Finding community—one step at a time!
Growing up in a Hispanic household where autism wasn't well understood, Kimberly Mariajimenez's path to self-acceptance wasn't easy. When her son Blake, age 22, was diagnosed with autism, Kimberly discovered that she herself was on the autism spectrum. She faced challenges finding acceptance from her family, but found community and resources through Autism Speaks.
Her struggles motivated Kimberly to become a strong advocate for herself and her son. She became closely involved with Autism Speaks, advising the Autism Care Network and playing a crucial part in her local Los Angeles Autism Speaks Walk. Now, she’s a guiding light showing other families that they're not alone, and there's support for everyone in the autism community.
In this Q&A, Kimberly courageously discusses her experiences as a mother, her own autism diagnosis and her passionate advocacy to break stigma and promote understanding within the Hispanic autism community.
Can you tell me about your autism journey?
I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was in my early 30s. I always knew something was different—I never understood why my personality and perception were different from those around me, or why social interactions came easy to others while I struggled. But in the Hispanic community, autism is pretty much frowned upon. When you’re growing up in a Hispanic household, talking about mental health is considered taboo.
When I had my son, Blake, I thought all his characteristics were the same as mine and he came out just like me. Then, his preschool started saying that something’s off and suggesting that we get him tested. I had a very hard time getting him diagnosed, but when he was in kindergarten, I got a referral through his pediatrician to the Children’s Hospital of LA, which is an Autism Speaks Autism Care Network site. During his autism evaluation, the clinicians started questioning me about myself, asking if I had gone through similar things when I was younger. I was a little ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I had, but whatever help my son needed, I was going to make sure he got it. I raised him as a single mom and I put my all into my son. Once he was diagnosed, I immediately went to get myself evaluated.
As time went on, my son experienced more meltdowns and it brought back memories of me going through the same thing when I was little. I started working with him one-on-one the way I would have wanted to be worked with. Normally parents would spank their kids if they’re screaming and crying at a store, but I started communicating with him and talking to him. He and I started forming a stronger bond and talking about everything, and those meltdowns decreased. When something happened at school, I knew I needed to address it right away. Even now, when he gets frustrated or I’ll see certain facial expressions, I don’t ignore it. I confront it immediately, because I went through depression. Nobody helped me, and I want to make sure that he gets the help he needs. To me, autism goes hand-in-hand with mental health—a lot of kids who have autism suffer from depression and don’t get that help.
How did your family respond to your diagnosis?
When I got my diagnosis and got the help I needed, it was like a huge burden lifted off me, but I didn’t tell anybody at first. My family didn’t find out—I kept it hush-hush. When I did mention it to my family, it was an immediate putdown. My mom never got me the help I needed growing up, and to this day, she can shame me for it. She is more accepting of my son than me, but my diagnosis makes her feel like she’s done something wrong. It makes her look at herself like there’s a problem, and my siblings are the same way.
At that point, you have to start setting boundaries because it’s what’s in the best interest for yourself and your own child. You shouldn’t have to be ashamed of who you are as a person. You should be able to have that parental support without being looked down upon.
How are you making an impact in your community?
There are a lot of challenges around autism in the Hispanic community. We need more resources translated to Spanish. We need more education and outreach, especially in lower income communities. In areas where migrants are coming over, from what I’ve seen and experienced, they’re not really educated about autism. We need more therapists in the underprivileged communities to be able to work with these parents and guardians so they have more patience.
It’s my job as an advocate and as a voice to help other families out there. That’s why the Autism Speaks Walk in Los Angeles is so important. The resources Autism Speaks shares during these annual Walks helped me, and I know that they can help many more families.
When my son was young, the clinic we went to had a collection of all the Autism Speaks Tool Kits that were available at the time. I asked for all of them to be photocopied so I could take them home and educate myself. One that was really helpful was the Parent’s Guide to Blood Draws. My son was constantly in labs having his blood drawn, so I took the tool kit with me to educate the techs on the proper way to draw blood from someone that’s on the spectrum. As time went on, that clinic provided the tool kit to all of their techs. Now, times have changed, and these resources are much more accessible to families than they were before.
Through the Walk, we’re also raising funds to help with Autism Speaks’ scientific programs, grants and all our community outreach programs, and it’s making such a big impact. I’m doing as much as I can to give back to Autism Speaks and I feel like I’m still not doing enough. I have a lot of friends that have become my family through the Walks, and I’m grateful to Autism Speaks because without that support, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
What would you say to a Hispanic mother or young adult who is recently diagnosed and feeling alone?
I want you to know that you are not alone on your journey. I've been through similar challenges and understand the complexities of navigating cultural expectations and stigmas. It's okay to seek help and support—don't be afraid to reach out to others who have walked this path before you. Surround yourself with understanding and compassionate individuals who can offer guidance and a sense of belonging. Remember, your diagnosis doesn't define you; it's a part of who you are, and you deserve respect, acceptance and the opportunity to thrive. Stay strong, stay positive and know that there's a community out here that cares and is ready to support you every step of the way. Make sure you are your own voice and don't allow others to speak in your place. Your voice is strong and does matter.
- Learn more about autism in our Spanish-language resources
- Listen to our new podcast, Hablemos Autismo, created by and for the Hispanic community