Jesse Mojica didn’t know what autism was 13 years ago; all he knew is that his precious son Adam, at 18 months, had stopped saying words and his beautiful smile had disappeared. The sparkle in his eyes was gone, he says, replaced by a blank stare to nowhere.
“It’s tough to encapsulate in words how difficult is to see your child slipping away from you,” says Mojica, the executive director for Family and Community Engagement in the city Department of Education in New York City. “You feel like you don’t have the power to hold on to them, he was slipping into a world you could not reach him,” he adds.
After 6 months of tests, and switching doctors, Jesse and Ana Mojica finally found out the truth — their son Adam was autistic. That’s why Mojica is supporting Austism Speaks’ new ad campaign “Maybe” aimed at helping Latino and African-American families recognize the signs their child may be autistic.
“We went through a lot of the maybes, may be Adam is losing his hearing, may be Adam is shy like me, we went through all the maybes and never thought he had autism,” explains Mojica.
Liz Feld, president of Autism Speaks, says the reason they are aiming to reach Hispanic and African-American parents with the campaign is because the age of diagnosis is higher among these groups than anyone else.
“Earlier diagnosis are so important because if we can get a child by 2 years old, in most cases, with help that child can go to regular kindergarten,” says Feld, “the window between 2-5 years old is the most important time to deal with treatment.”
Besides partnering up with the Ad Council to create English and Spanish ads, Autism Speaks will also work with churches, local community groups and federal and local partners to spread the message to parents. The group is also using text-messaging by having parents text “may be” so parents can answer 6 questions about their child privately to see if there are any signs of autism.
Most importantly, says Feld, they want to make sure to erase cultural barriers with this campaign and eradicate the sense of shame and stigma some parents may feel about having an autistic child.
“Sometimes mothers feel such blame if something is wrong and might not want to speak to their husbands about it, so the text message campaign not only saves having to spend $90 on a checkup but also allows the parent to ask questions privately,” describes Feld.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, being most common among boys (1 in 54). A recent CDC study pointed to the largest increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism to be Hispanic and African-American children.
For Mojica talking about the campaign brings back memories of what he went through with his son before being diagnosed with severely impacted autism, and hopes these ads will empower other families to take charge and seek help sooner than he could.
“A parent’s heart is always right, if you have any questions ask,” says Mojica. “Our journey with Adam is glorious, and autism will never change that. Autism will never rob you of the love for your children.”
His son is now 14 years old, and while he still does not speak, his smile has come back. He wants more than anything to make sure Latino and African-American families know early intervention can make such a huge impact. His son smiles at school all the time, so much that if he is not smiling the teacher knows he must be sick and takes his temperature. And while he loves to be around people, he still needs help every day. Mojica and his wife are still trying to figure out what will happen to Adam when they are no longer around but hope for better services for autistic adults.
“My son is a blessing to me, he has taught me more than anyone on this earth, I am just a better person because of him.” he adds.