A Fredericksburg resident and Realtor, Nelson is vice president of the board for the Autism Society of Northern Virginia. His 9-year-old son, Raymond, is autistic.

Tell me about Raymond's diagnosis.

Raymond was born in 2003. He had a tough birth, but he developed fairly normally up until age 2, and then we started noticing he was having some delays in speech. He had a pretty big vocabulary, but it was all nouns. So we went to our local early-childhood development center, and they were the ones who first mentioned autism to us. He was diagnosed formally by 3 1/2, and we've been working at it since then. It is work, but it is a labor of love.

Now Raymond is in second grade and is doing well. He's a smart kid. If he sees it or hears it or imagines it, it's there forever.

How has the Autism Society helped?

The Autism Society has really done a great job linking us to resources and giving us access to things we didn't know existed. And camaraderie -- it's helpful to talk and think with people who are experiencing different aspects of the same things. By meeting adults on the autism spectrum, it's helped us visualize his life as an adult, and it's not as bleak as we originally thought. It really is powerful when you meet autistic adults, and you realize they're really just people.

Autism diagnoses have skyrocketed in the last few decades. What's your working theory?

I honestly don't have one. ... To me, it's more helpful for me to think about what we can do to help Raymond be successful. You can call it genes, you can call it the environment, but at the end of the day, for us, it doesn't matter what caused it because we're living with it and we have to help our son be successful.

- Liz Essley