When Derek and Theresa Robinette learned they were expecting, they were over the moon with joy. “Our child would be the first grandchild, so everyone was very excited,” says Theresa Robinette, who immediately started planning for the big event.
Their son, Eric, was born in December 1995 and immediately became the center of attention.
“Eric was such a happy baby and as he grew and aced his well-check pediatrician visits, we never had any worries,” says Robinette. “But by the time Eric was two, he still wasn’t speaking. We had friends with children but didn’t often compare milestones.”
Robinette’s mother, Bonnie, was concerned. There were other signs that something might be wrong. At first, she thought it might be his hearing. He wasn’t responding and turning his head when called by name.
Her sister, Christina, who was studying to be a teacher, also expressed concern.
“Eric wouldn’t make eye contact with others,” says Robinette. “He was in his own world. We had to get in his face to connect with him.”
The Robinette’s son also played with toys differently, choosing sounds and lights over any developmental toy that required stacking or aligning shapes. He was a frequent hand-flapper and appeared to love rocking back-and-forth.
After compiling a list and tracking Eric’s actions, Robinette’s sister and mother stayed up all night and the next day doing research on the Internet and at the library. The evidence suggested that Eric may have Autism.
“We immediately jumped into action,” says Robinette. “We attempted to schedule an appointment but there weren’t a lot of treatment programs.”
Eventually, the Robinettes were able to secure various appointments with a collection of experts including speech and occupational therapists as well as a developmental pediatrician.
“When we finally secured an appointment, Eric was officially diagnosed with Autism,” says Robinette. “We learned early intervention was key and began the race against the clock. Eric was only getting older and we knew there was a lot of work to do to secure a bright future for our child.”
Eric started speech therapy and began to learn sign language but his motor skills made it difficult to communicate. It was the beginning of a long journey but the family had a strong support system.
Dr. Robin Blitz, a developmental pediatrician, helped put the family on the right path and kept them on a developmental track. A true lifesaver, the Robinette family continued to work with Dr. Blitz throughout Eric’s teens and into adulthood, at age 22.
“We were faced with a huge challenge and Dr. Blitz made sure we didn’t feel alone,” says Robinette. “She introduced me to a moms group—a valuable resource for everything from where to get haircuts if your child hates the sound and touch of a razor and scissors, to treatment options and healthcare providers.”
Over the years, Eric attended special programs and graduated from high school.
The Robinettes were beginning to wonder about what’s next when the family attended a One Step Beyond theater program advertised in a local parenting magazine.
“Eric recognized a number of people from his various programs in the play and it was like a lightbulb went on,” says Robinette. “I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness that I now knew there was a place for my son.”
One Step Beyond is a non-profit organization that provides comprehensive programming and services for adults (18+) who have intellectual disabilities. The largest program of its kind—serving more than 600 individuals last year—the organization empowers its members to achieve independence, self-sufficiency and employment through innovative culinary, education, fitness and fine arts programs.
“The programs at One Step Beyond are innovative and unlike other ‘life skills/daycare’ programs in the area,” says Robinette. “Because of the organization’s dedication and commitment to individuals who have intellectual disabilities, my son has experienced life-changing opportunities that have encouraged independence, acceptance and greater social participation in our community.”
Today, Eric is 24-years-old and attends programming at One Step Beyond five days a week. He is a part of the One Step Coyotes Hockey team and an active participant in theater, dance, band, art, and music programs. Life skill classes like budgeting and college courses through a partnership with Estrella Mountain Community College, have afforded a variety of opportunities.
Taking a further step toward independence, Eric hopes to start the pre-vocational program in the near future.
“Eric’s sister, Tatum, is his biggest cheerleader,” says Robinette. “She is always urging him to do his best and never give up. While Eric has learned a lot from her, I think she has benefited just as much, learning patience, compassion and what can happen when you set your sights on a goal and work hard to achieve it.”
The recent COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped Eric from interacting with his friends and counselors. Still able to attend some in-person programming, Eric also takes part in the virtual Zoom classes. The regularly scheduled transportation is currently on hold, but the Robinettes and other neighborhood families organized a carpool to keep Eric and peers involved in the OSBI program.
“One Step Beyond has afforded my son opportunities that I never would have dreamed would be available to him,” says Robinette. “Eric and his girlfriend, who he met at One Step Beyond, were at a Coyotes game and on the ice during the national anthem. And…after participating in Special Olympics, Eric was selected to carry the torch during the Arizona State Track opening ceremony. It was a real honor.”
Eric’s kindness, enthusiasm, sportsmanship and ability to inspire others was noticed. He was chosen by Special Olympics to travel from Arizona to Australia for Dream Ride Australia, a fundraising event that honors men, women and children who have intellectual disabilities. Only 10 people across the country were chosen.
“We were at Costco doing some shopping and Eric struck up a conversation with a complete stranger,” says Robinette. “When he saw the woman again, it was at the Special Olympics. She said he inspired her to volunteer.”
The Robinettes have hopes and dreams for their son. One Step Beyond has helped build Eric’s confidence and now those dreams are becoming a reality. With both parents working, the Robinettes found that it truly takes a village to raise a special needs child and One Step Beyond is an important part of that village.
“My husband and I want the community to know that people who have Autism or other intellectual disabilities are able to do great things,” says Robinette. “If people give them a chance, they will show up, work hard and warm your heart. Eric has taught us a lot. Not everyone sees what his mom sees. The world can be a negative place, but One Step Beyond offers a safe place. We feel fortunate to be a part of it.”
When asked about his hopes for the future, Eric says he once wanted to be a D.J. However, his desire to be a part of the dance party put an end to it. Now he hopes to someday work for the Special Olympics organization where he can inspire others to show up and work hard.
“Eric recently participated in a sign language class,” says Robinette. “At the annual musical event, Eric stood up and signed an entire song. I cried as it brought me back to the two-year-old boy who struggled to communicate with those around him. It was a sign of how far he has come.”
For more, visit https://www.osbi.org/
Written by: By Jennifer Schwegman
Jennifer Schwegman is a publicist, freelance writer and lover of all things outdoors. When she’s not running or hiking, she’s promoting visibility and awareness for some of the world’s most innovative companies. Currently, she is president of IABC Phoenix and a member of the HMA Public Relations team. In her spare time, the relatively new Valley transplant enjoys exploring Arizona with her husband, Mike.