There’s no testimony without a test. Ain’t that what the elders always say? Looking back over my life, I know it’s been true for me time and time again. And the bigger the test, the bigger that testimony. Of course, at the time it rarely feels good and victorious, but at some point while going through you’re reminded that you’re equipped to handle whatever the storm brings. That’s what I was reminded of listening to Sharonda and Shawn Stockman speak about the makings of their beautiful family and going through the battle of a lifetime against a silent illness.
As a founding member of Boyz II Men, the best-selling R&B group of all time (over 60 million albums sold) and one of the most influential groups in music history, Shawn Stockman is no stranger to the spotlight. Yet, when you think of Black power couples in entertainment, Shawn and Sharonda Stockman may be names that fly beneath the radar. You don’t hear anything crazy and scandalous about them. You don’t see photos of them in regular blog rotation, styling and profiling on red carpets.The reality is, they are too busy using their power – physical, mental, spiritual and even the celebrity kind – to fight autism on behalf of their family and millions of families all over the country through their foundation, Micah’s Voice.
A Dream Deferred
The couple’s first pregnancy resulted in the birth of twin boys, Micah and Ty. Like any new parents, the Stockmans had only the grandest of visions of what life with their sons would be like. “I definitely had that vision of perfection when we got married and having our first set of kids because I thought everything was gonna play exactly the way I had mapped out in my head,” recalls Sharonda. “We went through in vitro to get pregnant – for me to get pregnant rather – and for it to finally happen I had challenges and I just had planned out in my head that everything was gonna be perfect and this smooth sailing and, ‘We’re gonna have boys and oh my gosh they’re gonna play sports and they’re gonna do this and they’re gonna do that.’ So obviously when the diagnosis came for Micah it felt like I was in a dream and I couldn’t believe that actually what I had envisioned in my head happening for me and my new husband and partner as well as my family [wasn’t happening]. It was devastating. So, it was like a life-changing moment.”
As Shawn attests, “we expected a different outcome, specifically with our children and one in particular. It definitely throws you for a loop and it basically taught us that life is not predictable.”
A Mother’s Intuition
Micah’s development began to regress shortly after the twin’s first birthday and it was Sharonda who first noticed a change. It was a surprise because when they were born Ty was the nervous one, who cried a lot and was easily spooked. “He was the one I was really worried about,” Sharonda says laughing. Micah, on the other hand, met all his milestones. “Micah gave you eye contact. He rolled over first. He crawled first. He took his steps first. He talked first,” she says of their son’s early months.
But, it was at their first birthday party that Sharonda noticed Micah crying more than usual and being very antisocial. After the party, it seemed that all the things he used to say before he was one she couldn’t get him to say anymore, at least, not without a lot of effort. His communication diminished and he struggled to hold steady eye comtact. Sharonda knew something was going on and brought her concerns to Shawn, who wasn’t trying to hear it at the time that anything was “wrong” with their son.
Developmentally, Ty began to catch up to Micah and soon surpassed him. That’s when Sharonda took him to a doctor, who completely blew her off, telling her “He’s fine. Twins are different. They switch personalities. Don’t worry.” So, she tried not. She wanted to believe he was fine and everything really was okay, just like her husband and their doctor said.
Then an undeniable blow hit.
“By the time he was reaching two, Micah was completely silent. I could barely get him to say a word. His eye contact was gone,” says Sharonda. She went back to the doctor and demanded that she send them to a specialist. Sharonda hoped it was only a speech issue, “something you can tweak a little bit at the end of the day,” but after about three visits with a speech pathologist it was determined they were dealing with something much more serious than a speech problem. Shortly after having more in depth testing done, Micah was diagnosed with autism.
Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ADS) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. The Autism Speaks website states, “These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”
According to a 2014 report, regressive autism – in which young children lose early language and social skills – are twice as common for African American children as for white children.
Traditional marriage vows say “for better or for worse” and an unexpected illness can prove to be a test of “for worse” for even the strongest of marriages. Going through this autism journey has revealed to the Stockmans just how important they are in each other’s lives. “You have to be prepared for ANYTHING that goes on,” Shawn begins,”and it’s nice to know that you have somebody that you can depend on.” It takes more than love and Shawn considered that before marriage. As he explained, men have to also think logically when choosing a mate. “It’s like, we have to think like, ‘Okay, is this person willing to fight? Is she a fighter?’ Because I understand that life is a fight sometimes. As much as we hate it, as much as we try to avoid the fight, we know that a fight exists. So you want to be able to know that you have a partner in tandem that will put their knuckles up just as quickly as you and I know that Sharonda had that quality from the day I met her, from knowing her and things of that nature. I knew the type of spirit she had.”
Shawn readily admits that he was flat out in denial when Sharonda first brought up concerns about their son’s health. No doubt, the qualities of being a woman who fights for what she believes in were tested and proven in getting the diagnosis for Micah. It was tough at first for the couple, but once Shawn embraced the reality of everything, he shares that they both played roles in strengthening each other. Sharonda made sure that Micah was getting all the assistance he needed, as well making sure everything was straight for their other two children, Ty and younger sister. Shawn describes his role as keeping things at peace and tending to Sharonda, making sure they made time for dates and time alone to give her a break.
Along the way, the Stockmans have had the support of their parents, other family, friends, specialists and complete strangers, but first and foremost – at the foundation – they have each other. What’s worked for them “in the midst of the storm,” as Sharonda describes it is staying connected and strong as husband and wife, and remaining faithful and prayerful. “You have to remind each other that we’re all fighting and working for the same cause and we have to make sure that we’re there to consistently uplift one another.”
The Stockmans established Micah’s Voice, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, to help provide community, hope and financial resources for families affected by autism. Because of Shawn’s successful career, they were able to advocate for Micah early on, paying for specialists and testing out of pocket, which is all very expensive. Unfortunately, the average family does not have this advantage. According to Sharonda, the cost of getting your child developmentally diagnosed can range between $3000 and $6000 if insurance doesn’t pay. The couple spent between $60,000 and $75,000 that first year trying to get a diagnosis and more understanding about autism. For the average family who makes far below that in a year, living with autism seems almost impossible. Micah’s Voice helps to provide possibilities.
“I felt like it’s just so incredibly expensive so that’s why we wanted to create a platform and our grant to where we can offer the same services and the same opportunities that we give our child to another family,” says Sharonda.
Beyond the financial support, families – particularly Black families – also receive much needed emotional support. As a mother, Sharonda shares that she experienced guilt during the whole process, feeling that Micah’s condition could have been her fault. “What did I eat? What did I drink? What did I not do enough of or not take enough of? As a culture, we’re brought up to, you know, you keep your business to yourself. You go to church, you pray on it and everything is going to be fine and you keep moving.” Sharonda expresses that she took on that mindset because she didn’t want people to know that anything was wrong with Micah, for fear of them judging him or judging her. “I didn’t really have anywhere I felt like I could go at that time, so I kind of figured we’d just kind of stay within our little circle trying to figure it out.”
“We decided to start the Micah’s Voice Foundation, as well as the website, in order to give the African American community especially (outside of other families obviously) the platform so if they are feeling and having some of those anxieties and feelings that I know I experienced and you’re not really ready to talk to anybody about it you have a place,” says Sharonda. Even more than any financial assistance, it’s their story that Sharonda hopes will continue to inspire and “give people the sense that God has you at the end of the day and in due time things kind of evolve and fall the way they’re supposed to fall.”
The Blessing of Autism
Why autism? Why our family? What was this all for? All questions any of us might ask if placed in the same shoes as Shawn and Sharonda Stockman. Micah and Ty are now 12 years old and reflecting on the journey, the Stockmans have some answers for what the bigger picture truly means. “I’m starting to understand and learn God’s purpose for my husband and I and the journey. The journey’s still constantly unfolding, but I do believe that there is a bigger purpose here with him and not just more of what we wanted, but it’s more of what the Most High wants for us,” Sharonda says.
Having Micah and his autism diagnosis has forever changed Sharonda’s life for the better, making her a better mom, wife and a better human being, she says. “Though I still shed the tears and my heart’s still always heavy sometimes when I look at him because I’m so uncertain for him, I really truly like who I am and where I am in my life and in my heart and in my head. And I really don’t think I’d be that person without Micah’s diagnosis.”
For Shawn, caring for Micah has put his career as part of a history-making mega group into a new perspective. Singing and making people happy is important and feels good, but today he recognizes that the purpose of being a part of Boyz II Men is much deeper than selling records. “It forces me to keep going, to stay out there, because the more people I reach the more I can let them know our story and let people know that this situation exists and if you’re like us, or if you know people that are like us, here’s where you can find help. Here’s where you can find hope. Here’s where you can find information. Here’s where you can find everything and anything that you need to help with your life,” he says speaking about the importance of Micah’s Voice.
Currently, Shawn is in residency with Boyz II Men in Las Vegas at The Mirage.
Throughout the years, the Stockmans have received so much love and kindness from supporters. The blessing of running into beautiful people who sincerely want to help share their mission has been the silver lining in their autism story. “It kind of gives you faith in humanity,” says Shawn. “And it gives you an understanding that there are people that sincerely want to help just because you need it, not because they’re trying to get something from you or trying to do anything for their advantage, but just really, really help because you need it.”
“We’ve been appointed by God I guess to help with this situation called autism.”
Sounds like a praise-worthy testimony to me.