CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When they were growing up together in Baltimore, Ian Thomas never really considered his cousin, Jahsai, as different until other people noticed.
"We never thought about it. But when he was in school, we knew that other kids didn't think he was normal," Thomas told the Charlotte Observer this month.
Jahsai has autism, diagnosed when he was a child; 1 in 50 children in Baltimore have the disorder and 1 in 59 do nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"It wasn't a big deal when he was with us — only when he was at school, in public places," Thomas said. "People didn't know what autism is, or how it would show because there are (so many) different levels of it."
Thomas' parents passed away within a year of each other when he was 8, so he grew up alongside his cousin — who is a year younger — as if they were brothers.
"I'd always hang out with him on the weekends," Thomas said. "(He has always been positive), very energetic. Loves to work out, loves competition. Anything we did became a competition — like who could throw the football the farthest, any sports.
"But when new people would come around, he would go off and do his own thing. They'd ask 'What's he doing?' and we'd try to explain."
As a child and teenager, Thomas became an advocate for autism without realizing it — simply by explaining the disorder and the autistic spectrum to those who didn't understand or questioned Jahsai's behavior.
But now that Thomas is an NFL tight end entering his second season with the Carolina Panthers, he's expanded his platform far past his Baltimore neighborhood.
This year, he started working with Autism Charlotte, a local non-profit that uses inclusion-based programming to help autistic children, teenagers and young adults. The group also works to bring more awareness to autism and to end the stigma against it.
And it all started with a small gesture Thomas made during the Panthers' 2018 season.
Valerie Iseah and her young son, both huge Carolina Panthers fans, were watching Week 13's game at Tampa Bay from their home in Charlotte when Iseah's son pointed at the television and yelled with delight.
As part of the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative, Thomas had his game cleats customized with his cousin's initials and the multi-colored puzzle pieces that serve as autism's national symbol.
Iseah said her son, who plays youth football and already followed Thomas on Instagram, sent him a direct message thanking him for representing those with the disorder. Iseah's son is non-autistic but proud of his mother's work, she said. He told Thomas that Iseah runs Autism Charlotte and asked Thomas if he'd like to meet her.
"I'm getting ready for work (the next morning) and he goes, 'Mommy! He responded!' I'm like 'Who? What?' ... I had no idea," Iseah laughed. "And so he brought the phone to me, I read the message and Ian's response was, 'Of course, bro, I'd love to meet your mom.' "
Thomas and Iseah met for lunch, where she told him about Autism Charlotte.
Five parents founded the non-profit in 2006 when they could not find after-school and summer programs with specialized instruction for their autistic children.
"They knew what they needed for their kids, but it simply was not available," Iseah said.
"There is no after-school care for our kids. All of the public school systems are built for general education students, with a 1-to-15, 1-to-20 (teacher/student) ratio. For kids on the spectrum, that just doesn't work."
In its infancy, Autism Charlotte worked with the local YMCA to integrate autistic young people into existing after-school programs, providing extra faculty support and resources to ease the transition.
More than a decade later, the group partners with Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools, serving 550 of the known 6,000 school-age children on the spectrum in Charlotte. Iseah's staff offers after-school programming, summer camps, and even high school-to-college transition help, and increased independence resources and support. One day, it hopes to have the financial means to support every autistic child in Charlotte.
The non-profit also works to educate.
"Because one, we need to help this community understand what autism is — it's not something to be afraid of," said Iseah. "Our kids are not weirdos. They simply have a diagnosis. Yes, they need extra support. But they have a right to be in after-school programs and build relationships just like any other kid."
When Iseah saw Thomas' cleats drawing attention to autism on national television, she said she was overjoyed. But she never expected how committed to advocacy Thomas ultimately wanted to be.
This spring, Thomas started visiting Autism Charlotte, interacting with kids and parents and learning more about the types of resources kids with autism need.
With the organization's annual "Couture for a Cause" event approaching in March, Thomas presented Iseah with a fundraising idea: Autism Charlotte would auction off the cleats he wore to honor his cousin, an autographed jersey and a lunch with the Panthers' player.
Thomas is naturally soft-spoken. But Iseah said he was everywhere during the uptown charity event at the Mint Museum as he interacted with sponsors and families.
Before bidding on his cleats began, Thomas spoke to the crowd. "I told them about me and my cousin," Thomas said, "where we grew up and the kinds of things that we did."
His story was simple, but it resonated with many in the audience because it was similar to their own, Iseah said. The cleats ended up selling for $4,500, which will provide sponsorships and resources for families in need.
Nobody told Thomas to get involved. In fact, the Panthers didn't even know he was working with Autism Charlotte until head coach Ron Rivera received a letter from Iseah a few weeks ago expressing her thanks for Thomas' support and advocacy.
"He is just such a kind, humble young man who wants to help," Iseah said. "We are so grateful to have him. ... He's not just somebody whose name is attached to this organization; his face is a part of our organization."
Thomas plans to get even more involved with Autism Charlotte's six-day camps this summer, where he says he'll work with kids and parents as often as he can between practices and film sessions.
Working with the non-profit has also helped Thomas. He's learned more about autism's many subtypes, a range that spans four distinct diagnoses, all with hundreds, if not thousands of levels of strengths and challenges depending on the person affected, according to Autism Speaks.
"My cousin used to be the only person with autism I knew," Thomas said. "But through working with Autism Charlotte, I've met so many different people (on different parts of the autism spectrum).
"I'm trying to explain it more so it's not something new (to people). To help schools and the community be more aware of it."
And he has a message to Jahsai and every young person he meets through Autism Charlotte, too.
"Some people may not know (about autism). Some may think it's weird," he said. "But don't feel uncomfortable. Don't feel out of place.
"Just be yourself."