The Autism Connection – Detroit Energy Leaders Help Make Tangible Changes in Community

Carla Walker-Miller, left, the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, and Dave Meador, right, vice chairman and chief administrative officer for DTE Energy, is also the co-founder and chairman of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. This organization is where the two powerhouses make moves to help those with autism. (Photo credit: Left, by Herbert Taylor, and, right, provided by DTE Energy)

* In this two-part series, the Michigan Chronicle has in-depth conversations around autism, especially as it relates to the Black community with misdiagnosis, late diagnosis — and how the right diagnosis can make all the difference. This series, featuring parents, families and executives, will lead up to the September 11 Autism Alliance fundraising event to help make a positive impact on autism in the community and beyond. This is part one.

 

One in 54.

That is roughly how many children in 2020 were diagnosed with autism in the United States according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Closer to home, Michigan had the fifth-largest autism population (as compared to other U.S. states in 2007), according to the non-profit organization Autism Alliance of Michigan.

Autism is now the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country and it impacts boys four to five times more often than girls, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Online.

The autism spectrum disorder is a life-long neurological disability that is marked by significant social communication and behavioral traits. This disorder’s severity can vary widely from one individual to another. The term “spectrum” refers to this range of social-communication and behavioral deficits, according to www.michigan.gov.

In communities of color, autism hits home even harder.

According to the CDC, Black and Hispanic children are less likely to be identified with autism spectrum disorder than their white counterparts.

“These differences suggest that Black and Hispanic children may face socioeconomic or other barriers that lead to a lack of or delayed access to evaluation, diagnosis and services,” according to the website.

A Founder’s Heart 

Dave Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer for DTE Energy, is also the co-founder and chairman of the Autism Alliance of Michigan.

Meador spoke to the Michigan Chronicle about his journey with autism over 20 years ago, alongside his wife, Peggy, when their daughter Bella was diagnosed with autism.

Meador, who has three older boys, said that he and his wife adopted Bella from Guatemala and he said that he had “no experience with autism” beforehand.

“She wasn’t meeting her developmental milestones,” Meador said, adding that there were not many proper diagnostic centers around and when he had Bella in autism therapies he had to pay out of pocket.

“[There weren’t] good diagnostic centers,” Meador said, adding that after the diagnosis was narrowed down, there was more waiting that could have been between one and four years.

“This is surreal,” Meador said. “What other medical condition says come back in a year or two? Why do we feel like we’re the first family [experiencing] this in Michigan?”

Meador said that navigating through autism and finding support along the way is one of the reasons he wanted to start the Autism Alliance of Michigan to help create a system where people are able to find help when they need it most.

“We’re working hard to, first of all, have families know the Autism Alliance exists and they don’t have to pay for it,“ he said of calling the Autism Alliance navigators.

Meador said that the organization is refining everything it does and during an upcoming September 11 Autism Alliance event they hope to raise funds to increase their impact.

“We’re asking for grants from some of the foundations to focus on this issue,” Meador said, adding that “autism has no boundaries” in terms of who it impacts.

“It impacts all demographics — all racial, all ethnic boundaries,” Meador said, also echoing similar sentiments from Wayne State University research that shows that African Americans are more likely to be misdiagnosed or late-diagnosed.

He added that DTE is making great strides to make big impacts in the autism community through volunteerism, from their leadership team, driving agendas, working with other groups, and more from the diversity, equity and inclusion perspective.

That work also involves collaborating with individuals like Carla Walker-Miller, the founder and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services, who attended one of his previous galas and remarked frankly about how there were not enough Black people in attendance.

“Carla has been a great, powerful voice in this — challenging me,” he said, adding that she, and others, helped the organization connect and reach even more families in Detroit and especially families who live in poverty “who wouldn’t even think there is someone I could call.”

“I Want Black People to Have Access”

Walker-Miller, who doesn’t have any familial ties to someone who has autism, said that she is very “tuned in” to the autism community after she learned that some Black people don’t always have the proper resources when it comes to an autism diagnosis.

“I’ve also read a lot about the fact that Black children are diagnosed much later than white children — that automatically means their outcomes are not ideal,” Walker-Miller said, adding that more needs to be done. “We’re not doing everything we can for our children. [It] is important for Black people and Black families to have as much information to expedite proper diagnosis and interventions that can really make a difference for these children.”

Walker-Miller added that when seeking a diagnosis, Black people need to “really lean into issues around health and particularly mental and emotional help.”

She is also “very engaged” in conversation about workforce equity and the need to employ people who have had higher unemployment rates.

Walker-Miller is passionate about reducing the unemployment rate in the autism community and bringing more resources to the Black community and others overall – she is excited to continue doing that through the Autism Alliance and gala as a co-chair.

“[This is] the third year being involved,” she said, adding that she especially wants to make sure Black people have access and workers thriving in the community. “I want us to be in the vineyard making sure Black families with autism and all families with autism have better services.”

In Michigan, the Great Start Program offers Early On® as a resource for infants and toddlers from birth to three years of age with developmental delays and/or disabilities. Early On® can be reached at Early On at 1-800-EarlyOn (1-800-327-5966) or www.1800EarlyOn.org.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan’s fundraiser, Michigan Shines for Autism Gala, is September 11 and presented by the DTE Foundation. For more information visit  https://autismallianceofmichigan.org/2021-gala/.

Contact staff writer Sherri Kolade at skolade@michronicle.com with story ideas.

 

 

 

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