Fashioning support to fight autism

Tommy Hilfiger’s sporting style has taken him to the heights of the fashion world and glamorous collaborations with athletes like current spokesmodel Rafael Nadal. While it has been an odds-defying career, the Greenwich resident and wife, Dee, know there are greater challenges.

Hilfiger has a daughter with autism — a disorder characterized by impaired or nonexistent communication skills, sociability and limited, repetitive behavior — while Dee’s son is on the autism spectrum. Their personal experience with the condition has led them to an advocacy and fundraising role.

In 2012, Autism Speaks — an organization founded by Bob Wright and his late wife, Suzanne (WAG November 2014) — named the Hilfigers to its board of directors. It was a move that raised the profile of the organization and that of the autistic community, particularly after the organization released a public service announcement with Tommy Hilfiger that offered some stunning statistics:

“The odds of him achieving his dream in the fashion industry — 1 in 23 million. The odds of having a child diagnosed with autism — 1 in 68.”

The Hilfigers also lent their support to “Bluebirds Fly: Love and Hope on the Autism Spectrum,” a documentary by Cherry Arnold that was screened this year at Greenwich Country Day School. The film follows three Rhode Island families as they struggle in their own ways to meet the challenges of having an autistic child.

“We have a mutual good friend,” Arnold said. “When I mentioned that I was working on this film, and I was looking for support, she suggested reaching out to (Hilfiger) and explaining the project. He was so warm and helpful and interested and wanted to know all about it. And then he said, ‘Yeah, we’d be interested in supporting it.’”

The commitment was sealed when Arnold and Dee Hilfiger realized they had attended the same all-girls private school in their home state of Rhode Island.

“If you suspect you have a child on the (autism) spectrum, early intervention is key,” Tommy Hilfiger said during the Q&A.

But getting that critical early help has proven as formidable as autism itself.

“Our society could be so much more empathetic, and that’s one of the things that people with autism are accused of not having — empathy. I always found that ironic,” Arnold said.

While 40 states have mandated insurance coverage for autism, services vary from state to state.

“Even with the mandates,” Dee Hilfiger said, “they still make it really difficult. Tommy and I started down that road and just gave up. You hit so many walls. For people like us, it’s easier to go our own way. Fortunately we can.” But she and her husband understand that most families can’t — that the services they rely on to care for their children are too expensive to pay for on their own.

That’s why the Hilfigers are such staunch advocates for Autism Speaks. Like Arnold, they realize that autism needs a bigger voice.

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