Father-daughter team help spread autism awareness through YouTube
VINELAND, N.J. (AP) — When Miguel Figueroa saw how his daughter, Illiana, was into watching people’s shows on YouTube, he suggested she do one of her own, but was shocked when Illiana told him she couldn’t. Why? Because she has autism.
“I didn’t know where this was coming from. I started thinking maybe someone at school told her that,” he said. “It really broke my heart.”
To show Illiana that having autism spectrum disorder shouldn’t hold her or others back from pursuing their goals, Figueroa created a studio in his basement where the duo launched “Toy Quest 101,” a YouTube show dedicated to spreading awareness and empowerment to kids with special needs through a love of toys and pop culture.
“We started opening (toys), describing and reviewing them, and from there, we just kept going and it grew,” Figueroa said. “We really want to inspire other kids and make it about inclusion. Comic books and movies are getting more diverse culturally, but there’s not much out there for kids with special needs, so it made sense to do this show.”
New Jersey has one of the highest rates of autism — one in 34 children — in the nation, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in May. State researchers found the prevalence of autism is growing faster than previously predicted.
The developmental disorder primarily affects behavior and communication. Figueroa and his wife, Vannesa Montalban, said Illiana, 10, has always struggled with speech. Since starting the show in September, she’s talking more and breaking out of her shell, they said.
Illiana is the Batman to Figueroa’s Robin, the two joked. Her favorite items to open and review are Funko Mystery Minis, which come “blind bagged,” so she has to guess which figure is inside based on the options on the packaging and hope she’s right.
“I was really excited and happy to be doing the episodes,” Illiana said in their basement-turned-studio, which pays homage to Marvel, DC, Disney, Star Wars and many other pop-culture franchises.
Superman flies in a mural painted on the wall at the base of the stairs. Dozens of Funko Pop figurines fill up shelves. Figures and statues of Wolverine, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Joker and more take up all other available surfaces. A life-size Spiderman is illuminated in one corner, and BB-8 sits on the floor in another.
Mixed in are comic books, photos and other collectibles signed by actors and comic book creators such as Stan Lee, as well as items from Kotobukiya, My Little Pony, Fingerlings, Disney Vinylmation and more.
The show and its message started getting the attention of celebrities like Ultimate Fighting Champion-ship’s Paul Felder and Jonavin Webb, WWE wrestler Titus O’Neil and comic book artist Arthur Suydam, all of whom have made guest appearances on the show.
Thursday’s 3 p.m. show will celebrate the channel’s more than 2 million views and feature WWE wrestler Sonya Deville. Figueroa said Deville will talk about how she became a professional wrestler in a male-dominated sport and how other girls and women can pursue their dreams.
“Getting celebrities on the show is cool, but the most important part is that their platforms are on a bigger scale, and it’s really great to get the support from them and from WWE,” Figueroa said. “Now, celebs are challenging other celebrities to be on the show, so we’re hoping to see more.”
Getting that level of attention for the show makes Figueroa and Illiana hopeful their message spreads farther, they said, but they never forget the people they are reaching in their local community.
Montalban said parents of kids with autism come up to the family all the time to share their stories and tell them how Illiana has given them hope.
“These are complete strangers who say they watch the show and want to meet us,” Figueroa said. “They make us feel like the superheroes.”