Lisa Lee Riley

Touched by an Angel

    Lisa Lee Riley didn't know what the doctors meant when they said her son was autistic. She had never heard of this disease. All she knew was that Brian, or "Scooter," as his family called him, had been a healthy boy just starting to babble words when all of a sudden his development came to a sudden halt. Something was wrong.
    "I always wanted a son, and when he was diagnosed at age three as autistic, I was devastated," said Lisa. "I didn't understand. I said okay, give me a pill; let's fix it. But it wasn't that easy."
    Doctors did their best to explain to Lisa that there was no way to make autism go away overnight, that helping Brian improve was an ongoing process. But only through her own research and experience would she come to have a better understanding of this increasingly common disability. She got Brian into speech and occupational therapy and temporarily moved her family to Charlotte after using the Internet to find a special program for autistic children.
    Now Brian is 14 and attending McCracken Middle School in Bluffton. To look at him, handsome and dressed in regular urban youth fashions, you would never know he had a disability. Only he doesn't speak; he and his mother communicate with sign language. Characteristic of people with autism, it is like he is trapped in his own world, consumed by the inner workings of his mind, and it takes a gentle voice or touch to recall him back to the physical environment around him. Over the years, Lisa has learned that in order to better relate to Brian, she has had to try and see the world through his eyes.
    "Autism is my son; autism is me," she said. "I have to live it. I consider myself autistic as well because I have to put myself in his shoes."
    Lisa and Brian go everywhere together-to the grocery store, to Barnes & Noble, to Brian's tennis and horseback riding lessons-and Lisa has always been involved in Brian's school. Curious strangers are often inclined to say to Lisa, "I see you and your son everywhere. What is your story?" The initial surprise they feel when Lisa tells them of Brian's disability is always replaced by admiration: "You are a great mom," they say, "because you spend so much time with your son."
    No longer compelled to keep her son's autism a secret in order to protect the family's privacy, Lisa does her best to educate others about this disease. She writes articles and gives presentations, and she never passes up a chance at school to tell other students about Brian.
    "I never feel sorry for my son, and I don't feel ashamed of him," she said. "I'm very proud of him. God didn't put us here to be all alike. We come in different shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. God has put this child in my life for a reason; how do I know I'm not taking care of an angel on earth?"