News Article Details

Herb Benham: Mom relishes joy, challenges of raising autistic son

The Bakersfield Californian - 3/2/2019

March 02-- Mar. 2--Autism sunk in for Raquel Idolyantes while waiting in the doctor's office with her then-2-year-old son Max.

"I realized Max was probably never going to Harvard and that my dreams for his academic and professional future might not happen," she said.

Max is not alone. Less than 6 percent of people who apply to Harvard are accepted. Most of us, autistic or not, probably have a better chance of tapping out a mountain lion than walking Harvard's hallowed halls.

This is not a pity-piece. A woe-is-me story. A painful account that invokes sympathy but makes you want to do anything but hear or read about it.

Neither is "Spectrumomming: The Adventures of Raising My Autistic Son," the 263-page book Idolyantes recently published. This is not to underestimate the often Mount Everest-like challenges that autistic children and their parents face, but in the throes of gasping for air and reaching for reliable handholds, Idolyantes has found the good in the midst of the difficult.

"There are things harder and worse than autism," Idolyantes said. "Having an autistic child is not the end of world. It may not be what you planned but they can be great people and teach you a lot about life."

One in 8 children is diagnosed with autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is characterized by "challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication."

Max, now 17, is high-functioning. He can bathe, dress and feed himself and do school work. The teen is social and has a chance of eventually living independently.

Life better with Max

In some way, the universe gave this mother the baby she needed. A child can do this but perhaps no better than an autistic one.

"Before Max, all I cared about was myself," she said.

"Max forced me to practice my social skills because I had to socialize him. In order to get friends for him, I had to learn to make friends myself."

"Practice," "socialize" and "make" because Idolyantes was a mess. Outwardly, she had (and still has) a good marriage to Albert, an agricultural lender. Their family also includes son Pierce, who was born three years after Max.

Idolyantes had graduated from CSUB, was a technical writer for environment magazines and seemed to have it all together but her interior life was more chaotic than a Venezuelan election.

"I dreaded social situations like my husband's company parties and dinners," she said.

"I critiqued everything I said and did, couldn't sleep and was a terrible perfectionist. I was self-conscious, shy, depressed and negative about everything."

Idolyantes hid it well. Most people thought she was fine. Her path toward health was Max, medication and counseling.

"Max was a blessing because he helped me slow down," Idolyantes said. "I figured out what was important and everything else fell away."

Active parenting

When Max reached school age, Idolyantes became an advocate because most parents of special-needs children are. They test the limits of what schools and districts have to offer and navigate the uncertainty of finding the right therapies and activities. Idolyantes found sympathetic teachers and social workers, like William Reifel, in the preschool at the Richardson Special Needs Collaborative and later in special education classes.

"Busing was available but Raquel drove Max to and from school each day. In class, she observed the methods teachers and aides used with him," Reifel said. "Raquel became a regular visitor and voluntarily met with other parents to share her experiences in raising a child with Asperger's."

Following their mother's lead, Max and Pierce donated their toys for the children's play area. Idolyantes organized the parent resource library, developed a system for checking books in and out and volunteered for years after Max moved onto elementary school.

Along with Master Bang, owner of the Tae Ryong Taekwondo School that her boys went to, Idolyantes organized a "Kick-a-Thon" and raised $21,000 to cover dental and vision services for parents and preschool children who could not afford them as well as paid for food baskets during the holidays.

She also befriended mothers who traded information with one another. These moms still gather for birthday parties and graduations.

"Good moms must stick together in order to raise good kids," she says in the book.

Building a social life

Max has benefited from an engaged set of parents. They told him he was autistic as soon as he was able to understand but have not raised him differently, taking every opportunity to socialize him. The family goes to Dodgers games, concerts and has traveled the country.

"Max used to hide under the coffee table but now likes being around other kids," Idolyantes said.

His parents' work showed when Max entered school.

"He is caring and protective of other students who are getting bullied," wrote Idolyantes, who is also a substitute teacher. "He stands up for teachers."

Outside of school, Max has been part of M.A.R.E. (Mastering Abilities Riding Equines), the program that provides "equine-assisted therapies and activities for people living with special needs and disabilities."

"I have been Max's horse leader for this past year," said Diane Hopkins, one of M.A.R.E.'s founders. "He shares things from school, friends and about his girlfriend while he warms up his horse, Duke."

"Going to a horse show at the L.A. Equestrian Center built his confidence and you could tell how proud he was of his ribbons and accomplishments."

Max also attends an after-school program at Inclusion Films, which trains students with disabilities how make a feature film from the ground up. Tasks include script writing, acting, sound recording, camera work, costume and set design, directing, film and sound editing, computer generated imaging and computer animation.

"These kids have marketable skills when they finish this program," Idolyantes said. "The last thing we want is our kids to be a drag on society. We want them to be employable."

Having it all

Idolyantes started writing her book when Max was 10. Last year, she lost the file and this lit the fire again. She finished it while she was in jury duty.

"I never had the guts to publish anything but I thought the benefits outweighed the fears," she said.

She asked Max if she was good with it and when he said, "Yes," she put his picture on the cover because "a good-looking kid on a horse sells books."

"It's a good book and I've been able to embrace my autism," Max said. "My family, my friends and girlfriend are proud of me and my mother. The book made me remember things that I have gone through in my life. It was good to know how far I've come. It makes me proud to be who I am."

Max wants it all -- a wife, marriage, kids and work. His mother has it all.

"Being a parent to Max and Pierce has been the most satisfying experience of my life, and I wouldn't change a thing," Idolyantes wrote.

"Max has changed our lives from what we expected to what God intends it to be."

Herb Benham is a columnist for the Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.

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(c)2019 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)

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