High school sweethearts Erica and John Aklan had a fairy-tale wedding and honeymoon, then quickly faced their first major challenge: separation because of military life.
In the first five years of their marriage, “We were apart more than we were together. We know hardship,” Erica Aklan said.
But as it turned out, separation wouldn’t be their biggest difficulty.
On Aug. 30, 2006, the Aklans welcomed their first child, Ryan. Four years and seven months later, they received news that would change their lives forever — an autism diagnosis.
Autism was unfamiliar territory.
“When my oldest son was diagnosed, I struggled for six months to get necessary services in place,” Erica Aklan said. “I had to figure everything out on my own. I was determined and pushed through obstacle after obstacle, but it shouldn’t have been so hard.”
Aklan had spent her life devoted to working with nonprofits and women’s ministry. Now, she began using her writing, speaking and passion for advocacy to speak out for families dealing with autism.
The Aklans welcomed a second child, Trevor, on Dec. 19, 2008. Three years and two months later, they received yet another autism diagnosis.
“What took me six months to establish with my firstborn only took nine days to set up when my youngest son was diagnosed,” Erica Aklan said.
The Aklans left Germany and arrived in Georgia in May 2012.
“My prayer when we arrived in Savannah was, ‘OK, God. I will bloom where you plant me. If I’m in a waiting room, grocery store or wherever, that my eyes would be open and I would be a blessing,’” Erica Aklan said. “I want to come along other mamas and help. My heart is about helping women one-on-one. I’ve been doing this faithfully. I would love that scale and scope to grow.”
Through her writing, she shares about her family’s autism journey and how it has transformed them. She is an open book. When she isn’t writing, she is speaking to provide resources or encourage others to live fully with an autism diagnosis. She said her faith enables her to live, knowing that God has a plan for her sons’ lives just as he does for her own.
High school sweethearts
Erica Francis, 15, met John Aklan, 17, while they were students at Casa Roble Fundamental High School in Orangevale, California, a suburb of Sacramento. After graduation, they went their separate ways. Aklan joined the Army while Francis went to California State University, Sacramento.
In summer 2000, Francis traveled to Europe with a girlfriend. Aklan was stationed in Germany at the time. The two met up and walked the streets of Paris and Barcelona.
“I thought we were supposed to be friends, and realized it was more this time,” Erica Aklan said.
Despite the six-year absence, she knew she was looking at her future husband. She flew home, picked up bridal magazines and began planning a wedding.
The marriage proposal took place six months later. It was a fairy-tale setting at the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany. The two wed on July 3, 2001. After a honeymoon in Mexico, Erica Aklan returned to California to await her moving orders from the Army. The plan was to join John Aklan in Germany. Then the 9/11 terror attacks altered the newlyweds’ course.
“He was on another continent, and I wasn’t sure if I would see him again,” she said.
Finally, in January 2002, she joined her husband in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In January 2006, the Aklans moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama, and then in October 2007 to Ansbach, Germany.
After this whirlwind journey over the last 15 years, Erika Aklan shares her story with other women in similar situations in hopes that they will benefit.
“There are things about military life that are unique — frequent moves, building community and establishing support systems in each new place, deployments and other long periods of absence,” Aklan said. “Throw in an autism diagnosis — or two — and the woman who was already dealing with high levels of stress is now figuring out how to best care for and advocate for her special-needs children, too. It can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. Too often, families are given an autism diagnosis, but few — or no — directions about what to do next. Or we don’t understand what’s really needed — and why — nor how to access those services.”