Having a child diagnosed with autism can be a challenging experience for a parent. Deron Williams knows this as well as anyone.
Three years ago, Deron was on the receiving end of that news, as he and his wife Amy learned that their son D.J. was autistic.
Since then, while trying to do all that they could to make sure D.J. lives a normal life, Deron and Amy have also been working to help other families that are dealing with the same thing. They've partnered with Autism Speaks, an organization for which Deron has become an ambassador, and put on several events through Deron's Point of Hope Foundation to raise money and awareness for the disorder.
"It's been a great partnership. I enjoy working with them," Deron said of Autism Speaks. "They do a great job of just raising awareness and raising money for the cause, and getting the word out about Autism. I'm definitely happy to be a part of that, be an ambassador for them and try to help in any way possible."
The latest of those events was on Friday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where Deron hosted dozens of parents and their children dealing with autism, for that night's game between his Brooklyn Nets and the Atlanta Hawks. Afterward, Deron and Amy sat down for a meet and greet with the families, signed autographs and posed for pictures. According to Deron, the event was the least he could do to help:
"To get to meet all the families and the kids, it's great," he said after the event. "I know what they're going through and what they have gone through. I can relate on that level and I understand how difficult it can be at times with kids in certain environments."
This marked the second year for Autism Awareness Night at Barclays Center, and the environment was one of the keys to the event, which is why Deron donated his suite for the evening and encouraged other suite owners to do the same. He also bought more than 100 tickets to make the event as comfortable as possible for the families.
"We try to provide the best environment we can for them to be able to enjoy the game and watch the game in a controlled environment. That can be so tough on these kids and the parents as well," he said. "A lot of kids with autism don't like noise, they don't like ruckus and they're rattled by certain things. So it was important to us to try to get as many suites as we could and get them away from that so that they could enjoy the game and their parents could enjoy the game."
The event and participation of the families was coordinated with help from Autism Speaks and the organization's Vice President of Community Affairs, Jamitha Fields was proud to say that the families all enjoyed the event and the opportunity afforded them by Deron and the Point of Hope Foundation.
Fields said that often times families with autistic children avoid leaving the house for entertainment and dining purposes in fear that certain sounds or lights might trigger their child's autism. However, being in a place where such incidents are understood and accepted makes it easier on the parents in the event something like that does happen to their child.
"For them to be able to come together in the suite environment that Deron provided us with, a place of acceptance where you have all families around, if your child is having a tantrum, or even just flapping their hands or having any sort of tick, it's ok. You're in an environment where you're accepted," she said.
Fields also lauded Deron's outreach to the organization, not only for the support he provides for families through these events and various fundraising activities, but also for the message Deron's public acknowledgement of D.J.'s condition sends to other fathers who have a child or children with autism.
"It means a lot to our cause," she said. "With Deron being an athlete and being a public figure, he removes the barrier and the stigma for dads. He makes it acceptable for dads to come out and embrace the fact that their family members have autism. It's not something to be ashamed of. Parents should embrace and celebrate a child with autism. We need to see a lot more fathers come out and lead in that position."
For Deron, one of the best parts about working with Autism Speaks has been the ability to connect with other parents who are dealing with the same things. He said that was especially true when he and Amy first received D.J.'s diagnosis.
"We wanted to get as much information as possible. I have a cousin who has a child with autism, I have friends who have kids with autism, so I kind of knew about it before," he said. "But not to the extent you want to know when you find out your child has autism. When you get that news, you want to collect all the information you can. There's no cure, so you just want to figure out anything and everything you can to try to give your child the best possible chance to live a normal life."
As Deron and Amy went through the process of learning about D.J.'s condition and what they could do to help their son, they became aware that they'd caught his autism at an early enough age that they had many options.
But Fields says that is not always the case, and in some underserved communities children still aren't being diagnosed until the age of five or six, when it is even more difficult to treat the condition. She noted that, in his outreach, Deron has made it one of his missions to ensure that people in all communities know the warning signs and where to go to get help.
"Deron expressed that one of his goals is to make sure that these underserved communities receive the information in time to be able to take action and empower them so that they know where to go," Fields said. "One of the things that we know about autism is that it can be diagnosed at 18 months. So we want people to know the signs of autism. You can go to our website, www. autismspeaks.org, and learn the signs."
Fields added that simply by creating awareness, Deron can also help to create acceptance of the disorder.
"It lets people know that 'autism is here, learn more, get yourselves educated'," she said. "By creating awareness that way, we can really create acceptance all around."
Ceil Kearse, whose 10-year-old son Marquis is autistic, agreed with that sentiment and believes that public figures like Deron can help just by speaking up.
"He can bring more awareness to autism," she said. "When you raise awareness, other families can find out that there is early prevention that you can look into. It's ok. It's not to be stigmatized. It's all right if your child is not talking soon enough. You can look into it and get your child the help that they need."
Ceil and Marquis, along with Ceil's 17-year old daughter Elaine, said they had a great time at the Autism Awareness Night event. Elaine said the best part was getting to see her brother happily watching the game and meet Deron. Ceil said it was also important for their family to be around other families in the same position.
"It's great for the families to come together and acknowledge that we're not alone," she said. "A lot of people are affected both young and old."
To learn more about autism, visit AutismSpeaks.org.
You can also help the cause by bidding on two pairs of blue sneakers that Deron wore during the month of April—Autism Awareness Month—signed, and put up for auction with all proceeds going to Autism Speaks. Bid now at CharityBuzz.com.