Months before police say Shakayla Denson carried her daughter into the Hillsborough River and let go this week, the mother asked for help.
Her daughter, Je’Hyrah Daniels, had recently been diagnosed with autism, Denson wrote in the October fundraising page. Department of Children and Families records said the 4-year-old was non-verbal.
"My goal is to start saving for therapy equipment, and also for je’hyrah’s future," she wrote. There were no donations.
Nobody but Denson knows what was going through her mind before, police say, she let her daughter float away. No motive has been released and investigators have not linked autism to the incident. But she told child welfare workers recently that it was difficult being a single parent of a special-needs child.
Researchers say raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder can be stressful, leaving parents and loved ones desperate and unsure of where to turn.
"There are a lot of associated issues with autism that can really impact a family," said Karen Berkman, executive director of the Center for Autism & Related Diseases at the University of South Florida. "There are children who have difficulty sleeping at night, children who have difficulties communicating, stress that I think nobody would understand unless they were in someone else’s shoes."
About 1 out of 59 people in the U.S. is diagnosed with the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is usually detectable in children by age 3, forcing parents to address difficult challenges, especially early on.
"At the beginning it’s really hard for a family when they get that diagnosis to know, ‘now what?’" Berkman said.
She said there are services in the Tampa Bay area to help parents adjust to raising an autistic child. One is the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at USF, which is part of a network of centers that offers services to every county in Florida. Denson took Je’Hyrah to the center to teach the girl to communicate, according to the DCF records. The USF location is part of a network of centers that offer services to every county in Florida.
State records also say Je’Hyrah was accepted into to the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, a grant-funded special-education school that offers services to autistic children who reside in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties, according to the school’s website.
Parents who have questions about autism or need help or direction can contact the USF autism center at (800)-333-4530 or visit card-usf.fmhi.usf.edu.