Tisha Campbell-Martin has never let autism get the best of her. Ever since her 12-year-old son Xen was diagnosed, Campbell-Martin and husband Duane Martin have dedicated their lives to helping raise awareness and tolerance about the disorder.
In 2011, she teamed up with four other mothers of autistic children to produce a short film called Colored My Mind which will be screened at the MegaFest International Faith and Film Festival this Labor Day weekend. Campbell-Martin has recently published a children's book called My Brother Doesn’t Want to Play to help children cope with having a sibling who is "different."
She spoke with ESSENCE.com about the short film, how the African-American community can change its perception of autism and how her autistic son is coping as a tween.
ESSENCE: You’re showing Colored My Mind at MegaFest. How did the film come about?
Tisha Campbell-Martin: I co-founded a non-profit organization called Colored My Mind with LaDonna Hughley—DL Hughley’s wife—a woman named Donna Hunter who is a school principal in Los Angeles, Tammy McCrary who’s a business manager, and a lawyer named Shannon Nash. We made a short film [about autism] called Colored My Mind to address issues like the fact that most African-American children get diagnosed two to three years after their Caucasian counterparts. We entered it into the Cannes Film Festival and got Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker to star in it. We wound up winning at the American Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival and so we were really excited. We didn’t think that we were going to win but it means even more to me that they asked to show it at MegaFest during the film festival.
ESSENCE: Do you still feel like we’re not discussing autism enough in the Black and Hispanic community?
Campbell-Martin: No we’re definitely not discussing it enough in our communities and there are many reasons why we don’t get diagnosed or we get misdiagnosed. One of them is that they immediately say that our children are bad. We get labeled the wrong thing. Some of it is cultural because we don’t want to believe that this is kind of thing that can happen in the African-American or Latino community. There’s old-school thinking about it, but then there’s also people in positions to help. I’m talking about teachers who aren’t educated to what this is, doctors who aren’t educated. The thing about autism is that you have to catch it early because then you can exercise the brain enough to try to get the child to their greatest potentiality. But without early intervention, they get stuck in their ways. Of course it’s a spectrum disorder so that’s added into the mix. Everybody gets a different amount and it looks different with every child because every human being is different. Early intervention is key. I can attest to for my child and myself.
ESSENCE: Your son Xen was diagnosed as an infant. How is he now?
Campbell-Martin: Xen says that he’s not autistic anymore. This is my baby’s reality. Just so I can give you a perspective, Xen was non-verbal; he would flap his arms and rock back and forth. He’s never been in a special needs class because I wanted him to model after typical kids and now he’s a typical kid. He has a girlfriend and he is now speaking; you can’t shut him up. He says, ‘I used to be autistic and don’t be telling my girlfriend I used to be autistic either.’ So I’m blessed because we were able to catch it early.
ESSENCE: You’ve said that you started suspecting something was wrong with Xen as soon as you brought him home from the hospital. What do you think of the argument that vaccinations play a large role in the rise of autism?
Campbell-Martin: This is just my opinion: I am not anti-vaccination but I am pro-vaccination safely. I am pro-vaccination if that is the choice of the family. It shouldn’t be pushed upon you. As a matter of fact, most people don’t know that in most states they may say that your kid can’t get into school but that’s not a true statement. They can’t force anything on your family for any reason. With that said, I know how it affected my family. I believe that certain people can excrete that stuff out of their system and certain people can’t. And when I say excrete I mean defecate or urinate. When we were younger we only got three vaccinations: polio, tuberculosis and a tetanus show. That’s it. By the time children are two years old nowadays they get 26 vaccinations. That does not feel or seem right to me. In my family it happened twice, once with my child and another with my nephew. Most children in America get a Hepatitis B shot as soon as they’re born. Why? Doesn’t make any sense to me, especially if the parents don’t have Hepatitis B, but okay. Right after [Xen] got the Hepatitis B shot; I noticed a difference the second day of life. There was just something different and I kept telling everyone who walked in the room, ‘Something is up with this baby’ and they kept saying no you’re a new mom. The same exact thing happened with my nephew. He started having seizures and autistic-like symptoms. I asked if he’d gotten the Hepatitis B shot and they said yes. I couldn’t say anything. So when you asked me do I think [vaccinations] can attribute to autism, I think it might have something to do with it because of what I’ve seen from my particular family. Again, I am not anti-vaccination but we put our trust into people and they’re just human beings and human beings can make mistakes and when it comes to our children we just may have to take an extra step in protecting them.
ESSENCE: MegaFest will be the first time a lot of people get to see your film. What do you hope they walk away with?
Campbell-Martin: More awareness, more understanding. There’s so much to do besides my film. I’m also giving an award to Holly Robinson Peete for her efforts in autism and Parkinson’s disease. Holly is very community driven and she’s one of the first people who helped me when I got the diagnosis. As moms we’re there for each other to lean on when differences happen. I want people to walk away with more awareness and tolerance. When they someone in their family who might be autistic, they can get on board as quickly as possible and can help them get resources for their children because we need it.
Colored My Mind will be shown at the MegaFest International Faith and Film Festival on Saturday, August 31.