Brian Diano is a father of two, and his daughter, Audrey, is on the spectrum. Get to know his family, his journey in autism awareness, and the people who have been there every step of the way, through special education, Hurricane Sandy, and everywhere in between.
Tell us about your family, and your daughter, Audrey.
My name is Brian Diano. My wife Bridget and I have two children; Andrew who is 12 years old and our daughter Audrey who is 6. My wife and I have been married for 13 years. I am a Call Center Manager and she is a Special Education Teacher. Andrew is in 6th grade, is a good student, a very patient and helpful older brother, and is a competitive swimmer and runner. Audrey is in a Kindergarten/1st grade class, loves looking at family photos, watching princess shows including and especially Frozen, and has a smile and a personality that lights up a room.
Walk us through the experience of learning your daughter has autism.
After was Audrey was born, everything seemed fairly typical to Bridget and I. For the first year, there were no real developmental delays. She was babbling a lot, made eye contact, crawled, and scaled furniture just like any other infant. By about 18 months, we noticed that Audrey still wasn’t talking much (making noises but not forming words) and it felt like she wasn’t making a connection to us when we tried communicating with her. You could tell it was a struggle for Audrey and she became easily frustrated because she simply couldn’t understand us. At that point, we contacted an early intervention service to see if she qualified for any services. She began receiving speech and a “SEIT” (Special Education Itinerant Teacher) to assist in her development. They worked on things like play skills, developing and enhancing her vocabulary, pronunciation, mimicking, feeding skills, and just some simple day to day things that she seemed to struggle with. By the time she was 2 ½, she was eligible for testing through the Committee for Preschool Education (CPSE) where she was considered to be “on the spectrum” based on the results of those tests.
We hear your wife is a special education teacher. How has having a child on the spectrum impacted your careers, and your marriage?
I think Bridget’s experience as a Special Education teacher helped prepare us for what to expect from other professionals and educators who were part of evaluating Audrey. She also had the instincts to request early intervention services for Audrey. Some families who aren’t familiar with kids on the spectrum may simply chalk their child’s development delays up to, “every kid being different.” And while that is true, some delays are more severe than others and so it felt necessary to provide Audrey with additional support. Knowing the process helps because, as Bridget will tell you, having your child classified can be overwhelming if you’ve never been through that. There’s a ton of documentation and you’re sitting with a panel of several people who are basically telling you that your child is on the spectrum. If you aren’t prepared to hear that, it can be tough.
It’s hard to say if having Audrey has impacted our marriage. Quite frankly, I think everything but Audrey has impacted it. Over the past 5 years, we’ve been displaced from our home 2 times as a result of the damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy. We were out for 4 months immediately following Sandy in late 2012 and early 2013, and we were recently out again for an additional 3 months in order to meet a local mandate to elevate our home. We lived with Bridget’s parents both times, and they couldn’t have been more accommodating. But the financial and emotional stresses of that far outweigh anything we’ve faced with regard to Audrey’s development. I’m sure there have been times where we didn’t completely see eye to eye on Audrey’s development, but whatever disagreements we had couldn’t have been too bad because I don’t remember any of them. Bridget and I put our kids first, and there’s no part of me that begrudges that.
What or who have been your most valuable resources as you raise Audrey?
There are so many people who have helped in Audrey’s development. She’s had some fantastic educators and developmental professionals work with her. From her first SEIT teacher Erica, to faculty and staff at Hagedorn Little Village in Seaford, and the current 1st grade staff at Forest Lake Elementary in Wantagh…all of them have played an integral role in Audrey’s development. It seems like every single day for 3 ½ years, Audrey comes home and shows us something new or does something that we once debated would ever happen. She’s reading, her writing has improved drastically, and the communication frustrations pale in comparison to what they were just a few years ago. My wife and I also have a ton of family and friends who have supported Audrey along the way. For the past few years, we’ve participated in the Autism Speaks walk at Jones Beach and we’ve had nearly 40 people walk with us in each of those years. Collectively we helped raise almost $10,000. It makes me feel very humbled and proud to have people who made that fundraising so successful.
What are your hopes for Audrey's future?
My hope for Audrey is just that she be happy and healthy, and that people keep raising awareness so that Audrey can grow up in a world that recognizes, understands and embraces people who have Autism. I read a quote somewhere recently that Autism isn’t a disability; it’s a different ability. And I completely agree with that. We all have strengths and weaknesses as individuals, and it’s up to me and the people around Audrey to embrace those strengths and to help her continue working on the weaknesses. I can’t really say I’m thinking too far down the road because I recognize that each day will present some kind of challenge for Audrey. So while it’s a bit cliché, it really is “one day at a time” for her and for us.
Any advice for parents with a child on the spectrum?
I think the most important thing for any parent with a child on the spectrum is to embrace the good moments and try not to harp on the setbacks. Some moments can be tough for both of you as parents and for your child. I still see Audrey struggle at family parties and social gatherings. She still struggles with peer interactions. But I also realized something that’s way more important; she’s happy! And while we’ll continue to work to try and help her with those interactions, it’s certainly not keeping her from running around, occasionally flapping her arms, and making a random noise. But so what? So just stay focused on the positives and help reinforce positive behaviors. And be happy that you’ve been blessed with that child. I know too many people who can’t have or who lost a child before they were born. And so I’m just grateful that I have two very happy, healthy, and beautiful children.