Will was born into a family with three kids already there, anxiously waiting to meet their new brother and playmate. They planned for his arrival the same way we did, helping to pick out toys and plan his room. We bounced around names at the dinner table imagining all that he would be. Finally he arrived, the final member of our family of 6. Caitlin, Ryan, and Ilene, who at the time were ages 9, 7, and 5, were beyond excited to welcome their new baby brother into our home in New Canaan, CT, with visions of hide-and-seek, pretend play, family trips, game nights, and sibling camaraderie dancing in their heads. As he grew, though, it didn’t take us long to notice he wasn’t hitting the same milestones his siblings had.
We knew by 12 months old that something wasn't right with our sweet boy. He couldn't look us in the eyes, point, interact, or respond to simple commands. He lived in his own world, standing alone, alienating us all from joining him except on his terms. We were sad and frustrated wanting answers as to why Will was so developmentally delayed and couldn't respond to us. Will was also constantly sick, with one cold and ear infection after another. His first 911 emergency call and ambulance ride happened at 9 months old when he turned blue and couldn't breathe, and he was diagnosed with significant asthma shortly after that. More 911 emergencies and ambulance transports for not breathing, anaphylaxis from food allergies, and grand mal seizures that wouldn't stop continued for years to come, traumatizing his siblings who had grown protective and empathetic for their brother's extensive needs. Our beautiful youngest child was sick and disconnected, and when he was two years old, we finally figured out why.
When Will was diagnosed with autism, it was daunting, but at least we finally had answers. We became determined to help him be the most he could be with every therapy and integrative approach we could find to potentially help him. Will’s life might not look the way we thought it would, but we were still determined to be there for him and give him all the tools he needed to navigate a world that wasn’t always built for him. To his siblings, he was still their brother. They sat with him in his room watching Elmo and Bear in the Big Blue House for hours, for years after most kids his age had grown out of those shows. They bounced with him on the trampoline and splashed with him in the pool. They learned his favorite things, however strange they were, and enjoyed them with him. For us, Will and his autism have always been a family affair. Since the day he was diagnosed we have not stopped trying to give him what he needs, spending countless hours engaging him in simple activities, trying to teach him basic self-help skills we all take for granted, monitoring him around the clock with his extensive medical needs, always keeping him within an arms reach to keep him safe from bolting, and protecting him during bouts of self-harming behaviors and aggression towards others.
We never in our wildest dreams imagined how difficult it could be to raise one child with autism. Today at 21 years old, Will is full of wild energy, constant demands, and sleepless nights, still requiring around-the-clock care to manage his health and behavioral needs. He is still not fully toilet trained and wears diapers at night. He's on a restricted diet requiring home-cooked meals due to his celiacs disease and many food allergies. He requires a smart vest airway clearing system for his lung disease and has many other medications and inhalers as well. Caring for him is a full time job, and while we love him endlessly, we worry about always being able to meet his needs. Ever since he was diagnosed, we've worried about his future.
Looking forward, we want a place where Will can be himself. We want him to be able to spend time outside and engaging in the things he loves without constantly worrying that he might get hurt or hurt someone else. We want him to be somewhere he's set up to thrive, somewhere that was built for him. We want his siblings to be able to visit and interact with him in a calm, loving environment where they'll feel at peace knowing he's well taken care of. For all his life, we've dreamed of a place like Sunny Haven Ranch, and now we're determined to help make it a reality — not only for Will, but for all of his peers on the spectrum, and for all of their families who search for hope every day. We want to give everyone connected to autism the hope that safe spaces for our loved ones do exist. We believe in Sunny Haven Ranch more than we've ever believed in anything, and we're so excited to help bring it to life.
Will and the Anders family