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Cumming mother uses reality TV to raise awareness about autism


On a recent Friday morning JoJo and his brothers were away at school, which meant, except for a brief protest from the Moss family morkie Bentley, the house sat still and quiet.

A mother of three boys couldn’t buy this kind of peace. She earns it little by little as they grow up and learn to fend for themselves until finally they empty the nest.

That won’t likely happen for Gwen Boyd Moss of Cumming. You see, not only does JoJo have autism, he suffers from schizophrenia, a severe brain disorder that disrupts normal thoughts, speech and behavior.

JoJo is 20 and can’t stand to hear loud noises, prefers smooth textures on his plate and sometimes still hears voices. Some of them nice. Some as mean as the devil and just as dangerous.

You don’t need to know much more than that to admire Gwen Moss’ stamina and to understand what life has been like for her, JoJo and his little brothers Damon and Brandon, and why at this stage in her life she’d sign onto “Selling It: In the ATL,” the reality television show scheduled to premiere at 10 p.m. Thursday on WEtv.

At 46, Moss, known as the comeback in her new show, has learned that life has a way of not just sifting you but shifting you.

This wasn’t the first opportunity she’d had to participate in a reality TV show, but she always took a pass, feeling black women were too often cast in a negative light. When a friend called to tell her about “Selling It,” she believed this was her chance to show professional women in a more positive light and help raise awareness about autism and mental illness in children.

Her mission, she said, is to talk about both.

While one out of 68 kids is diagnosed with some form of autism each year in the U.S., Moss said school systems aren’t equipped to deal with them. That’s worrisome because more kids are receiving dual diagnosis such as autism and bipolar disorder or autism and schizophrenia like JoJo.

“We need to do a little more to give parents the resources they need to help their children thrive, not just exist,” she said. “And police officers need training to better respond to them.”

For the longest time, Moss believed her boy was the smartest little kid there was. Even at 2, JoJo, who was born Justin Young, could line up his toys by colors.

But by age 3, JoJo still wasn’t talking.

Moss took him to the doctor and after a day of tests learned JoJo was autistic. He would never talk. Every dream she’d imagined for JoJo while carrying him was slipping away like a vapor.

“They obviously didn’t know what they were talking about,” Moss said.

After months of denial, she finally accepted the doctor’s diagnosis. JoJo was a smart kid, but something was wrong. In addition to not talking, he banged his head. He played with his feces. The older he got, the more he needed routine. He knew that at 5 o’clock they had to be home so that he could watch his favorite TV show, “Jet Jackson.” If he entered the mall through the southern door, he would measure his steps from store to store, clothes rack to clothes rack. No matter where they went, Jo Jo had to exit the exact same way he entered.

But if JoJo was determined to keep his routine, Moss was equally determined to help him adapt to the world in which he lived.

The security guard at North Point Mall asked her once why she insisted on bringing him every single day?

I won’t know what JoJo can do unless we keep trying was her answer.

No matter how many steps backward JoJo took, Moss was there helping him take another one forward, fighting for the right, for instance, for him to be placed in mainstream classrooms, pushing so hard there was a red flag posted on JoJo’s file: “don’t mess with this parent.”

JoJo did eventually talk. He was 9 when one day he suggested he and his mom “go to the movie get popcorn.” Just like that.

Moss couldn’t help but cry, but by age 13, there was more bad news.

Doctors found a huge cyst on JoJo’s brain. Soon after the teen started hearing voices.

At age 14, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia that manifested itself in ways far worse than anything Moss had ever dealt with before.

For the next three years, JoJo was in and out of mental health facilities. The mean voices in his head caused him to put knives to his throat, threaten to kill his mother, jump from a moving car and run down Ga. 400.

“We had to start all over again,” Moss said.

But listen to this: “He’s what keeps me going. Justin taught me more than I could ever teach him because no matter what happens, he wakes up with a smile. He has taught me to deal with life that way. Whatever the problems were yesterday, today is a new day.”

Who else but a mother could feel that way after having to fight every day for 20 years for a son who’s attacked her. More than once.

JoJo, Moss said, made her understand she needed to do a little bit more. Not for her but others who have children with developmental and mental disabilities.

Moss’ experiences led her to to write “My Big Brother Jo Jo & His Friend Schizophrenia,” told through her son Brandon’s eyes to help people understand children with disabilities and respond to them with love.

It’s the first in a series she has planned and is available on amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com and Moss’ website, gwenboydmoss.com.

You’ll get to explore much of her story on “Selling It: In The ATL” where her co-stars have nicknamed her Gwenyanla after Iyanla Vanzant of “Fix My Life” fame.

“If Gwen had a show, it would be called, ‘Straighten My Life,’ ” co-star Okevia Wilson said. “She’s always the one trying to help everybody out. She tries on the show, but she’s wasting her time.”

I don’t know about that. Having met and talked with Moss, I get the feeling she can fix just about anything. Even reality TV.



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