Rethinking Autism

On Monday, April 4, students wore blue to kick off Autism Awareness Month.

Men of All Nations United (MANU) and the Black Student Union (BSU) worked together and held their first autism related program “Autism in the Black and African Community.” The program was set up to educate peers about autism and how it is handled in the Black Community.

“Society always perceives autism as something that needs to be dealt with and fixed,” said Jay Espinosa, President of MANU and Historian of BSU.

The program opened with a brief skit demonstrating one of the common ways children with autism respond to social cues. One organization member acted as a child diagnosed with autism, while another member acted as her mother. When the mother tried speaking to the child, the child grew angry and refused to respond.

Several similar skits took place throughout the program to show how parents and peers typically handle children with autism. While there is no cure for autism, there are ways for children and their families to cope. Many children receive speech and occupational therapy to enhance their social abilities and communication skills.

“They’re loving people, and I’ve been around a lot of children diagnosed with autism,” said BSU president Charisma Wright. “Just be patient.”

Since the 1960s, the rate of children diagnosed with autism has increased. According to the organization Autism Speaks, one in 110 children are diagnosed with autism today. In the United States, organizations such as Autism Speaks have helped raise awareness toward the developmental disorder. Most states have passed, or are in the process of passing, laws which prevent insurance companies from discriminating against patients diagnosed with autism.

In South Africa, autism is kept away from the public eye. This issue carries over to the United States, where there is a lack of awareness in the African-American community. Factors such as the inability to see high-end physicians, distrust in the medical community and stereotypes have contributed to this lack of awareness.

In the black community, autism is looked at in a different way. Black children are usually diagnosed with autism 18 months later than white children, according to Autism Speaks.

While scientists have tried to put a face to the disorder by associating it with the ways that patients connect with words and respond to emotions, many people have created stereotypes for the autistic community.

“The biggest disorder isn’t autism, it’s ignorance,” said Espinosa. “That’s the worst disease in our culture.”

Espinosa’s younger brother has autism. He says having a family member with autism has inspired him to educate the public about the cause. Espinosa, a second-year Black Studies and sociology major, hopes to become a social worker and help families who have children with developmental disorders such as autism.

The program wrapped up with an open discussion led by Wright and several other club members of MANU and BSU. Along with causes and treatments, the way that society views the autistic community was discussed.

“We need to start engaging these young people who are diagnosed and we’ll realize that they’re geniuses,” said Black Studies Adjunct Professor, Kaba Kamene.

In the future, MANU and BSU will hold events to promote awareness for other causes, said Espinosa and Wright.

The annual Walk Now for Autism Speaks will be held in New York City on June 5.