Toni Braxton Details Autism Struggle
After Toni Braxton‚Äôs youngest son Diesel was diagnosed with autism at age three, she blamed herself -¬† a feeling she still carries with her five years later.¬† The Grammy award-winning singer opens up about her family‚Äôs journey, which reformatted her relationship with her husband Keri Lewis (they‚Äôre now separated) and strengthened the bond between her sons. And, she offers hope to parents dealing with the condition - her son is now attending public school thanks, in part, to early diagnosis.
‚ÄúDiesel‚Äôs journey has been struggling,‚ÄĚ the Braxton Family Values star, 44, tells me of her eight-year-old son‚Äôs condition during the Lindt Gold Bunny Celebrity Auction kickoff to benefit Autism Speaks held this week in NYC. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been rewarding to see how he‚Äôs grown, but I remember when I first found out. I remember blaming myself; I thought it was my fault. I wish I knew what triggered it. Still, often, as a mom, I blame myself. I didn‚Äôt take my vitamins every day ... maybe it was the medications I was on before I got pregnant.‚ÄĚ
She adds, ‚ÄúThey haven‚Äôt figured out what triggers it, but whatever it is, I don‚Äôt care, find a cure. Help my kid; help all the other kids. But I had to shake myself off, and go ‚Äėenough about me,‚Äô and make sure my kid‚Äôs OK. Once they diagnosed him, we were able to itemize the issues.‚ÄĚ
Toni credits early diagnosis with her son‚Äôs improving condition.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm lucky,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúI try to tell most parents ‚Äėdon‚Äôt dismiss the signs.‚Äô It‚Äôs OK. When you find out early, you can get them all the help they need. A lot of people try to put it under the backburner ‚Ä¶ ‚Äėit‚Äôs OK, my uncle used to do that, or a friend of the family used to do that years ago.‚Äô It‚Äôs not OK. Moms tend to know a little more. Not to say anything bad about dads, but moms tend to know a little more and see those signs.‚ÄĚ
For Toni, those signs included a lack of social behavior.
‚ÄúHe had no eye contact,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúHe wouldn‚Äôt look at anyone. He‚Äôd play off by himself. I remember they thought he was hearing impaired. He was 1 ¬Ĺ, 2 years old, so it‚Äôs hard to diagnose, because he won‚Äôt throw the ball when he sees the color. I had an older son, so I had something to compare, not that you should compare kids, but I had a prototype to look from. He was not developing like his brother on all levels. He had limited speech - years behind his age.‚ÄĚ
While Toni was getting help for her Diesel, her marriage to Keri, whom she wed in 2001, began to suffer.
‚ÄúIt was challenging when we first found out,‚ÄĚ she admits. ‚ÄúNo one tells you this part ‚Äď but Suzanne from Autism Speaks told me ‚ÄėToni, the divorce rate is 80% when you have a special needs, autistic kid.‚Äô No one talks about that part because the parents blame themselves. Making decisions about therapy is going to cause you to bicker and fight a bit. It played a little bit of a role in mine. Not the complete role, but it was definitely a role.‚ÄĚ
Despite the hard times, there are rays of hope shining through. Five years after he was diagnosed, Diesel's condition has drastically improved.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a totally different kid,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúCompletely different kid. Family members we haven‚Äôt seen since he was younger are like ‚Äėoh my God, what happened? He‚Äôs talking, he‚Äôs social, he‚Äôs playing with other kids!‚Äô We still have a long way to go, but we‚Äôve come such a long way. And he‚Äôs in public school now, mainstream school. He‚Äôs still in the special education program, but the point is that he‚Äôs coming out of autism. I‚Äôm very lucky.‚ÄĚ
She credits using one ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapist instead of several.
‚ÄúI think one person is best to hone in and help itemize your kid, and prompt those deficits that he or she may have.‚ÄĚ
Video games have also had a positive impact.
‚ÄúA lot of people say video games can be bad for kids, but I disagree. I think it‚Äôs the best thing for an autistic kid. Their dexterity muscles to get sharpened. It helps their occupational therapy.‚ÄĚ
Because he‚Äôs seen Diesel through his struggles, her eldest son Denim, 9, has grown in his compassion.
‚ÄúTheir relationship is great,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúI remember my older son, though, his friend would say to him, ‚Äėwhat‚Äôs wrong with your brother? He‚Äôs weird.‚Äô Kids are honest. I remember my oldest son used to act a little different. He loved his brother, but there were moments when he was like ‚Äėoh yeah, my brother‚Äôs different, my friends think my family‚Äôs weird.‚Äô Once I talked to my son - you have to talk to the other siblings ‚Äď once I spoke to my son and let him understand what was going on, he got it. Now he‚Äôs protective of his brother.‚ÄĚ
And her relationship with the father of her sons has strengthened.
‚ÄúNow we‚Äôre past that point, and we understand ‚Äėlook, we have a kid to raise, and we have to get past that and make the best decisions for him. Now things are great. We‚Äôre best friends, we‚Äôre still separated ‚Äď but we‚Äôre best friends, and we realize the goal is our son Diesel.‚ÄĚ
What are their Easter traditions?
‚ÄúWe always make Easter bunnies,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúWe make baskets altogether as a family. We dye eggs. We‚Äôre going to get our Lindt Gold Bunny. I always get a Gold Bunny, so it‚Äôs a great thing. And my kids, we do the Easter egg hunt. We always have fun with Easter time.‚ÄĚ
Here‚Äôs my pic with Toni:
Toni has teamed up with celebrities including Reese Witherspoon, Carrie Underwood, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Garner, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jane Lynch, who signed porcelain versions of the iconic Lindt Gold Bunny to be auctioned off at ebay.com/LindtGoldBunny to benefit Autism Speaks. And, catch Toni in her reality show, Braxton Family Values, on WE TV beginning April 12.