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A conversation with Areva Martin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2010 - St. Louis native Areva Martin wears many hats. She’s a self-published and commercially published author; individual rights lawyer; president and co-founder of Special Needs Network Inc. (SNN), a nonprofit launched to support families with special needs children, and a regular contributor on "Dr. Phil" as well as other television shows. But her most recent trip home had her wearing the hat of award winning author and autism crusader.

Martin was in town this week promoting her latest book, "The Everyday Advocate: Standing Up For Your Child With Autism" (Penguin Books). We sat down with Martin, who is the mother of an autistic child, to get her thoughts on coming home and how her book came to be. The following is condensed from that conversation.

Was your son's diagnosis what got you interested in autism?

Martin: Yes. In my legal practice, I represented individuals who had disabilities but I had not been very involved with autism. So (my son's diagnosis) is what caused me to immerse myself in the literature and all the other information available and led to my desire to share that information with people in my book "The Everyday Advocate." I had very limited knowledge. I had some general notions about autism but no specific knowledge.

What piece of information really stuck with you?

Martin: I think learning that there was no cure. Most diseases you hear of, even cancer, there can be a cure. This is a disorder where there is no known cause or cure. That was stunning to me.

What would you say to someone today who first hears that a child is diagnosed with autism?

Martin: Have a road map because you're going to need to know what lies ahead of you. You need to be prepared to be in for the long haul.

(Our family) had a lot of trial and error and could have wasted less time if we were better prepared. Not knowing all the options available to us wasn't the best for our son: Things like available classrooms and what my son's education should look like. You have to have a game plan ready so you can avoid a lot of time, effort and frustration.

Could you talk about people you've met along the way who were really affected by your story?

Martin: When I did the book signing in Los Angeles, I had something up on Facebook for people to come out and share their own experiences with autism advocacy. I invited some of these parents to share their stories at the signing.

Book signings usually include some questions and then reading a passage. All of it is about 15 minutes long then you get to the actual signing of books. But in Los Angles, what was intended to be a 20 minute presentation went for almost an hour.

These people were so grateful to have a book on autism, and there are many out there about autism, that told them what they needed to know as parents and what the parents needed to do.

One parent stopped going out with her child because she didn't know how to handle the rude stares. She said (my book made her feel) so much more capable of handling being out in public.

Hearing that kind of story validates how meaningful it was and how much knowledge people want about this disease and how to handle it. The response has just been overwhelming. They feel like they have a voice.

What do you feel about the general movement around autism?

Martin: I am happy to see people using their platforms to raise awareness about autism because it helps breaks down stigmas for those who are ashamed or in denial about their child being special needs. I think it's great to see them coming out to talk about it. It adds to the work that is being done by others.

People have been working with this for years. A teacher at a school in North St. Louis came up to me in tears and said how grateful she was for all the work that we have been doing. She's been doing work with special needs kids day in and day out for 20 years. I really want to acknowledge those people because that is really where the work is being done. I'm humbled that I can give them a voice.

How do you compare your experience with your first and second book?

Martin: Big, big, BIG difference between the first and second book. My first book, "Journey to the Top," I self published; while the second one was through a mainstream publisher. That required me to get a publishing agency and to become involved with the process of negotiating a book contract.

The marketing in the second book is incredibly different. The first book I marketed primarily through the internet and through conferences. It's been a much more rigorous process.

How important is it for you to come back to St. Louis for things like this?

Martin: It's incredibly important for me with all the work I have done to come back here. I grew up in St. Louis. All my family is here and I credit everything I have to being here.

I don't just do book signings at book stores but rather book the events around things that are going to touch people's lives. This time I went and spoke about special needs in North St. Louis because that's where I grew up. I also went to the Big Brothers Big Sisters because mentoring was so important to me growing up and is still important to me. I really just like to meet the people who are doing the work that I am interested in.

But being back here is very important and a must for me. The people and the hospitality and how vibrant the city is really amaze me. I'm very proud of it. There's no place like home. I often try to connect with people I grew up with in this area.

Joshua Mosley is a freelance writer.