“From the day Chris was born, he lit up our lives.”
Marci Ingram exudes the love of a proud mother as she shares stories about her now 25-year-old son.
“We were just like every parent who adores their child,” she said.
Born in 1992, Chris is the youngest of six children in a closely knit, blended family. He was the picture of health, everything she and her husband, Bill, had hoped.
“The first few years were wonderful, but by the time Chris turned three, we noticed he wasn’t speaking very much. He was highly sensitive to noise and would become frantic in large groups of people. We couldn’t understand why our precious little boy was experiencing these challenges,” Marci recounted.
The Ingrams would embark on an emotional journey familiar to many parents. They began an exhaustive search for answers. After nearly a year of taking Chris to doctors and specialists, they finally learned that he had autism.
“At the time, we didn’t share his diagnosis with many people. We were too consumed with trying to find out what we could do to help him. And we wanted his life to be as ‘normal’ as possible,” Marci said.
After two years of Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA therapy, Chris started kindergarten and was mainstreamed into the school system. The road to that point was complicated, but they were fortunate to have the resources to give Chris the best possible outcome.
“Our home was a revolving door. Chris’ therapy regimen was 32 hours a week, and it took seven tutors on a rotating basis to teach him how to laugh, speak and play,” Marci said.
With Chris thriving, helping others became a natural extension of their lives. They wanted to raise awareness, raise funds for research and, most importantly, they wanted to make a difference for other children like Chris and their families.
The Ingrams partnered with Autism Speaks Board Member Laura Slatkin and her husband, Harry, for the first Autism Speaks Walk in Columbus, Ohio. Marci served as co-chair.
“I wanted to raise as much money as possible for autism research. There were families having fun competitions against each other to see which teams could raise the most money,” Marci said.
Their competitions worked, and the first annual Autism Speaks Walk in Columbus exceeded its goal, raising nearly $600,000.
“It was a pretty special day for all of us. I remember vividly taking the photo with the committee. In fact, I still have that photo displayed on a bulletin board in my home next to a board with photos of my grandchildren,” she said.
Through the Slatkins, Marci and Bill met Autism Speaks Co-founders Suzanne and Bob Wright, who also attended that first Columbus walk.
“Bob and Suzanne were the ones who gave me the courage to step forward, and Autism Speaks gave me an avenue to share my passion,” Marci said.
For the Ingrams, the walk was just the start of a long-term commitment to the autism community. The Ingrams are also the family behind the White Castle restaurants. The family-run company has become a tremendous force for autism – raising more than $5 million since 2002. Their support goes beyond the dollars.
“We have 400 White Castles, and we have autism awareness campaigns in each one of those restaurants, along with employees and customers who are genuinely excited about supporting those campaigns,” Marci said.
Many of Chris’ family members work for White Castle. In fact, his sister, Lisa Ingram, serves as the company’s president and CEO and his cousin, Jamie Richardson, is vice president. They lead the way in making autism awareness part of the fabric of the company’s culture.
“I’m so proud and grateful to our family and the entire White Castle family for the way they have rallied around the autism community,” Marci said.
“From the moment we shared our story, we were blown away by the outpouring of encouragement and support. It was incredibly gratifying, especially when I think back to the beginning and how concerned we were about talking openly about autism,” she said.
Marci marvels at how much has changed since then. She says she has greater hope than ever for her son and for all those with autism.
“I’m so proud of Chris. He wants to be independent, and he is doing the things that he needs to do to make that happen. He is going to be okay. We need to continue to do our part for others with autism who need more support. I truly believe we can all do something to help the family next door, and it can be as simple as being inclusive of those who are different.”