Lisa Quinones-Fontanez is a secretary by day, blog writer by night and Mami round the clock. When Lisa’s son, Norrin, was diagnosed with autism in May 2008, she found herself in a world she did not understand. In 2010 Lisa founded the blog AutismWonderland (www.autismwonderland.com). AutismWonderland is an award winning blog that chronicles her family journey with autism and shares local resources for children/families with special needs. In between work, blogging and advocating for Norrin, Lisa is also working on a historical fiction novel A Thousand Branches. A chapter excerpt (The Last Time of Anything) received an Honorable Mention in Glimmertrain's Family Matters October 2010 competition. You can find Lisa on Twitter (https://twitter.com/laliquin) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AutismWonderland).
The more I wrote, the more inspired I was to keep going
I grew up in a home filled with books. My father worked in a book factory and he’d bring them home. I can still hear the crack of the cover as I opened each book for the first time; I still remember the way the pages felt as I thumbed through them.
As a girl I spent countless hours reading about people I could not identify with and neighborhoods that didn't look anything like mine. I didn't realize I was missing something.
I was twenty years old the first time I read a book written by a Latina. It was Esmeralda Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican and I read it in less than two days. Her words filled a void, I didn’t know existed. It was the book that inspired me to write, except I had no idea what I want to write about.
Writing professors encouraged me to write what I knew. And over the next few years, I wrote about the things I thought I knew, but nothing worked. I had yet to create a character that haunted my every thought.
In the winter of 2004, I took a vacation to Puerto Rico to visit my godmother. During my trip, we visited the small island of Vieques. It was there that I began to visualize character, a family, a story. I spent the next few years reading, researching, writing and revising.
I began graduate school in 2008 hoping to complete the historical fiction novel inspired by my vacation years earlier. But my son had been recently diagnosed with autism and there was little time to write. Working full time during the day, going to school at night while trying to navigate the special education system was challenging, and my novel was put on hold. I was exhausted and lost my inspiration; suddenly my characters and their world seemed incredibly far away.
I was forced into this new world that I knew nothing about. I didn’t know a single person with autism. I didn’t even know what autism was. I turned to books for comfort, for guidance, for knowledge. I found all of those things yet it still wasn’t enough.
Not a single autism book was written by a Latino or featured a Latino family like mine. I could not identify with any of the men and women sharing their stories. The women wrote about quitting their careers to stay home with their children or moving to smaller house, some even moving to another state so that they could afford services. I knew I couldn’t quit my job as a secretary and my husband couldn’t quit his job as a Fed Ex courier. Living in a two-bedroom apartment, there wasn’t much we could downgrade to, and moving out of The Bronx wasn’t an option.
Two after my son’s diagnosis, I started writing about our autism experience, my son’s progress, our concerns, frustrations and joy and the search for an appropriate school placement. And the more I wrote, the more inspired I was to keep going.
Autism isn’t openly discussed among the Latino community and I write to help other parents know they are not alone and to know that there is hope. I want to encourage parents to advocate for their kids, to know their rights so that they fight for what their kid needs. I write because I love my son and I want the world to know what our version of autism looks like. I want people to know how much my son has inspired me.
One day I will finish the historical fiction novel I started. But for now, I will continue writing about raising a son with autism because it’s the story I am compelled to write.