Former Umatilla Middle School Staff Member Working to Support Families of Children With Exceptional Needs

(previously published in The North Lake Outpost)

I spent most of my childhood and professional career in Umatilla, Florida. My family moved to North Lake County in 1980, and I joined the staff at Umatilla Middle School in 2005 as Media Specialist and Television Production teacher. I left Umatilla Middle School to be a full-time stay at home mom to my youngest son, Barclay and moved to Seminole County. Although I no longer live nor work in Umatilla, I will always consider the community home and the residents friends.

Barclay was typically developing like his older siblings, Danielle, Olivia, and Trent, until around 18 months. I’ll never forget the moment I knew he wouldn’t follow the path as his siblings, and it felt like a punch to the gut. He had begun to use two-word phrases, and one morning, as he was waving bye to his dad, I saw him struggle to speak. Instead of progressing in speech, he regressed, losing all ability to communicate verbally.

Over the next year, we’d notice him struggle to maintain eye contact or respond to his name. He would line up toys rather than play with them. He suffered from low frustration tolerance and a severe limitation in what and how much he would eat. He could not focus even for a few minutes on any task and seemed oblivious to things that could be dangerous, such as running into a busy street. Our family was in chaos, and for this first time in my life, I felt incompetent as a mother.

Speech therapy was unsuccessful, occupational therapy was unsuccessful, and preschool kicked him out. They couldn’t meet his needs anymore. I didn’t feel like I could either.

Between the ages of 2 and 3 years, Barclay was diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech (a motor planning disorder), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Over the next few years, I immersed myself in learning everything I could to help Barclay thrive, uncovering resources that weren’t readily available. I advocated on his behalf even when some professionals I turned to told me I was wrong. I educated everyone around him to understand his unique needs, rather than expecting him to adapt to theirs. At nearly six years old, with proper support and a team of dedicated professionals, Barclay has emerged as a happy little guy with a bright future.

Throughout this journey, I began to believe my calling was bigger than Barclay. It became my mission to help un-overwhelm and support families like my own. 

I started the Big Abilities blog and podcast in late 2018, where I share resources, support, and build community among families of exceptional children. Since then, it has reached over 30,000 families.

In addition, I joined a local nonprofit, Collaborative Corner for Exceptional Children, founded by Lake County resident and parent of an exceptional child, Jessica Barisano. Collaborative Corner is a group of industry-leading professionals with the mission of offering all the resources and services families of children with exceptionalities need in one place.

If you have a child with a diagnosed or suspected developmental delay or disability and need resources, referrals, or support in any way, please feel free to reach out to me at

You can also follow my blog at and follow Collaborative Corner at

Published by


Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.