Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D., read the following letter of inspiration from Cheryl Weatherstone-Vance at a reception for the third class of Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows, at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in Toronto on May 16, 2012. (And again to the incoming 2012 class in October, when it again drew tears.)
Thank you all for attending this very special event. When I was approached to address you I thought, I better get my speech writing up to speed. I was thinking about what to say and how to formally address you. I tried several approaches, but frankly I found my address so boring it almost put me to sleep. I decided to be true to myself and just talk from the heart. So relax my friends, I can’t quote you any more statistics than you already know. I am trying to muddle through life and what the future holds for my son. My son’s name is Hunter and he is considered essentially non-verbal. So it is for him and all the other children with autism and their families that bring me to speak with you today. Simply put, I am a Mom who is fighting at your side to find answers to the mysteries of autism.
For those who don’t know me, my name is Cheryl Weatherstone-Vance and I am the daughter of the late Sir Dennis Weatherstone for whom your scholarships were named. Earlier I mentioned that I am a fighter, and actually, I literally am a fighter. Currently I am a 4th Degree Black Belt in taekwondo and will compete this June at the world championships.
Before my father passed away we often talked about the things that were important to me. The everyday struggles of raising a son with autism and my chosen sport of taekwondo often came up. I remember crying and saying that I would give up any gold medal in taekwondo just to hear my son say “I love you.” He replied, “If you had to pick one I have no doubt you would choose Hunter to recover.” I took a deep breath and smiled, but to my surprise he wasn’t done. He secretly knew something that I didn’t. He then looked deeper in thought and continued. “You don’t have to pick one. Do both! Win at both! You know how to fight and win. Win in the ring and win with Hunter. There are people out there that will find their way to the same cause. They are fighters like you.”
In 2007 my parents witnessed me win my first world title in taekwondo and I gave the gold medal to them right off of the podium. The next year my father’s cancer took a turn for the worse. Before he passed away he told me he would be watching me from what he called “the best seat in the house.” He died a week before world championships. Everyone would have understood if I would have dropped out of world finals but it is not in my nature to back down or give up. When the dust settled in 2008 I had won two more gold medals and by 2011 I had a record of twelve.
I am using that same determination to join with you and fight autism. You are an elite team and your journey has taken you here to this moment. To me, you are very much like the superheroes I saw in the movie called “The Avengers” last week. It is about people with special talents who become united to fight an oncoming invasion force ready to take over the world. The heroes are Hawkeye, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk. Sometimes they don’t agree but they come together to fight a common enemy. In the end, they find that together they are much stronger than individually. To me, each of you is very much like a superhero with the power to change the world and together anything is possible.
In closing I wanted to say thank you to you all for choosing this as your field of research and dedicating yourself to finding the answers to the mysteries of autism. When I receive updates from Autism Speaks about the progress you have made it gives me great hope and I know what my father said was right. Like the super heroes from the Avengers you make a great team and have incredible gifts to offer the world. And you are fighters just like me! Personally, I think autism picked the wrong team to mess with. Again, thank you and be inspired to keep fighting because the story gets better. In 2011 my son finally did say “I love you” for the first time. With your continued research one day I am hoping he will be able to meet you and thank you himself.