Marked for a cause 

Brandon Cutter works on a tattoo of Dash.
Shannon Cornman

Whitney Villanueva had never been inked. As an artist at Atomic Lotus Tattoo began to needle an outline of two puzzle pieces on her back, Villanueva said she was not nervous, particularly since her husband had sketched the design and her friends were there with her.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t going to do it,” she said.

Her 14-year-old son, Diego, has Asperger’s syndrome, and daughter Malina, 10, has autism.

Raising two kids who don’t always fit the mold of expected social behavior has given her a “lifetime membership in club autism,” she said. She lost some friends over time, but gained new ones through Autism Oklahoma.

Crystal Frost, community director for Autism Oklahoma, stood beside Villanueva watching the design take shape through a mirror. She had just gotten a tattoo on her foot of Dash, the organization’s puzzle-piece mascot.

“I think Dash is something that can connect the community with autism,” Frost said.

Her 8-year-old son, Spencer, has only been talking for the last couple of years and has trouble reading faces, but he knows about Dash, telling his mother once that Dash has autism. He likes his mom’s tattoos, one of which is a chain of puzzle pieces around her ankle with the last link left open.

“You think you have the pieces in place, but the picture is upside down,” said Angela Donley, chair of this year’s Piece Walk.

For those who got tattoos, the ink represents their full-time commitment to a separate world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as one in every 88 children will be diagnosed with autism.

Donley said her son, Jackson, loves technology — a trait he shares with Villanueva’s son — and Frost said her son has taken to repeating scenes from movies. But those interests and talents often come with social and behavioral challenges that can alienate parents from others who don’t understand.

All three said they have forged strong friendships through Autism Oklahoma, and they’re working together for Piece Walk, an annual fundraising event that will be held May 5 in Bricktown.

Parents, along with others, form teams and hold events to raise money ahead of the walk. Donley said a team of kids and their parents she met at a Gymboree class get together each year to raise money in honor of her son, although many of them don’t experience autism every day.

“They are the kids who still invite him to birthday parties,” she said, tearing up. For more information visit or

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