Through her blog Autism Wonderland, Bronx writer Lisa Quinones, who is also the parent of a child with autism, helps dispel special needs stigmas in the Latino community. She's also a hero for following her own dream while raising a child with special needs.
Lisa Quinones has been blogging at AutismWonderland since 2010, after her son, Norrin, was diagnosed with autism and she “felt like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole.” Her blog is robust and inviting, a treasure trove filled with anecdotes, honesty, and resources that all parents of kids with special needs will find useful (though parents from the Bronx, where Quinones is based, will find the most specific resources). These days, Quinones feels less like Alice (of Wonderland) and more at home in her world and her online space: “This is the world that is so familiar to me now,” she says.
Calm, kind, and capable, Quinones not only cares for her son and blogs regularly, but she recently accomplished her own dream: In May, she graduated from The City College of New York with an MFA in creative writing. It took her five years to complete the degree, but Quinones never let herself give up. “It had taken me 15 years to finish my bachelor’s,” she says. “I transferred to four different schools. I worked full time the majority of the time while I was in school part-time. I got married. I moved to a different borough. I had a baby, and he was diagnosed with autism. I never really thought that I would think about grad school."
Norrin asked if he could try on mom Lisa Quinones’s cap and gown on the day she was awarded her MFA degree.
Though her family was supportive, with her husband picking her up every night after school despite her protests and her mother stepping in for last minute childcare, cooking, and cleaning, Quinones soon realized that the two classes she initially enrolled in were just too much. “I wound up taking a semester off,” she says. But she doesn’t regret starting out strong: “It gave me the incentive to return. I didn’t want to put it off because I knew that if I stopped, I wouldn’t go back.”
Quinones says she never allowed herself to feel guilty for taking time to follow her own dreams as well as parent Norrin. “I always felt like it was very important to do something just for me…school gave me the outlet to just be myself. Nobody knew that I had a child with special needs. I was just Lisa, and it was nice to have that separate identity.” Quinones is quick to point out that parents do not have to return to school to find sacred time for themselves, but she does emphasize that all parents should be sure to give themselves some kind of a break. “I think when you have a child with special needs it’s easy to forget yourself and your own personal needs…it can be so exhausting and stressful.”
AutismWonderland, which was born from Quinones’s time at grad school, has turned into something much bigger than Quinones’s own personal escape. She has been recognized as a top Latina health blogger, as one of Babble.com’s top 30 autism blogs, and as a force to be reckoned with on social media, where she has more than 4,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined.
As a Latina woman, Quinones is familiar with some of the stigma attached to autism in the Latino community. She says her mother in particular was hesitant to accept her son’s diagnosis, and encouraged her to keep it to herself. Quinones says even her husband didn’t believe Norrin was autistic for a long time. Ignoring her mother’s advice, Quinones has been extremely open about her son’s autism; she wanted her neighbors to understand why Norrin’s therapists were accompanying them to the playground (“I don’t live in the kind of neighborhood where people have nannies”), and she believes the best way to fight any stigma is to educate the community.
“When Norrin was first diagnosed, I was reading all these books, and the [authors] were talking about leaving their careers so they could stay home and care for their children. I didn’t have that option,” Quinones says. “[My husband and I] were working to make ends meet. We had to work.” Quinones felt anxious about how she was going to help Norrin. “I felt like I was only hearing one side of what it was like to raise a child with autism,” she says. “We can’t all stay home with our children. I’d like to, but that’s just not realistic for me…. I continue to write and share my story because I think other people can relate.”
Norrin is now 7, but he still doesn’t really understand what it’s all about. Quinones says that if one day Norrin asks her to stop writing the blog, she will respect his opinion. “I hope he understands why I’m writing about him,” she says. “I try to be very sensitive…but as he gets older I’ll ask him if he’s okay with me sharing things, and if he says ‘no,’ then it’s ‘no.’ It will be up to him.”
Quinones hopes to one day get back to fiction writing, which is what she was working on when she entered grad school, before she started her blog. In the meantime, she’s happily blogging, working, and parenting Norrin. Though she still struggles with the day-to-day trials that come with parenting and life, today Quinones seems miles away from her initial fall down the rabbit hole. “I try to focus on what’s positive about our life,” she says. “I’m very lucky to have Norrin in my life, and I wouldn’t change him for anything.”
Read Lisa Quinones’s blog, Autism Wonderland, at autismwonderland.com.