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‘He is who he is’: The Coulombe Family Advocates for Autism Acceptance

April 25, 2024

Theo Coulombe’s sixth birthday is not until September, but he already knows who he wants to invite to his party – every friend he has ever made.

That genuine kindness is one of Danny and Lauren Coulombe’s favorite things about their oldest son. It’s not just that Theo wants to treat people well, it’s that he does not understand why someone would treat someone else poorly. While that may sometimes mean buying more invitations to a birthday party, that’s ok with the Orioles pitcher and his wife.

The big guest list is not just proof of Theo’s kindness, it’s also proof of his ability to communicate with his peers, something his parents were unsure about when Theo was diagnosed with autism shortly before his third birthday.

“We didn’t know anything about autism,” said Danny. “We didn’t understand the wide spectrum that autism is. Your first thought is, is our son going to be able to function in today’s society? Have a job? Be independent? Your first fear is, is he going to be able to do that? We didn’t really know at the time.”

According to the CDC, one in every 36 children in the U.S. have autism, including four in every 100 boys. On average, children are diagnosed and begin to receive intervention around five years old. The Coulombe’s know they were lucky to notice the signs early in Theo.

The indicators began to show when Theo was about 2 years old. The first thing Danny and Lauren noticed was that he was walking on his tip toes. Thinking it may be a result of tight calves, they took Theo to a specialist. That is where they learned toe walking is something associated with a sensory disorder and heard the word “autism” for the first time. Then, Danny and Lauren began to notice additional signs like a speech delay, and a focus on certain, unusual ways of playing: instead of throwing a ball, he would sit and watch it spin.

“Lauren advocated for him,” said Danny. “She noticed the indicators and she said, ‘It’s not going to change who he is. He is who he is.’ But we want to give him the proper tools to be able to live a more neurotypical life where he can get his own job and live independently. We want to give him every tool to be able to do that, especially with his speech and his interactions with his peers and us.”

“He is who he is” became a rally cry for the Coulombe family when it came to Theo. It is what pushed them to get him evaluated, and what pushed them to continue advocating for him when that process seemed impossible. Once he was officially diagnosed, Theo was enrolled in the special education program at his school and Lauren and Danny almost immediately noticed an improvement in his ability to communicate.

As school helped Theo learn how to communicate with those around him, it also taught Lauren and Danny how to better communicate with Theo. Visual schedules have become key to the Coulombes because they learned that Theo does better when he knows what to expect throughout the day and can see it written down.

But Theo has also taught them other things, like the importance of grace.

“When you see parents out in public and you see kids misbehaving or something, it’s easy to say, ‘My goodness, how can you let your kid do that?,’” said Danny. “But realistically, we don’t know their situation and we need to give people grace, especially new parents because it is so hard. We have the kid who has had some really tough times in public and we just want to give grace to other parents because you just don’t know their situation.”

Danny believes the world could use a little more grace in general. That is one of the reasons why he is using a blue glove when he takes the mound this year. To Danny, a blue glove is a small thing he can do to raise awareness, and he is willing to do anything he can to bring more awareness and more acceptance to the autism community.

“A lot of people ask me why I have a blue glove and I get to say for autism awareness,” said Danny. “I get to share my story a lot of times, and any chance to do that, I’ll take it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so thankful for the Orioles. They’re having an autism awareness night and getting to bring joy to people’s faces who are on the spectrum is something I love to do.”

Theo Coulombe is who he is. He is the kindest and smartest kid Danny Coulombe has ever met. He loves Super Mario and playing baseball. He is a wonderful big brother. He is fast, he can throw hard, and he can jump high. He is also on the autism spectrum.

“Autism” is no longer a scary word for Danny and Lauren. While there are still a lot of unknowns, they know that an autism diagnosis does not mean there is no hope, it just means someone may think a little differently than you do. It may also mean that you have to buy a few more birthday party invitations than originally planned, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Danny and Lauren know Theo will be able to accomplish whatever he wants to in life, and they will be there to support him every step of the way. They just hope the rest of the world will be, too.

“He’s really into baseball right now,” said Danny. “Last night he said, ‘I’m the best hitter ever.’ And I said, ‘Yes you are buddy.’”