Autism Research to get $10 Million Grant

Lareka Killebrew, 40, of Glendale knew very little about autism when she gave birth to her son, Justice. But when he stopped talking at the age of 2, she immediately  knew something was wrong. “He wasn’t talking, he was crying, holding his ears, twirling in circles, starring into space, screaming a lot, and would only let me, my mom, husband, and daughter hold him,” she said. “He was a different kid.” It took two years, an occupational, psychologist and speech doctor and two pediatricians to diagnose Justice,  now 7, with spectrum autism, typically characterized by social deficits, communication difficulties, or repetitive behaviors and interests and in some cases, cognitive delays.

Knowing how much work it took to get her son diagnosed,  Killebrew was on hand at a recent event to discuss  the award of  a $10 million-grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a genetics  study of African American children to be conducted  by renowned autism scientist and researcher, Dr. Daniel Geschwind.

The research from Dr. Geshwind’s study at UCLA is intended to help moms like Killebrew  have  their children diagnosed early so that intervention against autism can begin promptly. “I think this grant would have helped my son,” said Killebrew.  “I would have sought intervention immediately.” The event was coordinated by the Special Needs Network, an autism advocacy organization and included Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, Assemblymember Holly Mitchell and the pre-school advocacy group, First 5 Los Angeles.

“Autism is nothing short of an epidemic. We must ask ourselves not just what can be done but what we must do,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “We must focus on early intervention, we must focus on reducing disparity, we must focus on investing, support and doing more and more research.”

 In particular, the grant will allow Dr. Geshwind, to study African American families who have a child diagnosed with autism.  As part of the five year study, children with autism will be observed and their parents will be interviewed about their child’s developmental history.  The Centers for Disease Control  recently reported an increase in the rate of autism  from 1 in 88 to 1 in 50 children— affecting more than one million children across the country.  As a rule,  African-American and Latino children are diagnosed two to four years later than their non-minority peers ,  and often   they have more difficulty accessing  essential diagnostic and intervention services.

“The goal is to recruit 750 families with two parents and a child with autism and find the genes among African Americans that lead to autism,” said Dr. Geshwind.  “The study will be the first to identify the gene of African ancestry that will give will us power to detect a number of genes that increases the risk for autism.”

Dr. Gershwind’s hope is that in five or 10 years, by knowing all the genetics, children can screened early on and identify those that are at high risk and put them into early intervention.

“That would be my dream and goal of what I want to accomplish with this study- to change the trajectory of their life so instead of being destined to have autism we find them at age 3 or 6 months,” he said.

From Foster Care to Advocacy

Grand opening of the CYC Los Angeles office

Tiffany Boyd considers herself one of the lucky ones. When she was a child, her mother had a nervous breakdown and Boyd was sent to live with her grandmother. Her six other siblings, however, were not so fortunate. They ended up in the foster care system in group homes and, she says, have suffered as a result.

Although she also had her share of difficult times, Boyd is now dedicated to helping others in the foster care system. She is one of dozens of young people who help other foster care youth through the California Youth Connection, an advocacy organization.

“I am dedicated to this cause,” said the 25-year-old. “It is great to have an organization that allows me to advocate and take what we learn and bring it back to my peers.”

CYC, which has branches in 32 counties across the state, has been instrumental in supporting key legislation affecting foster youth, including the passage of AB 12, which gives youth the option of staying in care until the age of 21. The organization also has worked on bills that help improved education, permanency planning, group home care and Independent Living Program regulations. Through a motion sponsored by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board approved a five-year agreement between the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and CYC that allows the organization to have an office in Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard.

The office opening was also made possible through the generous support of both the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation and Foster Care Counts in partnership with the DCFS Youth Development Services.

“It is critical that these children receive the support they need into young adulthood,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “CYC offers scholarship advice, college guidance and mental health referrals so that these youth can thrive and become the best they can be.” As part of her advocacy work, Boyd was recently chosen to testify before the state legislature on a bill that would allow foster care youngsters evaluate the system before they leave so that necessary changes can be implemented. She spoke for two minutes and spent the rest of the day “shadowing” House Speaker John Perez.

“We value the voice of foster youth and they should have a say in the policy that affects their lives,” said Joseph Tietz, executive director of CYC.

Boyd can also attest to the challenges of living without parental guidance. For most children in the foster care system, moving on to adulthood can be overwhelming.

At CYC, Boyd said she has received the support she needs, including guidance on how to apply for college for her master’s degree. She hopes to attend California State University, Dominguez Hills in the fall and major in public administration and nonprofit development.

But life often throws her little glitches. When she was selected to go on the trip to Sacramento, she realized she didn’t have the right clothing. She could only turn to her mother, who has struggled with mental illness all of her life.

“My mom had to pawn her necklace and then take me to the thrift store so I could buy my clothes,” said Boyd. “It takes a certain level of confidence to ask others that are not family.”

In June, she is planning on visiting Washington DC with CYC.

“I used to be a young lady who was going, ‘why me?’” she said with a smile. “Now I say, ‘why not me?’”

Metta World Peace Talks Mental Health

Metta World Peace has been talking about mental health issues for several years now, speaking from the heart to young people at schools, sharing his personal trials during childhood and discussing the role that counseling has played in his life. Slowly, he says, he is seeing the effects of his openness on the topic. Where once fans mostly approached him to discuss the Lakers, now, almost daily someone will approach him to share how they have been inspired to seek mental health services.

While walking in Westwood, he recently recounted, a man approached and asked to shake his hand. Although this happens every day to the 6’7” forward, the conversation that followed took an unusual turn. Instead of asking for an autograph or photo, the man — a convicted arsonist with severe mental health issues — told Peace he had convinced him to seek counseling.

“He came up to me and said ‘you made it easier for me to get help. Thank you,’” Peace recounted before speaking at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting. “I just wanted to bring awareness to this issue; I didn’t even know that I had the potential to make a difference.”

Mental illness affects one in five people nationwide, and those who suffer from its effects are far more likely to become homeless, incarcerated and hospitalized than the general population. Currently, Peace is leading the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department’s “Talk It Out!” campaign, which runs through the month of May with billboards and posters on MTA shelters, depots, buses and trains in public transit areas around Los Angeles County that urges people to call a 24-hour-hotline if they need help.

The posters feature Peace holding a basketball and encouraging people to talk about their issues, and have a bright, lime-green-colored background for a purpose, said Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

“We want to spread the message and put it in the limelight,” said Southard. “People with mental health issues have a sense that they are looked down upon. We know if we exclude them, we harm them.”

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who commended Peace as well as longtime mental health advocate Stella March for their activism on Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting, said there is no shame in dealing with mental illness.

“The lack of awareness and the stigma pose barriers to effective treatment,” he said. “We need to make sure that the people who need help, get help.”

Peace has had his own very public issues with anger management and depression. It has been a tough experience going through his challenges in front of the television cameras, but his fame has also helped him.

“People get to know you. They have seen me through bad times and good times and seen me grow as a person,” he said. “This is a lifetime of work.”

He has also seen his siblings and other relatives suffer from mental illness, and Peace says that although he is vigilant about watching his four children for signs of emotional stress, mainly he is focused on letting his kids “just be kids.”

Nonetheless, even though Peace has seen some positive effects of his public campaign, he still believes many people don’ t realize they have issue s that could be resolved with counseling and treatment.

“I got through it with help and support,” he said. “Everything in life is not perfect. You just never know if something can tick you off. You don’t realize that these things can scar you. Once you understand that about yourself, you can address those issues.”

The county has also created a 24/7 hotline in English and Spanish, that encourages young adults to seek help if they need it (1-800-854-7771).

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Raising Awareness for Food Assistance

Hundreds of low-income families in Los Angeles County are eligible for food assistance, and many don’t even know it. To let more people know about the availability of monthly food stipends, county, state and federal agencies have teamed up with local grocers, farmers’ markets, food banks and school districts for a campaign to spread the word about the CalFresh program. CalFresh provides a maximum monthly allowance of $176 to low-income individuals to buy food at various markets and stores throughout the county.

According to the Department of Public Social Services, as of March, 1.1 million Los Angeles County residents receive CalFresh benefits. An estimated 1.1 million additional individuals, however, are potentially eligible to receive assistance. The mission of the campaign is to increase the number of participants in the program, reduce hunger, promote good nutrition and remind the public that assistance for food is available. To jump start the campaign, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas made a presentation before the board to support the effort.

“One of the highest priorities of the Department of Public Social Services is to reduce food insecurity in Los Angeles County,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “This year’s campaign will place a heavy focus on the nutritional benefits of CalFresh.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of nationwide homes lacking adequate food more than tripled in the last four years. Studies suggest that household hunger negatively impacts the intellectual, physical and emotional development of children. In addition, poor eating habits increase the risks for obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

“While the local economy continues to improve we know there are many residents that are in need of food assistance,” said Los Angeles County Director of Pubic Social Services Sheryl Spiller. “Hunger is an issue that affects us all. We want to make sure that no child goes to bed hungry.”

Hoping to ease fears among hopeful recipients of the CalFresh program, officials confirm that receiving food assistance does not affect a person’s immigration status nor will any recipients be reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To learn more about the CalFresh program and to view the CalFresh community events calendar, please visit: