On Spring nights each April, you may notice something unusual as you drive through your neighborhood. The houses on your street are lined up in neat rows, each one casting a yellow glow from the light on the front porch. That’s when you notice the house on the corner, the one whose front porch light glows blue.
Chances are, Molly and Graham Smith mailed that blue light bulb to your neighbor–just as they’ve done every year for the past six years. That’s how long this mother-son duo from Allen have been advocating for autism awareness during World Autism Month in April with their own initiative, Light it Up Blue for Graham.
Twelve-year-old Graham sits across from me at his kitchen table. He is explaining the rules of Nine Square and Gaga Ball, two of his favorite games. Graham is charming and polite, and he’s patient with me while I ask him the differences between Four Square and Nine Square. “The rules are similar, but the grid in Nine-Square is three by three, rather than two by two,” he replies.
Graham is also involved in Boy Scouts and soccer. He loves science, astronomy, and a game called Geometry Dash, which, according to Molly, “Has a lot less geometry than I’d hoped for.”
Graham and Molly have an easy rapport. When I ask Molly to tell me her favorite thing about Graham, Graham cuts in and says, “It’s not rocket science, Mom!”
“Oh, goodness, Graham will tell it like it is,” Molly replies laughing. “He has the most keen sense of justice, equality, and understanding of right and wrong.”
It seems he might have picked this up from his mom. When Graham was diagnosed with high functioning autism as a toddler, Molly began seeking ways to ensure Graham would get the access, advocacy, and support he needed.
“For the past eight and a half years, we have had a lot of therapies,” Molly shares. “When he was little, we couldn’t figure out what the gap was. The label gave us a path forward. After the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, we went through a grieving process. I had to essentially lay down all these dreams for my child so I could pick up what was in front of me.”
Molly learned as much as she could about parenting a child with autism. She sought therapies and strategies that would help Graham’s development, found support in networks of other parents of children with autism, and began advocating for him to have the support he needed in place when he entered public school.
“It became quite clear over the early years of therapy that he was going to far exceed anything I had set for him because of the strides he was making,” Molly admits. “I wasn’t thinking big enough.”
Of course, Graham’s progress hasn’t come without challenges. “One of the things that we’ve struggled with is socialization,” Molly shares. “We’ve had to work on having conversations with kids his own age with topics that are appropriate. What’s amazing to me is that most adults in his life totally get Graham,” Molly adds. “They like quirky. All of his teachers adore working with him, and our school district has been phenomenal. That’s heartwarming for me. The part we’ve struggled with more has been kids his own age.”
In Light it Up Blue for Graham’s first year, Molly wanted to create a way to have authentic, transparent conversations about autism. She wanted to put a face on autism, understanding that every person with autism is different. In 2014, she created a Facebook group, emailed her friends, family, and Graham’s teachers, and asked them to replace their porch light with with blue bulb on April 2nd for the UN-sponsored World Autism Day. She posted photos and updates of Graham on Facebook, and asked friends to post photos of their blue porch lights for Graham to see. She even offered to send the blue bulbs in the mail to everyone who wanted to participate, about 30 that year.
“The very first April 2nd, I sat on my couch with my laptop and was overwhelmed,” Molly recalls. “I had people from the UK and Ireland posting photos of their blue porch lights on the Facebook page. It was really cool.”
She downloaded all of the photos and turned them into a canvas collage to hang in Graham’s room. Six years later, Molly and Graham show me the row of collages hanging over his bed. It’s worth noting that nearly everything in Graham’s room is blue, from the paint in his walls to his quilt to the blue porch light collages. They estimate that 500 houses have “lit it up blue” since they started.
“I like the fact that people actually care about autism apart from me,” Graham shares as we look at the collages. “The pictures are a reminder. I know it’s not just me that we light it up blue for.”
Molly agrees. “There’s something about connecting to other parents who have kids on the spectrum. I had people in my life when Graham was first diagnosed who had been walking that road ahead of me. Now, we can use Light It Up Blue as a platform to keep forming those connections and sharing our stories.”
Since Graham’s diagnosis, Molly and Graham have seen the world change the way it addresses people with autism. Molly explains, “As it is becoming more prevalent and teens with autism are entering the workforce, some companies look to hire a neurodiverse workforce. There are more opportunities for students who are neuro-diverse.”
Graham isn’t sure yet what he’d like to be when he grows up. He told me, “I’m still thinking about it. I’ll have a more specific answer for you next time.” Before he enters the workforce, though, Graham will need to go over another hurdle that makes both him and Molly nervous: middle school. He’s currently in a program called Brain Balance that will help him build the skills he’ll need for middle school.
Through tears, Molly shares a story about a recent school event where she volunteered. It was a loud and chaotic holiday event, and she watched crowds of kids dancing, playing games, and decorating cookies. Then she saw Graham, sitting alone at a table. When Graham went back to class, she sat in her car and cried.
“How can I do more to set my kid up for success in his life?” she asks. Telling his story and advocating for autism awareness is one way she’s already doing it. The other way becomes clear to me when Graham reaches over to gently touch her arm when she admits to crying in her car.
“What do you love most about your mom?” I ask Graham.
“If I could make a list, it wouldn’t end,” he tells me. “She’s kind, loving, and has a huge heart.”
Then true to his keen sense of justice and equality, Graham tells me what he’d like everyone to know about autism. “Even if you have a difference, it doesn’t mean that you have to be apart from the group. Every living being is born equal.”
Starting April 2nd and for the entire month, Light it Up Blue for Graham and other kids, teens, or adults with autism by replacing your porch light with a blue light bulb. Blue bulbs are available at Home Depot, or Molly and Graham will mail you one if you reach out to Lightitupblue4Graham@gmail.com. You can post photos of your porch light and follow Graham’s story on the Light it Up Blue for Graham Facebook page.
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Story by Liz Navarro. Photos by Hunter Lacey.