When Julian Maha and Michele Kong's first child was diagnosed with autism, their world turned upside down.

Maha and Kong's son Abram was an easy, delightful, precocious baby at first. Around age 2, his behavior suddenly changed. He stopped talking. He stopped sleeping. He cried inconsolably half the night.

Though they are both physicians themselves, his parents were at a loss. They consulted several doctors, finally landing an appointment with one of the top speech delay specialists in the country.


After a short examination, the doctor abruptly delivered the daunting news: Abram has autism. He would probably never speak, never say, "I love you." And the doctor's opinion was that there was a good chance Maha and Kong would end up institutionalizing him because he was only going to get worse.

Maha and Kong were stunned.

"It was as if someone had dropped a bomb in our lives, and we were just standing there holding the pieces," Maha said in a TED Talk. Abram's diagnosis changed everything — including what would become the couple's life calling.

Maha and Kong quickly learned that families affected by autism often feel isolated and excluded from society.

The couple found themselves thrust into a whole new world, and soon discovered that many parents of kids with autism find themselves with little social support.

Some people with an autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal completely or just at times, which can make communication difficult. The vocalizations that sometimes come with autism can be unnerving to people without autism who are unfamiliar with them. Too many noises, lights, people, or other stimuli can push people with autism into sensory overload, which can lead to meltdowns.

And then there are the assumptions. Because they communicate differently, people with autism are often perceived to be unintelligent or unfeeling.

Abram and his brother Juda. Photo via Julian Maha.

However, Maha and Kong realized that many of society's perceptions of autism are simply wrong. People with autism are often highly intelligent and experience a full range of emotions. Many absolutely can and do feel and understand — it's just that sometimes, they just can't show it in ways that most of us without autism understand.

Maha and Kong believe that many of these prejudices can be dissolved through awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. So they set out on a major mission.

They founded KultureCity, an all-volunteer nonprofit that advocates for acceptance and inclusion of people with autism — and helps make it happen.

Based out of Birmingham, Alabama, where Maha and Kong live, KultureCity seeks to transform our society to be accepting and inclusive of neurodiversity.

"Everyone's aware of autism now," says Maha. "I think it's the next step of acceptance and inclusion that's really going to start making changes for so many kids."

Noise-cancelling headphones can help a child with autism in sensory overload. Photo via Julian Maha.

KultureCity works toward that goal by training people in guest service positions on how to interact with guests with sensory processing differences. They also help make spaces more inclusive through minor adjustments and accommodations. The training is the most important thing, though, Maha says. When non-autistic people know what to expect and have tools for interacting with someone who may hit sensory overload, everyone's experience is more positive.

KultureCity has helped create sensory-inclusive spaces at more than half of NBA stadiums, in addition to other venues.

The organization works with zoos, aquariums, professional sports venues, and other public spaces around the country to help them be more sensory-inclusive.

Maha points out that there's a difference between a sensory-friendly space or event and a sensory-inclusive one. A sensory-friendly space provides lower noise levels and crowds, but such accommodations might hinder the experiences of others. A sensory-inclusive space provides accommodations that have little to no impact on anyone else, but make a big difference for people prone to sensory overload.

Such an accommodation might be a room where people can escape the crowds and noise in a sports stadium, for example. Or it could be a grab bag filled with things like noise-cancelling headphones, stimming tools, and weighted lap pads (which can help people feel grounded).

Calm lighting, minimal decor, and various grounding activities give people a respite from sensory overload. Photo via Julian Maha.

But that really only scratches the surface of what KultureCity is doing. Most recently, they've created a free app that provides various resources for people with sensory processing differences and parents of kids with autism.

It can be a challenging diagnosis, but Maha wants people to know that people with autism are no different from your children or loved ones who don't have it.

"They view the world differently and they take in the world differently from us, but their wants and needs are still similar," Maha notes. "They still seek acceptance and inclusion, they want to be part of the community, and it's our mission to help embrace them regardless of their differences."

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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