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Community Spotlight: Autism Advocate Rico Winston

Marina Sarris

Date Published: July 25, 2019

During a dozen years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Rico Winston learned and lived the Marine motto, Semper Fidelis, Latin for “always faithful.”

Years later, when he became the father of a child with autism, he knew what he had to do. “As a Marine, Semper Fidelis was instilled in me. It is now my duty to instill being ‘always faithful’ in my son, Israel,” he said. He made those remarks at a speech he gave at a World Autism Day event in Baltimore, where Winston is a faithful advocate for autism.

Winston immersed himself in Israel's treatment, much of which took place at Kennedy Krieger Institute. There, he learned about SPARK, the largest ever genetic study of autism. He and Israel joined SPARK. As Winston explains, he made a promise to God that he would do his part to help his son and other families of children with autism. Participating in research is one way to help, he says.

The Shock of an Autism Diagnosis

Israel Santiago Winston was an engaging baby. At around 5 months, he tried to say, “Daddy.” And months later he said, “Love you Daddy,” Winston recalls. Those words were precious to Winston, a first-time parent. But a short time later, Israel stopped talking. He did not respond when his father called his name, although occasionally he would glance in his direction.

Winston showed a video of Israel to his pediatrician, who referred him for an evaluation. At age 2, Israel was diagnosed with autism. “I had never heard of autism until my son was diagnosed with it,” Winston says. Like many parents, he worried about the future. “There was some anxiety, wondering what's going to happen to my son when I'm not here,” he recalls.

The son of educators, Winston speaks six languages, including fluent Spanish. So he decided to learn one more language — sign language — to help him communicate with his silent preschooler. “We both started learning sign language because I was informed that it was a possibility he would never speak,” he says.

A single parent, Winston immersed himself in learning about autism and finding therapies to help his son. He took Israel for appointments at Kennedy Krieger's Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD). Israel also receives autism services through Baltimore City Public Schools. Winston describes their autism journey as difficult at times, but also deeply rewarding.

Israel began talking and making eye contact after his fourth birthday. Israel is now 9, a fan of superheroes, and a “social butterfly,” Winston says. Israel also enjoys horseback riding — he is learning to gallop — and has earned a yellow belt in Kung Fu.

This boy who didn't speak for several years is now learning words in Spanish and Chinese.

Helping Other Families of Children with Autism

Winston advocates in Maryland for autism awareness, services, early intervention, and research.

He has traveled to the state capital to lobby for autism services. He is also active in Friends of CARD, a parent group that helps mentor families of newly-diagnosed children, promotes research, and organizes educational and social events. He served on a panel that presented fathers’ perspectives of autism at CARD.

He also serves on the Community Advisory Council at SPARK. As an African-American of Hispanic descent, he encourages members of minority groups to participate in research because they are often under-represented.

Winston advocates for early intervention services, which he credits with helping Israel make big gains in speech, learning, and social interaction. “To see where he is now, compared to the place where we were learning sign language, is phenomenal,” Winston says. He looks forward to research into the causes of autism, as well as into therapies and interventions to help children like Israel.

“I'm grateful to say, through intervention and therapy, that Israel will say to me ‘Daddy I love you’ numerous times a day,” Winston says. “Each and every time I hear my son say ‘Daddy I love you’ is as memorable as the first time. Each day is a new beginning on our journey of love.”

Photo reprinted with permission of Kennedy Krieger Institute.