As we begin Autism Awareness Month, it's important to appreciate how far we've come in understanding autism and helping autistic children lead productive lives. Yet challenges in combatting stigmas remain, particularly in communities of color.
Broaching the subject of autism can be a difficult one for African American, Latino, South Asian and other Asian American communities, and among faith groups like Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, because it's not discussed as much in the open. While groups such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) are working to help promote education about autism, organized advocacy and awareness within communities of color is still lacking. In Hindu communities, for example, the lack of education about autism cause social stigmas, which directly contradict Hindu teachings compassions and acceptance of differences.
For parents of autistic children, the challenge of dealing with the initial diagnosis have been compounded by the struggle to raise their kids in a way that doesn't make them feel singled out or isolated. Lack of knowledge in some communities, particularly about the autism spectrum, makes it harder for some parents to explain the condition to fellow community members or their own relatives.
My fraternity brother Jontue witnessed firsthand when his daughter Mealea was born. He said he was initially in disbelief after the diagnosis.
"Since I had a speech impediment as a kid and we were teaching Mealea English and Cambodian, we assumed any number of issues could be at play, but autism was never one of them," he said. "After the initial disbelief, terror and guilt sink in, you question what you did that might have led to the situation, but have no idea what happens next. You realize that all the dreams you had for your child will likely never happen. In all honesty, you go through all the states of confronting death, but there's no end."