Overcoming autism, spreading hope through music

When a new family walks through the doors of Easter Seals’ school for autism in Chicago, Maurice Snell can tell if the parents have lost hope. He’s heard the story of when his own parents, Willie and Jennifer, walked through the doors of what was then the Michael Reese Developmental Institute with him. He was nonverbal, he didn’t socialize, he was completely lost in the world of autism.

Maurice’s parents were desperate to help him find a way out, but autism was a relatively new diagnosis in the early 1990s, and no one could tell the Chicago couple what the future held for their child. All they knew was the experts’ assessments were grim; one doctor told them to prepare for Maurice to be institutionalized.

Video by Liz Hoffman/Chicago Parent

Liz DeCarlo/Chicago Parent

Maurice Snell

“It was a very bad point for all of us; we didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t even 5,” Jennifer remembers. “I was so afraid. I didn’t know what would happen.”

So now when Maurice, a charming, dynamic 26-year-old employee of Easter Seals, greets people at the door, he lets families know the future is only as limited as you let it be. “When I see new kids, I see hope,” he says. “There is no cure for autism, you’re stuck with it, but I’m not ashamed and I tell this to many of the families. I give them stories of hope.”

When Maurice began school at Michael Reese, it marked a turning point. He began talking and socializing. By high school he was doing so well, he transferred to the local Chicago Public School into regular classrooms.

“I considered myself like everybody else,” Maurice says. “I liked meeting new people and hanging out with friends.” Maurice joined the band and the Marine Corps JROTC program.

His parents didn’t push him, but they didn’t hold him back either.

Still, Jennifer and Willie weren’t sure how things would go when Maurice said he wanted to go to college. He attended St. Xavier University in Chicago to study liberal arts. It wasn’t easy, both Maurice and his parents agree, but he didn’t consider quitting.

“I stayed confident throughout my life, with the help and support of my family, so I tended not to give up,” Maurice says. He graduated from college, found a job at Easter Seals and joined a band with another young man with autism. He began speaking at autism events and in 2007 was selected to be the Easter Seals adult representative, traveling on his own to New York City, Dallas and San Francisco.

The band plays autism events, with Maurice on the synthesizer and at the microphone. “We’ve had performances where people say they’re waiting for the band with autism to play, and even autism experts didn’t realize it was them,” says Kari Christiansen, who along with her husband Craig helps manage the band.

Maurice now has his sights set on a graduate degree.

His mom remembers back to those early, dark days.

“Professionals are not always right. Keep searching until you find the place that is best for your child, the doctor that is best for your child, the support group best for you,” Jennifer says. “Then support them and let them grow. You don’t know how far they’re going to get.”

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