Rachel Rackley Howell – Cause: Autism spectrum disorders

As the need for autism services has grown, so has Rachel Rackley Howell’s dedication to helping affected children and their families.

The journey for a parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder is a marathon, not a sprint.

That was one of the first pearls of insight Rachel Rackley Howell heard while she was reeling from the diagnosis of her son Hayes. Seventeen years later, Howell is helping other parents navigate their own course with the wisdom only an experienced autism mother can offer.

An early meeting with Debbie Tullos, founder of Parents and Professionals for Exceptional Progress (PEP), set Howell on a new path not only to cope with her son’s disorder but also to help other parents. Howell joined the new organization’s board and together with other volunteer parents held symposiums to educate the public about autism. The group brought in specialists from around the country to train local professionals to work with autistic children. “Local therapists were able to receive crucial training that benefited many children in our community and gave their parents hope for a brighter future,” she says.

As the community became more aware of the epidemic, Howell’s volunteer efforts grew. When the Junior League of Baton Rouge launched the Baton Rouge Autism Speaker Series in 2007, Howell readily agreed to serve as the project’s first sustaining adviser. She also mentors parents of children who have been recently diagnosed, and she helps with special events for groups including the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, Special Olympics, Best Buddies, Friends and Family Bowling League, GaitWay Therapeutic Horsemanship and more. “All these organizations have very important and specific missions to help not only those with ASD but other disabilities as well,” Howell says.

Now that her son is older, Howell is also working to develop an awareness of the need for recreational and employment opportunities for adults with special needs.

“Few opportunities exist for this invisible population that is growing exponentially every year,” she says. “Employers need to realize that our young adults are employable and that aspects of their disabilities are what make them such a good employment risk. Many are punctual and loyal, follow schedules, obey rules and are proud to be contributing members of society.”

In making all these strides, Howell draws inspiration from other families who have “shown the courage to overcome whatever obstacles are set before them.”

“I’m so proud of the efforts of so many younger parents with children on the spectrum who have joined the ‘marathon’ and are making a difference in our community,” she says.

What do you love about the volunteer efforts that you do?
It is important to help others in appreciation and recognition of the countless therapists, teachers, physicians, educators, friends and family members who have helped us on our journey.

What do you hope to achieve?
Independence, acceptance and social opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum.

How would you like to inspire others?
Get involved in your cause and have a sense of urgency to make a difference while you can.

Is there an upcoming event to promote awareness of ASD?
On April 13, 2013, BRASS is bringing nationally recognized photographer—and parent of a child on the spectrum—Timothy Archibald to the Manship Theatre for a talk, “Connecting to your Child on the Spectrum,” followed by a reception opening an exhibit of his original photographs.