AJ M Confidence Through Fashion: AJ Madison

“I love ABA therapy! It helps to provide structure for AJ."

When Abdul (AJ) Madison was around twelve months old, he was diagnosed with severe lead poisoning. Exposure to such high lead levels caused AJ and his family many challenges. “Lead is tough because it’s silent; it’s something you can’t physically see. Your child could be playing with something containing lead every day, and you just don’t know,” stated AJ’s mom, Michele Gist-Madison. “Parents/caregivers need to be vigilant with toys, paint, and even the plate a child eats off of.”

“Lead poisoning can cause brain development damage, resulting in developmental delays. AJ was not talking. He would say words occasionally, but it was not at the level it should have been. He also exhibited a lot of behavior issues. He showed a lot of repetitive tendencies, such as stacking his toys the same way. He was an extremely busy child.” AJ’s family brought him to a local pediatrician who then diagnosed him with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, while AJ also displayed signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the pediatrician encouraged the family to wait on the official diagnosis, given the severe levels of lead in his system. “I was praying for a change. Hoping that AJ would get back on track,” stated Michele. When he was 4 years old, he was officially diagnosed with ASD.

AJ MadisonLife After AJ’s Autism Diagnosis

When reflecting on AJ’s autism, ADHD, and lead poisoning diagnosis, Michele stated that she was sad. “The only thing you pray for is a healthy child. Forget the gender; you want your child to have a good quality of life. You want them to thrive,” stated Michele. “AJ is my only child. I was scared to have another because I didn’t know if I could handle two kids with autism. I was devasted to learn his diagnosis, but you’re going to love your kids no matter what. It was tough, but I love and adore my son.”

Raising a child with autism can be difficult. AJ is nonverbal, so he cannot express his wants and needs vocally. “He used to elope. I didn’t know if he would return; he was only 4 years old. Since AJ couldn’t talk, it made me feel sick when he left the house,” noted Michele. Elopement is common in children with autism. It’s when a child runs or wanders away, which can be traumatic for all involved. “We had an alarm system and locks, but he would still manage to get out and wander away. Luckily, AJ is now 20 years old, so things are different, plus they have so many more safety measures that can help keep your child safe.”

AJ MadisonTherapy and Special Need Primary Care at CSH

AJ began occupational and speech therapy at Children’s Specialized Hospital (CSH) at 4 years old to help him gain independence. During this time, AJ was also going through detoxing due to the lead poisoning. “It was a scary and tough time,” added Michele.

AJ spent years in occupational and speech therapy at CSH before switching to at-home services. When reflecting on his time, Michele highlighted that the services “helped him become more independent. He depended on having me and his dad around to help, so it was great to see him gain some independence. AJ could not brush his teeth, tie his shoes, get dressed, or even hold a fork. Occupational therapy helped him improve his fine motor skills over the years.” He’s also doing at-home Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy, and Activities of Daily Living Therapy (ADL) “I love ABA therapy! It helps to provide structure for AJ,” added Michele.

Today, AJ receives Special Needs Primary Care services with pediatrician Dr. Colleen Stalter at CSH’s Union location. “Dr. Stalter is helping us with AJ’s transition into adulthood and providing many resources. It’s extremely helpful,” stated Michele.
“AJ has been followed by our special needs primary care group for his diagnosis of autism since he was a little boy. Over the years, we have had the privilege of watching him develop into a mature, thriving young adult! As he turns 21, we will be transitioning him to an adult provider. Still, we look forward to seeing what wonderful things he does in the future!” highlighted Dr. Stalter.

AJ MadisonGaining Confidence

In 2018, AJ received an offer from New Jersey Kids Fashion Week to walk in an upcoming fashion show. “He is shy, so we didn’t know how he would do it, but when AJ walked the runway, he did great! He lacks confidence and needs continuous reassurance. He came alive at the fashion show. This was his gift, and I knew this is what he should be doing,” highlighted Michele.

AJ’s positive experience on the runway inspired his mom to develop the clothing line “Autistically Swagged.” Michele said, “AJ likes to look good, which makes him feel good. It makes him feel confident. Just because a child has special needs does not mean they can’t have a sense of fashion and style. Initially, it was about the clothing brand, but it evolved to helping other parents/caregivers and raising autism awareness. There’s no handbook on caring for a child with autism, but I’m sharing my 20 years of experience raising AJ. He saved my life in many ways. Now, I’m a voice for him and hopefully others sharing a similar experience.”

AJ MadisonSome additional interests of AJ’s are bowling, going to the gym with his dad, playing basketball, and eating at nice restaurants. “AJ loves good food. As long as the food is good, he is happy. He also loves music and partying,” added Michele. “I just want him to be happy. I want him to be able to get out there and do all the things he loves to do more independently. Socially, I want him to evolve. I want him to travel. I’m hopeful he can one day get a job.” Michele’s goal is for him to participate more actively in the growth of Autistically Swagged one day.

To learn more about the Autistically Swagged clothing brand, visit autisticallyswagged.com.

AJ Madison

For more information, visit Children's Specialized Hospital.