Autism Awareness Leader, the Focus of a PBS Special, Uses Maywood, River Forest to Illustrate Disorder’s Racial Divide

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A PBS NewsHour segment profiles Debra Vines, below left, James Harlan and their adult son Jason Harlan, pictured above during his childhood years. | Screenshot

Screen Shot 2017-02-07 at 9.22.05 PM.pngTuesday, February 7, 2017 || By Local News Curator || @maywoodnews

Debra Vines, the founder and executive director of the Forest Park-based nonprofit The Answer, Inc., looked into the camera with a disarming smile to put autism and other mental impairments on notice.

They may exist, but they won’t define those who have them — especially not her son, Jason Harlan.

“Jason is going to be the first autism model on the cover of GQ magazine,” Vines told special correspondent John Donvan in a PBS NewsHour segment that aired Tuesday night.

PBS profiled Vines, her son Jason and her husband James Harlan for the segment, called “Children of color with autism face disparities of care and isolation.”

“When you’re black and autistic, you face a set of disparities,” Donvan said during a voice-over narration set against footage of the family preparing food in their kitchen.

“They begin with the fact that, when it comes to autism, diagnosis skews white,” the correspondent says bluntly, summarizing the analysis of Laura Anthony, a neuropsychologist with the Children’s National Medical Center.

“If you’re anything other than a 7-year-old white boy, even if you’re a 7-year-old white girl, you’re less likely to be identified with autism,” Anthony said.

To illustrate that racial chasm, Vines took Donvan to a bridge along Madison Street that spans the Des Plaines river and is like an invisible wall separating predominantly black Maywood and predominantly white River Forest.

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PBS Correspondent John Donvan interviews state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) during a Feb. 7 segment on autism’s racial divide. | Screenshot

“Once you’re in River Forest, the services for special needs are like the Holy Grail,” Vines told Donvan. “The services just open up for special rec, for education, for advocacy, for ADA.”

Pointing in the direction of Maywood, “There’s no special rec this way,” Vines said.

The segment also explores Vines motivations for starting her now well-known nonprofit, so-called, Vines said, told Donvan because of its unique mission (“so many families are always asking questions [about autism and other mental impairments], so we want to be able to provide them the answers”).

Vines told Donvan that she realized that there was something lacking in her capacity to provide for Jason, that she “doing it all wrong,” after going out of her community to a support group, where she was the only African-American. The disadvantages, she realized were “because of where [I] lived.”

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A graphic showing Center for Disease Control statistics during the FEb. 7 PBS segment. 

“Meanwhile,” Donvan noted, “she also learned that her own African-American community was not entirely accepting of Jason’s difference.”

James Harlan said that he had to also deal with the feeling of shame that he experienced during his encounters with those in his community who weren’t very sensitive to his son’s needs.

Learn more about Debra’s and James’s experiences raising their son Jason, and about their fight to bridge the racial resource and awareness gap between blacks and whites who area dealing with autism by watching the entire PBS segment here. To read more about The Answer, Inc., click hereVFP

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