LA School Report | Esmeralda Fabián Romero | March 21, 2018
Lisette Duarte, project director of the Parent Empowerment Project of the Autism Society of Los Angeles, knows first-hand that families with autistic children face more than just a lack of awareness about their needs. In order to be her son’s best advocate, she left her job and even was homeless for a time.
“I had to quit my job, my husband had to quit his job, we lost income, and we even had to experience homelessness. My journey has not been an easy one.”
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and LA Unified has recognized the importance of drawing attention to the challenges faced by their students and other individuals with autism. The school board will vote April 10 on a resolution designating April as the district’s Autism Awareness Month and directing the superintendent to promote autism awareness at events throughout the district.
Los Angeles County is home to one-third of all Californians with autism. Nationally, 1 in every 110 children is diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Duarte wishes that more families, especially in minority and low-income communities, would have more resources available to them — such as specialized doctors and schools with a better understanding of the autism spectrum — and have easier access to those resources.
“Not every mom has the resources and the understanding, unfortunately. I had colleagues and friends that had gone through this and helped me, but I worry for all other families that don’t have what I have.”
After trying different schools, including independent charter schools, her son is now a senior and on his way to college. She credits the support he has received from his teachers and counselors on his inclusion teams and college preparatory teams at PUC Santa Rosa Charter Academy, a middle school, and PUC Early College Academy for Leaders & Scholars (eCALS). He has now applied to private and public colleges, including community colleges with music programs because he wants to become a professional musician. But getting to this point was a rough road, she said, and that’s why she dedicates her time to helping families so they can also see their children succeed.
What helped you that you want other parents to know?
I feel incredibly blessed that my son’s charter school has the resources to help him find his talent. But the sacrifices, the trajectory that we had to go though to get him where he’s at wasn’t easy, and parents need to be aware of that. Sometimes you’re going to need legal representation in order to get what they need from schools. You need to learn what your child needs, then have a goal and develop a plan to request the right support for him to succeed.
What were some of the biggest limitations to getting the resources you need?
I always wondered If I were living in a different city, would I experience the same challenges? Like someone who lives on the west side, for example? Oftentimes we’re limited by our ZIP codes, it comes down to school options. At the beginning, I thought my only option was the neighborhood school or pulling him out for homeschooling. There were not many charter schools, and I didn’t know about those options at that time. Also, all the time you lose when your doctor or pediatrician doesn’t get to do the right assessment early on. It took me years and lots of money to get my son an autism test, when my pediatrician should have alerted me of red flags early on. We lost precious time, significant therapies he should have gotten. Traditional schools can be a big challenge too, because you can spend more time litigating the services you need than actually getting that support.
Was finding the right school what made a difference?
For us it was day and night. Many parents I know leave LAUSD schools because it just takes too long to get what you need. And then charters have big waiting lists, so parents are desperate for their children to be in the right school environment. You worry if your child will be bullied, are they going to implement their IEP, is the teacher willing to help your child. It is so hard! So having that shift of peace of mind and seeing your child learning is worth finding the right school, and for that you need to attempt different school settings, from hospital schooling, homeschooling, private placements to public schools. I wish all parents could have the experience I have where I am at. But the point is that not every charter school is the right answer for every autistic child. Be aware of your own child’s needs. Do your own research, know your child’s diagnosis, grasp your child’s goals, understand your IEP. If you know what your child’s limitations and needs are, you will know what to ask. Be an active participant and be prepared.