Autism Awareness Month may be coming to a close, but by using the social network MyAutismTeam, parents of children with autism spectrum disorder can spread awareness and find support throughout the year.
MyAutismTeam is a part of the MyHealthTeams network, online communities for people living with or caring for those with chronic health conditions. On the network, users share information about the members of their support teams — parents, specialists, businesses — with other users looking for the same.
“One in two Americans suffers from a chronic condition or disease,” says Eric Peacock, co-founder and CEO of MyHealthTeams. “That includes everything from autism and ADHD to diabetes, Parkinson’s and breast cancer. What’s more, that number is expected to grow 42% in the next 10 years.”
MyHealthTeams decided to focus on autism for its first network because one in 88 children in America is diagnosed with symptoms of autism. “Parents of children diagnosed with autism face enormous challenges and have to become autism and special needs experts practically overnight,” Peacock says. “Naturally, they want to connect with other parents and learn from them.”
MyAutismTeam officially launched in December 2011, after several months of testing, growing the user base and improving the site. It opened in beta to users last June, beginning with just 30 parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. But when word got out, the site grew quickly. According to Peacock, MyAutismTeam hit 10,000 registered parents from all 50 states within four months. Today, it has more than 22,000 registered parents.
MyAutismTeam believes it should be easy to find the best people around to help a parent when his or her child is diagnosed with autism. With MyAutismTeam, parents can get in touch with other parents, search a directory of more than 30,000 autism specialists and access a searchable Q&A section of 600-plus questions (If a user wants to ask a new question, the answer rate is 97.5%, according to Peacock).
The network has also partnered with Autism Speaks and Easter Seals, two organizations at the forefront of autism awareness and research. As a result, MyAutismTeam has been able to incorporate quite a large database of autism resources.
“We’re becoming the Yelp for autism,” says Peacock. “If you want to find autism specialists recommended by other parents who have been in your shoes, this is the place to do it.”
James Vaughan, the father of an 11-year-old boy with autism in West Haven, Utah, says the help he has received from MyAutismTeam has been tremendous. “The life of an autism parent is often one that is a frustrating and long road,” Vaughan says. “MyAutismTeam provides a network where everyone is in the same boat…There is no other place in social media that can give a parent that complete, non-judgmental support, the helpful tips that keep us going, and the stories that give us hope during the most trying times.”
Lara Marek’s fiancé has three children: a 14-year-old boy diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and two 7-year-old twin girls, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder, and one who is neurotypical (that is, not on the autism spectrum). MyAutismTeam has allowed Marek to share with other parents her experiences and questions, and it gives her an outlet without fear of judgment.
“The best thing anyone can do is learn about the things that impact his or her life,” says Marek, “and in my case I have to admit I had some misconceptions about autism. Acceptance is crucial no matter who we are. The more we can embrace what makes us different, the better off we are with self-appreciation.”
MyHealthTeams is planning dozens of additional networks that will focus on other chronic conditions. MyBreastCancerTeam, for example, is scheduled to launch within the next few weeks.
“It’s our mission to make sure it’s easy for those folks to find the best people around to help them,” says Peacock. “We love what we do and won’t stop until we help as many of them as we can.”