The panel at Prince George’s Community College included names even a casual fan of television and movies would recognize but the topic was grim—autism and the African American child.
Nearly 150 people gathered at the Largo campus for the enlightening, and at times emotional, panel discussion on African-Americans and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) sponsored by Autism Speaks and the Prince George’s County chapter of The Links. Panelists for the event included actress Tisha Campbell-Martin and LaDonna Hughley, wife of comedian D.L. Hughley. Both are mothers of sons diagnosed with ASD.
“We recognize the importance of autism and the fact that so many African-Americas are not being covered and are not receiving access to the services,” said Virgenia Embrey-Brock, president of the Prince George’s County Chapter of
The Links. “This is a way to jumpstart and get this information out to residents of Prince George’s. This brings the awareness that is needed to educate parents so they recognize that it’s not always behavioral issues, it’s a serious problem.”
The women emphasized the overall message that advocating for a proper diagnosis, medical care and education is most important to an ASD child’s development.
ASD is a group of complex disorders of brain development and is detected by varying degrees of difficulty in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. The disorders include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive development disorder not-otherwise-specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s syndrome.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with ASD; 1 in 252 are girls and 1 in 54 are boys. A 2008 study by the Maryland Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Project found that of 27,022 8-year olds studied in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Hartford and Howard counties, ASD diagnoses was 12.9 per 1000 for Whites and 11.7 per 1000 for Blacks.
Campbell-Martin, whose 11-year-old son Xen was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old, served as moderator for the panel which covered a range of challenges for families with ASD children such as parenting, education, family support and diagnosis.
“African-American and Latino children are diagnosed two to three years after their Caucasian counterparts,” said Campbell-Martin. “The teachers and the doctors in urban areas aren’t as educated so we have to get them educated so people can have more resources and more advantages.”
Significant disparities in detection and care exists for African-American families facing ASD for several reasons including lack of access to healthcare, lack of a consistent family doctor and distrust of the medical community.
“I had three doctors sit in front of me and tell me my kid needs to be on medication,” said Campbell-Martin who opted for other methods for her son.
Other panelists for the event included Stacy Wiseman, an Autism Speaks ambassador and Bowie resident; Dr. Kathleen Atmore of Children’s National Medical Center; Donna Hunter, a Los Angeles-based mom advocate and Betty Adkins, an autism specialist with Prince George’s County Public Schools.
A huge hurdle after diagnosis is providing the proper educational environment where teachers and students are sensitive to the needs of ASD children.
Hunter, whose 22-year-old daughter Alex is autistic and non-verbal, experienced a traumatic public school incident. Her daughter, at age 10, had a particularly difficult day in class and was put out of the classroom and onto the school’s football field with her desk.
“That was the beginning of the fight for me,” said Hunter. “I kept wanting someone else to get in there and help me but it wasn’t until then that I realized that I had to do the work.”
Wiseman, a Prince George’s County educator and parent of a child with ASD in the county school system, is very pleased with the specialized educational support for her son.
“The county has done a great job,” said Wiseman about her 10-year old son Hal who attends Kingsford Elementary in Bowie. “I’m his biggest advocate and when something is wrong the principals and administrators are always there for me.”
Campbell-Martin, Hughley and Hunter partnered with two other mothers with ASD children and started “Colored My Mind, ” a non-profit dedicated to empowering parents with children diagnosed with ASD. Through their advocacy, the organization produced an award-winning documentary short of the same name which explores the challenges of ASD diagnosis with children of color.
However, there is hope and evidence that with the necessary support and education ASD children will blossom similarly to neuro-typical children.
“My son will say I don’t have autism anymore and don’t go telling my girlfriend,” said Campbell-Martin. “I thought this may be too young [for a girlfriend] but I didn’t know if he would ever love. So what’s the harm if it’s puppy love?”