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Black History Month: An Interview With Autism Advocate Areva Martin

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Areva Martin is an award-winning attorney, best-selling author, legal commentator, talk show host, and a critical voice for social justice. She has a son, Marty, who has autism. I interviewed Areva Martin for Black History Month because her advocacy for Marty reminded me of my own mom. When I was diagnosed at age 7 with autism, my mom quit her job as an art teacher and became a full-time Ron teacher. Like Areva Martin, my mom fought hard for the accommodations and resources I required to succeed in school and graduate from college.

How were you able to overcome poverty conditions in St. Louis to attend an Ivy League university?

I grew up in a housing project in North St. Louis with my grandmother who was a paraplegic from a gunshot wound and my godmother who earned a living as a janitor. I was blessed to be surrounded by powerful, resilient, optimistic, hardworking, salt of the earth, women and they were the backbone of my family and community. They inspired me to persevere and provided me with unconditional love and support. My grandmother and godmother encouraged me to attend college.

I received a scholarship to the University of Chicago and graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in economics. After graduating, I applied to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford and got accepted into all three. Being from a low-income family I had to take out a student loan to pay for tuition to Harvard. I will never forgot my upbringing and I use my platform to help those with disabilities and who live in poverty to gain a voice.

Who were your mentors growing up and how did they empower you to be an attorney?

My mentors were my grandmother and godmother who taught me to root for the underdog and the importance of character. My godmother was famous for saying, “You will never outwork me.” I gained a work ethic from her. As a young child, I attended a Catholic school and the teachers mentored me to have an interests in academics. I learned from a young age the importance of studying and using your gifts to help others. When I asked my mom why are we poor and cannot afford Barbie dolls my mom replied, “Don’t question, persevere!”

As an attorney, how have you been able to give a voice to the voiceless?

After graduating from law school, I relocated to California and married my long-time love Ernest Martin. Together, we founded the Los Angeles-based civil rights firm, Martin & Martin, LLP. We represent individuals with autism and those marginalized by society. Our desire is to protect individuals’ civil rights and advocate for social justice and children’s and women’s issues. Martin & Martin, LLP currently represent civil rights cases involving race, gender, and disability discrimination. I’m not in the courtroom like I used to be, but I still provide legal services to clients.

What are some cases you represented that helped people with disabilities and autism?

In 2016, I represented a case in Las Vegas of five families whose teacher abused their child with autism. It was the first case of its kind and Dr. Phil had me as a guest on his show. This opened the door for me to have appearances on CNN, Good Morning America, Fox News, The Doctors, and MSNBC. I realized through these shows that I have a knack for explaining the law in words that are understood by laypeople and I’m able to synthesize a lot of information in a short amount of time.

What are some current civil rights issues we need to address in the U.S.?

Some current civil rights issues the U.S. needs to address are voting rights and making it easier for minorities to vote at the polls. Our education system needs to stop segregating and include all people, regardless of race or gender.

Healthcare reform for the poor and minorities. During COVID, African Americans were twice as likely to know someone who’s tested positive; three times more likely to be infected; and twice as likely to die from COVID. African Americans had less access to COVID-19 testing and medical care than others.

Our criminal justice system needs massive reform. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any nation in the world. Our approach to punishment to crime disproportionately affects minorities, and we end up with these overly harsh sentences that penalize African Americans at disproportionate rates for things that other races are not penalized or incarcerated for.

What were some challenges you experienced raising a child with autism?

When I first learned my son’s diagnosis, I couldn’t even say the word “autism” without breaking down and crying. I felt fear and guilt. It took me months to go to a specialist, hoping that Marty’s autism would just go away. Once I sought professional help one of the main challenges I experienced was a lack of resources and feeling overwhelmed. I researched autism and became an expert on the subject so I could help Marty. I learned that autism is not something that is cured, but requires therapy. Instead of looking for a cure, you should focus on using therapy to help your child learn basic skills and develop speech and social skills.

What advice would you give to parents whose child was recently diagnosed with autism?

Find your village to help you. This is not a journey that parents should undertake on their own. There is no glory in going at it alone. Seek help from family members, friends, and other parents to help with tasks from housework to medical appointments. Also, be proactive — learn as much as you can about autism and the resources you can use to help your child.

How were you proactive in helping your son?

I was determined that I was going to make the best life possible for Marty. I educated myself on all there was to know about autism, and I went on a quest to find Marty the best care possible. And what I realized in talking with health care professionals, and talking to parents of children with autism, was that there was much to be hopeful about; that with early intervention therapies, the appropriate educational setting, and lots of love and support, Marty, like other kids on the autism spectrum, could thrive. I have also written articles on autism to create awareness.

What are some ways you helped Marty learn social skills?

We helped Marty learn social skills by putting him in social environments where he could engage with his peers. We planned a movie night and invited one or two of his peers. Our family gatherings provided Marty with opportunities to practice initiating discussions and interacting with peers. We viewed every gathering as a training field for social skills.

Areva with her son Martin.

How can parents advocate for their child with autism?

Parents can advocate for their child by using the seven principles of advocacy: First, take responsibility — be a leader — speak up for the accommodation your child needs. Second, learn — be an expert — learn as much as possible about autism from books and talk with experts and other parents who have a child on the spectrum. Third, think critically — be discerning — evaluate the information you read or hear and don’t just believe everything but test it to see if it works for your child. Fourth, speak with authority — be proactive — have confidence when speaking about autism and sharing your journey with others. Fifth, document — be prepared — keep a journey of your child’s progress and behavior. Sixth, collaborate — build a team — family and friends who can help you with your child. Seventh, educate — be a voice — create autism awareness by hosting a podcast, writing blogs, and sharing publically about autism.

What lessons have you learned about having a child on the spectrum?

I have learned to be resilient from my son. Despite being ostracized by his peers and struggling with things we take for granted, Marty never complains. He is always smiling and desires to help others. His happiness is contagious.

What advice would you give to parents who have a child with autism?

The best advice I can give to families who have a child with autism is to get connected. Meet other families who have a child with autism and share ideas and resources. Go to conferences, write articles, read books, and become an expert on autism. The more connections and knowledge you gain, the more prepared you will be to help your child.

How does Special Needs Network help families and young adults with autism?

I founded Special Needs Network to help families find resources for autism and build connections in the autism community. Some of the ways we have accomplished this is our community health fair and carnival each year for children and their siblings. This event provides children and teens with autism an opportunity to interact in a safe environment with the assistance of trained therapists. All the kids play games, do arts and crafts.

One event we did during COVID was a shopping spree. Comedian Kevin Hart and Sam’s Club teamed up for a shopping spree for 10 of our autistic families.

Share a humorous life story.

A humorous story from my life — when I was stuck in a blizzard in Aspen, Colorado. Growing up in St. Louis I was not used to snowstorms. So when a blizzard hit, I was freezing my butt off and did not know what to do but to laugh and wait inside our hotel for the storm to cease.

Who are some celebrities you have interviewed and what lessons have you learned from them?

Some cool celebrities I have interviewed are Kym Whitley and Holly Robinson Pete. Both women are inspiring and have taught me the power of resilience. As a parent of a child with autism, perseverance is required and a positive attitude.

What topics are you currently researching and writing on?

I am currently writing my fifth book on the topic of how to have a comfortable conversation on race. This is a hot topic in the media and people are afraid to share their opinions. I desire for my readers to feel comfortable talking about race and civil rights issues and have this conversation lead to more equality.

Areva Martin’s Bio

Areva Martin is an award-winning attorney, advocate, legal and social issues commentator, talk show host, and producer. She is a best-selling author and is the founder of Special Needs Network, Inc., California’s premier autism advocacy organization. She has raised millions of dollars for autism, and has played a leadership role in advocating for state and federal laws to eliminate disparities in state funding for individuals with disabilities. Her extensive experience in community outreach and activism has positioned her to become one of the top female entrepreneurs of the 21st century. A Harvard Law School graduate, Areva and her husband Ernest co-founded the Los Angeles-based civil rights firm, Martin & Martin, LLP.

Originally published: February 21, 2022
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