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How you can help a Roanoke boy with autism celebrate his birthday

Family’s call for birthday cards for youngest son brings awareness to autism challenges in pandemic

To help save his birthday, the community banded together to send him birthday cards

ROANOKE, Va. – Drive-thru parades have become the popular way to celebrate birthdays during the pandemic, but that could be overwhelming for someone with special needs like autism.

One Roanoke family found an alternative way to make their son feel special on his big day but they need your help to do it.

Like most 11 year-olds, birthdays are a big deal for Elijah Toler.

“I usually would invite most of my friends. My mom would bake the same cake every year, we would just have a party and stuff,” said Toler.

This year will be different; thanks to the pandemic there won’t be a party this year. It’s a devastating blow to an already rough year for Toler.

He has autism and learning from home has been an extremely difficult adjustment. The at-home learning struggles an average student has are amplified for kids with autism. Toler’s mother Nickole told 10 News he has a hard time expressing himself but when he does, he does it in a big way. So when he found out he wasn’t having a party, Elijah emailed his mom this message.

She often shares their email conversations on Facebook to help other parents of kids with autism.

The email Elijah Toler sent to his mother, Nickole Toler, to express how he felt about not having his traditional birthday party. (Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“It was heartbreaking and I explained to him that I understand the way you’re feeling and I’m sorry for that. We can try other things instead of going out for your party, but he still couldn’t wrap his head around I’m not going to have a birthday party this year,” said Nickole.

Her post on Facebook began getting more attention than usual.

“A couple of people wanted to do a parade, which would have been good, but Elijah in the month of December is already overstimulated and I didn’t want to over-stimulate him even more, so another friend suggested they send cards,” Nickole said.

Nickole then spoke to her husband, Corey about the idea and they both agreed it was a perfect idea knowing how much their son loves getting mail.

“I haven’t gotten mail in a long, long, long time,” Elijah said.

He especially enjoys cards.

“...Mostly the musical ones that play a song and stuff,” he said.

Although Elijah was a little shy in sharing how much people sending him cards means to him, his mom said he’s been counting down the days to his birthday since they told him about the idea.

“He was just jumping up and down he was like ‘Really mom, really?’ and I was like ‘Yea really’. He was just overjoyed and super excited and he’s been running to the mailbox checking even though his birthday is not here yet,” said Nickole.

She says this entire project has really warmed the hearts of not just her and her husband but their entire family including Elijah’s two older brothers.

Elijah’s birthday is Dec. 30. To help him celebrate you can mail a card to P.O. Box 19553, Roanoke, VA 24019.

Nickole wants Elijah’s story to bring awareness to what a lot of families and kids with autism are going through right now.

Samantha McFarland, the clinical director at Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center in Roanoke said for children with autism who depend heavily on routine, difficulties that come with the pandemic cause major disruptions for the entire family.

McFarland said some families the center works with are seeing behaviors from their child they’ve never seen before and parents are now being forced to be the team of 5-10 professionals who were helping their child reach success in-person.

Faculty and staff are on the phone and going back and forth via email with families at all hours of the day offering as much support as possible.

McFarland has advice for parents who have kids with autism that are having a hard time.

“I think we’re all searching for the same thing, that doesn’t change for people with special needs. It’s just about how is it meaningful so if you can find out a way to make a connection,” said McFarland. “Make a daily routine. Try to make things as routine and scheduled as possible for your kids and use visual supports to help convey that for kids who may not understand the vocal communication.”

She said Autism Speaks and the Autism Research Institute may have visual resources and training for parents. Your child’s team of professionals may also have information on what was specifically helping your child, they are a resource too.

McFarland also wanted to remind parents to make time for themselves and if it helps join a support group or make sure you reach out to your personal support system.

About the Author:

Megan Woods is thrilled to be back home and reporting at Local 4. She joined the team in September 2021. Before returning to Michigan, Megan reported at stations across the country including Northern Michigan, Southwest Louisiana and a sister station in Southwest Virginia.