April 2021

Living Your Best Life with Autism


Melissa Pena, M.S.W., is a resource family support social worker and mom. She shares her personal story of her son’s journey with autism and gives a real perspective on what is truly important in life.


Most parents and caregivers want to give their children the world. Parents dream about the day their babies start talking and saying their name for the first time. As little ones reach developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and talking, parents celebrate and anticipate their next accomplishment. However, when children struggle to meet a milestone, parents’ hearts break out of concern their children will not fit into what is considered the social norm.


When my son turned 3, we began to notice a huge difference in his ability to communicate. This often led to long tantrums and frustration in the household. As a parent, I was upset that I could not understand what my child was trying to communicate to me and he was frustrated because he could not get his needs immediately met. Hearing for the first time that my son has autism and reading his developmental reports that compared him with others his age was difficult. I remember the sleepless nights thinking about all of the future struggles he would face and the experiences he would miss. Would he ever be able to talk? Would he be bullied or made fun of by other children? So many questions and worries filled my mind because I believed he was not going to have the life I envisioned for him.


But this was far from the truth. Over the last few years, my son received speech and occupational therapy through our school district and his individualized education plan. An Applied Behavior Analysis therapist works with him daily on various goals to assist him in being independent and navigating the world. Regional Center provides 20 hours a month of respite services. In addition, we were connected to resources in our community.


Today, my son can clearly communicate his needs and wants through words. He comfortably carries on conversations with people. He is intelligent, energetic, has an amazing memory and is a comedian who loves entertaining others. He is compassionate and does an excellent job at expressing love through physical touch and words of affirmation to those he loves and is close to. As I tell many people, my son is living his best life.


He does process things differently and takes a little longer to meet developmental milestones compared to other children his age. He took a little longer to learn to read and he struggled with learning addition and multiplication. But with his support system, he is now able to do all of these things. He is constantly progressing, attends school daily and is growing academically and socially.


Through his journey, he taught me to enjoy the little things in life and to not care about meeting the social norms or expectations of others. I realized that although he may not live the life I envisioned, he is more than capable and showing me every day that he is living his best life.

April is Autism Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in every 54 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It is often characterized by challenges in one’s social interaction and difficulty with communication and behaviors. Strides have been made to improve the quality of life for those with autism and promoting autism acceptance. There are many services and resources available as well as opportunities for social development.


A study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found children with autism are nearly three times more likely to enter foster care than children without special needs. Currently, there is a great need for resource parents willing to care for autistic children in Orange County. Specialized training and support programs are available and designed to prepare and equip resource parents as they face the unique challenges that come with fostering autistic children. For more information on how to become a resource parent to an autistic child or other children in foster care, call (888) 871-5437. Click here to learn how to become a resource parent.



“A Short Animation About Autism & Awareness”



Autism Help Hotline
(877) 654-4483


Autism Response Team
(888) 288-4762
En Español: (888) 772-9050


American Autism Association


Autism Society


Autism Speaks


Family Autism Network


Friendship Circle


The Miracle League of Orange County


Sandy Feet Initiative