April is Autism Awareness Month and many people misunderstand or just don't know about the lives of children diagnosed with autism. Shannon King Nash is on a mission to turn that around.
Nash's 14-year-old son has autism. She is the creator of "Color My Mind," a groundbreaking documentary on autism awareness. The film features five mothers of autistic children and provides a glimpse of their journey to overcome the challenges their children face.
At one point, Nash felt as though she was the only person in the world – especially in the African-American community – dealing with such a situation. She would go to autism-support groups and not see many African-American people. Knowing that autism doesn't exclusively attack any one racial group, she couldn't figure out why people of color where so uninformed – or just didn't want to accept it.
For Nash it seemed clear: more could be done for the children if people knew more and were willing to help.
Autism is a neurological disorder that is on a spectrum. Some are high on the spectrum and are high functioning; some are low functioning, usually nonverbal, and aren't able to take care of themselves. Many factors and signs point to autism, such as a lack of eye contact and an inability to respond to social queues that determine how high or low an individual is on the spectrum.
Nash's son had a problem making eye contact. He experienced sensory issues, with heightened sensitivity to light and the sun. He would run and scream when the sun hit him. Also, he was significantly behind in things most children his age should be doing. He was afraid of things that would normally amaze other children. For example, the waves of the ocean would startle him, as would the way fallen leaves create a miniature tornado-type motion when the wind blows them.
For children with autism, things are very organized and literal. Nash's son had an obsession with lining up toy cars and would lose his cool when the order was disrupted.
Nash wants people to receive her film as an honest portrayal of the lives of families and children challenged by the disorder.
"This isn't a sugarcoated high school film about Autism," she said. "This was the real deal."
The film was seven years in the making. The project started with 10 moms. Half dropped out –fearful of being open about the topic and of their families being in the spotlight.
Nash's mission is to let people know that autism is a big deal in our community. We need to help our children and we can do this by educating ourselves, she says.
She also advises those who are not affected by Autism to have a heightened sense of awareness for those dealing with it. Among school-age children, 1 in 50 have autism. And two out of every three people know someone with – or affected by – autism.
Experience has been an effective teacher for Nash. She knows that if you start supporting affected children while they are young and get involved in autism groups, you can help the children in the long run.
(View the trailer for "Color My Mind" at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNgbEHy03tg.)