COEUR d'ALENE - When Greg and Phebe Washington decided to adopt four years ago, they had to answer questions first.
Would they take a child who has a missing limb?
They checked the yes box.
Would they take a child with a cleft palate?
Would they take a child with mental disorders?
They stopped on this one. They talked it over, then decided.
"We weren't ready for that, so we actually checked no on that box," Greg said. "That was what we wanted, but God had different plans for us."
The Washingtons already had daughter Kynzie and son Jaxson when they decided to adopt two six-month-old twins, Maara and Mihret, from Ethiopia.
They were thrilled. They wanted a bigger family.
But soon, they noticed "there was something not right" with Maara. She was different from her sister. Her responses, her emotions, her behaviors, weren't the same.
"She just wasn't developing right," Washington said. "She didn't have the energy to try to do things that her twin sister was doing."
"Because we had the twins, it was very obvious to us on a daily basis there was something not right," the Coeur d'Alene man said.
The answer would not come quickly.
A therapist worked with Maara. Doctors checked. Specialists tested.
"They couldn't figure out, really, what was going on with her," the 40-year-old Washington said. "It was a stressful thing.
"It seems like people were dancing around this idea, maybe they thought she was on the autism spectrum, but they were afraid to use the word, because when you use words like that with parents, it can be really scary," he continued.
About a year ago, the diagnosis was official: Maara was autistic.
"We knew. Even so, we still had a little bit of a grieving time. 'OK, this isn't what we signed up for,'" Washington said. "Now, what do we do? We got a child with autism. We've now accepted it, it's what do we do with that."
Greg Washington had a plan, and it involved Ironman, the Panhandle Autism Society and this community.
Living with autism
What they did was love Maara.
"I had somebody ask, 'Well, can you send her back?' I'm not going to send her back," Washington said, chuckling.
Autistic children, he added, need people to love them, care for them and be nice to them.
"Just like we would want," he said.
Today, in many ways, Maara is a normal 4-year-old. She loves to eat strawberries. She goes to the bathroom on her own. She dresses herself. She follows directions. She watches SpongeBob with her sister and they play games.
"Maara has really enriched our family," Greg said.
In other ways, though, caring for her is difficult and it has changed the Washingtons' lives.
Maara is in a program at North Star Child Development Center for autistic children. She has difficulty speaking. Social outings can be trouble. Maara has her own version of playing with other children.
"She'd go over and she'd whack them on the head. They'd cry and she's laughing," Washington said. "People think the Washingtons don't know how to parent their kids."
Summer vacations with all their kids?
Eat out at a restaurant?
Want to watch their oldest daughter in a play?
That's not something Maara can handle. When she sits, it's not long before she starts fussing, fidgeting and, ultimately, having a "meltdown."
"It's not fun for her, it's not fun for us, it's not fun for the people sitting next to us," he said.
For Maara, life needs to be calm and consistent.
"We have to create environments for success for our family," Washington said. "What we have found is, routine is very good for her."
Sister Mihret is just fine, thank you. She happy, loving, learning.
"We're so fortunate for Maara's sake we have a built-in peer model," Washington said.
Panhandle Autism Society
Denise Wetzel, PAS executive director, estimates about 500 people under the age of 18 in the five northern counties have autism.
Most in the general public have heard of autism, but don't really know what it is, she said. Nationwide, it affects on average one in 60 families.
"It's this whole spectrum. I think that's what makes it even more difficult to understand," Wetzel said.
Autism is described as "a complex development disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate with others." There is no known single cause.
It affects people differently and to varying degrees. Some are high functioning. Others need a lot of support.
"If you looked at her, you'd say she's normal," Washington said, smiling. "She looks like every other adopted Ethiopian kid in North Idaho."
But, he adds, "God made this child different. We tried to make this child conform to our world, but they see it so differently. Their brains work differently."
Washington, who works at Windermere Realty and owns Courtyard Construction, will be competing in Ironman Coeur d'Alene in June.
But the efforts of the six-foot, 200-pound man will be about more than completing the 140.6-mile race. His goal is beyond the finish line. He wants to increase community understanding of autism.
"Almost everybody knows somebody affected by autism, but they don't know what it's about," he said. "I want people to know about autism," he said.
So he is raising money and awareness for PAS.
Washington is seeking race sponsors and is asking for donations to PAS. He has taken his message to community groups and hopes to slate more speaking engagements. He is also publicizing the first Walk for Autism Awareness, set for 10 a.m. April 30 at Riverstone in Coeur d'Alene.
"How can I help this community understand more about what we're going through, what other families go through?" he asked.
"Really what we need people to understand, they need to understand more about what this child has. When they do, they will certainly be more gracious toward those kids and those families."