A Shoulder to Lean On

Angeletta Giles hasn’t missed a beat since her 10-year-old daughter, Londyn, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 4. She was ready to accept the challenge, and has since found a calling in helping other families of special needs children.

By Amy Gordy, Photography by Katie Childs and Courtesy Giles, Shot on Location at Loblolly Creamery

Angeletta and Londyn

Angeletta Giles has a uniquely qualified shoulder to lean on, and it’s easy to see why. With her patient, understanding temperament, she’s the one who parents from all corners of the country will call—any hour of the
day or night—to help talk them through the hard times.

Angeletta’s journey began with the excitement of being pregnant at the same time as her sister. The sisters gave birth, and as the cousins grew up, Angeletta noticed her baby niece, Kristyn, was developing at a faster rate than Londyn. “I could see that Kristyn was talking when Londyn wasn’t and I thought, ‘Oh, she’ll catch up.’ At Londyn’s 18- month check up the pediatrician asked me how many words she had and I couldn’t tell her any, so she suggested we get an evaluation,” Angeletta said.

After a home evaluation that finally took place at age 2 1⁄2, Angeletta was told Londyn was ‘fine’ and it was recommended that she just enroll in preschool and should eventually catch up. Angeletta enrolled her daughter in school, but kept a close eye on her development.

“Her pre-K 3 teacher, Ms. Doris, was so loving and patient. Londyn had never been with kids before, and she would cry and cry, so Ms. Doris would sit and hold her all day long. That’s what she needed during that time, and sometimes you just have to focus on what a child needs at that moment,” Angeletta said.

In 2011, at age 4, Londyn was still only speaking in one-word phrases and Angeletta knew she needed more than just preschool. She enrolled Londyn at North Hills Services, a child developmental center that provides
specialized therapies for children with developmental disabilities, and started on her path to getting Londyn the therapy she needed.

“There was an autism specialist at North Hills whom I still talk to. By that time the school where I was teachinghad closed, so I was a stay-at-home mom. I was just sitting up at her school for an hour every day, and they found me a job as PTA president. They really loved Londyn and helped me navigate what we needed to do for her.”

Londyn was officially diagnosed in January 2012 by Dr. Maya Lopez at Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s Dennis Developmental Center, a clinic that specializes in the assessment of developmental conditions in children.

“Dr. Lopez likes to keep up with her kids—she wants to see them every year. She said she was so overwhelmed
with the love that Londyn and I shared. She asked what I did for a living, and I wasn’t working at the time. I was
spending my time researching, trying to find out what Londyn needs, but I told her what I wanted to do is advocate for families and be a shoulder to cry on. I wanted to be the person someone knows they can call. She said ‘OK lets do that. And I said, Ok.’”

Dr. Lopez reached back out to Angeletta within a week and the plans for Parent Advocates for Awesome Kids (PAAK) began to form. “I just sat in my bed and typed my vision. For the long term it was relationships, it was being positive when there is so much negativity. I didn’t realize the impact just the word ‘autism’ could have. I started realizing in conversations that parents were really struggling. They were struggling with the word—It’s not a death sentence—and the negativity of the word had them shut down.”

Angeletta was able to pull from her unique experience of being a minority at the ‘table’ in many ways to help other parents. “When I first sat at the table I was the only one with a daughter. Research has shown autism in boys is a lot different than with girls. A lot of times I was the only black woman. Most of the time, I was the only single mom,” Angeletta said.

She’s open to sharing her experiences co-parenting after divorce with a special needs child, and even hopes to write a book on the topic one day. Until that time, she shares whatever she can through PAAK with phone calls, emails and seminars to help other parents who are struggling.

“I was taking two different journeys during Londyn’s diagnosis. I was becoming a single mom and becoming a mom of a child with special needs all at once. I’m proud of my journey. By me being in this sensitive, yet awesome situation it just opened the door for me to receive people and really see things. Autism doesn’t see color, economic status or religion. I’ve met with the rich and famous with autism and they were just as lost as the person with no money.”

Through PAAK, Angeletta has been able to connect with parents across the globe. “I had a mom from Germany call before; recently a mom in West Virginia reached out and said, ‘I saw your daughter online, and I’m having problems.’ I talk and text with these moms. I’m available anytime for them.”

Angeletta’s education and career background also uniquely qualify her for the journey she’s on. She has a master’s degree in education and has worked as a teacher, pre-school director and district behavioral specialist/supervisor. Since founding PAAK she’s been a part of several statewide committees. She’s been an advisory council member for the Education of Children with Disabilities. She’s worked with Autism Speaks, Autism Treatment Network, and been a member of the parent advisory council for Little Rock School District.

Through all of her advocacy, PAAK is still her biggest passion, along with raising Londyn. When asked how Londyn is doing, Angeletta’s face absolutely lights up. Londyn, 10, is a thriving fourth grade student at Don R. Roberts Elementary School. She’s well liked among her peers and is passionate about cheering on the special needs squad at Cheer City United.

“Londyn is a kind-hearted soul; she’s really in tune with how people feel. I’m raising a child that loves Jesus and loves his people too. If you appear sad, she’s not afraid to approach you, and she’s going to ask if you are OK. I lead a small group at my church and we go out to strangers and tell them they are valued and loved by Jesus. One time we were at McCain Mall and there was a soldier in fatigues and she goes up to him and it just echoes through the whole mall, ‘Bless this man and thank you and protect him, Lord.’ I get such a benefit to see my child really love people.”

Londyn is following in her mother’s advocacy footsteps. As an Arkansas Children’s Hospital Ambassador, the two have had some great experiences, including the time Londyn sang the national anthem on the steps of the state capitol in front of 2,500 people for the Autism Walk.

“I love that I can say I’m doing something I love. One day soon I know PAAK will have a staff, but right now it’s just me and Londyn. It’s been an incredible journey and a team effort.”