‘He’s an angel to us.’ This young Homestead man is autistic. His family needs help

The Arevalo family — from left, Harold, Mario, Monica and Olimpia — were doing well until the pandemic hit. Now, Harold, who is autistic, can’t attend his classes, while his father and sister are out of work. Pedro Portal PPORTAL@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Mario Arevalo remembers when his son, Harold, was diagnosed as autistic 23 years ago.

“It wasn’t easy to accept,” he recalled. “We didn’t know about autism, but little by little we started learning more so that we could find help. But we were still happy. He’s an angel to us.”

The Arevalo family has struggled to make it through the pandemic. Mario lost his construction job, his daughter Monica was laid off as a cashier at Bloomingdale’s, and his wife, Olimpia, has had to continue working through the pandemic cleaning homes twice a week. Meanwhile, Harold, 25, has been stuck at home and unable to attend classes or do his beloved design work on his computer.

But a life led in adversity has strengthened their optimism and persistence. “I give thanks to God for having helped us push through this all,” said Olimpia.

Mario came to the United States from Granada, Nicaragua, in 1988. He lived in Palm Springs, California, for five years before moving to Miami in 1992. A couple of years later, he met Olimpia, who had also come to Miami from Nicaragua in 1994.

Looking back to their first few years in the United States, Mario recalls noticing a massive cultural difference from their home country.

“Of course, the customs and traditions are a lot different here from those in Nicaragua,” he said. “It’s definitely difficult when you first start living here, but you eventually have to get used to it.”

After a whirlwind romance, Mario and Olimpia had their first child, Harold, in 1995. They married two years later in 1997, just before Monica was born that summer. Shortly after, they rented an efficiency apartment for the family and lived there for many years before eventually making a down payment on their current house near Homestead.

(This story first appeared in the Miami Herald.)

Olimpia first noticed that Harold was different from other children his age when the boy was 2 years old. She saw how he struggled with talking and understanding, and how he was a lot more hyperactive and energetic than most kids. “He’d just run nonstop all around our apartment,” said Olimpia. “This was especially an issue when Monica was born because he wouldn’t notice her while running around and he’d bump into her a lot.”

Finally, after many exams, Harold was diagnosed with autism. At first, the pair had no idea what the word even meant. They had no idea how to help him.

Mario and Olimpia soon began taking their son to see speech therapists at Miami Children’s Hospital (now Nicklaus Children’s Hospital) two to three times per week so that he could socialize with others. Specialists and neurologists eventually helped him and prescribed medications to help with hyperactivity.

Though Harold and Monica were different, they cared for each other, a relationship their mother calls “beautiful.”

“When they were younger, Harold would learn from Monica… since she naturally spoke more,” Olimpia said. “They would also play together a lot. If one child ever got a piece of candy or a toy, they’d ask for one to be given to the other.”

She recalled another sweet memory: Harold naively giving away his toys, but then Monica would rescue him. “Monica would see all these kids just leaving with the toys and would get upset,” Olimpia said. “And she’d say, ‘No!’ and would take them back.”

Harold eventually went to Coral Reef High School and took classes for special needs students, while Monica attended Southridge High School.

Harold has continued his studies at the Association for Development of the Exceptional in West Dade. Though he excels in mathematics, his computer has major issues that have made it difficult to take classes online.

Now age 65, Mario has been unable to find a job. Monica lost her job at Bloomingdale’s because the store was shut down. Since then, she has been able to secure a part-time job working at Whole Foods as a cashier.

And she has resumed studies at Miami Dade College.

“She’s paying for the classes herself,” said Olimpia. “The government scholarship program that was helping her stopped providing money, so now, she’s been taking classes again little by little.”

But there simply isn’t enough to make ends meet. Daisha Zanetti, a counselor and parent educator at the Advocacy Network on Disabilities, was assigned to the Arevalo family toward the end of August. She calls Harold’s situation “very moving.”

“It’s a hard time for all of us to be stuck in the house now,” she said. “But it’s even harder for him when he can’t see the people he’s used to seeing from his program.”

For the holiday season, the Arevalos would appreciate help with food, rent, utilities and clothes. However, their main concern is a new computer for Harold.

“We want mostly to get Harold the help he needs so he learns more and feels fulfilled,” Olimpia said.

Mario added: “Harold is an affectionate and kind person. That’s not something a lot of people have, but he does.”

Ingrid Hernandez is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Communications, Journalism. She also works as an Undergraduate Tutor at the Center for Excellence in Writing at FIU and wants to work as a music writer/editor in the future. Outside of her studies and work, Hernandez writes for the music news website Genius.