Madison’s story: Speaking up for autism

Madison1Madison Marilla had reached her breaking point.

Starting at a new school after a cross-country move from California to Massachusetts isn’t easy for any eighth grader, but Madison wasn’t just any middle school student. She was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

“No one understood my autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” Madison says. “Kids would push me, steal my things, trip me in the hall, memorize my locker combination.”

Madison started feeling very negative.

After speaking with her mentor, she decided the kids in her class might be able to understand her better if they were more aware of her autism.

Jess, Madison’s mentor, gave her courage and a voice. “She changed me forever. She was always there for me and she always supported me.”

Becoming an autism advocate

“I stood in front of my class, and I said, ‘I was diagnosed with autism in 1999.’ I said, ‘It’s OK to be different.’”

Although Madison’s classmates got the message, she knew there was more work to do.

She set up an autism awareness table at her middle school to spread the message that not only is it OK to be different — it’s a good thing.

When she reached high school, the table transformed into an autism awareness club with more than 50 members. When Channel 7 got wind up of the club, Madison was featured in a Class Act profile.

Madison’s journey with autism hasn’t been easy. Although she has high-functioning autism, Madison struggles with OCD and ADHD, among other behaviors. Dr. Robert Wolff, from the Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Neurology, helps Madison manage all three conditions.

“I always had to have the same seat in the car or else I would throw a fit. I would line up objects or stack up cups and throw them down. I’d climb on the counters, draw on the walls and rip up the carpets or the seatbelt. It was very hard for me.”

Madison finds her gifts

As Madison’s outlook changed, she realized her autism had given her gifts and talents along with the drive to pursue her passions.

Madison models a few of her bracelets.
Madison models a few of her bracelets.

She started her own jewelry business and sells bracelets she makes on her loom. She can name every U.S. president, state and capital; and she can say “hello” in 50 different languages — all skills she taught herself.

But that’s not all Madison does.

Inspired by Jess, Madison decided it was her turn to become a guide for kids with autism. On weekends, she helps teach music therapy, yoga, Tai kwon do and art classes for autistic children.

In addition to that, she mentors kids one-on-one during the week, just like Jess did for her. Knowing many of the children have restricted interests, she pushes them out of their comfort zones by doing activities that differ from their usual interests.

“Although the kids are having a hard time, I can relate. I had those same struggles.”

When Madison looks back on her life as a child with autism, she feels compassion for the child that grapples with being different. But she says now she knows that it was OK for her to have those behaviors. As she approaches her high school graduation, Madison says she knows she wants to spend her life helping autistic kids accept themselves.

“Autism is a journey, not a disorder, which means you can be positive about autism,” Madison says. “It doesn’t set you back, it moves you forward.”

Learn more about the Boston Children’s autism center. Make an appointment with a caregiver in the autism center.