When I first met Gina, I was 16 years old. She was 12. I entered her group home and walked up the stairs. She examined me, then reached out her hand, touched the arm of my black jacket with a peace sign on it, and said “girl.” From that moment, Gina and I were friends.
(With Gina at the Animal (Trolley ride with Gina in 2014)
Humane Society in 2010)
My weekends with Gina consisted of visits to the animal shelter and walks around the lake. We found ourselves at the indoor pool when the Minnesota weather dropped below zero degrees. We took trips to the library where we read together for hours. Gina told me about how she loved school and loved swimming. In fact, Gina loved her life. She was surrounded by a community that embraced her and had daily opportunities to do what she loved.
When I met a mother and her daughter with autism in Jerusalem in 2012, Gina was on my mind. The mother had traveled to Jerusalem with her daughter for three weeks to learn more about the autism diagnosis that had recently been bestowed upon her daughter. Her 4-year-old daughter stood in the corner, with big brown eyes like Gina’s lost in a world of their own. When I asked the little girl’s mother about her plans, she told me that after three weeks she would return to her city, a place with no schools or services for children with autism, where she would hide her daughter in her home. She would rather do this, she said, than face the stigma that would come from her community if they found out that her child had autism.
After that encounter, I could not stop thinking about that mother and her daughter with the big brown eyes. I thought about how different Gina’s life would have been if she had been born in a different community. Children can’t control where they are born and I couldn’t wrap my mind around the reality that this factor could determine their ability to do something as basic as participate in a community.
With this in mind, I started A Global Voice for Autism, a program that empowers underserved communities to serve their children with autism through Applied Behavior Analysis parent training, family support and community education initiatives. We launched our first program in Jenin, a city in the northern Palestinian Territories in January 2014. Our program trained 14 mothers in the basics of Applied Behavior Analysis and supported them in the formation of a cooperative where they gather regularly to work with each other’s children. For many of the children, our program was their first opportunity to access community since their diagnosis. For the mothers, it was their first time meeting other parents of children with autism. For the first time, they felt supported in their experience.
We are now crowd-funding to launch A Global Voice for Autism in Jerusalem, Jordan and the Minneapolis Somali community for families who are unable to access traditional autism services. Our programs support families experiencing autism on multiple levels. In addition to the training program, we offer parent and sibling support groups and community education sessions that focus on reducing the stigma surrounding autism.
We believe that ALL children and their families deserve access to community and education. Please join us in our mission to empower autism!
Written by: Melissa Diamond, Founder and Director of A Global Voice for Autism