By Ann Gibbons, Executive director, National Capital Area chapter
On Friday evening, May 3rd, over 200 women and men gathered for a screening of the movie "Colored My Mind" and panel discussion on “Meeting the Needs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Prince George's County.” Three organizations—The Links of Prince George’s County, Colored My Mind, Inc., and Autism Speaks—presented the program at Prince George’s Community College.
Prince George’s County frames the eastern half of Washington, DC. Over 65% of its residents are of African-American descent. It is a great, ethnically diverse community, home to the Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland, and has a per capita income higher than New York City.
Attendees heard that autism can be diagnosed in the very early stages of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an autism screening at both the 18-month and 24-month old well-baby check-up. Yet the average age of diagnosis remains stubbornly close to 5 years, and is higher still among many racial and ethnic minority communities. Even after a diagnosis has been made, many families are unable to access effective early intervention therapies.
Colored My Mind, Inc., a nonprofit founded by LaDonna Hughley to bring information on autism to the African-American and Latino communities, presented its documentary feature film showing five African-American women discuss their families journey with autism. LaDonna Hughley was joined on Thursday evening’s panel by two other stars of the film, actress Tisha Campbell-Martin and educator Donna Hunter.
Mrs. Stacy Wiseman, an Autism Speaks volunteer community ambassador, teacher, and autism mom, joined the panel. A proud product of Prince George’s County Public Schools, she said she had felt supported since the beginning of her son’s journey, when fellow teachers, her family, and sorority sisters stood with her throughout his diagnosis and treatment planning. Other members of the panel and audience were not so fortunate and expressed their frustration at accessing appropriate and affordable care.
The evening’s program was closed by Dr. Joseph Wright, Senior Vice President for Community Affairs and head of the Child Health Advocacy Institute, a newly-established center of excellence at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. He is also Professor and Vice Chairman in the Department of Pediatrics at George Washington University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Wright grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and spoke eloquently about the need for the medical community to come up to speed on autism diagnosis. “We really need to raise awareness among doctors, medical residents, and even medical students,” he said. “For most doctors and med students, ‘ASD’ still means atrial septal defect [a congenital heart defect]. While the American Academy of Pediatrics may recommend early autism screening, I don’t want to wager how many times that is actually happening. Through public forums like this, we have to make that happen.”
The Links, Incorporated was founded in Philadelphia in 1946 to form a chain of friendship and service to improve the quality of life and provide hope for disadvantaged African-American citizens. Today there are more than 12,000 members in 276 chapters across the United States and the Bahamas.
The Autism Speaks Early Access to Care initiative seeks to reduce the average age at diagnosis and increase access to high-quality, early intervention services for all children on the autism spectrum.