By Raquel DeSouza
Mother Sharon Cummings and her autistic son, Conner, 23, had no idea what it would take to change a law, but on July 1 Conner’s Law went into effect in Virginia.
In divorce court in 2013, Sharon asked for child support and lost due to a loophole. Her lawyer joked that the only choice left was to change the law, and Sharon decided to take the suggestion seriously by educating herself on the process. She went online and visited the Chantilly Public Library, and Conner repeatedly watched the “Schoolhouse Rock” video “I’m Just a Bill.”
Then at the end of the year, Sharon spoke at a McLean town hall meeting, and state Sen. Barbara Favola became the bill’s first sponsor. In mid-2014 Sharon decided that people wanted to hear from her son directly, so Conner did his first speech in front of the Autism Advisory Council. This was a major accomplishment for the boy who did not start speaking until he was 7 years old.
Sharon and Conner documented the bill’s progress on his Facebook page “Conquer for Conner- My Special Love,” which has nearly 12,000 likes. They spoke at the Capitol in Richmond multiple times, so often that delegates and senators became familiar with the pair and would take selfies with Conner. State Sen. Jennifer Wexton became the second sponsor of Conner’s Law when she decided to combine it with a similar bill.
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed it in June, Conner gave him a pair of Mickey Mouse ears that he signed. Since he was a child, Conner has worn Mickey Mouse ears to give him courage when speaking to people.
“When he looks at them, I want him to see hope for all of us with disabilities because these mouse ears make me who I am,” Conner says.
Now they want to continue the fight to make Conner’s Law a reality state by state.
“We’re putting a committee together of people that can help us to say, ‘OK, if you get these states, these other states will kind of follow,’” Sharon says. “We’re very excited to keep it going.”
According to Sharon, they are starting with the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland. Conner says they want to reach the states with large populations first.
This year’s excitement continued when he was awarded as the 2015 Advocate for the Autism Society of Americain July.
He decided to skip out on a planned trip to Disneyland and instead go to Denver to attend the ceremony.
“I feel so happy and proud,” Conner says. “I gave a thank-you speech, and everyone gave me a standing ovation, my very first one.”
He joined the Autism Society of Northern Virginia in 2013. He and his mother have also connected online with other families across the country who have autistic children. Last fall, Sharon and two other mothers with autistic sons decided to create a digital quarterly magazine called Zoom Autism Magazine. The name was inspired by Conner’s passion for photography.
“We wanted a magazine that showed the positives about our kids but was realistic, and we wanted to hear from autistic people themselves,” Sharon says.
Conner conducts interviews, writes and takes photos for Zoom. In the coming issue, he’ll have a blog titled “I Am Brave,” which will be about how he called 911 when his mother broke her finger. They created a plan for what to do during emergencies, and that was the first time they had to use it.
Sharon says that writing is his strong point and that he learns by documenting everything.
If he is struggling to communicate something to her, they sit together and text each other to let the words flow easier out of him.
Along with better expressing himself through writing, Conner has learned how to swallow a pill and tie his shoes this year, and he has many more goals planned. He wants 100,000 likes on his Facebook page. He wants to continue playing the piano, taking photos and ice skating, which he has won three times in the Special Olympics from 2013-15.
Conner has also recently reached out to the American Adventure of EPCOT at Disney World asking to include a section and making a video for people with disabilities.
Vice President of Magic Kingdom Phil Holmes has sent back a response showing interest in the idea. For Conner, this proposal is about sharing kids’ achievements rather than talking about what they cannot do.
“Me and my mom have our new journey ready for us,” he says. “One magical step at a time.”