Being a parent of a child on the spectrum comes with additional challenges on top of the traditional day-to-day humdrum most families have.
I had the pleasure to interview Michael Miller. He is the father of a child on the autism spectrum and founder of Toys AUcross America. His dedication to providing happiness to children has stretched across the entire United States.
Currently, he is nearing the end of a long journey to establish Autism Christmas, coinciding with Autism Awareness Month in April. Check out the interview below to learn how you can help.
- What prompted you to help children diagnosed with autism?
The story begins rather innocently. My son Jonathan had accumulated a large number of Thomas the Tank engine trains and I noticed they were now sitting in our boiler room as his interests had moved on to electronics. I was in an autism support group and noticed a few of the children were into Thomas from pictures posted by other parents of birthdays and children playing with trains. I offered, in the group, to mail some trains to anyone's child who was interested, stating: "I think it would be cool for them to get a surprise gift in the mail." That one post lead to everything else.
We got a lot of requests so we created a Facebook page "Toys AUcross America" to organize it. We invited everyone to the page for their child to receive a free toy and we began a list. What started as once a week turned into once a day, then a few a day and even 25 a week. Soon Jonathan ran out of trains and I ran out of money, figuratively. So it was either get more of both or stop, but by then I was addicted to it, so I created an online fund and raised money to buy trains and pay for shipping. The page took off, the list continued to grow and I became pretty good at fundraising. All we asked in return was a picture of a smiling child with their gift, the smiles fueled the page.
- Can you tell us a bit about your son?
My son is 12, he's a very warm and loving boy with a big heart. He is energetic and lazy at the same time. He loves his electronics, swimming and did I mention his electronics. He was dx'ed with PDD-NOS at age 5 and later Asperger's syndrome, both part of the autism spectrum. He helps me with the charity to some degree, after all he did give up all his toys, and is aware of what we are doing and proud to be doing it but he also is 12 and has a lot of other things on his mind. So I do not force him to do anything he's not ready to do. I know in time he will fully embrace what we are doing but for now I take what I can get.
- How does Toys AUcross America help children on the spectrum?
To some it may be "just a toy", but to children in the autism community it can mean a whole lot more. My favorite story is of a boy we sent Yu Gi Oh cards. Mom says that he was so excited about the cards that he joined an after school Yu Gi Oh group. He made friends from this group and even began attending Yu Gi Oh events. I like to say we are mailing smiles disguised as toys. Moms say we are mailing hope.
- Do you do this work on your own or do you have help?
Initially it was me doing all the "work": mailing packages, raising the money, signing up the children. Now I have a team. We joined up with Kulturecity.org, which is a national autism charity based out of Birmingham, Alabama, lead by CEO Julian Maha. We also have a great fan base from our Toys AUcross Page who support us financially and spiritually. It's a mutual inspiration. The photos and comments from parents inspire me, the support we offer inspires them, like a big circle.
- Is this a full time commitment or do you also work - on top of being a parent?
This is a full time commitment and I have a full time job and yes I am a parent, an autism parent, might just be a little more work involved. However I work Mon-Friso I have plenty of free time on my hands and don't mind doing this at all, actually it is quite gratifying.
- What has been one of the most wonderful ways people have helped you to make this happen?
People seem to support us around every corner. The autism community as a whole has risen up and backed us the whole way. From toy drives, online fundraisers, our live events anything we have asked we have received. Anonymous donations, high school children doing toy drives, siblings of some of our Toys AUcross children donating their toys. it has all been remarkable.
- What is your hope for the future of Toys AUcross America?
I would love to see a continued partnership with Kultureccity and eventually my son playing a larger roll as an adult so we will have to keep this going for six more years to see that happen. I recently had a vision of owning toy stores and employing only autistic adults, but that is far from a reality at this time.
- Right now, you are running a special campaign to collect toys for an event you call Autism Christmas. Explain what that is.
Early on during our time sending out toys to children on the autism spectrum moms would say "You are like an autism Santa." So I got the nickname "Autism Santa" and I figured if I wanted to do something to top what we did our initial year why not create "Autism Christmas". I combined Autism Awareness month with gift giving and came up with this idea. We actually received a $5,000 grant at Kulturecity and it was set aside for this event. To supplemnet the event we created a toy drive by utilizing a wish list on Amazon. The wish list was originally Julian Maha's idea
long before Autism Christmas was conceived I just added the two together and the results have been overwhelming.
- How can people contribute to Toys AUcross America?
Anyone interested in helping Jonathan and I can visit Kulturecity.org and look up Toys AUcross America under the projects tab.
Additionally we have a wish list for our Autism Christmas event and will most likely keep the wish list moving forward. Search firstname.lastname@example.org on Amazon under wish lists. If you are an Amazon shopper a free way to help us is to shop through AmazonSmile and select Kulturecity as your preferred charity and Amazon will make a donation to Kulturecity for every purchase you make through AmazonSmile. Any consideration is always appreciated.
- Is there anything else you want to share?
My son and I have mailed out a lot of toys, toys to all 50 states and yes we started it but without Kulturecity and our fans all this would not be possible. Without them I'm "just a dad mailing trains". Now we mail trains, cars, dolls, legos, superheroes, action figures, movie characters, and many more. Ask me some day to tell you about our iPad mini project!
Michael and Jonathan