MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Debbi Hudak noticed that there were plenty of organizations and events designed to raise the awareness of adults about autism, but there was very little going on to help children understand the disorder.
So Hudak, the mother of a 22-year-old autistic daughter, decided to write a book aimed at elementary school-aged kids that she hopes will fill the void.
The result was “Why Doesn't Alicia Talk?”—a self-published endeavor that is now selling well on Amazon. The story tells of a young girl's concern and curiosity about a classmate who seems different and begins a journey of discovery into the myriad aspects of autism.
Hudak, who has lived with her family in Mahopac for the past 24 years, is a longtime teacher’s aide in the Mahopac School District—primarily in special education at the elementary school level.
When Hudak’s daughter, Alicia, was 17, a 6-year-old boy attempted to strike up a conversation with her.
“He asked why can’t she talk and I thought that was a legitimate question,” Hudak recalled. “We are always trying to raise awareness for adults, but why not for kids too? I would sit in these classes where a book is read every day and I thought, let me write a book that teachers can read in school. Let’s start the discussion; let’s talk about it. I thought maybe I could put into words what it’s like for someone who can’t talk.”
Hudak became a teacher’s aide in Mahopac in 2003 and in 2011 she was laid off along with 20 other aides due to budget cuts. She was later re-hired, but it was during her time off that she began to realize she could be proactive to help raise autism awareness.
Hudak has two daughters. Her oldest, Veronica, and Alicia were born just 16 months apart.
“Alicia was born in 1993. She was developing typically and seemed right on target, but then she started to regress,” Hudak said. “She wanted more and more to be on her own and suddenly there was no more speech. We had always done things together like mommy and me groups and she was always running around. But then she didn’t want to socialize and she got very fussy.”
They brought Alicia to the family doctor who grew concerned that she had absolutely no reaction to him.
“Most kids either love him to death or they start crying,” Hudak explained. “Alicia was indifferent.”
A pediatric neurologist was recommended.
“She had no fear of danger and was tripping over toys instead of walking around them,” Hudak recalled. “The neurologist was the first to suggest autism. He said educate, educate, educate— learn as much as you can about it.”
Back then, when Alicia was first diagnosed, most school districts had no protocols or programs to address special needs such as autism.
“I decided to work in the schools because it was difficult to find services for her and Mahopac had nothing in place back then,” Hudak said. “She was the first to receive a home program. It’s called ABA therapy (applied behavioral analysis). I had no family here; no daycare to take care of her, so I knew I had to work in the school district.”
Hudak quickly fell in love with working in the schools, particularly with the special needs students.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” she said. “I learned so much.”
Alicia is now 22 and is doing well.
“It’s taken some time,” Hudak said. “We were just out shopping all morning. She really likes to go to the book store. She seems very happy. She is in a day program and she will live at home with us for as long as she can and continues to get speech therapy and occupational therapy I don’t want to say that this is as far as she is ever going to go though. She just made her First Communication and confirmation [in church] last week at the age of 22 and it was an incredible moment. I never thought she would be able to do it.”
Hudak said the family has been fortunate to find programs and care for Alicia as an adult, but worries what will happen in the future as governments seem poised to continue to cut services.
“What happens when in 10 years they are cutting services to the handicapped? Back when [Alicia] was born it was about 1 and 10,000 [diagnosed with autism] and now it’s about 1 in 56,” she said. “If I was on a waiting list for services when it was 1 and 10,000, what’s going to happen now? I see a freight train coming and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Hudak said she met last year with the Putnam County Legislature to advocate for more services but hasn’t heard back from lawmakers since then.
In the meantime, she hopes elementary schools nationwide will pick up copies of “Why Can’t Alicia Speak?” and read them to their students. She notes that a Chappaqua preschool has purchased 10 copies and she has donated several copies to Mahopac schools where they will be read during the month of April—Autism Awareness Month.
“My goal is to see it read nationwide at all elementary schools,” she said.
Hudak gives kudos to the book’s illustrator, 19-year-old Caitlin Finney, for helping to pave the way to its fruition.
“She illustrated it beautifully,” Hudak said of Finney, a former Mahopac resident. “Otherwise the book never would have happened. She is why it got off the ground and I’m grateful for that.”
Hudak also acknowledged the support of the school district and the Mahopac community.
“I am grateful to all my coworkers in Mahopac schools for being so supportive as well as the Mahopac community—the library, the supermarkets,” she said. “Everyone is so nice about embracing the children. We need compassion and we need empathy and that is what I want to create from this book.”
“Why Doesn’t Alicia Talk” is available at Amazon.com and at Hudak’s website, www.whydoesntaliciatalk.com. The book can also be found at the Mahopac Library in the local authors section.