When AJ Corless told his parents about his first grown-up kiss in the summer of 2008, they were so thrilled their eyes welled up. Ever since he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a toddler, Joanne and Allan feared their son might miss out on life's joys. Would he ever fall in love, hold a job or learn to take care of himself? "There was definitely a time when I thought my dreams for him were impossible," recalls Joanne, a 52-year-old mother of three. In fact, one of AJ's first doctors told Joanne to just accept the cards she'd been dealt and focus on the rest of her family—because her son would never amount to anything.
She ignored that advice and led a 20-year fight for AJ, who at 22 is a talented athlete, a self-taught classical pianist and an aspiring cook who treats his two younger sisters (Kiersten, 20, and Kylie, 11) to homemade enchiladas. He even has three part-time jobs—at an accounting firm, a medical marketing company and a grocery store—which enable him to contribute to his community. Joanne's advocacy for kids with autism has helped not just AJ but also families in and around her hometown of Wycombe, Pennsylvania. Thanks to her efforts, kids with ASD now have comprehensive public and private-school options.
Looking back, Joanne always knew there was something different about AJ. He had difficulty understanding her, learned words only to forget them and threw tantrums if his routine was disrupted. But Joanne, a nurse, had also seen intelligence and affection in her son. "He was my little buddy," she says.