Sharon Cummings has faced many challenges in her life and thus far has managed to turn lemons into magical lemonade. Much of this magic comes from inspiration provided by her 20-year-old autistic son, Conner. Conner still believes in Santa, is certain that good always beats evil, and holds fast to the belief that magical moments come from the power of love.
When Conner was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, his parents were told that he would never speak, would not be comfortable in crowds and would be unable to follow more than one simple command at a time. Thanks to Sharon’s love, patience, and willingness to fight the system, Conner has surpassed every goal that the doctors said he would never meet. He is homeschooled by a special education teacher, takes photography courses twice a week, and is learning to play the piano. He was the official photographer for several autistic events in the Metro D.C. area and looks forward to competing in the 2013 Special Olympics.
Sadly, the magic that encompasses Conner’s life has a dark side. He can speak, but has difficulty conversing about anything that is not Disney-related. When he is overwhelmed, confused, or his world seems out of sync, he reverts to talking in Disney character voices. He also needs assistance with fine motor skills, such as cutting his nails, tying his shoes, and cutting his meat. In short, he will need care for the rest of his life. No one outgrows autism.
Conner’s father left the family when Conner was 19 1/2 years old, and the couple has since filed for divorce. Unfortunately, Virginia law—while making failure to support a disabled child a misdemeanor—contains a major loophole. This loophole allows non-custodial parents to avoid paying support for severely and permanently disabled adult children. As the statute is currently written, support is inapplicable to any child over 18 who meets the disabled criteria if the custodial parent did not file for support before the child aged out (turned 18), pursuant to the statute. In other words, if a divorce decree and/ or child support order did not exist prior to the child turning 18 there exists no precedence for any “continuation” of support. Therefore, the non-custodial parent is not required to provide support, regardless of the adult child’s disability or need.
Sharon is determined to change the law in order to protect those suffering from autism. Her mission is to change the language of Virginia Code Section 20-124-2. She has contacted Congressman Frank Wolf, the National Association of Autism, ARC, Autism Speaks, and the Family Coalition Group in Richmond. The goal is to remove the language “continue to support” and add a single sentence that states: “Support should be paid for any child, regardless of age, who meets the criteria contained in Virginia Code Section 20-124-2.” She would also like to see the code clarified with specific factors to assist the court in determining whether a child is “severely and permanently disabled.”
Sharon is also reaching out through the news media to rally support for her fight. Her hope is that readers will contact their state representatives and encourage them to change the law. She has started a Facebook blog entitled “Conquer for Conner—My Special Love” which provides an overview of the fight thus far. Sharon states, “The experience from changing the law has been very good for Conner. He loves our blog and works so hard on asking people to go to our site and hit the like button. He has actually walked up to strangers (yes, strangers!) and asked them to hit the like button on his blog.”
As for Conner, he has a positive outlook on life. He even shared a few New Year resolutions with the readers of his blog, “My New Year resolutions for 2013 are not to…talk to myself unless I talk to somebody. Work even harder at school, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, say please and thank you, be flexible if things aren’t going to be planned well, be sociable and active with people and never give up on my dreams.” When the clock struck midnight and the New Year arrived, Conner proclaimed, “Troubles are over. 2013 will be more magical than ever before!” It will, Conner, it will.
Raecheal Todd is a writer living in Williamsburg with her husband, son and two spoiled dachshunds. She is currently working on her second novel.