Melinda Lauffenburger Featured In “Of Character” Article

July 27th, 2015
OF CHARACTER – MAKING A POSITIVE OUT OF A NEGATIVE by Heather Warlick Featuring Melinda Lauffenburger, founder and Executive Director of AutismOklahoma THIS ARTICLE WAS […]

OF CHARACTER – MAKING A POSITIVE OUT OF A NEGATIVE by Heather Warlick

Featuring Melinda Lauffenburger, founder and Executive Director of AutismOklahoma

THIS ARTICLE WAS PRINTED IN THE OKLAHOMAN ON SUNDAY, JULY 26

To watch a video about this article, click here

 

No kid is a mistake, and every parent has what it takes to be a parent to their children. That’s the motto of Melinda Lauffenburger, founder and CEO of Autism Oklahoma.

Melinda Lauffenburger, Executive Director

Melinda Lauffenburger, Executive Director

That motto became clear to Lauffenburger when her daughter Joy, who is now 22, was diagnosed with autism at age 7.

Lauffenburger and her husband, Dean Lauffenburger, always had an affinity toward young people. Even before they had their own daughters, their home was a magnet to teens. Their home was a positive, welcoming place where teens felt safe and nurtured.

“Dean and I always had a young adult living with us,” she said. She loved young people and their youthful energy was perfectly in synch with the positive vibe that was ever-
present in the Lauffenburger home.

It was a tragic event that cemented in Lauffenburger’s mind the concept of just how much support young people need to thrive. A 21-year-old female relative who had lived with the family for a time was murdered while working a pizza delivery job.

As horrific as that event was, Lauffenburger and her husband felt even more compelled to support young people in their journeys toward adulthood.

Perhaps it was the teens who were magnetized toward the Lauffenburgers that prepared Melinda Lauffenburger for what would become her life’s calling—helping kids and their families who are struggling with autism.

The ‘A’ word

Melinda and Dean Lauffenburger married at age 26, after graduating from Oklahoma State University. They moved to Edmond when Melinda got a job at Hertz.

When Joy Lauffenburger was born, Melinda and Dean, who were 34 at the time, were “over the moon crazy about having our first baby.”

Joy was a beautiful girl, but had problems with speech and became increasingly frustrated with her inability to communicate. This became evident around age 3. Her parents were duly concerned and took her to four different sessions of multidisciplinary evaluations during which experts in various childhood diseases and disabilities evaluated Joy.

“No one came back with autism,” Lauffenburger said. In fact, many of these experts stated they were sure it wasn’t the “A” word.

“We were like, what in the heck is the ‘A’ word?”

The “A” word was autism and it wasn’t until her parents took Joy to the Tulsa Developmental Pediatric Center that an astute doctor diagnosed Joy with autism.

Now, the Lauffenburgers had a name for what had been plaguing their precious daughter. They rolled up their sleeves, dug in, and provided Joy with everything they could find to help her thrive. That included lots of expensive therapy that the Lauffenburgers were fortunate enough to afford. Insurance generally doesn’t cover treatment for autism, she said, and it breaks her heart when she meets a family who can’t afford the valuable treatment.

The Lauffenburger’s quest to help Joy also meant adding a new soul to their family—a therapy dog named Goldie who would stick by Joy’s side through thick and thin.

Now that the family knew the problem and addressed it head-on, Joy started to make monumental advances.

“It made a big difference for Joy,” Lauffenburger said. “In one 12-month period, she advanced four years.”

Joy has a younger sister, Sarah, who is four years her junior.

“I know Sarah sacrificed a lot while we supported her sister. She had, a lot of times, to take the backseat while we were trying to coax joy out of her autism and coax her into communicating. Sarah took that like a champ.”

Facing a new challenge

Sarah started showing signs of ADHD during middle school and the Lauffenburgers were again faced with a challenge to get their child the right treatment to keep her healthy and excelling.

Again, Lauffenburger’s motto came into play.

“I think I’ve always known that no child is a mistake and we’re all here to teach each other something. We’re all here to learn from each other,” she said.

ADHD medications made a world of difference for Sarah and for Joy, who was also diagnosed with ADHD.

Lauffenburger started her first support group in 2002.

“I would see families that I knew needed help,” she said. “There were going to be some things that would be very hard for them to deal with.”

One particular young mother inspired Lauffenburger to take the support groups to the next level. The young mother was overwhelmed with her child’s autism and desperately needed support.

So, again, Lauffenburger dug in and, with a solid faith in God and trust in His support, she decided to give her all to helping families get through autism with a positive attitude. Her strength and support drew families from across the state.

“First there were two families, then there were 10 families, then there were 50 families, then there were 350 families,” Lauffenburger said.

Even after her own personal battle with breast and pancreatic cancer, Lauffenburger maintained her forward-thinking attitude. She was bound and determined to kick her cancer. She lost her own mother to pancreatic cancer as a young teen and didn’t want that to happen to her own teenage daughters.

After she won her battle with cancer, Lauffenburger devoted herself full time to autism.

Today, Autism Oklahoma serves more than 4,000 Oklahoma families, but Lauffenburger is sure there are many more families dealing with autism that aren’t aware of the organization’s offerings.

“We have a set of core values; every person with autism is unique and special,” Lauffenburger said.

Because she knows every child with autism is his or her own unique person, with different interests and needs, she focuses on offering a vast variety of support systems, camps, outings and other activities to cater to as many kids’ interests and needs as possible.

Autism Oklahoma offers about 60 programs, from Camp Noggin and The Big Swanky Art Camp, to family outings to Pelican Bay water park and other activites.

Note from Melinda:  AutismOklahoma’s programs are provided by an amazing staff, involved parents, and amazing volunteers.  There are many people who have made AutismOklahoma what it is today by developing and leading the programs mentioned below!  

She organized the making of a full length movie, “Swanky,” which can be seen on YouTube. She’s organized Chef camps, Dr. Who camps, trips to Anime conventions and adventures in Colorado where kids with autism got to go rafting, horseback riding and mountain climbing.

Just recently, 500 people in her network attended an OKC Dodgers game together.

Her mission in life is clear: to help families and kids make a positive thing out of what might seem like a negative thing. She’s created support groups spanning an 8 county area, including Autism Latino, for Spanish speaking families.

“Like anything else, we’re often given journeys we don’t expect. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad journey, it just means that it’s different,” she said. “Your attitude about your journey is really important — that you feel like you can win, that you can do this, that you can be equipped. No kid is a mistake and every parent has what it takes.”

On Aug. 7, The Big Swanky Art Show will be held at Rainbow Fleet in the Paseo District. The show is a red-carpet style event in which young artists with autism will have a chance to show their work while raising money for the organization.

Lauffenburger said the organization’s biggest needs are financial donations, volunteers to lead support groups, special programs and camps, and especially donations of technology. As children with autism are usually drawn to computers, she is trying to equip them with Mac systems, iPads and other technology that helps them develop career skills and broadens their horizons through innovation.

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