Tempe mom’s struggle with kids’ autism opens doors for her, them

Michelle Thorne, who founded an organization to help mothers of autistic children, at home with her daughter Maria and son Jackson. — Wrangler News photo by Joyce Coronel

By Sammie Ann Wicks

Like many parents who’ve just learned their child has autism, Warner Ranch mom Michele Thorne says she at first felt overwhelmed.

“When my son was first diagnosed with autism, I really struggled with the realization, knowing this was going to be life- changing, and I didn’t know how I could cope with it,” Thorne says, and remembers the effects the event had on her outlook.

“I fell into depression, wondering how I would be able to help my son,” she says. Her son, Jackson, now six, is attending a school that’s well-versed in his special needs.

Thorne’s concerns deepened, however, when she was told her three-year-old daughter, Maria, also was autistic.

With Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Biological Sciences from Arizona State University,
at the time of her children’s diagnoses Thorne was continuing with original genetic research in the university’s doctoral program, contributing to knowledge of gene expression in microbes.

Now that plan had to change, but Thorne says the difficulties she faced in finding ways to deal with her children’s needs eventually developed into positive growth and enabled her to help other parents with the same issues.

“When my depression deepened, I set to work to fix that in ways I already knew,” she recalls.

“I began to be aware of the need for deep self-care in the middle of all that, and realized it wasn’t just mental, it was physical, too. I started going to the gym, getting guidance from others, and learned how to take breaks from the mental stress, just like any other caregiver needs.”

She also began reaching out to others with experiences similar to her own.

“I got a tremendous amount of help from the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix,” she recounts, “taking advantage of their support groups. And those helped put me back together.”

Now, she says, positive changes began to flow from her initially difficult experience.

“Honestly, now, sometimes I feel lucky I’m the mom of an autistic kid, because not only have I grown from it, I was motivated to create a framework for other parents of special needs children,” she recalls.

That framework became an organization of Thorne’s own vision and design, D.A.M.E.S. (Differently Abled Mothers Empowerment Society, https://damesusa.com) which in her blog she notes “aims to take a holistic approach to helping mothers raising differently abled children.”

Starting a major support organization hasn’t been easy, she says.

“No organization like this existed then,” Thorne recalls, “so we had to do major fund-raising just to start,” she says. “I began contacting people I’d already worked with, already knew, Pilates people, gym people, you know, many others, and the response was really positive. Then when some funding happened and we were able to launch the website, things took off from there.”

Throughout the group’s start-up phase, Thorne says she was committed to “all-

inclusiveness,” and always reaching into the group itself for help and support.

“My belief is, ‘Find Your Tribe,’” Thorne declares. “So, for instance, when we got funded for the web, the designer we were able to get is a parent of a child with special needs, too.”

All-inclusiveness for this new local leader ultimately means being committed to not leave out anyone who has a need for DAMES help.

“We truly want any parent with a child with special needs or with a challenging health situation to be involved with us,” Thorne says.

One of these, Rebecca Ruiz, whose daughter Elena has been dealing with chronic fibromyalgia, says joining the DAMES group has helped her better serve her daughter’s needs.

“Elena’s health issues were vastly helped by my access to the resources offered by the DAMES program, and I highly encourage any family going through these things to join us–it will help them, too,” she says.

Thorne stresses those who wish to join DAMES who may have financial challenges doing so, even with a low membership fee of $25, can get a group sponsor or receive a scholarship.

“I don’t want money or any other lack of resources to be a barrier to someone who wants to join us, so we welcome them to approach us,” she says.

Most of DAMES’ resources are made available online at its website, and include guided meditations, workouts, and an abundance of helpful information. The group also has regular guest speakers.

In her website blog, Thorne stresses the emphasis on online access is crucial to parents with uncommonly busy lives taking care of their children.

“We want mothers to connect with crucial resources, anytime and anywhere, using their smartphones,” she writes, adding resources also are available through the apps DAMES created for iPhone and Android.

The group’s website’s member area also offers such activities as Meditation Monday, Wellness Wednesday, Pilates/Yoga Now, and Fitness Friday.

The ultimate payoff, says this DAMES’ dynamic young organizer, is a win-win all around, making it possible for special-needs children and their parents not only to get through their challenges, but to grow and thrive within them.

Creating DAMES helped get me back to myself,” she reflects. “And the whole process taught me a basic truth: embrace your children for who they really are, and things will work out.”

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