Imperial Beach fire engineer creates autism awareness shirts

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, and one South Bay fire department is spreading the awareness.

Every day in April, Imperial Beach firefighters will wear an autism shirt made by one of their own fire engineer paramedics, Daniel Holian, who has a son with autism.

Donning the shirts has become educational for firefighters and the community.

“It’s such an honor to me, words can’t describe how I feel. I could even get emotional right now,” said Angela Holian, a former San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy who now cares full time for her son with autism.

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Colorful puzzle pieces are tightly pack into an Imperial Beach Fire logo, sprawled across the front and back of the t-shirt. All 13 firefighters will be wearing them during April’s Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.

“We want it to stand as a visual representation to approach autism with empathy and understanding,” Angela said.

The Holian’s son, Danny, is the pint size inspiration behind the shirts.

“He’s just bringing such a better person and a parent out of me,” Angela said.

“Everybody is first name basis with Danny. It’s really opened everybody’s eyes to the acceptance and awareness of it — loved by everyone here,” said Daniel.

Puzzle pieces are often used to reference autism, meaning each person is uniquely themselves.

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder is often defined as a broad range of conditions related to brain development, according to organizations like Autism Speaks.

The disorder can impact speech, social interactions and behavior. Click here to learn more about Autism from National Institute of Mental Health.

“How did you take Danny’s diagnosis?” FOX’S 5 Alani Letang asked the father.

“It was hard at first, it was scary. Every day has been something new, and it’s made Angela and myself better people, brought us closer together, brought our family closer together. I wouldn’t change him for the world. I love them,” Daniel answered.

Angela said at 15-months-old, Danny was missing milestones. He did not make eye contact, Angela said. He started talking but that faded.

Now at almost 3-years-old, Angela said, “I have learned to listen with more than just my ears with Danny because he is non-verbal. So I get to look at him and understand his communication through his gestures, and through his personality and his facial expressions.”

Daniel said suiting up in the t-shirts helps firefighters better help the community.

Daniel said, “It allows us to come in with that extra level of compassion, understanding what the family is going through or may have gone through in the past.”

“I find myself being the first one off the engine, the first one to make that patient contact, the first one talking to the family trying to figure out what helps calm this person or what can we do to make them as comfortable as everyone can be,” Daniel said.

“We always like supporting the community and supporting causes out there, sounds great,” said John French, Imperial Beach fire chief.

French approved the autism shirts for on-duty use.

“I think it’s great we have an idea of what autism is and what we are looking at as firefighters,” French said.

But what started as shirts for just the IB fire turned into a fundraiser for the National Foundation for Autism Research when family and friends wanted to buy a shirt.

Now, 160 shirts later, Daniel said, “It really exploded. Me and Angie every night after the kids are going to sleep, we are making shirts. We got the heat press going, the pile of blankets over here, all the transfers — we are making it work,” Daniel said.

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To the autism community and those who are new to learning about autism, “You’re not alone,” he continued. “There is a hug network of support out there.”

“And it’s very important to understand it, and to embrace it and just to be very compassionate about it,” Angela said. “Autism doesn’t start or end in the month of April. It is all year long and we are just appreciative that this is happening.”

Daniel said they have closed t-shirt sales but will look to resume next April.

The Holian’s said that they have raised more than $1,000 for the National Foundation for Autism Research.

The Imperial Beach Firefighters Association will also pitch in a donation.

During Wednesday’s Imperial Beach City Council meeting, the council will vote to proclaim April as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.

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