All Kids Deserve Access to Autism Treatment: This Mom Is Making It Happen

areva martin and son

At 18 months old, Areva Martin's son still wasn't speaking and didn't respond to his name. Marty didn't make eye contact and preferred to play in a corner alone rather than interact with others. At age 2, he was diagnosed with autism.


"I was devastated," admits Areva, whose daughters were 4 and 7 at the time. "I didn't know much about autism and my doctor didn't have many answers ... I couldn't say the word 'autism' without weeping and had no clue what his future would look like." 

But Areva's feelings of helplessness didn't last. In fact, once she accepted Marty's diagnosis and learned more about autism, she decided to help not just her son, but other families as well.

In 2005, Areva founded the Special Needs Network, now known as California's go-to resource for autism advocacy, especially for underserved African-American and Latino communities. Thanks to her efforts, over 40,000 autistic children and their families have gotten the assistance and support they need.

More from The Stir: Autism Taught Me to Love My Children for Who They Are -- Not Who They Might Be

Here, the Harvard-trained attorney, who regularly appears on shows like Dr. Phil and Good Morning America, explains how Marty's diagnosis spurred her to make a positive difference in the world.

How did you go from feeling so devastated and helpless to resolving that not only were you going to help Marty, but also other families?
It definitely was a process. I was helped a great deal from my husband, Ernest, who from day one accepted the diagnosis and dove into the morass of literature, trying to read and learn as much as he could. I prayed a lot and talked to my pastor, who provided a great deal of encouragement and support.

I met other parents who had far fewer resources than my husband and me, and watching them navigate helped me realize how fortunate I was and how many resources I had that could help my son as well as others. [It was] kind of like complaining you don't have shoes ... until you meet someone who doesn't have feet!

By helping others, I grew stronger. And after time, it just didn't hurt anymore and my anguish gave way to advocacy.

What resources were missing for you and your son at the time of his diagnosis?
A strong network of providers that could provide culturally competent care. I also met minority families in low-income communities and learned there was a gross disparity of services based on race and socioeconomic status.

This disturbed me and led me to want to start an organization that would give a voice to families who had traditionally been without one.

What's your proudest accomplishment as an advocate for children with autism and their families?
[It's] leading the charge to have California enact legislation that mandates that private health insurance cover the cost of autism and behavioral health therapies, and then working to ensure that the law was expanded to include Medi-Cal and other public health plans.

More from The Stir: 10 Moms Share What They Want You to Know About Autism

What about your proudest accomplishment as a mom?
Watching my son, Marty, participate in his graduation from fifth grade and give a small class speech. That was so special because this was our neighborhood public school that had suggested strongly that Marty leave the school and attend a special education school. They also fought my efforts to have Marty fully included in general education classes, which he was eventually placed in for his years at the school.

What's the biggest challenge that you feel families touched by autism face?
The biggest challenge is resources for kids aging out of high school. Teens attempting to attend college and find employment face tremendous challenges in finding and accessing services. Most cities lack adequate resources to assist kids with post–high school education, jobs, and housing.

What advice can you share with other moms who are raising a child with autism?
Sharpen your advocacy skills. Even in states where there are resources available, many require advocacy on the part of the parents to access those services. You don't have to be an attorney or professional advocate to learn how to help your child or teen ... There are courses provided through most nonprofit agencies that can help parents, including my Special Needs Network, which has online advocacy classes.

What would you like people who are NOT that familiar with autism to know?
The disorder now impacts 1 in 64 children, which means in their lifetime, they are certain to know someone who's been impacted. I also want them to know that individuals with autism are immensely talented and capable. Unfortunately, they often are not portrayed as such and their true talent is overlooked.



Image courtesy of Leroy Hamilton

Read More >