Being a big sister has always been special to resident Elif Cagin, 28, who was inspired to become a special needs educator through her experiences as a sibling to her brother with autism.
To honor him, she will walk in support of the autism community during Orange County Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Saturday, Oct. 13 .
Her brother, 23, was diagnosed with autism at age three. He is currently enrolled at Pasadena City College.
"It is easy to talk about the work I do at a private school for students with special needs. That is my job. It is much harder to open up about my brother with special needs. I have a younger brother who is affected by this complex social, verbal and neurological disorder called autism," Cagin said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, autism now affects about 1 in every 88 American children, including 1 in 54 boys. Autism is a complex condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges.
While her brother is doing well now and is successfully attending a city college, it wasn’t always that way and there were times that were very hard.
"Nobody can really know what it is like to be a sibling to a person with a disability unless they have walked in those shoes. And with a diagnosis rate at 1:88 children, that means there are a lot of families living with autism every day in addition to my own family," she said. "There are a lot of birthday parties that families don’t go to because of how an affected child’s social challenges can manifest themselves in peer settings, movies that families don’t see because of sensory issues that arise in a dark, loud confined space, and new clothing items that don't get acquired because every last family resource is spent trying to provide treatments and coping mechanisms for our kiddos. I see it in the families I teach and I lived it every day growing up."
Cagin loves her brother and his influence on her life completely informed and inspired her career.
Today, she is a special needs educator at New Vista School, a grade 6-12+ progressive educational center that provides a safe, structured environment serving the needs of students with Asperger Syndrome, high-functioning Autism, and language learning disabilities.
"I am proud of the incredible, caring, and compassionate work we do with this all-too-easily ignored population and I remind myself that my students may be someone’s brother too, and that it is my duty to help them the way that others helped our family and my brother when he was younger," she said.
She will walk in support of her school, her brother and the Orange County autism community on Saturday.
"In addition, this year, I am honored to be chair of the 8000-person event, which supports Autism Speaks - the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, funding research into the causes, prevention and treatments for autism, and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families," she said.