Young Girl with Autism is the Creative Force Behind Popular Show
August 24 was around the corner and everyone could feel the excitement in the air. Would it be a girl or a boy? It really didn’t matter to the family. The only thing they wished for was a happy and healthy baby. When the day arrived, the news spread like wildfire. The first baby in the family was about to come into the world and everyone was buzzing with excitement. And so Illiana Alexis Figueroa was born on a beautiful morning surrounded by the love and support of a young family ready to help her to take over the world. Unknown to them at the time, the journey ahead for their little girl was going to be filled with challenges.
At a very early age, Illiana began to show delays in her development. It seemed like she took longer to crawl and walk in comparison to other children of her same age. Her parents, Miguel Figueroa and Vannesa Montalban thought that Illiana just needed more time. After all, not all children are the same. However, their biggest concern was her communication. Why didn’t she make babbling sounds like other children? Why was her gaze often distant as if her mind was far, far away?
They wondered why she looked so pensive when focused on objects. Soon they noticed Illiana lining her toys up in a certain order almost to the point of obsession. As Illiana grew older, her father and mother grew concerned. Not being able to communicate with their daughter made them feel insecure as parents. They often asked themselves are we spending enough time with her? Should they make their play with her more educationally purposeful?
Then one day Illiana started to babble. Her parents felt relieved. She was finally beginning to talk! However, as time passed her babbling became a pattern of sounds that Illiana repeated constantly. She would repeat this pattern over and over again all day long.
It was then they decided it was time to see a specialist. After some testing, observations and consults at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Illiana was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a sub-spectrum level of autism with speech and motor delays. What did this diagnosis mean for her future? As they drove back home, their minds were filled with new overwhelming questions but their hearts were filled with a fierce determination to help their little girl overcome anything and everything that came her way.
Early intervention was the first step to help Illiana overcome her challenges. Intensive speech therapy and occupational therapy were in her daily life. Over time they saw her progress in speech and motor skills. They were trained in the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to help her communicate her wants and needs. In preschool, she was placed in a special education inclusion classroom where she received occupational therapy a couple of times a week. She was growing in leaps and bounds academically but what about her socialization? Was the inclusion classroom the right setting for her in her first years of elementary school?
After many conversations with teachers, Illiana was mainstreamed for special subjects such as music, library, computers, gym, and Spanish during K, and 1st grade. She adapted very quickly, but they found it was difficult for her to make friends. She often felt very self-conscious about her speech. She grew frustrated when people didn’t understand what she was trying to say. At times she was withdrawn and quiet.
When she turned eight years old, her parents decided Illiana needed an activity to boost her confidence. Both her parents were avid baseball and softball players, so baseball was a choice that made sense. At the age of nine she became interested in swimming, and she then was enrolled at the local YMCA. She enjoyed sports and was very competitive.
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At the age of 10 Illiana was going to be challenged again. However, this time the challenge came from her dad. One day her father, a comic book, movies, and superhero nerd, asked her if she wanted to record a YouTube video. He knew she often enjoyed looking up videos on toys while offering suggestions for his toy collection. So he thought it would be a great experience for her. Iliana’s response caught him by surprise. She looked down and told him she could not make a YouTube video because she had autism. Her father sat there speechless.
Inside he was heartbroken thinking about how limited she felt. It was then that her father decided it was time to help Illiana learn about determination. With her father’s encouragement and guidance, Illiana began recording short videos. After reviewing the footage and seeing herself in front of a camera speaking to the audience, Illiana was fascinated with the medium. Her father was relieved to see that Illiana finally felt empowered and confident. After a couple of videos, they decided to create a YouTube show called ToyQuest101 where Illiana opens and review toys, and has special guests and themed shows.
Ever since then, father and daughter embarked on a mission to transform the lives of children with autism and special needs worldwide and inspire the lives of children and families through their videos and story. Their vision is to bring awareness and promote a culture of acceptance where all kids with autism and special needs can be empowered to do what they set their mind to and not feel disability is a roadblock to their dreams and/or wishes.
The show has been a sensation, featuring special guests like UFC fighter and UFC Fox sports analysts Paul Felder and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and former UFC fighter Jonavin Webb. Most recently they traveled to the White Tiger Black Jaguar Feline Sanctuary in Mexico where they got up close and personal with beautiful lions, jaguars, and tigers. This trip was made possible by the kind gesture of the Foundation’s founder after he was moved by one of their episodes. The founder flew them all expenses paid so they could see first-hand the work they do with these big cats.
As part of their mission, they always promote positive things such as charities, foundations and anything that makes the world a better place or has a great cause behind it. They have recorded shows to benefit the Vineland Boys & Girls Club, the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and just recently The Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation in Mexico.
ToyQuest101’s fan base is growing, and with each passing episode, Illiana experiences the exhilarating feeling of accomplishment. She puts her heart into everything and is the creative force behind the themed shows. Her dad, now her show sidekick, cannot stop smiling proudly that his daughter has finally understood that there is nothing in this world she cannot accomplish.
Eliud Rivera Jr. is Illiana’s 23-year-old uncle on her father’s side. Over the years he witnessed Illiana’s incredible journey of determination to overcome the challenges of autism. He is currently enrolled at Rowan University, in Glassboro, NJ, pursuing a dual degree in advertising and public relations with a minor in strategic communication.
This article was featured in Issue 75 – Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive