Being an autism mother can be challenging, but you're not alone. Pamela Wirth presents Belqui Ortiz-Millili, Food Blogger and Founder of Bella Vida for Autism Mothers. It's true that our child needs help outside of your home with therapists. But as parents, we know our children best no matter how many times these professionals spend time with them. Don't be afraid to follow your gut. Feed them whatever makes them healthy and happy. Enroll them in a school that will let them thrive, learn, and enjoy. Do you want more tips on how to succeed as autism mothers? Don't forget to listen to this episode.
I have Belqui Ortiz-Millili. You are an amazing individual. I first had the pleasure of meeting your husband many years ago in the technology industry, and then subsequently got to meet his better half. You've been an incredible person throughout your journey, from being an actress to a professional entrepreneur and advocate. I would love to hear a little bit more about you and your journey.
It has been a very long journey. The way that I describe it is there's no way that I could have planned it. I started with this goal which was to be an actor. I was a marketing executive because I needed to have a degree. My parents would have killed me if I didn't have one. As immigrants to the United States, they expected their children to have a degree and go to college. I did that. A few years into my degree working in Corporate America, I decided, “I don't want to do this. I want to follow my heart. I want to be an actor.” I quit at 25 and became an actor. I did that up until I had my second child, which is my son with autism and a million other issues.
That was it. My life changed completely. I became a stay-at-home mom. While I was at that, I was like, “Let me get myself educated.” I wanted to help other moms. Instead of becoming a psychologist, which I thought would be easy to do, it wasn't as easy as I thought because it would be several more years in school, I became a certified coach. That took about a year to get certified. After that, I helped parents, moms and couples because you have to practice on typical people at first and then go into your specialization.
From there, I found that I wanted to cook because that had saved me, not just since I was a twelve-year-old girl helping my parents out, but more so when I found myself stuck at home having therapists coming into my home. That became something huge in my life. My food blogging and YouTube content creation began. Now I'm a food blogger, YouTube content creator, and recipe developer for brands that I don't get credit for. They pay me and I create recipes for them. That's how it goes. That's what I'm up to now and I love it. It fulfills me in a way that I have no words to describe. It's my passion. It's what makes me feel whole as a person and a mom in every way.
Where did your parents immigrate from? How do you feel that has either impacted in a positive or not so positive way when it comes to health and wellness? What are some of the things you learned, differences or anything like that?
My parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States. I was born in the United States. I was born in New York and then I was raised between the two countries. I would go a few years there and a few years here up until I was fifteen. I honestly cannot see a negative to it at all. I see it as 100% positive because it taught me what it was like to live a humble life, especially in the United States where we were not rich people. We lived in a poor community, then being able to see what the island life was like, which is also humble.
We lived off of a lot of fruits, vegetables and a lot of rice because Dominicans love rice and beans. For example, if you were having chicken, you are not having chicken that was injected with hormones. You were going to a farm near your house where you can walk to it and then pick the chicken you wanted. It is insane that you can go pick a chicken. You're like, “That's the perfect chicken.” You pick that chicken, they clean the chicken out for you, and you take it home.
Your passion can fill you in a way words can’t describe.
There are no hormones. There's nothing involved where anything was injected with anything, therefore, it was very clean eating. The chickens are nothing like what we see here in the United States. They were small and there are not a lot of meat on them, but they were delicious and so much better than these big pieces of chicken that you get here. Not only did I get to experience food in another way than we experience in America but also life in another way. It was simplistic.
Where we lived, we would lose electricity for sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day. We would have no electricity. We had water heaters. Some people did and some people didn't. For the people who had water heaters, it didn't help you if you didn't have electricity. It helped me see what simpler living is like. When I experience things here in America, I'm very much like, "It's an inconvenience but it's not the end of the world. It will be fine. Everything will come together." I feel like it was more of a positive than it was ever negative. I can't come up with a negative other than a positive from the experience.
I can imagine, especially with all the news that comes out about all the processed food and things that can happen to your body. Does your family ever teach you anything about certain herbs that would help with certain things? What did people do when they were sick or old wives tales?
To be honest with you, there was not a lot other than if you had a sore throat, you would take some lemon and honey with water. I hear in America, people do that as well. It's warm water, lemon and honey. That would make your throat feel better. There were the weird things where it's like, “You have the hiccups.” In America, I hear you scare people or something like that and then it stops. That never helped me. Over there, you would take a little piece of hilo. A hilo is a string of cloth. You wet it with your mouth and then you put it right on your forehead. It's supposed to make it go away. Did it ever work for me? No.
What did work for me, which was weird, was I used to always get headaches and migraines as a teenager. My migraines started around 12 or 13. It was bad. My grandmother would do these things where she would rub my temples and do these massages over my eyes. She would massage me for five minutes. I didn't need a pill. My headaches and my migraine would be so bad that I would be nauseous and not feel good. They would go away. I don't know what she was doing. She had these pressure points that she said worked and it worked. Even though I tried to replicate them when I get headaches, it doesn't work like hers. She had that magic touch. She knew what she was doing.
One of the things that you've been so vocal about and so kind is you're always open about your experiences, who you are and your life experience. You're almost acting like a mentor in so many different ways. What are some of your favorite ways of attracting, reaching out to people, connecting and helping people? Is there anything that you particularly find that fills your cup?
To me, it's more about educating people, especially if it's having to do with autism. I've had so many years of dealing with autism, severe autism and nonverbal autism. It is not at least shown in the media and people sharing it is not prevailing. It's more about giving people hope. For me, if I meet someone, I feel like I can help them and get them through certain situations that they're going through. It's about making them feel that there's nothing that they can't accomplish and that their child can't accomplish, but that their child needs them to be their cheerleader.
The most important thing that I have realized even as a parent is that your child needs help outside of your home with therapists and everything else. They need a cheerleader at home or someone that when they come home, they feel safe. They feel that when they come home, everything is going to be all right. There are no great expectations, “There's no one harming me. I feel safe and loved.” Even though my son can't tell me he loves me back, I tell him I love him so many times a day. The poor kid is probably like, “I'm so over you.”
The minute he wakes up, it's like, "I love you." I give him a hug. He loves those high-pressure massages. In the morning, he's so tired and he doesn't want to get up to go to school. I'm like, "I'm going to love up on you for at least five minutes." I rub him and give him deep pressure massages. As I'm doing it, I say, "I love you. You're so precious." I give him a lot of affirmative words and phrases that hopefully he understands because he can't tell me that he does. I do think that he does because I see the smile on his face. You can see it. He takes it all in.
Within five minutes, he's ready to go. I'll push his shoulders and back down. You can hear his lower back cracking and he loves it. That's the way that I start with him every single day. It's talking about him and the things that I feel that make him happy. As special needs parents, it should be all about making them feel safe, loved, understood, and that we got their back in everything that they want. If I see anything is off in him, I'm delving deep in there to see what is going on that I should be looking into. Any little thing that I see that's off, I look into it.
I had gotten similar advice when we were going through some things. The end of the road that was told to me was, “No one else is going to be their advocate. They are children and no one else is going to care for them the way you do. It's up to you to go figure it out and make it happen." It's hard to find the strength to do it.
Sometimes I feel like people might think some way about me. I wouldn't say that I would be aggressive but I'm very much assertive about, “This is going on. What's going on over there?” I'm inquisitive in a straightforward way but nice, never in a way where it feels like I'm being aggressive towards the person that I'm asking. As parents, we know our children best. It doesn't matter whether they spend all day at school. Even after they're eighteen, we already know the person that we formed. We know when something is not right and off. We know and we follow our guts.
We should never be faulted for following our gut as parents who raised these children for how many years. That's what I say. In my mind, I'm never wrong. I honestly have never been wrong ever even when we have had issues with our son. At one point, he was mistreated by an aid when he was much younger. He was around 6 or 7 when he was being mistreated. Something was telling me in my heart and my soul that something is not right by the way he was acting. I followed my gut and then it was right. As parents, we know our children the best, no matter how many times these professionals spend time with our children.
Speaking of your fierce warrior, you made a huge move from New Jersey to Arizona. Why did you make the move? What did you find was most helpful? What are some things to look for? What are some things to avoid? Are there any helpful tips that you have for parents that may have autistic children that need more?
As parents, we know our children best no matter how many times professionals spend time with them.
What I found is that every state is completely different. When we moved to Arizona, we were considering the weather. The main thing for us was this little guy loves to swim. We can't have year-round swimming in New Jersey. In Arizona, you can have a heated pool in the colder months. He would be happy. That regulated him with his sensory needs. We were like, “We want to make sure that he's got what he needs.” That was what prompted our move here. We felt that was the perfect move.
When you're making decisions as we did moving here, you have to consider what are the options for your child. In our case, we knew we were moving to where we wanted to move for those conditions. There was also the fact that Arizona has great programs for people with disabilities even after they're an adult. They have their DDD Program or Developmental Disabilities Program. They accept you if you have developmental disabilities. On top of that, there's long-term care, which you add to DDD. That would be more for my son, which is someone who needs a lot of help in everyday life.
We knew that we had that available. We didn't even know how many hours or anything that we would get but we knew that the system was better than where we were living. If I tell my son, “Go get me your shoes,” he does not know what I'm saying to him. He's confused. We're talking about someone who needs a lot of help but somehow learns how to swim. That's why we can't always say that they can't do what we think they can’t do. They can do anything. It's about keeping it going.
Going back to what I was saying, they gave us so many hours of respite. You get hours where you can have someone help you with picking up your kids from school, taking them to school, and taking them to therapies like ABA therapy, PT or Physical Therapy, occupational therapy, feeding therapy and speech therapy. Not only do we have that person that helps us with respite but then we also have the therapies that also were given by long-term care. We have all these hours every week of respite and hours of therapy that we were given through this program.
On top of that, we have Hab. Think of rehab. Hab hours are for our family because every family gets a different amount of hours. Ours is fifteen hours a week of Hab. That does not include the respite hours where we can go have dinner. They can pick them up from school or whatever it is. We also have the Hab, in which they come in and you have to be home as a parent. They help you with toothbrushing and all those things that they need to learn, whether it's putting on their underwear, taking a bath, soaping yourself up properly or cleaning yourself.
We did not know that we had all these options here. I highly suggest that if you're going to move from where you're living, look up what the availability is for your child in that state because it makes a difference. From all the parents that I have met so far since moving here, Arizona has a great program. We feel that although we moved here because of the weather, we got so much more than we were expecting. We're happy with the decision that we made.
Did it take a long time to apply and be qualified for programs like that?
No. The application process is super fast. That was easy but you have to have all the documentation from when they were little, their first diagnoses and all that. You go through an interview process of whether they qualify or not and whether they're too high functioning. There are a lot of different little things that would disqualify you. In honesty, it wasn't too fast. We did get denied because of some paperwork that was missing the first time. I don't even remember at this point what it was but I remember he got denied. I completed the paperwork and then we passed it. I'm like, “He's so low-functioning. How can he not be qualified for long-term care?”
In Arizona, we need to have DDD. If you have an autism diagnosis, you automatically qualify for DDD, but all the other services only come to you from long-term care. You cannot get all those services only by qualifying for DDD. You have to qualify for long-term care. That's where we had to bring in all these documents to support the fact that he was low-functioning and so far, it has been great. We have found the most amazing therapists. We're very grateful for the fact that we not only moved to where we wanted to be but also found the resources and the support that we needed here.
Arizona gets a pretty bad rap for education. It's my experience that there are great schools, medium schools and not so good schools. A lot of it depends on what you're looking for and if you want private, public or charter. How has the school been for you in what you need?
Let's go to my one son. He's not the one who's severely on the spectrum. He has done well in the public school district. I'm like, “I don't think he needs to go to private or do anything like that.” For my son with autism, I wanted him in private school when we got here. We understood that there was this 90-day requirement in public school for you to be able to apply for the loan, which is ESA, where the state would cover the private school for you.
We did the 90 days but we loved the classroom he was in public school. I was like, "He's so happy in this classroom. I don't want to pull him out of there." He ended up staying and it was great. Could he have had other supports in the private school? Maybe. A private school does not have to follow an IEP. That's something that we all have to remember. By law, a private school does not have to follow it. I thought, "He's happy here. Let's keep him here. We can still follow this IEP, which they modified from what came back from the East Coast for us.”
Long story short, they were full of kids. He was still in the district but he was a little bit of a distance from that school. They said, "He has to go to another school after being in this one classroom for a year and a half." It was a brand-new classroom. I was livid. I was like, "There's no way." I pulled him out of public school and put him in private school. He had already served those 90 days. I went and applied for the ESA coverage of his school. He got approved and then we put him in a private school. I'm thinking, “This is great.”
He's now in a private school. He can't go to this other school but that's fine. That's what we wanted at the beginning. It turned out that the private school was so bad. Even though it had a good reputation, it was badly run. I'm not going to say much more about what I found there but it wasn't at all something I felt comfortable with. He had trouble going there every single day. In all the years of schooling, I've never seen anything like that from him where he didn't want to go to school. He didn't want to get out of the car when we got there.
Feed your child whatever makes them healthy and happy.
He did an entire school year there. Every single day, my heart was breaking every single time I dropped him off to go to school. I was like, “I know that he's not being mistreated but he clearly isn't happy here.” I found out there was an opening back at the other school. What had happened was they ended up with an influx of kids in their autism program. They had to get rid of some of the kids that live further out. That's why they were trying to move him to another school in the district.
When I found out that they had all these kids move up, I immediately contacted them and said, “Can we apply again for him to go back in?” They said yes and accepted him. He went right back into that school in the same classroom with the same teacher and aids. It has been the best couple of years. He is going to move on though for junior high, which scares me. He's going to move on to another school, but the plus is I know parents that were in this classroom whose kids moved on to other schools.
I can get their feedback on how their kids that are low-functioning are doing in these other schools and get some information that will make me or us as a family feel more comfortable. There's that silver lining of, “He's going to move on now.” I made him repeat the sixth grade so he should be going into eighth grade in 2023. I thought he's going to be in there until he's 21 because that's the law here. They can be in school until 21. That's okay. Let him repeat a grade and be happy with the friends, teachers and aids that he knows.
We have had experience in private charter and public, and had a lot of discussions on this. It does blow me away, the protections that the public school system does provide in a positive way. It's something to consider for sure. Is there anything that I didn't ask? Is there anything that you want to talk about? Are there any favorite recipes that your family loves? Is there anything that is feel-good?
Honestly, it's whatever makes your child happy. I like to feed my child. I make this beef with caramelized onions. It's a Latin dish. You cook down the beef in thin slices. It's like a petite sirloin. You pound it a little bit before to tenderize it. You cook it in a little bit of oil and spices. Once it's halfway through or maybe a little bit more, then you throw in the yellow onions and a little bit of cilantro on top and let that cook down. The onions are super soft. You get all that flavor from the onions all over that beef. He loves it. Even my older son loves it as well.
For me, it's about foods that are whole with not a lot of preservatives, dyes or things like that. That's what I look for. I go with organic most of the time even with my seasonings. We have adobo, which is a big Latin thing that we like to use. I use a brand called Loisa. Everything is organic, safe and clean to eat. That's what I love to season with. Their oregano and saffron are amazing. That's what I would like to focus on. You're still having your starch, potatoes, rice and all that but it's cooked with ingredients that are more wholesome, safer and healthier for you. Even though corn oil gets a bad rap, it's good for your heart health and cholesterol.
People need to look it up because it's not that bad for you. For some reason, everyone always thinks olive oil is the best but when it comes to olive oil, I prefer to use olive oil for my Italian dishes, not necessarily for my Latin dishes because they will not go well. I do think people need to educate themselves about certain oils and what their benefits are. There are oils like coconut oil and stuff but they're very high on certain fats that are not good for you and are artery-clogging. It's about your family and what their preferred foods are. You then go from there to tailor it to be healthier.
Tell us where people can find out about all of your amazing recipes and where to find you online.
I'm a food blogger and YouTube content creator. I also develop recipes for brands, spices and stuff like that. I'm BelquisTwist.com. I have a YouTube account, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and TikTok. They're all going by @BelquisTwist. That's it. My original idea was more about cooking my typical Latin recipes and then twisting them into something Asian and Latin together like a Cuban egg roll or something like that, which you're not expecting to find normally. I've been starting to branch out to do a little bit more American recipes like ribs and things like that only because it helps the search engine to find my website. I want to share a little bit more about different recipes. That's what I'm doing and a couple of other things that are coming up on the horizon. If everything works out, they will be great.
I certainly love all of your recipes. Thank you, Belqui Ortiz-Millili.
Thank you so much for being on. We appreciate it. Please be sure to check out HelloHealth at www.Hello.Health.
You better go buy the HelloHealth supplements because they are amazing. I'm not saying this because I am here in this show. It's because it's an amazing line that you have. I only see success coming and a lot of growth because you're killing it. I'm very proud of you, HelloHealth, and what you're going to be accomplishing.
Thank you so much, Belqui Ortiz-Millili.