Author, Attorney, Advocate for Autistic Children, Areva Martin
Known to audiences across the country from her regular appearances on The Dr. Phil Show, as well as national stints on Fox News, NPR, and Court TV Radio Television, Areva Martin is one of television's most in-demand legal experts/analysts.
A quotable authority on workplace, disability rights, education, custody and women's issues, this accomplished and multi-award winning lawyer, syndicated columnist, author and public speaker is also quoted and or featured on the pages of publications ranging from the Los Angeles Daily Journal to Cookie Magazine to Redbook and the LA Times.
The founding and managing partner of Martin & Martin, LLP, Areva has built a reputation for ACTION. In addition to positioning her firm as one of the premier African-American female owned firms in LA, Areva has developed a multidisciplinary civil practice, which serves some of the nation's top corporations, non-profit organizations, governmental entities and high net-worth individuals. She is also President and co-founder of Special Needs Network, Inc. (SNN), a non-profit launched specifically to support families with special needs children.
In addition to being a sought after legal expert, Areva is also an inspiring author. Her second book, The Everyday Advocate, is scheduled for release by Penguin books in early 2010.
Areva graduated with honors from both the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her family.
Areva Martin is someone who could easily be characterized as an everyday hero. Her new book The Everyday Advocate is born out of her willingness to deal with whatever life offers with the determination to win and the overall belief that out of adversity waits the opportunity for growth.
DR: Tell me about your book.
AM: The book is called The Everyday Advocate: Standing Up for Your Autistic Child.
I like to describe it as a road map. It's a comprehensive guide for parents, prospective parents, caregivers and anyone who is involved with the care of a child with special needs. The Everyday Advocate provides them with the information that they need in terms of helping their child get educational, medical and intervention services and other things that a child with special needs requires in order to live a safe life.
DR: I would imagine that having a child with special needs, and in your case autism, changes your life dramatically. It seems to put you in the position of having to fight or retreat and of having to find out what you are made of. It puts you in the position of having to rise to the occasion, or not.
AM: "Or not". Yeah.
First of all getting a diagnosis of a child at that age - most kids are diagnosed with autism between the ages of 18 -24 months
I have met thousands of parents across the country that have kids with autism and we all agree that it is devastating to be told that your child has a condition for which there is no known cause or cure. It's not like diabetes or something else that we are all familiar with, one for which you can take a pill. You are told that your child has autism and you really don't know.
Autism is a spectrum disorder. You just don't know. Your child may speak or he may not speak. Your child may grow up and be able to go to his public school or he may not be able to go. There are a lot more questions than there are answers. That is very frustrating and for a lot of parents it becomes a negative life altering experience. I have met a lot of single moms where autism has caused a break up in their relationship. People quit their jobs and careers and they become almost martyrs. And many parents find the balance and a way to manage the necessary care for their child. Some parents get involved with charities and find ways to carry on with their lives and care for other family members.
Me? I started at the devastation point and fortunately, because of a strong base of support that I had with my husband, my immediate family and with my work family, I was able to move from a place of anguish to one of advocacy in what would probably be considered a relatively quick period of time. Helping others through the non-profit special needs network that I started was really one of the ways that helped me to get outside of myself and to not be so focused on my own situation. Sometimes all it takes is getting involved with helping other people to realize how blessed you are.
That has been my journey with my son and my family and that journey has made my family stronger.
My marriage is stronger while statistically, it is reported that as many as 84% of couples divorce over this...
DR: I want to talk about that for a minute. When you find yourself in the middle of an unexpected challenge; something has happened that you can't control what do you do? How do you survive? It's like there is this imaginary fork in the road and one path leads to destruction and the other path leads to this wonderful place of self-discovery.
AM: My life has been one of facing obstacles and confronting them and overcoming them.
I grew up with two very strong women who had very little and I watched them internalize the subliminal message of perseverance and the willingness to deal with whatever life brings.
My grandmother was shot as a young woman and as a result, she was a paraplegic by the time I was born. I lived with her. Here was a woman in a wheelchair living in a small apartment in a housing project and raising her daughter's kids. As a kid I didn't think much of that but obviously that was pretty significant. We are talking the 1970s. Being in a wheelchair was not like what it is today with motorized wheel chairs and ramps and lifts and wide doors and laws. We are talking to leave your house you have to have a strong man who is capable of picking up a person out of a chair and then picking up the chair itself which weighs 60 to 70 pounds and then putting it in a car that is not meant for transporting a person in a wheelchair. So even leaving home for her happened very rarely because it was so challenging. I have to believe that that left an indelible mark on me.
So, "What did I do? How did I survive"?
I cried and then I wiped my tears and I got up and said:
"What do I have to do now".
My husband and I walked out of the doctor's office in pain and then we said, "Now what" and then "Now where do we go? Where do we get the help"?
That is just how we manage our lives.
I was on the Dr. Phil show a month ago and I was working with Dr. Phil and a couple whose child had been recently diagnosed with autism and the mother was talking about leaving her husband and taking her child to another state where she thought they had better services. The husband had a good job and so did not want to leave that good job in a bad economy. I told this mother not to leave! Do not do it! I understand that she wanted to help her child but helping your child begins with keeping your family in tact.
There is a whole chapter in the book about how to keep your relationships in tact. I share some of the things that my husband and I did and we have been married for twenty years.
"THE guide for getting the best life possible for your child...invaluable."
-Dr. Phil McGraw
Nationally recognized expert on autism advocacy Areva Martin shares her hard-won knowledge as a parent of an autistic child and an individual rights attorney. In The Everyday Advocate, she lays out vital and relevant step-by-step instructions to parents facing the seemingly impossible odds of advocating for a child with autism.
Parents need to become activists for their children's rights to services and learn how to safeguard those rights-both in school and in the larger outside world. An invaluable resource, The Everyday Advocate offers practical, real-world actions that work, lists helpful websites and organizations, and gives parents and caregivers the emotional support they need as they face the challenge of successfully standing up for children with special needs.
DR: I can remember a conversation that my mom had with me when I was pregnant. She told me never to forget that I would have to be my daughter's marketing director, her public relations manager, and her social chairman but above all else, I would have to be her ADVOCATE. So, the title of, it is really important to be that for our children. Being the mother of a special needs child, what has it been like to advocate in those waters? Also, how much do you feel like you have had to be a pioneer?
AM: I am a pioneer, yes.
Your mother gave you great advice. No one said that to me and most parents that I meet, no one has ever said that to them.
DR: That "you have to be your child's advocate"...
AM: Yes. It quickly became clear to me that I was my child's advocate. All parents need to advocate for their children and particularly with special needs children. A special needs child's life will profoundly touch the medical system, the educational system, the legal system in ways that other children's lives don't.
For example, when a typical child is ready to for Kindergarten you go to your neighborhood school and you enroll them and they are a student. With a special needs child, the child cannot even be enrolled in school without a legal binding agreement called an Individualized Education Plan or an IEP agreement.
DR: Where do you get that agreement?
AM: You get it at the school. You develop it at the school. But before your child can sit in a seat, before he can enter that classroom, You have to have had an IEP meeting - a team meeting where school administrators, teachers, the parents and other professionals who have been involved with the child's evaluation and care come together in a meeting and develop this IEP document. That document is what grants the child the right to sit in a classroom.
Again - that concept of advocacy! You have to know all of this. You have to know how to put that document together in a way that is going to best serve your child.
There is so much that you need to know...
The Everyday Advocate is really about teaching people how to speak up for their child.
Sometimes the concept of advocacy is given a bad rap. We think of advocates as rabble-rousers or people who stage sit-ins or people who are loud and aggressive. Often parents, in the context of trying to get services for their children, get characterized as troublemakers. I try to provide parents with the grander scheme that all of the laws in our country were generated because someone was willing to speak up and to stand up for themselves...
DR: That is what is interesting about the example that you gave of the mother on the Dr. Phil Show. The opportunity exists there for her to take a stand for these services being offered in her community.
AM: That is what I do in the book. I try to give parents the technical know how to be able to take a stand and forge new ground and also to develop the courage to do it. Because if you are a mom and you have never had to stand up for anything even for yourself in a grocery store after you have been charged the wrong amount and now you are having to consider standing up for better services in her community - that can be overwhelming. Think of people who consider themselves shy or introverted; people who like to fly under the radar screen, and now all of a sudden you have to go and say to a school administrator "I don't like this". To challenge people in positions of authority - doctors for instance who we all put on a pedestal - it can all be very intimidating. We are taught to respect people in certain positions and now you have to challenge them? It can be very difficult.
DR: That's what I like about your book. It is really about taking a stand. So many of us are fearful of standing up to certain institutions that we have been trained to think of as infallible or immovable. Your book really transcends autism.
AM: Oh, absolutely.
The principles that I share in the book can be used in any situation. You don't have to be a lawyer, you don't have to have a PhD. You don't have to have a degree to be an advocate. There are so many things that we let go and overlook because of the courage it takes to stand up for ourselves. The book is really about how to navigate those situations where you need to speak up and take action.
DR: Tell me something that you were surprised to learn about yourself as a result of going through this journey.
AM: I have learned that I am even more resilient than I thought I was.
When something tragic happens to you, God is really good about allowing time to heal. When someone dies, over time you are able to think of the happy times without sadness. When my son was first diagnosed, I could not imagine being an advocate for people with autism. I couldn't even say the word autism without weeping. I spent months coming up with creative ways to describe to people what was going on with Marty. I would tell people he had speech delay or developmental delay because autism seemed so finite...
DR: and so stigmatized...
AM: It was just too overwhelming. So what I learned is that even something as painful as that, I could come through and use that pain to help others.
I have to laugh when people compliment me about what I am doing because if they had seen me and seen all that I had gone through, they would know that this is nothing short of a miracle.
This is a God inspired journey. I did not want to be an autism advocate. I was trying to hide it and not deal with it. I was not trying to be a champion for autism at all.
DR: I was writing a piece one day and had a thought that Gandhi wasn't born Gandhi. Gandhi became Gandhi. He just kept making choices, taking one step and then another. What we have the tendency to do sometimes is to look at what is potentially the whole journey, get overwhelmed and then give up. Isn't it about making choices to just get up and show up and to choose not to give up? Isn't that what will equip you?
AM: Yes. I was just going about my business and then Marty, who was the son that we had wanted, came along. I wasn't trying to save anybody. Now I realize that my whole life has equipped me to do this, even though in the beginning, I wasn't aware of that fact.
DR: Tell me about your non-profit organization.
AM: We work primarily in undeserved communities. Children in African American and Latino communities are typically diagnosed two to four years later than White children and are twice as likely not to receive quality healthcare, evaluations and intervention services. I am familiar with poor communities, having grown up in a poor community in North St. Louis.
We go into poor communities and teach advocacy. We teach parents how to prepare documents for meetings, how to attend meetings and how to work within the system. We connect them with financial resources. We do a camp for kids. The organization is really about closing the gap.
DR: What is it that you could say to people who have no experience with autism that would allow for the compassion that would make such a difference for a child or a family?
AM: First of all I would say, "Buy the book"!
Secondly I would say that we all have an opportunity to be advocates. We are all going to be touched by autism. Soon we will all know someone who is autistic. We all have an obligation to anyone with any kind of disability to work together to create an environment where they can live with dignity in our communities.
One of the biggest issues that parents have is going out and feeling embarrassed because your child is having a difficult time or a tantrum and people are staring at you...
DR: Or shooting a dirty look...
AM: If people would just think for a moment before they do that. If they would turn their head and recognize that it's none of their business - just that would make the difference between someone feeling comfortable going out into their own communities or not.
That is what advocacy can do. It can create an awareness and a sensitivity that is really needed.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
AM: Two words:
The Special Needs Network, Inc
ABOUT SPECIAL NEEDS NETWORK, INC.
Autism is the fastest-growing childhood disease in America. A recent study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics Journal confirms that one in every 91 American children, including on in every 58 boys born today will be diagnosed with autism. The Center for Disease Control reports that one in every 150 children has autism. In California alone, two children are diagnosed every hour. This complex neurological disorder is taking its toll on school districts, communities and families across the nation. And nowhere is the impact felt more than in communities of color, where both diagnosis and services are delayed two years on average--two years lost for a child who needs early intervention for his developing brain. Two years without valuable therapies that can make the difference between her ability to someday live on her own – or lead a life of institutionalized care. This is the reality for thousands of special needs families who live in disenfranchised communities. And this is the reality that Special Needs Network, Inc. is committed to change.
Special Needs Network, Inc. is responding to the crisis of autism and other developmental disabilities in underserved communities by providing educational forums, resources, and specialized learning opportunities for parents and care givers of special needs children, intervention programs and advocacy training. Founded in 2005, SNN grew out of the struggles of two mothers whose sons were diagnosed with autism. Co-founder and President Areva Martin son’s diagnosis and her personal struggles to access services convinced her that an organization like SNN was overdue in South Los Angeles.