First comes the feeling of not being good enough. Next comes the grief. Finally, and hardest of all, comes the fear. A lot of thoughts and emotions flood Donna Ross-Jones on a regular basis as she juggles being a successful business leader with being a single mother caring for her autistic son, Nick.
“As Nick’s mom, I have to fight off comparing his life to the lives of others, or I get caught up in sadness and loss for his future,” says Ross-Jones, founder and CEO of Transition Music Corporation. “And there’s the grief of watching your child getting judged day in and day out. Watching people stare, knowing they are thinking the worst of him, making assumptions about who he is, and then wanting nothing to do with him.”
The past several months have felt like a roller coaster for Ross-Jones, with everything seeming to reach a climax following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The tragic event left her distraught and fearful, she says, that her son “is not safe because he is a young Black man and does not have the ability to respond correctly if he was ever in a situation with law enforcement.” That’s when she took to the social media platform Nextdoor to express her feelings and bring awareness to residents of the Toluca Lake area, in the hopes that helping them get to know Nick and understand his behavior would help to protect him.
Ross-Jones posted a photo of Nick holding a sign that read, in part, “Dear community, I am a great guy. I have a family that loves me. I do have autism. I like everyone … especially girls. I don’t have any fear of you, or the police. I am not good with social cues. I am almost always smiling. I am not dangerous, just in my own world.”
In the post, Ross-Jones wrote, “I want you to know he’s an amazing guy, and I consider all of you to be part of our village where I know he is safe. So, if you could look out for him in these crazy times and if you do see him out and about, and you’re so inclined, please say hello.”
The hundreds of responses that soon poured in — from neighbors offering to drop off books for Nick to others saying the post restored their faith in humanity — was enough to fill Ross-Jones’ heart with immense gratitude. While her family lives in Studio City, they’ve been Toluca Lake regulars for years, enjoying many meals at Ca’ Del Sole, Riverside and Santuari, as well as shopping for books and DVDs at the Discovery Shop. Ross-Jones says the response has given her even more reasons to love the community.
“I was surprised and overwhelmed that anyone took the time to respond, much less hundreds of people,” she says. “This post was my way of letting them see the Nick I see, know and love.”
In addition to raising Nick and her daughter, Evyn, Ross-Jones has spent years of hard work building one of the top music publishing companies in the country. Her dedication has led to an Emmy Award, 10 platinum and gold records, and recognition as Essence magazine’s Entrepreneur of Excellence. Asked what she credits her success to, she answers simply: “The biggest part is my confidence, honesty, vulnerability and true desire to step up and serve in ways that uplift others.”
The honesty and vulnerability that have helped Ross-Jones throughout her career have also helped thousands of families going through the same trials and tribulations she has. The blog she started several years ago, Autism Day by Day, has been viewed by over three million people and is an official resource for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to educate professionals on autism. With hundreds of articles on topics ranging from COVID-19 resources for people with developmental disabilities to the best states to live in for people with autism, as well as narratives of her personal experiences, Ross-Jones’ reach has been greater than she could have ever imagined.
“People have told me this is what they share to help family, friends, teachers and parents with newly diagnosed children and caregivers understand the experience of raising a child with autism, not just from a clinical point of view, but from a very personal one,” she says. “Greatest of all is knowing that Nick and I make a difference because people use the blog to learn, laugh and find encouragement.”
As much as Ross-Jones has done for her son — striving to give him the best care and life possible, protecting him from mental and emotional abuse, and being there for him during life’s biggest challenges — the impact Nick has had on her is perhaps even greater. “I might have gone the rest of my life not learning how judgmental I was, or how limited my perspective of life was,” she says. “Something happened to me when I realized the person being negatively judged was my child. I often say, before Nick, my life was composed of a series of colors, the pretty colors that came in the 24-pack of Crayola crayons; it was a good life. Because of Nick and his sister, my life is now oozing with colors from the 152 Ultimate Collection set! I’ve learned how much I could love, forgive and give. I don’t think there is any aspect of my life that is not better as a result of having Nick as my son.”