“With awareness, comes acceptance, and inclusion. So, the first step is to educate others through our experience with JeQuan,” says Nicole Little, Counsel, Legal Mortgage and Real Estate at Lincoln Financial and mother to JeQuan Jr.
At the age of two, Nicole’s son, JeQuan, was diagnosed with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He began exhibiting signs of ASD as early as 12 months, such as not identifying his parents by “Mama” or “Dada,” lack of eye contact, and not engaging in pretend play. In fact, he had not developed any words prior to his 18-month pediatrician appointment. To communicate his needs, he would engage in tantrums, frustrated because he could not express his emotions. Despite being speech delayed, JeQuan could memorize songs from his favorite show, Boss Baby, extremely well. His rote memorization, although impeccable, was also an indication of ASD.
Raising a child with autism has not been easy. In fact, prior to JeQuan’s diagnosis, Nicole was not familiar with autism and had not personally interacted with anyone with ASD. Initially, she struggled with feelings of guilt, concerned that she did something wrong during her pregnancy that caused her son to have autism.
Education and Community
Upon the diagnosis, Nicole took advantage of the opportunity to educate herself in order to be an advocate for her son. She quickly learned that the root cause of autism has not been identified, and that she was not to blame for JeQuan’s diagnosis. She realized that energy would be best spent on finding resources and support that would allow her son to achieve his developmental goals. Some of the biggest resources were actually other parents of children with ASD.
“JeQuan’s evaluation began during the pandemic, so person-to-person interaction was limited,” she said. “However, I found social media groups online where parents shared their stories, beneficial information, and a unified voice that reminded me every day that I was not alone.”
In learning from her community of fellow parents of children with ASD, Nicole encourages other parents to be patient with themselves throughout their journeys.
“Give yourself grace,” says Nicole. “Your child may experience life differently than others, but that does not mean his or her life is less or limited. Find out what makes your child happy and create memorable moments for them.”
Since his diagnosis, JeQuan -- now four years old -- has made remarkable progress. After he was evaluated, he was able to see a developmental speech pathologist, receive speech therapy services, and enroll into early Pre-K with the local school system to receive special education support through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). With these supports, he can now use close to 15 words on a daily basis. JeQuan will be graduating from Pre-K in June and enrolling in kindergarten this upcoming fall.
Additionally, JeQuan’s one-on-one engagement has improved, along with his ability to regulate his emotions. JeQuan can process information better, indicating his desires with a “yes” or “no.” He calls his parents “Mommy” and “Daddy” on a regular basis and is super affectionate. JeQuan is a big brother now and understands the role of protecting his little brother, Jair.
Embracing the Journey
Over time, Nicole has turned her early feelings of confusion and guilt into advocacy for JeQuan. She seeks opportunities to educate others about ASD and encourage them to support the cause. In fact, her passion for advocacy is what brought her to Lincoln.
“Lincoln’s commitment and dedication to causes beyond its principal business areas attracted me to the company. Lincoln’s response to systemic inequalities across protected classes of people and its partnership with organizations, such as the Eagles Autism Foundation, demonstrated that Lincoln was invested in its workforce, its consumers, and the community at large. I wanted to work for an organization that empowered me holistically, and Lincoln does just that.”
Since joining Lincoln, Nicole became involved with the Eagles Autism Challenge to create awareness around autism and promote inclusion. She committed to raising at least $2,500 for this year’s fundraiser, and her team has already exceeded this amount. In addition, Nicole has been able to join discussions with others from Team Lincoln to educate her colleagues about autism and encourage them to join the Eagles Autism Challenge.
Over the last four years, Nicole has developed a new outlook on parenting, family, and love. She credits all of these lessons to her son.
“JeQuan has also shown me that actions speak louder than words. Although he was not able say ‘I love you,’ I knew that he did by his actions. Every tantrum that he threw was directed at me because he saw me as his protector. Whenever he cried when I had to leave, it was because he found security in my arms. So, even if he could never say a word, I know that he loves me and that is sufficient for me.”
Over the last six years, Lincoln Financial has been a presenting sponsor for the Eagles Autism Challenge. Lincoln Financial has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause, and hundreds of employees have volunteered and participated in the Autism Challenge. Our executive leadership team is passionate about our involvement and committed to helping raise visibility for the Eagles Autism Challenge’s mission across the Lincoln family and the Philadelphia region.