On October 2, 2013, Mississippi wife, mom and proud NRA member, Melissa Earnest was just that, a wife and mom. A noble full-time, over-time job, to be sure, but not many people knew her name. Then she posted a video on Facebook and suddenly the Earnest household was on the map and Melissa Earnest was a household word.
The now famous “Grabman Video” went viral with 86,000 shares on Facebook and more than 60,000 views on YouTube in just over three months. What has ensued over the course of those three months is the life of a young woman suddenly thrust into the limelight. Every aspect of her life is now scrutinized by people who don’t even know her. But that hasn’t stopped her from turning her new found fame into something good and as a way to help people. She hasn’t been shy about sharing her thoughts on various causes and current events. But this transparency just seems to endear her more to her fans. She is the real deal and she has welcomed us all into her home and into her life.
It was during those first three months that she revealed something very personal. In those early months we learned that Melissa Earnest has an autistic son.
Sitting down and talking to Melissa Earnest is like chatting with an old friend. She talks about her ‘Cinderella story’ with still just a bit of shock. She admits to being scared with it first started. She said her first priorities have always been her faith and her roles as wife and mother. She originally started creating the videos on Facebook because she loves making people smile. The videos and interaction were a coping mechanism as she grieved over her grandmother and aunt being placed in separate nursing homes. She credits those two women with being her ‘inspiration in life’ and it hurt to see it happen.
When the ‘grabman’ video took off, she was blindsided. But good things have come out of it and parents have been able to see a doting mother who adores her children, a stay at home mom who is making it work. They are also seeing, through her son, that autism is indeed beautiful. This is her story.
You have a sort of Cinderella story from small town country girl living in rural Mississippi to overnight sensation. How are you using your ‘fame’ for good?”
When this started happening, I stepped back, and I thought to myself “Why is this happening to me?” I realized God caused this to happen for a reason! I have been able to pray for people and with people who are going through rough patches or illnesses. But there was even more.
This Christmas was the first time in a long time that we have been able to pay for our children’s Christmas. I know what it is like trying to get community programs to help your children for Christmas. So, my best friend Theresa Causey and I put together a toy drive. We called it the “Sassy & Classy Toy Drive.” We had an online poster made up and families would post their needs and we were able to help 121 children get ‘adopted’ to receive Christmas this year! As the pictures and videos of these children started rolling in, seeing the joy on their faces was so amazing! It truly was something Theresa and I will never forget!
You have become a champion of children and particularly an autism advocate. What drives you?
I had a very hard childhood growing up. I speak about it in my videos. I actually got my degree in Criminal Justice because I wanted to help children. But God decided to bless me with a beautiful, talented and precious son, Ryland, who has Autism.
I wanted to take this opportunity that God has blessed me with, to let special needs mothers know that they are not alone in this world. And I pray that somehow I am able to raise awareness about Autism and special needs in general.
You have a beautiful family, can you tell me a little about them?
Thank you so much! My husband Case and I have been married for nine years. We have four beautiful children together.
Ryland is 7. He is so smart! He has been reading since he was two years old! He loves a challenge and loves learning new things!
Caselyn is 6. She loves learning, dirt, mud, video games, and sports. She might look like her Daddy but is most definitely like her mother!
Saralyn Jane(named after my aunt and Mamaw) is 3. She is the little diva of the bunch! She loves learning, she loves make up, dressing up, princesses and her family!
Gracelyn Presley(named after Elvis) is almost a year old. She is happy go lucky, is always smiling and loves to play with her siblings! I am blessed beyond measure!
You have an autistic son, how has that changed your life?
When Ryland was first diagnosed I felt like a part of me died. When your son is born, you have all of these hopes and dreams. You have to trade going to baseball games for going to therapy. You have to trade school plays for dealing with meltdowns.
There was a time, when I was very angry with God because of Ryland’s autism. I believe it is okay to question God. Jesus questioned God when He was dying on the cross. But there is a very thin line where questioning God can turn into resentment and anger and that is just what happened to me.
I lost my way with God but when I found my way back to Him I had a revelation. I have a sister who has Cerebral Palsy. I don’t get to see her much but when I do, I try to work with her, teaching her to count. Even though she cant speak I taught her to hum “1,2,3.” I have a nephew who was brain damaged at birth. I babysat him when I was a teenager. When I was in high school I would help my friend, a special ed teacher, with her class.
I realized that God looked back on me working with those with special needs, and He knew one day that Ryland would need a Mommy. Looking at it like that, like He entrusted me with Ryland, it is such an honor and a blessing!
What are some of the challenges you face with autism? What is your biggest autism challenge?
I think one of the biggest challenges with being an Autism Mom is learning to overcome your own fears. Sometimes I am fearful that I am not doing a good enough job or that I am not handling a specific situation right. But as an Autism Mom you have to realize that you are doing a great job because you are doing everything to the best of your ability to make your child’s life better.
As far as the biggest challenge, I would have to say it would be getting him to calm down during a meltdown. He is going through this new thing where he doesn’t like to go on trips. So, we don’t get to travel as a family much.
How do you handle autistic behaviors such as meltdowns and other autism related behaviors?
The first thing you have to do is breathe, take a step back and remain calm! Sometimes Ryland will try to intimidate me. but I never show any reaction because that is what he wants, a reaction. With children who have Autism, you kind of have to do things in reverse.
So many parents see autism as a death sentence, maybe not physically, but socially. How do you view it? What advice do you have for parents whose child has just been diagnosed?
Going out in public can be very challenging! You don’t fit in with ‘normal’ parents. When your child is having a meltdown in the middle of Walmart, you want to go in a corner and cry somewhere. But you can’t do that! You have to remain strong, not for yourself, but for your child.
Sometimes, I will have my moments where I want to cry about it because I get so tired and it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting but then I remember that this isn’t about me; it’s about him.
People can be cruel sometimes and when they see a child having a meltdown, they automatically think ‘discipline problem.’ How do you handle that?
I have had a couple of situations where my Mommy bear claws have had to come out to defend my child in public. As long as there is breath in my body, I will always defend my children.
I can recall a time, I had taken Ryland for his check-up with the doctor. He was getting very nervous in the waiting room. There were to women sitting over in the corner laughing at my son as he was having a meltdown.
Now, it seems that it would appear to anyone that something is not right. But not these ladies. They just looked and laughed and whispered. I got up and started towards them. I said “Do you two find it funny that my child is autistic?”
The smiles quickly faced and the laughter stopped – immediately. I held Ryland’s hand and took him into the next room. As we were walking by one lady said to the other “Girl, that Momma was about to put the hurt on us”. *laughs*
God gave me Ryland for a reason. It is my honor and duty to protect him at whatever cost. When it comes to the outside world and the acceptance of my child our motto is “when life gives you lemons, make grape juice and let the world wonder how you did it”.
Where do you get your strength and positivity?
First and foremost from God! I seek Him in those moments where I am weak and He gives me the strength to get through whatever situation we might be dealing with. Secondly, my Mamaw and my Aunt Sara! They are two of the most strongest women I know!
How important do you feel a good support system is for both the autistic child and for the family?
Oh, it is extremely important! We are very fortunate to have that! We live in the same community as my sisters-in-law and my mother-in-law, Bonnie. They show their support in so many ways. Often times, I find myself calling them and asking for advice.
Just last week, my sister-in-law, Amber, invited Ryland to come over and visit her and her husband at their home. That was a huge deal for us, because Ryland doesn’t do that very often. I have a very bad tendency to want to baby him because of his disability. But Miss Bonnie, Teresa and Amber have taught me to treat him like a ‘normal’ child. The more normal you treat him the more successful in life he will be! I am so grateful for them! And I also have a praying momma who loves her grandkids! She has a heart for the disabled and the elderly and she is constantly praying for Ryland.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Pure craziness to be honest(laughs). I am homeschooling at the moment. I try to work one on one with Caselyn and Ryland. I help Caselyn with her work first and then help Ryland with his. We have lunch, play together, I work on my home business, answer emails, cook supper, give the kids baths, pray with them and tuck them in and then it’s me time (laughs).
What advice do you have for parents with autistic children?
Pray and seek God in every decision that you make. Pray over your child’s present needs and his future needs. While I am perfectly aware that God is in the healing business I don’t pray for God to heal Ryland. I pray for God’s will to be done! Oh, and breathe!
Let’s look forward a few years. Your son is an adult. What advice do you have for him?
I have come to the realization that my husband and I could be taking care of Ryland for the rest of our lives. While I do pray that he will be able to function on his own as an adult, I do realize that might not happen. But our children are only as disabled as we let them be. An Autistic child may have challenges but they don’t have to be ‘disabled.’ They do have a purpose and a place in this world.
With that being said, Ryland will always be my baby but I will encourage him to walk in the light of Jesus. He is an amazing young man and can do anything he sets his mind to. The Bible says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. And because of God’s Word, my son is promised a promising future!
You can either make Autism a life sentence or a life experience… me and my husband choose the latter.
You can connect with Melissa by visiting her at http://www.facebook.com/melissaearnestofficial