Joyful Moments of 2014 – A Year in Review

By Amy KD Tobik

It’s often said to properly prepare for a new year you need to reflect on the past. It’s healthy, they say, to take a take stock in where you’ve been so you can plan for the future.

While some days this past year may have seemed frustrating and overwhelming at times, the cusp of a new year is an excellent opportunity to reflect on those “feel-good stories” in the news – those “happy moments.”

We have selected 12 positive news stories from 2014 to share with our readers. Whether it’s a national news bulletin or small town news, every story highlighted brought joy during the year and perhaps some much-needed autism awareness.

We hope each one will bring a smile.
The Mystery Passenger
Sometimes it’s the simple things that mean the most. Last January, Shanell Mouland was flying home from Disney World with her family when a man sat down next to her three-year-old daughter, Kate.  Separated from her husband and her other young daughter on the plane, Shanell was concerned at first how a 2 1/2-hour flight would go with a stranger seated next to her child with autism. All fears dissolved, however, when the passenger struck up a conversation with little Kate who repeatedly called the businessman “Daddy.” Instead of being annoyed by her toys, movement and constant chatter, the man put his papers away and played “turtles” with the young girl. Relieved by a stranger’s kindness, Shanell posted an open letter of thanks to the man whose name she never learned called, “Dear ‘Daddy’ in Seat 16C Flight 1850 From Philly.”  Of course, the post went viral and connected the Mouland family with big-hearted Eric Kunkel right away.


First Certified Autism-Friendly Cruise Announced

This past February, Royal Caribbean International was named by Autism on the SeasTM as the first certified Autism-Friendly Cruise Line. This autism-friendly certification was awarded for their efforts to ensure a full range of autism-friendly products and services such as priority check-in, boarding and departure and special dietary accommodations including gluten-free and dairy-free options. This cruise also includes activities grouped by abilities rather than age, sensory-friendly films and toys as well as a specially-trained staff. In an effort to connect with families with children on the spectrum, a personalized story book folder is also included with a cruise social story to explain what can be expected during the trip.

Autism-Friendly Cruise


High School Student with Autism Scores Final Game Point
Another story that went viral in 2014 had to do with the power of good sportsmanship. During the last quarter of a championship basketball game between California’s Trinity Classical Academy and Desert Chapel High School, Trinity subbed Beau Howell, a student with autism who has never scored a point. While Desert Chapel was down 20 points, its players gave the ball back to Howell so he could score. The gymnasium exploded with applause as a victorious Beau hugged his teammates.


Madison Square Garden Hosts Autism-Friendly Performances
In April, families with children on the spectrum had the opportunity to experience live theater at New York’s Theater at Madison Square Garden as part of an autism-friendly performance of Disney Junior Live On Tour! Pirate & Princess Adventure. The special performance was made possible by the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit that provides access to live theater, and Feld Entertainment, Inc.

While the venue holds more than 5,000 seats, only 2,000 were made available to create a more comfortable space for theater goers. The performance was slightly changed to avoid strobe lights and loud noises and quiet areas were created equipped with beanbag chairs.


Autistic Student Earns Dual Degrees

Chad Hillard, 24, of Jacksonville, FL graduated from Coastal Carolina Community College this past spring receiving two degrees, Computer Programming and Web Technology.  Diagnosed with autism as a little boy and non verbal until the age of six, Chad credits his family for pushing him to be the best he could be. Through their encouragement, Chad said his family never let his disability limit him or define what he believed he could achieve.  Next stop for Chad: he plans to return to Coastal Carolina Community College to earn a third degree in computers.


SAP Focuses on Hiring Autistic Adults

With 85 percent of autistic adults jobless or underemployed, SAP, the market leader in enterprise application software, teamed up with Specialisterne to employ people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists. Specialisterne, which translates from Danish as “The Specialists,” was created by Thorkil Sonne whose 17-year-old son Lars is autistic. While many people with autism may lack the social skills interviewers commonly seek during an interview, they do possess abilities equally vital such as high intelligence, ability to see patterns and great attention to detail. SAP reports this year that the program is working well as they have hired 40 autistic workers at six locations globally to date.


Medicaid Coverage Required to Include Treatments

Vital changes to policy were made this past summer in the United States at the federal level affecting thousands of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In July, Medicare & Medicaid Services stated that comprehensive autism services must be covered for children under all state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program plans.  This new language affected children previously denied coverage.

In August, President Obama signed the Autism CARES Act of 2014 into law, setting aside $1.3 billion in federal funding for autism over the next five years. Autism CARES reauthorizes the 2006 Combating Autism Act for another five years at an annual funding level of $260 million. It allows for continued research as well as aid in developing early detection procedures.


Piano Prodigy Awarded Four-Year Scholarship
When Ben Jenkins was three years old, his family was told he would never speak. Doctors diagnosed him with severe autism and even mentioned the possibility of him being institutionalized.  Ben’s family didn’t agree with the long-term prognosis and provided their son with an intensive 40-hour-a-week ABA home therapy program.  As a result, the teenager has been able to dedicate his life to his musical abilities. After earning a high school diploma from Denver School for the Arts where he majored in piano, he was accepted to Berklee School of Music in Boston, MA. A lifetime of therapy didn’t leave much money for tuition so Ben started playing concerts to raise much-needed funds. Unfortunately, the impressive $20,000 he earned wasn’t enough to fulfill his dream.  Once the college learned of Ben’s plight, they offered him free tuition for four years.  And then a local donor who was familiar with his volunteer efforts at a local soup kitchen came forward and gave him the money for room and board plus expenses. His journey at Berklee began in August and he is well on his way to spreading his talents.

Ben Jenkins Piano Prodigy



Running Changes Life- Top 10 Runner in Country

When Mike Brannigan dreams, he dreams really big. This 17-year-old from Northport, NY who went from crawling straight to running at age one and didn’t speak until he was four, has his sights on the competing in the Olympics. This high school senior is one of the top 10 high school runners in the United States and is able to run a mile in four minutes and seven seconds flat.

Diagnosed with autism at a young age, doctors predicted Mike would need special schooling and eventually require living in a group home. Today, this high schooler maintains a 3.3 GPA and has more than 200 colleges reaching out to him.  Impulsive and hyperactive as a toddler, Mike’s parents credit his commitment to running to helping him thrive academically. Running, they say, has helped his brain calm down and focus. At 60 plus miles training a week, Mike’s commitment is inspirational to people of all ages. And at this speed, this elite runner is well on his way to the Olympics and becoming the professional athlete he envisions.


High School Senior fulfills Dream to Play in Football Game
High school senior Christopher Joey “CJ” Williams has been a member of Lake Howell football team in Winter Park, FL for the past three years. While he has trained with the team, he had never stepped on the field for a game. That all changed for the 19-year-old student with autism when his coach, Dave Wensyel, gave No. 89 the spotlight at one of their home games in October. With the people in the stadium cheering, “We love you, CJ!” the young man fulfilled his dream to play football for his high school.


Paintings by Iris Grace

The beauty and artistic maturity of this young artist with autism has taken the world by storm over the past year. England’s five-year-old Iris Grace may just be beginning to express herself through words but she has been successfully communicating through art since she was three. Often seen in photographs painting in a gorgeous flower-filled field with her cat, Iris’ story has been published in 207 countries and more than 2.3 million people have visited her site ( ). Deemed the little Monet because of her impressionistic style, Iris has raised autism awareness through her work. The profits from sales, which often run thousands of pounds per painting, go toward her art materials as well as private occupational therapy, speech therapy, yoga, music therapy and securing her future.

Iris GracePaintings by Iris Grace



Sensitive Santa for Children with Autism
When New Jersey social worker Gerriann LaGuardia heard about a mom unable to bring her young autistic son to see Santa at the mall because it was too overwhelming with the intense lights and sounds, it tugged at her heartstrings. That’s when Gerriann decided it was time to create a sensory-friendly holiday experience so all children could participate in this tradition with their families. Founded in 2009, Sensitive Santa for Children with Autism includes up to 15 private minutes with Santa, a photo, holiday gift bag and a gluten-free snack all for $10 – which is then donated to charity.  Since the first Sensitive Santa event in NJ, communities all around the world have jumped on board and created their own special, appointment-only event for families affected by autism.


Amy KD Tobik

Amy KD Tobik, Editor-in-Chief of Autism Parenting Magazine, has more than 30 years of experience as a published writer and editor. A graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Amy’s background includes magazine, newspaper, and book publishing. As a special needs advocate and editor, she coordinates with more than 300 doctors, autism specialists, and researchers to ensure people diagnosed with autism receive the services and supports they need for life. She has two adult children and lives in the Carolinas with her husband.