Nasly Torres, a Guatemalan immigrant who lives in Montgomery County, says she cried often when her daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. Then she met pediatrician Tania Caballeros and joined a group of Spanish-speaking moms of children with special needs.
“Personally, the group has helped me free myself from being afraid to talk about autism,” Torres, 31, says in Spanish. “I feel comfortable asking questions to Dr. Caballeros because, at first, I didn’t know how to deal with the situation since my daughter is the first case of autism in my family,” she adds.
Caballeros, 39, created the group in 2019 to help mothers with children who have special needs, particularly those whose primary language is Spanish and who live in a different culture from the one in their country of origin. Caballeros wanted the group to be a place to help moms from Maryland learn about autism, exchange resources and offer suggestions on how to support their children. The group has 30 mothers, including several from Montgomery County, who meet monthly via Zoom with Caballeros.
“I’m proud that we established a space where mothers feel comfortable speaking in their native language. “They feel empowered, and the overall dynamic of every meeting is very sincere and open,” she says.
Caballeros—who works for John Hopkins University’s Centro SOL, an institution that provides opportunities for Latinos in Maryland who have health issues—noticed a need for Hispanic children with autism and their families to find health resources after the number of diagnosed cases increased prior to the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of Montgomery County’s population is Hispanic. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every 44 children is diagnosed with autism.
Hispanic parents of autistic children face multiple challenges in accessing services for their children, said Yoreidy Tavárez, a clinical psychologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders. These challenges commonly include language barriers, cultural differences and lack of health insurance coverage, she added.
What’s necessary is “including diversifying the workforce of autism specialists, facilitating education and resources in Spanish, increasing flexibility in service delivery to accommodate for cultural variables and advocating at the state and national level for policies that protect and support autistic children,” Tavárez says.
Caballeros chose Zoom meetings to accommodate the mothers and their autistic children’s needs, “knowing that most of these moms have multiple jobs and other children.”
“Having each other in a support group, in a community where people bring all sorts of experiences and resources is extremely important,” Caballeros says, adding that having a wide range of voices with different experiences and backgrounds has helped the group grow gradually.
Torres says she now knows how to deal with and respond to comments from others.
“Some people have told me, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do it,’ and my answer is to please reserve their comments because I don’t want them to look at me with pity,” Torres adds. “This group has opened new doors for me, and I learn I have support from mothers in the same situation.”
For more information on the group, go to jhcentrosol.org.