For Jacquelyn Jablonski, autism has always been a part of her life. The model grew up alongside her younger brother Tommy, who she describes as being on the “severe end” of the autism spectrum. And though she and her family have been able to give Tommy the love and support that he needs to manage day to day, Joblonski has seen a gap when it comes to how we deal with autism in this country—namely, the fact that many programs and schools are in place to aid autistic children, but that these support systems fall by the wayside as the children age into adulthood.
“Adults with autism don’t get much attention,” Jablonski says. “My brother is now 21, and many schools end at that age, so it’s kind of like, what’s next?” Seeing that struggle was the driving force behind her decision to focus her energy into creating Autism Tomorrow, a charity devoted to aiding individuals and their families who are navigating that transition. “The goal of the foundation is to create more opportunities for these adults when their schooling ends, because autism doesn’t end when they reach adulthood.”
We recently chatted with Jabolonski about the organization and her hopes for both the new charity and for her brother.Tommy and Jacquelyn Jablsonski together at the kick-off event for the founding of Autism Tomorrow.
The Window: Autism strikes close to home for you—can you tell us a bit about your brother Tommy and his experience with it?
Jacquelyn Jablonski: My brother Tommy was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and he’s on the severe end of the spectrum. Like many other individuals with autism, he has difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors. He will break into outbursts and sometimes self-injurious behavior when he gets frustrated with his trouble communicating. Tommy is also very sensitive to noise and yelling. If my sisters and I get in a fight, he will say, “I’m sorry!,” even though he did nothing wrong.
What was it like for you growing up and coping with that?
It was definitely hard. Tommy required a lot of attention, and he often acted up in public places. I used to feel embarrassed by his outbursts, but as I got older I wanted to find the meaning of them instead. Even though this behavior was often inappropriate, this was his way of trying to communicate. The misunderstanding looks from people no longer bother me.
How has your career as a model helped you when it comes to bringing awareness to the cause?
I am so thankful I have the support from the industry and can use my platform to raise awareness. Social media has also been a great way for me to have a voice.
Can you tell us a bit about the decision to channel your concern for your brother into starting the Autism Tomorrow foundation?
I’d been a part of events with Autism Speaks, and as I was preparing to do another one, I began researching existing programs and opportunities for adults with autism. I couldn’t find much. I was looking at my brother Tommy and his peers approaching adulthood, aging out of their schooling within a year or two with no where to turn. With the help from a great team of people and support from Autism Speaks, I was able to launch Autism Tomorrow and focus on opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.
What’s your ultimate mission for Autism Tomorrow?
Autism Tomorrow strives to provide housing, job opportunities, and quality living for adults with autism. The number of children diagnosed with autism has drastically increased in recent years—to where it’s now 1 in 68—meaning we’re on the brink of generation of adults on the spectrum with nowhere to turn. In the U.S., half a million teens with autism will age into adulthood over the next decade. For these individuals “aging out” of their schooling, it’s our mission to help them transition into adulthood. Autism Tomorrow tries to provide hope for the future of these adults with autism, as well as for their families.
What’s Tommy’s response to the foundation been?
I am not sure if Tommy fully understands. I know he loves the attention he gets when he comes to the events!
What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder, and there are many different levels of severity. Every individual with autism shares some similar characteristics, but they are also unique in their own way with different strengths and weaknesses.