Lillian Armstrong will soon watch Adrian, her oldest grandson, graduate with a degree in graphic landscape engineering from Arizona State University. The occasion is certain to bring her incredible joy. After all, the day will mark a milestone that wasn’t always assured.
“I knew the moment he was born that there was something very unique about him,” said Lillian.
Born with autism, Adrian refused to nurse and was sensitive to many foods. His night terrors and red-faced, two-plus hours of screaming left the family exhausted, and Adrian with a bruised esophagus.
He also had verbal delays and social awkwardness. Strangers terrified him, he didn’t make eye contact, and sensory exposure such as bright lights, loud noises, or even a fly or mosquito would send him into a rage or cause him to faint.
“We didn’t know or understand what he wanted, so we used basic signs to communicate with him,” remembered Lillian.
Academically, Adrian excelled. He started reading early, built anything with Legos, and loved math, science and puzzles. By age 3, Adrian was riding the school bus to Head Start. He then not only started grade school early, he graduated high school early.
Lillian was no stranger to children born with challenges when Adrian was born. Her daughter, Volina (Adrian’s mom), was born with physical deficits and had her first surgery at 17 hours old. Many surgeries followed throughout Volina’s young life. While the physical deficits were corrected, the emotional trauma from the hospitalizations and medical procedures left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There was no internet in those days, so I relied on the library and other parents to get help for Volina,” said Lillian.
The experience helped Lillian learn and advocate for Adrian. She enlisted the help of other parents, her church, school and medical personnel, as well as organizations such as FIC. As a result, Adrian received behavioral modification therapy and medication. He also took part in Iron Man events at the church, as well as book club, summer activities and support groups at FIC.
Thanks to Lillian’s advocacy, Adrian learned how to socialize and become comfortable in large group settings. Eventually, he picked up a job and attended college.
It was all this work with Adrian that led Lillian, who was an accountant, to FIC in 2005. Previously, she worked for the Southwest Network, an early behavioral health agency, where she learned that she loved working with families and helping them overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
Despite all she’s experienced with Volina and Adrian, Lillian’s greatest life challenge was the death of her husband when she was 41.
“He was my world,” said Lillian. “It probably took me 10 years to not feel the pain of that loss. He was my best friend, to lose your best friend, the father of your children. It was probably the toughest journey I had to go through.”
Lillian chose not to marry again and raised her and her husband’s five children on her own.
Today, at 71, Lillian relishes her role as Family Education and Training Specialist at FIC. She teaches parenting classes, counsels families, and serves as a cheering section or kick in the pants, as needed.
“I minister to a lot of young people,” she said. “A lot of young people are hurting and don’t know which way to go. I’m that leaning post.”
Lillian helps struggling families to find HOPE – Having Only Positive Expectations. Over the years, she and FIC have helped hundreds of families make better choices, navigate the child welfare system and reunite their families. Among the biggest lessons she’s learned during this time is the importance of family.
“One of the greatest healing aspects outside of medication is family,” she added. “That’s a healing that supersedes any medication you can put in your mouth.”
Family — whether her own children and the families she helps — are Lillian’s reason for getting up in the morning. She’s proud of her children’s success and grateful that Adrian was born at a time when there was awareness about autism. She also credits FIC for playing a significant role in helping him learn how to live a productive life.
“Had he been born in the ‘60s or ‘70s, he would have spent his life in an institution,” Lillian said.
Instead, in two years, Lillian will watch Adrian cross the stage to receive a Bachelor’s degree.