Joanna McGowan's son, Christopher, was diagnosed with autism when he was just two years old. Since that day more than two years ago, McGowan, campus registrar at Penn State Brandywine, her husband, Dave, and their two sons have embarked on a difficult journey of healing, acceptance and never-ending love.
On December 4, 2011, McGowan published the children's book, "You Are My Star," inspired by Christopher and illustrated by children on the autism spectrum. All proceeds from the book benefit Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families affected by autism.
"The book is for all children, but it's specifically geared toward children with special needs," McGowan said. "They work really hard. I think a lot of times the fact that they're kids, too, gets lost in all the work they're doing. The book is meant to be inspirational, to show love and acceptance while at the same time believing in hope and possibility for the future."
The McGowans are grateful for the support of TACA, and have benefitted from monthly meetings and the opportunity to connect with other parents and experts. They have also received financial support, including a grant to attend a conference and a scholarship for hyperbaric oxygen therapy for Christopher. Like most families affected by autism, the McGowans have excessive expenses that are often not covered by insurance, leaving little left over for charitable contributions; so the book provided a way for them to give back. "TACA is a really great organization," she said. "I wanted to do something to contribute that would be meaningful."
Joanna McGowan with her son, Christopher, in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber
McGowan emphasized that the thing she loves most about TACA is that the organization is all about directly helping families. This is done through education, reference material, scholarships and, of course, a support system. It's this network of moms and dads that helped McGowan find the illustrators for her book: their own children with autism, ranging in age from 5 to 11. McGowan's son, Christopher, provided the drawing for the page that reads, "You are the star/Shining brightest for me/I love who you are/And whoever you'll be."
"Please don't give up/On all you can achieve/Anything is possible/As long as we believe," another page reads.
Christopher has made a lot of progress, McGowan said, but "he still has a long way to go. He works really hard." He participates in almost 40 hours per week of behavioral therapy, spends a half-day in an autistic support classroom, attends a social skills group and gymnastics classes and sees a variety of medical specialists regularly.
McGowan's message to other families who have children with special needs is, "Don't give up hope. Don't underestimate potential. Keep working hard. Keep loving your child."