Debbie Stone is a mother of two and founder of Pop.Earth, a non-profit organization that is committed to providing holistic health and wellness options for those with autism and developmental disorders. Her son, Dylan, is on the autism spectrum and she shares her experiences as a parent and advocate.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a parent of two of the most amazing kids, my sons Dylan aged 14 and Brandon aged 8. I live in New York and worked on Wall Street for many years. I have always been a philanthropic person but, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the founder of my own charity. That’s life though, isn’t it? You get thrown a curve — in my case, my son’s autism diagnosis — and a whole new path pops up. I am lucky though, I quit the Wall Street life in August 2015 and threw myself into the charity full time and even though I made no money…it’s the most rewarding experience ever. Making others happy makes me happy. That’s me in a nutshell. People often comment on what a happy person I am and it’s because I try to find the bright side in any situation. I stay away from negativity and doubt. Life is short…live it!
What was the journey of Dylan's autism diagnosis and did you face any challenges along the way?
Well, I’m still on that journey. It is new experiences every day. Some good and some not so good. My close friend Franklin Becker, who is also the Chairman of Pop.Earth, reminded me of a poem about autism by Emily Perl Kingsley called “Welcome to Holland.” The challenge of being an autism parent is that you worry about your child when you are no longer around to care for them. You have to constantly remind yourself to take one day at a time and to appreciate your child for who they are. It’s truly unconditional love at its finest.
What inspired the creation of Pop.Earth?
My experiences with my son Dylan is what inspired me to create Pop.Earth. The name Pop.Earth is actually an abbreviation for “Population Earth; We Are One.” I wanted to create the ultimate “feel good” programs for those with autism and special needs at minimal cost. Something that celebrated their abilities.
In 2005, when it was being speculated that Dylan may be autistic, I delved into every option to help him. Many of the things that I saw benefit him weren’t covered by insurance or being offered by schools or programs, and costs soared. I thought, why not create a not-for-profit that could fill in this gap? I did and in 2012, Pop.Earth became the first in the country to offer low cost to free health and wellness options to people with ASD and special needs, with a particular focus on the over 21 population — although our programs are open to all ages.
What impact does holistic health programs have for individuals with special needs?
For those not familiar with the holistic approach, it basically treats the entire being as opposed to treating just the symptoms of an illness. Instead of asking how to cure the disease, a holistic practitioner will ask what caused it in the first place. For people with special needs, a holistic approach is a non-invasive way to treat things like anxiety, lack of focus, gut related issues, low muscle tone, etc.
What is the greatest lesson (or lessons!) you have learned as a mother and as an autism advocacy leader?
I think my greatest lesson as a mother from my son is to slow down and enjoy life. We are all in such a rush and we miss so much! My son can lay in the grass and simply stare up at the sky while enjoying the sunshine. We all need to disconnect and just BE… even if for just a few moments every day. Meditation and being present are two gifts I gave myself because of Dylan and I’m better for it.
What are your hopes for Dylan's future, and for the overall autism community?
Ah, well…that’s the same as any other parent I guess. I want my son to have a full, happy life filled with wonderful experiences. As for the autism community on the whole...I want to see more advocacy, awareness and understanding. I tell everyone, we are here for such a short time...we all deserve a life filled with dignity and love. I wish that for all.