism Speaks as a parent wanting to connect more with the autism community. She is now director of field development for the organization’s Southern California region, and is in charge of autism-awareness events in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties – including Walk Now for Autism Speaks, which mobilizes hundreds of thousands of families each year and raises millions of dollars.
You participated in your first Walk Now for Autism Speaks 10 years ago in Los Angeles. How did you feel when you arrived at the Rose Bowl for this year’s event April 18?
This is really a full-circle moment for me. My parents had heard about the autism walk initially and encouraged me to go. It was so powerful to be a part of this community. I had so much to learn for my son and for myself. At that time, there wasn’t that much information and resources available. We have had an incredible amount of progress in the last 10 years. I’m so proud of our community. It’s amazing to be a part of it.
As the mom of a son with severe autism, what would you like other families to know?
Don’t be afraid to get out there and be in public. I know so many families who are afraid to go to the movies or out to dinner or any public place because they are afraid of people’s reaction if their child has an outburst. Don’t worry about what other people think. Always have a game plan, prep your child, bring a comfort toy and other calming devices. But don’t stop doing the things you love.
What are some of your goals for the Los Angeles community?
I love L.A. It’s so diverse, with so many innovative programs. Our L.A. walk is the biggest in the country. I’m so excited to be managing this region. We are really pushing early intervention and early access to care. I was living in a different state when my son was born, and it took me two and a half years to have a diagnosis for him. Early intervention is critical. We provide a lot of community grants to local programs. We are expanding our swimming grants to ensure that all kids have basic water safety instructions, and we want to educate more families with our free tool kits, so they have the information they need to better advocate for their child.
What’s a new area of focus for awareness that you’re currently working on?
Transition to adulthood is a huge area that we are working on to build support and create more resources for. We are soon going to see 500,000 kids transition into adulthood. This affects every aspect of our society – employment opportunities, mentoring, voting, housing, consumer spending. My son is in high school and I can see him in a vocational-type school after he graduates. I’m personally very aware of the transition that lies ahead for Dylan. My goal is for my son and every other child out there to have the opportunity to be the best person and the happiest person he can be. As these kids become adults, I want to see them thrive. We have to lay the groundwork for them. We have to start pushing these initiatives through now.