Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Great Racial Divide

When Jacob was diagnosed at age 3 1/2, I was fortunate to receive a lot of services from both LAUSD and the Westside Regional Center including speech and occupational therapy, in-home behavior support, a one-on-one classroom aide for several years, many hours of respite, and summer camp placement when school was out. Everything was provided at no cost to my family, and most were freely offered without a request from me. I think my situation was somewhat unique as some families of children with special needs that attended school with Jacob had to go to court to get some of the same services. So I was extremely fortunate that I was able to get what I needed for Jacob without much of a struggle.

At that time, we lived in beautiful and affluent Pacific Palisades, a Los Angeles coastal community situated between Santa Monica and Malibu. I'm sure the income level of the area is not much different today than it was when we moved to the neighborhood in 1994, and it may even be higher. According to the Los Angeles Times, the median household income is $168,008, high for both the city and the county of Los Angeles. The percentage of white people is high for Los Angeles county and not especially diverse for the city or the county. The median age is 43, old for the city and county, and the population 50 and over is among the county's highest. So basically, it's a neighborhood of rich, old, white people.

I thought about this during a conversation I had today with a preschool teacher from Florence Avenue Elementary. She is the lead teacher in a class for students with autism. Her school is located between Inglewood and East Los Angeles in the 90001 zip code.

Just for comparision, I reseached the demographics of the school's neighborhood on city-data.com: the average adjusted gross income is $22,565; 35.6% live below the poverty level; 78% of the residents speak Spanish; 21% speak Engish; 45% are foreign born; and the median resident age is 24 years. So this Los Angeles neighborood is pretty much polar opposite of Pacific Palisades; it is populated by poor, young, Hispanic people.

The teacher was young and very enthusiastic about her job. She obviously loves her work and has been told she is the best preschool teacher at her school. I could tell that she really cares for her students. She even makes home visits on her own time to help the families, but there are many, many obstacles that she cannot address. Some of parents need behavior management classes to better cope with their child's behavior issues. Many parents do not speak English. She spoke of one family that was in crisis; the mother of her student has no family support, and the younger sibling is also showing sings of an ASD. Needless to say, this young Mom is completely overwhelmed and not coping well.

Instead of having the Westside Regional Center like I did, these parents have the East Los Angeles Regional Center and are not treated as kindly as I was by Westside. The teacher told me that the parents of her students are informed that the East LA Regional Center that no money is available and they should go to to the school district when their child turns 3. The teacher also mentioned that her school's administration was not as supportive as she'd like. So when these families try to get any services for their child from the two traditional avenues where I was able to easily get help, they find it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to access to services for thier child that they so deparately want and need. Add to this the California budget crisis which has severely cut monies to both the Regional Centers and the school district, and these poor families of color are really underserved.

Not only do these families have a more difficult time getting services, but it takes them longer and requires more doctor visits to receive an Autism diagnosis. According to the study "Ethnic Disproportionality in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders" by Michael Morrier, Kristen Hess & L. Heflin, Hispanic and African American children were referred to special education at reduced rates, they received an ASD diagnosis at older ages than Caucasion children, and they required more vistis to health care professionals than Caucausion children in order to receive the ASD diagnosis.

What an incredibly sad situation. Being poor and having to struggle to support your family and make ends meet is stressful enough. Throw in a language barrier, a child with a developmental disability, and a lack of both access to and information about available support services, and this is a real recipe for disaster for this community in particular and our society as a whole.

I worry about these families because I know the difficulties they face. But they will have a much more difficult time finding ASD support services for their child than I did, just because of how much money they don't make and becuase they aren't white. I've been both wealthy and I've been low income. Needless to say, it's much tougher to care for your child with special needs when you don't have money. So if a family is poor, Hispanic, or African American, as if having a child with ASD was not difficult enough, these parents will have to work harder in order to get the same support for their child than it was for me.

I wish I had the answer or could solve the problem. But I'm in the middle of raising my own child with ASD, so I just try to keep focused on Jacob and hope everything I've implemented for him works. I only wish every family could be as fortunate as was in the journey to help their child. Empowering these families is the key, and the Autism Society Los Angeles is planning on addressing this issue with this school. More about this in a future blog.

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