When UA alumna Tabitha Asher stood in the living room of her home in 2008, surrounded by hole-punched sheet rock, bare concrete floors, broken windows and two children in need, she knew she needed to find resources to help her family. Later that year, she provided the same resources for other families with children with autism.
Asher, 43, a Fayetteville resident, is a mother of two sons with autism: Ian, 21, and Adam, 16. Asher started her nonprofit, CALMM, or Caring for Autism in a Loving, Miraculous Manner, Autism Resource in 2008. Asher’s nonprofit provides education, advocacy, resource location, at-home services and health care to aid Northwest Arkansas families with children with autism.
“I’ve had families break down in front of me because they’re finally able to feed their children eggs for breakfast.” Asher said, “They call me when something hard happens because they know I’ve been there.”
Asher started her nonprofit after realizing she could help other families in the process of helping her own, she said.
“I wanted to help everyone in the Northwest Arkansas area that has been affected by this challenge,” Asher said.
Elizabeth Lorah, an associate professor for inclusive education and clinical programs, works with young children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and said she sees a wide range of emotions from parents when accepting their children’s differences.
When Asher’s sons were young, she and her ex-husband had a tough time caring for their family financially. Asher frequently could not work because she had to stay home with her sons, she said.
“In the beginning, every day was a constant loss,” Asher said. “I remember realizing that my family wasn’t going to thrive, so if we would just survive, I called it successful.”
Asher has attended conventions like the Fayetteville Arkansas Comic Show to raise money and awareness for her nonprofit by selling pieces from her Art for Autism program, including Wonder Woman and Dragan coffee tables, Star Wars wall art and Good Omens key hooks.
“I struggle with the business side of conventions because all I want to do is connect with people.” Asher said, “I’d rather sit and talk with people about my story than tell them how much the table I’m selling is.”
UA alumna Ashlee Seay, 36, from Springdale, earned her master’s of education and special education with applied behavioral analysis in May 2018 while raising her autistic twin daughters, Ruby and Lilly.
“It was hard for my girls to understand that because I had homework, I couldn't go do fun things all the time,” Seay said.
Seay placed her daughters in Applied Behavior Analysis therapy for 27 hours a week and private therapy for 10 hours a week, Seay said.
Lorah said because autism is a spectrum, educating and raising each child with autism is different.
“Some parents see the diagnosis as just a challenge and are confident in their child’s abilities, while some see this as something really troubling that’s happened to their family,” Lorah said. “The parents almost go through a grief type of emotion.”