Thursday, April 05, 2007

Autism Realities in the African American Community


By Donna Ross Jones and Areva Martin, Esq.

(April 5, 2007)

(Los Angeles, CA) - What happens to children who have been diagnosed with autism or some other developmental disorder? They grow up. And, more often than not, somewhere along the way they get into trouble with the law.

An excellent case in point is the controversial July 2002 beating of 16 year-old Inglewood, CA resident, Donovan Jackson. When his father was admonished by local police for driving with expired license plates on his automobile, young Donovan was severely beaten and slammed head first onto the trunk of the police officer's vehicle for supposedly not adhering to their commands. The incident was videotaped and it was later learned that the visibly confused and scared young man was developmentally disabled.

On any given day, approximately 130,000 youth reside in juvenile detention and correctional facilities nationwide. Studies have consistently shown that anywhere from 65 percent to 70 percent of these youth have a diagnosable mental health or developmental disorder. Approximately 25 percent are experiencing disorders so severe that their ability to function is severely impaired, according to data released by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice reports many of its juvenile justice facilities are inadequate in their response to the needs of developmentally disabled youth in their care. These and other reports have shed light on an issue that virtually went unnoticed for decades.

Even worse, as in most other areas of the justice system, African Americans are disproportionately represented. Comprising approximately 15 percent of the total national youth population, African American youth represent 40 percent of all juveniles in detention and 60 percent of young offenders serving time in adult state prisons.

In addition, according to the U.S. House of Representatives, many of these youth are detained or placed in the juvenile justice system for relatively minor offenses and end up in the system simply because of a lack of community-based service options. And, that's where the problem starts.

Two years ago, we formed the Special Needs Network, Inc. (SNN) to bring attention to the epidemic of autism and other developmental disorders. Working on a grass roots level to create immediate- and long-term change for families, SNN continues to seek to raise awareness about developmental disabilities, especially in the African American community, and to offer resources and other ways to navigate through the bureaucratic red tape to obtain services.

Defined as a neurological condition that occurs in children 15 to 19 months of age, autism is a developmental disability that affects a person's ability to communicate and socially interact with others. Four times more prevalent in males, autism is now considered a public health crisis that has reached epidemic proportions, along with other mental, physical, or learning disabilities.

Statistics released earlier this year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that autism is more common than previously believed with one in 150 children being diagnosed on the autism spectrum versus one in 166 two years ago.

Mothers of autistic children ourselves, we were astounded at the difficulty in finding services for our children. We were equally astounded at the numbers of children of color being diagnosed, or misdiagnosed with autism and the fact that most of these children were being diagnosed two years later than the general populous.

We now know that the only scientifically proven way to guarantee positive outcomes for children with autism and other developmental disorders is early diagnosis and intensive early intervention. Called applied behavior analysis, this early intervention is a very systematic way to teach our children about how to cope with our environment and must begin at a very early stage when the brain is still developing. We have to teach them how to function our world.

Unfortunately, most children of color are not generally diagnosed until age five years, while others are diagnosed and begin treatment by age three years. Later diagnosis equals later treatment, coupled with the fact that people of color generally have fewer resources from the start.

To help combat the lack of special needs support services and resources, Special Needs Network, Inc. will host "Tools for Transformation: Two Days of Free Training, Resources and Advocacy for Families Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Developmental Disabilities" beginning at 8 a.m. on two Saturdays, April 14th and 21st in the Challengers Boys & Girls Club facility, 5029 S. Vermont Blvd.

In addition to free training for parents, professionals and community leaders by experts in the field, the two days will offer a free legislative breakfast, more than six hours of free training, a free resource fair, a free legal clinic, free lunch, free childcare, and a free medical update breakfast and transportation stipends for the first 50 families attending.

To register or obtain additional information call the Special Needs Network, Inc. at 323.692.7772 or visit its website at

NOTE: SNN co-founders include Areva Martin, Esq., Martin & Martin LLP (L.A.'s largest African American female-owned law firm), and Donna Ross Jones, president, Transition Music Corporation and featured as one of "50 Most Influential Women" by the Hollywood Reporter.

1 comment:

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