I met Mel and her family while on location for a photo shoot. I was the wardrobe stylist on set and Mel, the photographer. It was a casual shoot at a beach and so her son and good friend joined her. We connected instantly and I fell in love with her son, Jude. This was a couple of years before I would become a mom, but I found myself observing how Mel interacted with her Jude and all of the sweet moments they shared while at the beach. A year later, I would catch up with Mel and learn that her son had since been diagnosed with Autism. Not skipping a beat, Mel jumped into action becoming her son’s biggest advocate and in turn, demonstrating the strength and depth of a mother’s love to all of her followers. She tells her story, his story, her family’s story through her beautiful photos and I knew it was a story to share. We don’t know how the cards will fall when we have children but knowing that there are families out there learning, growing, and celebrating differences, remind us that we will all be ok. Mel was kind enough to share some of these intimate moments along with resources and tips should you find yourself on a similar journey. For more on Mel and her beautiful family, follow along at @mel_cole.


Image by Michelle Gardella

Tell us about your beautiful family. 

We are a family of 4 living the beautiful ATX life with our 2 awesome boys, Jude and River. Jude was diagnosed with autism right after his 2nd birthday. He is now 5 years old. Before his diagnosis, I was full time photographer who traveled constantly and had a studio in the Crestview neighborhood. My husband was a full time butcher and cook at Dai Due.We loved our very creative and non structured life style. But once all of Jude’s evaluations came back our world felt a lot smaller. At that point, my clients just didn’t seem important to me. Updating my facebook status or binge watching the newest show didn’t interest me at all. I immediately threw myself into autism research mode. I felt like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole. I was so curious, and wanted to figure it all out. I had no idea that autism was SO MUCH more complicated than that.

What is the Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder impacts the nervous system. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Early recognition, as well as behavioral, educational, and family therapies may reduce symptoms and support development and learning.
One thing to always remember about the autism spectrum is this: the spectrum is so big, you have one end and then there is the other. Once you meet one individual with autism, you will never meet another autistic individual like the other.

Image by Mel Cole

Your son Jude, who I have had the pleasure of spending time with, is 5 years old and on the spectrum. At what age did you realize this about Jude?

Jude turned two years old and we had a birthday party at Zilker park. I remember pushing Jude in the swing for almost the entire 2 hour party. Anytime I tried to get him out of the swing to go and sing happy birthday to him or to eat cake, he would scream. Because it was a beautiful 70 degrees in January, there were lots of people at the park that day. He was completely freaked out by all that was going on. The baby swing where he was constantly moving is where he felt safe, as most kids were running, sliding, screaming, talking etc. I remember that feeling so vividly. I finally got him out of the swing so we could sing “happy birthday” but afterwards as the kids were excited about the cake, Jude could care less. He wouldn’t touch cake or ice cream until he was almost 4 years old.
I remember going home that day and thinking, huh, something is different about Jude.

Did you see early signs of what would eventually be Jude’s diagnosis of autism?

As a first time mother, I honestly didn’t until the age of 2. Jude was a happy baby, he crawled and walked at the appropriate age. He made eye contact and was content. Looking back now, there were a few signs which I see now that I’m always studying River for. River is a completely different baby that Jude was.

What were your immediate feelings? 

Jude was a sick newborn. He was in and out of Dell for RSV complications and it was the scariest time of my life. After the age of one, he saw his pedi almost every 3 to 4 weeks because he was sick. So on his two year old annual,  the doctor had me take the 2 year old evaluation, and I remember thinking again, huh, well Jude only says about 10 single words, and never together. He also didn’t point much at that time, he had started throwing bad fits, and he was super frustrated because he didn’t know how to communicate. When his pediatrician came into the room we went over it and she said give it a few more months. She wasn’t worried because Jude had gone through the ringer with his physical health and he might have a bit of a delay due to that. But we would monitor him and check back in a few months.
I remember going back to my studio, and my gut just knew something was off. I called my mom to discuss (she was is a retired special education teacher) and she said yes, I have been seeing some sensory things going on with Jude and it’s ok, but I think we should go ahead and get him checked out. I immediately hung up the phone and called his pedi back and got the nurse. The nurse asked me what I was calling about and I just choked up, and couldn’t talk. At that moment I knew my life was about to change as a mother.

How important is early intervention?

As Temple Grandin would say, it’s everything. The earlier you can get your child into some sort of early intervention, the better it will be for them and for you.
In February 2014, I picked up the phone and called Easter Seals. Luckily I am blessed with some of the most giving family members. My cousin, who is a occupational therapist and is a couple years younger than I am, told me that in the state of Texas, that speech and occupational therapy will be free if Jude qualifies. It’s funny how you start hoping they “qualify” for these services. But seriously, you do as it’s a HUGE financial relief to have help with therapy.
After our first evaluation with Easter Seals, Jude qualified for weekly speech therapy and bi weekly occupational therapy. He wasn’t even 2.5 years old.

What is Easter Seals?

Easter Seals is a program that only goes until you are 3 years old. At that point if you are interested in going through your school district they help transition you. The home bound therapists were so helpful. After almost 2 more months of evaluations, Jude had an educational diagnosis for autism with a label of “absence of the spoken language”.

What does an autism evaluation look like?

It starts with a phone call. They ask you many questions over the phone about your child. They ask about your pregnancy and delivery, whether you delivered early, late, by c section, was your child a preemie, etc. They then sent over an occupational and speech pathologist to our home and spent an hour playing with Jude. They observed him in his own atmosphere and they talked and asked us questions. After the evaluation process, they called to let us know Jude did qualify for speech and occupational therapy and the reasons why. If you are in the Easter Seals program with plans to transition into the school district at 3 years of age, they help set up all the tests and evaluation process through the school district which is super helpful.

After that, you begin a 2 month process of evaluations with the school district. It’s a very similar process but with more paperwork. This is where you get an educational diagnosis, which is what Jude has. Its very intimidating at first, but they walk you through the process and are very helpful and organized.

Image by Mel Cole

How did all of this change impact your life and relationships?

While Jude was in his 6 months of intensive therapy and evaluation process, as a mother knew I had to change my career. I had read so much about how important routine and structure is for kids with autism. At the time, my husband was helping open a restaurant and he and I were hardly on the same page about Jude and what was going on. We processed this time in our life very differently. I feel that it’s important that I share this part with you all too. Because it’s normal, and acceptance is hard when it comes to our own children. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that something might be wrong or different about our child. And they all are in their own ways, but denying your child of this, will only hurt them.
So as a mother I did what I had to do. I sacrificed my photography business. I gave up my studio, and I immediately looked for an 8-5 job that had full benefits with flexible hours for Jude. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult that was for me. I had worked so hard to be where I was in my photo career. I studied photography in college, I interned in nyc, started my photography business in 2008, and was working on many creative projects at the time. I kind of went “poof”! I deleted my facebook and twitter page, and eventually took down my website. I knew I had to give Jude 100% of my attention. I read many success stories of families that had children on the spectrum. It wasn’t to say I couldn’t do photography ever again, I just knew I was going to take a different route.
It was a downright lonely time for me. I felt scared and worried for Jude. I felt disconnected from my own friends who were mothers or weren’t mothers. I resented my husband for not seeing or understanding all that was changing at the time. I did every evaluation on my own or with my mother who was by my side the entire time. I was sad. I felt SO guilty for feeling sad.
It was just a super tough time for me. Looking back on it all now, and knowing what I now know, I was just going through the “grieving” stage. And let me tell you, after you grieve, you can fully move on. You will always have those certain feelings to remind you of all you went through and how you came out stronger. But I can honestly say that I cannot imagine my son Jude any different than he is today. He has changed my world, he has changed our family, and our hearts our absolutely complete.
Image by Mel Cole

You are Jude’s biggest advocate. 

Yes! At first it was a little hard for me. I was always known as the easy going parent at Jude’s school. Over time I turned into mama bear, and I made sure I never left Jude with someone who didn’t “get him”. It took Jude some warming up to do as he really had to trust you before letting you in.
Shortly after therapy started, I remember telling his teachers that Jude’s therapist wanted to set a “potty training” goal for him, they thought he was ready, because Jude would wake up every morning with his diaper off and it would be dry. So I went to school and told his teachers that we were wanting to try it. They looked at me like I was crazy, and then said, “we really need him to be able to tell us that he needs to use the potty before we try potty training.” I looked at them and said, “well you’re going to have to figure out another way for him to communicate that to you guys,” and I walked off. Two days later, Jude was fully potty trained at a little over 2 years old and he has never had an accident. That right there showed us a lot. He can do it, he understands what you are saying, he just can’t figure out how to get it out, but if we all work hard and believe in him, he is going to move mountains.
It takes a village with a child with Autism spectrum disorder.  I think a lot of children with ASD are misperceived. I think the awareness is just now starting to get out and more and more people are starting to understand a little bit more about the spectrum.
Before starting public school after his 3rd birthday, his PPCD teacher called us to set up a date for his ARD review and to tour the school and classroom. My mind was blown that my soon to be 3 year old was really about to start public school for 3 hours a day for early intervention. After we did Jude’s first ARD review, his teacher walked us down to the classroom. Immediately we could tell that this teacher had a gift. When we got to her classroom, Jude went inside and she started to introduce him to his classmates. There was a sweet girl with down syndrome, and another child who could talk a little but who wasn’t able to walk. In that moment, I came to the realization that Jude was in special education. I immediately felt terrible after leaving the school. I was ashamed of how I felt, but in that moment I was taken back on the road we had with Jude.
The day after Jude’s 3rd birthday, he started public school. I walked him to the cafeteria where the kids did assembly and thought how the hell is this going to work? My child who has auditory issues is about to be in assembly with children from ages pre-k to 5th grade. His teacher immediately grabbed him, as I walked off in tears, I thought, how can I leave my baby in a place where I knew no one? I wasn’t even back to my car yet, and his teacher had already emailed me pictures of him with his new friends smiling and happy. I knew then that it was going to be ok, and this was our new community.

What advice would you give to families whose children have recently been diagnosed with a developmental disability? 

My biggest advice is this, don’t be ashamed or dismiss your child’s special needs. Find your child the help that they need, and if you need help, never be afraid to ask. It can be such an overwhelming process.
Celebrate your child for who they are. Find like-minded parents to befriend.
It doesn’t seem fair that we have to also educate the people around us who say ignorant things about autism, but I’m hear to tell you, take a deep breath and kindly smile and tell them’ No actually…..

What were your go-to resources when you needed information and support?

His amazing teacher, Ms. Erin Ganakas of AISD PPCD. I can’t say enough things about this special woman.

How has motherhood changed you? 

I have slowed way down in my life. I choose to live in the present and not in the past or the future, as my future can change day to day. I live for the “little things.” My husband and I will call each other laughing over new things we hear out of Jude’s mouth these days. For a year and a half, I would pick up Jude from school, and I would wonder when my son would ever be able to talk to me. I would talk to him the entire drive home as if we were having a conversation. Looking back on this, I now know he was listening, at the time he just couldn’t get it out. Every single day, he blows me away with something new that he does. Progress is something and to us it’s everything.

Image by Mel Cole

Tell us about the relationship with Jude and his baby brother River.

Haha! If only we could have recorded the first day we brought River home from the hospital. It was a very “loud” first few days. When River would cry, Jude would immediately shut down, put his hands to his ears, and yell “I don’t like the cry!” and cry himself.
We knew it was going to take some adapting, as it does for all families when they have multiple children. As time has gone on, Jude has learned to love his baby brother. And of course River loves his big brother. They are 4.5 years apart. We knew we needed to have some time with just Jude until it all made sense. Being a big brother is a great responsibility for Jude, it has opened him up and has helped him engage. Now that River is 9 months and can grab Jude’s ipad or jump on him while he is lying down, we here the funniest things come out of Jude’s mouth when he talks to his brother.

Tell us about your hope for Jude’s future.

There is no doubt that Jude is going big places. As an extremely gifted boy, but yet socially delayed, my hope is that he always continues to have the support that he has now. As long as Jude is pushed daily, I know that things in his life will come easier. I do wonder/worry at times as he gets older, will it be more noticeable that there is something different about him? I worry about other kids picking on him. With April being Autism Awareness month, I feel that it’s my job to be a voice for the Autism community. To spread love, awareness and acceptance to others who may not know much about what autism is. These kids are no less. They are gifted and extremely intelligent kids who just happen to process things differently than the neurotypical.
Jude has changed our life. He is the glue to our family and he has made us stronger. He is so loved by so many that no matter what challenges he will have, he will overcome all the hurdles and will always do well in life. But if I can predict his future now, he will be a computer coder. LOL, It’s crazy how gifted this boy is.

What’s next for the Cole family?

Life is so good these days and we feel extremely blessed. I’m currently enjoying property management here in ATX, while Chase works hunting schools a couple of weekends a month with Dai Due and gets to stay at home with River during the week days. Jude LOVES having his daddy home in the afternoons to play Mario with. I come home daily to a home cooked meal and happy children and a wonderful husband. 2 years ago I couldn’t have seen this picture. With lots of love, faith, support, therapy and balance, here we are right now.
You can find me on social media on Instagram at @Mel_Cole