Most people in the self-storage industry know me as the lady in the red dress. At home, the most important people in my life know me as mom. One of those people is my youngest son, Colten. Colten was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old, after we had been noticing developmental delays. From the time of Colten’s autism diagnosis, I have worked hard as a parent to remind him, and others, that autism does not define him, he defines autism. I have had many people tell me, “He doesn’t look autistic,” and this comment always confuses me, because what does autism look like? Instead of getting upset with comments like that, I have learned the best thing I can do for my child is use these moments to educate others on autism and hope they educate their children on people with special needs.
Like most parents of a special needs child, we hope the world will be kind and see our child and their abilities rather than focus on the disabilities that come with their diagnosis. When I was asked to write this article for Autism Awareness Month, I knew I wanted to include two families in the self-storage industry who are regularly sharing their children’s successes and how they do not let their autism define them.
Awesome Examples Max and Allison Vallotton have owned Gate 5 Self Storage in Augusta, Ga., for 17 years. I have had the pleasure of knowing them for several years and have watched their daughter, Victoria, navigate her diagnosis and accomplish so many great things over the years. When asked about Victoria, Allison says, “Victoria has the purest heart of anyone I know. She has a genuine interest in meeting and getting to know others. She remembers details about them that amazes us. She spreads joy everywhere she goes. Victoria is also determined and persistent in what she wants to accomplish and in the goals she has for herself. She works so hard with everything she sets her mind to do. She is truly a light in our lives!”
A few years ago, I was scrolling through social media and came across a post about an amazing young man named Elijah, which was written by his mom, Jennifer Downer from Cardinal Storage Management. She wrote: “I would describe Elijah as a bright light. He is the smartest person I know. He enjoys reading one of the 10 dictionaries he owns in his free time. He is the most loving, compassionate, and kind human being in my world. Elijah lights up every room he enters. He is also quite hilarious if jokes about bodily functions are your thing.”
As a mom of six, I know my kids’ least favorite word in my vocabulary is “No.” Like every other kid, Colten, Victoria, and Elijah have never accepted “No” as an answer; they have to work hard to overcome challenges. The autism spectrum has a very wide range, but, in most cases, early intervention can improve learning, communication, and social skills, as well as underlying brain development. The services offered to children on the autism spectrum can drastically improve their ability to challenge the “Nos” they will receive in life, and not only challenge them but overcome them.
“Elijah was non-verbal until he was about five years old,” says Downer. “To see him stand in front of the whole school and speak so fluently is simply amazing. Speech therapy and a host of amazing teachers got him to where he is today. He also lacked a good bit of body coordination when he was younger. Things like taekwondo and occupational therapy have helped tremendously with that.” When I asked her about one of Elijah’s recent accomplishments, she said, “Elijah recently won the school spelling bee—all that dictionary reading paid off! He then competed at the county level against middle schoolers and came in fourth place out of 20 kids. He’s in fifth grade. He is also three belts away from being a black belt in taekwondo.”
Allison says, “Victoria has never looked at her autism or her learning disabilities as being an obstacle. She doesn’t see herself as different from other teenagers her age. Although she has had a harder time since entering high school and having to be in an intellectual disability classroom, she has not taken no for an answer and has pushed to be included in general education classes she is interested in taking with the support needed so she is successful. Victoria decided she wanted to play the trumpet in the band, and she has every year since sixth grade.
Victoria decided she wanted to be on the high school swim team, and she has swum for the team for three of the four years she has been in high school. Victoria wanted to join a high school community choir at another church in our area, researched it, made us call to see if she could go to the open house, and joined the choir.” She also added, “Victoria has just finished the swim season on her high school swim team. She started the season with her 100-meter backstroke time at 2:32 and progressed to 2:18. Her 50-meter freestyle time was 1:02 at the beginning of the season and she ended the season at 55 seconds.”
It is only natural for a parent to worry about their child and how their peers will accept them. As a parent of a special needs child, that fear often becomes a reality because children and adults can be cruel when they are interacting with someone who is different from them. “Elijah, like many kids on the spectrum, has experienced bullying as well,” says Downer. “It is heartbreaking to hear some of the things that other kids will say to him, but we have always been very deliberate about talking about those things and giving him tips to overcome those obstacles. It also doesn’t hurt that he is 5’5 and 120 lbs. at 11 years old.”
As parents, we work hard to prepare our children for the unknown, potential issues, and obstacles they will face in life. With a special need child, I try to teach Colten compassion and understanding that not all people will be nice to him and that he has control over is himself, his reactions, and his feelings. Colten once told me, “It’s okay that they were mean to me; they just don’t know enough about me to know I’m special, and that’s okay because I know I’m special.” Colten doesn’t see the world in a negative light; he tries to find the positive in everything. When Victoria had asked to join the choir, the Vallottons had the reaction most parents would have, worry. “When I told her that her father and I were worried that the other kids would not be nice to her, she responded, ‘They won’t be mean to me, mom. I’m nice and they will be nice.’ She is now the designated member who sends notes to others when they are going through a hard time,” says Allison. Imagine if we all saw the world through Victoria’s, Colten’s, and Elijah’s eyes!
Past, Present, And Future In 2021, I wrote an article much like this one, about Colten and how our family navigated his diagnosis with the help of Autism Speaks and other organizations much like it. Who knew that article would lead to what Colten calls, “The best, most magical day of his life,” and one of the most nerve-wracking days of mine. He brought the article to school to show his friends and teachers he was famous as he was in the Mini-Storage Messenger. Part of the article talked about Colten’s love for sports and, more specifically, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Little did I know that the article I wrote would end up in the hands of the Diamondbacks and lead to Colten being invited to throw out the first pitch at a game. To say he was nervous was an understatement; we spent many hours in the backyard practicing the pitch with his siblings. The one thing we couldn’t prepare him for was hitting the field in front of thousands of people. Right before he took the field, I reminded him to take this moment in, because this was a once in a lifetime experience. His response was, “I got this, mom; as long as I don’t throw the ball into the ground like Obama did, I’ll be okay.” At that moment, I laughed and told him I was proud of him. He conquered a fear that day as he took the field, waved his hat to the crowd, and got the ball over home plate to the catcher.
Children like Colten, Elijah, and Victoria are no different than all kids, with hopes and dreams for their futures. Victoria’s dream is to be a speech therapist who works with children. She would love to help other children, one on one, with areas in which they struggle. Her immediate goal is to work at their local Publix supermarket. Her parents say, “She has always loved grocery stores!” When Elijah was younger, he was very interested in weather patterns and wanted to be a meteorologist. Now he says he wants to be an entrepreneur. When his mom asked him what kind of business he wanted to start, he said he didn’t know yet, but she’s confident he can do whatever he puts his brilliant mind to, and I tend to agree. Colten wants to go to college and become a sports broadcaster or sports statistician as he loves everything sports related.
If you take anything away from this article, I hope you ask yourself “Why does a disability have to define a person or make their self-worth any less than our own?” Autism is tough; it provides us with some scary emotions and will often force us to evaluate certain key factors. But, above all, having a child with autism often builds you as a person and teaches you to see the world through your child’s eyes.
Alonna Ross is the business development manager for StorageAuctions.com and has been part of the self-storage industry for over a decade. During that time, she has helped self-storage owners and managers with products such as truck rentals, management software, tenant insurance, and now online auctions.