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A Perspective All Her Own

Published: April 1, 2015

When it comes to working with individuals with disabilities, Kristina Lopez has a unique perspective.

“I was in L.A. Unified for a year and that was my first encounter with disabilities because I had had my own,” said Lopez, an assistant professor of Social Work at CSULB. “I was in a certain class for P.E. and that was my first encounter with autism. I was very intrigued by the differences in behavior and how the people with autism in my class interacted with me.”

Diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 13, she was periodically on different medications.

“I’ve had the full range of types of seizures at different points of my life and I’ve been on medication and have had two brain surgeries to manage that,” said Lopez, noting her own disability caused her to move into the field. “I think I grew up a lot with the epilepsy portion of my life and it helped me know what I wanted to do and know how important education and healthcare and different factors were for moving forward.”

Upon graduating from high school she begin working in that field by getting a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which was pre-No Child Left Behind.

In her first year working for the district, she noticed a great disparity as to what individuals were actually receiving services and who was the focus of those services, which turned out to be mostly white middle class families. When she was placed in predominantly low-income neighborhoods to work in special education classes in K-first grade initially and then third- to fifth-grade classrooms, she witnessed even more of the disparity early on compared to what she had previously seen at the high school level.

“My goals were not to focus on only white middle class families, but to bring in more of the Latino population and advocate for them and really come from a social justice perspective,” said Lopez, who came to CSULB last August.

According to Lopez, there is a clear need among the Latino population, evidenced by the fact there’s a group of children she worked with in L.A. Unified who were not receiving services and their families weren’t getting the information, even though it was available to them. She said often times families had no idea and the system wasn’t necessarily supporting them in finding these things out.

“There’s a lot of assumptions, like ‘Those people don’t want to know this information’ or ‘There’s more of a stigma in that population so we don’t want to shove it down their throats,’” she said. “There’s a real misconception about what those Latino families wanted to know and needed to know and, most importantly, had the right to know.

“There’s a perceived stigma that Latinos are more wary of a disability or more wary of autism specifically, but when you really look at the literature there’s nothing there that really supports that idea,” she added. “Latinos are still interested, they’re still trying to support their children regardless whether they have a diagnosis or not. They often times go through the same type of reactions to a diagnosis—like denial, uncertainty, fear, frustration, embarrassment, loss—and then relief comes too because now they have a name for these behaviors that they we’re really sure what they were.”

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PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Kristina Lopez

Today, the prevalence rate for autism is one in 68 individuals, whereas 10 years ago, it was approximately one in 150.

“The new number is alarming to people,” said Lopez. “From a research standpoint, the increase probably has more to do with the reality that we know more about autism and there’s a lot more research as to what it looks like exactly, how to measure it, how to diagnose it and the general population is more aware of the disorder.”

When Lopez indicated she wanted to do research on Latinos, the feedback she received would be like, “There’s not enough of them so it’s not a priority,” even though they clearly existed and were there seeking services in Michigan, where she spent six years earning her M.S., MS.W., and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

“I had more of an advocacy role for that population and did whatever I could in the limited time I was there to get their needs on the radar,” she said.

Originally, Lopez planned to attend Michigan for five years to focus on children with autism and their families and early intervention work. However, after her first-hand experience in witnessing the inequity in services she extended her stay by a year and added social work to bring that component into her training, but she feels it was well worth it.

Her long-term goal is to create more awareness of the needs and strengths of the Latino community and what they are already doing for their children in the absence of resources they most often times are not getting. She also wants to bring their voices to the conversation to see what they need and don’t need.

“A lot of my work has focused on doing an assessment of their overall needs and resources and experiences in the diagnostic process, accessing services and satisfaction or not with them,” she said, “and then developing early interventions and lifelong interventions for Latino families that are embedded with cultural theories and strategies that work best with that population, but infused with autism-based information.

“The services that are available aren’t targeted toward Latino families; they are targeted towards white, middle class families,” she added. “The whole reason I went to graduate school was to come back and impact the community that I left.”