April actually has two meanings, depending on where you stand in the autism community.
For most who work in the field, it is Autism Awareness Month: a month of “Light It Up Blue,” fundraising, and quoting a lot from Autism Speaks. It’s about posts of what autism is, the therapies designed to assist in it, and helping families affected by it.
For many autistic individuals, April is Autism Acceptance Month. It highlighted by the color red, shared personal experiences, and quoting a lot from each other. It’s about posts of what autism is really like, programs for autistic adults, and what the future holds for them.
These two shouldn’t be so different, but they are.
With SPARC, I find myself a bit in the middle. I have grown understandably wary of Autism Speaks since speaking to and listening to autistic individuals, and I definitely feel that not enough focus has been made on involving autistics in the autism conversation (at least not here in the United States). At the same time, I don’t think we’ve gotten past the awareness stage yet, either. There are still huge pockets of communities that don’t know everything they could know about autism. Awareness just has to be done correctly, and with respect rather than ignorance.
I think both need to be focused on, without being at odds with one another.
I wanted to post this before releasing the next workshop flyer, because this symbol has gotten a very mixed reaction from the autism community…and rightfully so.
The puzzle piece has become a standard symbol for autism worldwide, from representing entire organizations to being featured on necklaces and bumper stickers. For both sides of the coin, it symbolizes autism being a bit of a mystery, a puzzle to be solved and completed. For some, it represents hope that answers may be found. For others, it is dismissive of their lives and experiences.
For SPARC and its mission, it represents something entirely different.
The purpose of SPARC is to educate, and though we don’t adopt the puzzle piece as our symbol (nor will we ever do so), we embrace a different meaning for it.
For SPARC, the puzzle represents connecting the pieces for minority communities.
It means connecting “stranded” families to resources and assistance.
It means establishing support systems for those on the spectrum and their caregivers in these communities.
It means linking a community together in awareness, acceptance, affirmation, and advocacy.
So, when you see the puzzle piece on any flyers or marketing for SPARC, know that it carries a completely different meaning for us. It doesn’t represent autism itself, but rather represents underserved communities being given much needed tools to assist with autism.
We are only a few days away from the first West Palm Beach class “Hello Autism” this Saturday!
I checked out the space today to make sure the equipment and setup would work, and yes, it will have a similar setup to this. I want this to be a discussion as much as it is a workshop, and I want it to become a regular occurrence.
If you haven’t reserved a spot yet, it’s FREE and there are still spaces available! Click here to go directly to the event and register!
We are excited and thrilled to announce that our first community class, “Hello, Autism” is set and ready! Here are the details:
Class: Hello Autism, the first class in SPARC’s community training series
Date: Saturday, August 3, 2019
Place: Mandel West Palm Beach Public Library at 411 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401 (Hibiscus Room on the 3rd floor)
RSVP: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, number of attendees, and zip code. You will also be added to a mailing list to get updates on this and other classes from SPARC, including parking/transportation information.
PLEASE NOTE: RSVP is required for this class, as there is VERY LIMITED seating for it. We can only take a maximum of 20 people for the class. Preference will be given to those in the 33407, 33404, and 33401 zip codes. Don’t worry, though; if enough people email us, we will definitely arrange another class in the near future. Those who attend this class will receive a discount for the second class in the series, which focuses on the school system and autism. Please visit the Classes page for more information about the various class series.
I had a very surreal experience months ago that made me realize that any of us who do not fit the mold of “typical American” can expect to be ignored at some point, even when we are physically right there. This is also the reality of many on the autism spectrum.
I won’t go into massive detail about the situation, because it involved people that I care about that I think simply did not realize how tone deaf the conversation was sounding to me. I also didn’t bother to correct them because it would have quickly dampened a light and fluffy mood.
In hindsight, I should have said more.
The topic started on Black Panther, and then took a turn to different aspects of African-American culture (specifically with regards to us black women) that may have inspired other subcultures. I then watched and listened as two definitely not black people debated on who knew more about black culture in order to prove their side of the argument. I heard everything from “I lived in so-and-so, so I know more about it” to “I have a lot more black friends, so I know more about it.” Meanwhile, I sat and sipped my drink in silence, looking at both of them with what I can only describe as disappointed amusement.
Finally, a third person hinted that maybe they should ask the one black person at the table. By then, I didn’t care to prove a point at all. The bartender came up, and that thankfully more or less ended the discussion.
So here’s the tricky part about this whole experience. I don’t want to necessarily be seen as the spokesperson for an entire race, but by being the only member of that race in the group, it was almost unavoidable. Therefore, I was taken aback when two of them started a “who knows black folks better” match in front of me. No matter what the initial subject, it would still come across as ridiculous in my eyes. I stayed silent because there was no way that I was going to purposefully support either point.
This later made me think about my spectrum clients, who were mostly kids. I have seen many people talk over them and discuss them (usually in a negative tone) without so much as a sideways glance their way. Interestingly enough, I have also heard many parents and teachers tell me that they know that the client understands what they are hearing, they are just not responding (at least, not verbally). It’s one of the reasons why I try very hard not to discuss them when they are sitting right there, at least not in a negative sense. If they are there, I praise their efforts or perhaps playfully acknowledge their moments of impish behavior (that often gets a knowing smirk from them). I also try to include them as much as possible in the conversation, because that is just basic manners, I think.
No, being black in America and being autistic in America are not the same thing. There is a lesson in my strange experience at the bar that can apply to practitioners in the autism field, though: if you’re talking about the person’s experience in their presence, you should at least acknowledge or include the person in the conversation.
Most of my 10+ years of work have been in the autism and special needs communities as a therapist or developmental specialist. While the clients themselves (kids or teens) are the main focus, I have also been taking mental notes on trends I see amongst the parents and families. The notes have been interesting and at times, concerning.
First, there are a few common ones I have seen across all of the families, regardless of race, location, or socioeconomic status:
If it’s a two parent household, the mother often feels like she is carrying the weight of the autism journey. Granted, this seems to be the feeling in a lot of two parent households in the non-autism community as well, but I hear it more often overall with this population.
The parents feel as if they have to fight for every service, meeting, and opportunity that they can get.
A lot of parents/guardians feel lonely.
If the entire family becomes invested in helping their autistic family member succeed, the client usually does (and often goes beyond what any of us professionals may have thought they could do). These cases taught me early on to never underestimate my clients.
Since my change of scenery from California to Florida, I have now started noticing trends that I knew little to nothing about before, but always suspected. In Cali, my population was mostly white with some Mexican families included here and there. Here, the clientele is mostly African-American with some Latino families included here and there (mind you, my therapeutic population is not autism-based here, but mental health based instead). Some of the things I’ve noticed:
The children in the black community in general are getting diagnosed much later than their white counterparts. We’re talking *years* later. Early intervention has been proven time and time again to be critical to helping autistic individuals with navigating this really insane, overstimulating world of ours. The later the diagnosis, the more intense and prolonged treatment may have to be.
Professionals aren’t listening to the minority parents/guardians. Many parents have told me that they “had a feeling” that something was different about their child, only to have their primary care doctors brush it off and say, “They’ll grow out of it.” This has directly led to the first bullet point above this one: delayed diagnosis.
Minority parents/guardians often feel alienated in their own communities. They don’t feel that they have anyone they can talk to, and that few others know their experience enough to even provide support. This diagnosis is still considered foreign in many of these communities.
Incorrect myths and assumptions about autism are still quite common. This also leads to delayed diagnosis.
Below are some links to different articles and studies about this disparity in the autism community as a whole. Our services here at SPARC Guidance aim to improve the situations in the minority communities in particular.
African-American and Latino Children Often Diagnosed With Autism (ASD) Later Than Their White Peers: There is one quote in particular from this article that I wish to highlight, because it speaks to another trend I have noticed since working here in Florida: “In 2007, a study by a team at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania, found that African-American children were 5.1 times more likely to be misdiagnosed with conduct disorders before being diagnosed with ASD.” (Rentz, 2018). Also, kudos to NPR for recognizing and correcting their article regarding how they classified autism (see their correction box at the bottom of the article).
If you wanted to know why I’m leaving the therapy field to focus more on autism education and empowerment in my community, now you know. 🙂
While living in the Bay Area of California, I felt as if there were a lot of resources for families on the autism spectrum. I watched former co-workers open up therapy service organizations for autism, and the universities (such as Stanford and the not-so-local UC Davis) had entire departments and programs dedicated to research and/or community outreach. There seemed to be something going on all the time, from walks and conferences, to trainings and meetings…there was always something to learn and gain.
You can imagine my surprise when I moved back home to South Florida and found nearly nothing compared to where I came from. Granted, there are some organizations that say they do the very things that I am looking to do, but I still hear from my community that there aren’t any services being provided to them. There is a disconnect somewhere.
Because of the wording of the laws in Florida (many of which only specify ABA as an acceptable intervention), many of the agencies that provided such services when I last lived here no longer can due to the guidelines. I am also noticing fewer professionals in my area who are trained or have experience with autism, so that is contributing to the resource desert as well. It is a strange and unfortunate situation all around.
So, what is SPARC hoping to do in the midst of this disconnect and resource shortage? Well, while we may not provide direct therapy, we do want to give families, communities, schools/daycare centers, and potential employers a better understanding of autism and encourage advocacy. That is how the system is improved. Awareness leads to Acceptance, Acceptance leads to Affirmation, and Affirmation leads to Advocacy.
Parents with kids and teens on the spectrum are starting to notice the range of different experiences they are having with regards to education, at least in my home county. While this is a goal further down the line for SPARC, I am fascinated by how a school district can have such extremes in providing services for those with special needs. The private and charter school sector has similar range of differences, leading to parents trying school after school in hopes that they actually provide the services that they say that they do (because I’m learning that this isn’t always the case, either).
Right now, I am looking at what is available in my county. I hope to start reaching out in the spring and summer to these programs already in place and help them connect better to minority communities. There are some great resources out there that many do not know about. I hope to change that and help bridge some obvious gaps. This is honestly Stage Two in SPARC Guidance’s plans, but with Stage One in its testing phase already (on an individual basis), I want to start laying groundwork for the next steps.
There will probably be some future posts on this topic as I learn more about what is available for families in the school district and the community.
Just because you cannot see the movement, does not mean that movement is not happening!
Good read about the first openly autistic person to practice law in my home state of Florida. The message of inclusion is so strong here; find a person’s strengths, encourage them, and watch them shine. 🙂