Special Needs Network Unveils New Autstic Center at MLK Medical Campus 

By: Elgin Nelson

      A new, state-of-the-art facility nestled in the heart of the Watts/Willowbrook region looks to become a beacon of hope for minority children with autism. The Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (C.A.D.D.), anchored by the Special Needs Network, will provide adequate resources and access to information about autism, ultimately supporting predominantly Black and Latino children.

      “This kind of facility in the heart of an African American and Latino community doesn’t exist throughout the state,” said Special Needs Network Founder and CEO Areva Martin. “With this center, my hope was to design a space where families could experience a warm, natural environment that would inspire connection and nurture growth while making a meaningful and measurable impact.”

      In the United States, autism is more prevalent in Black and Latino children than those who are white, according to an NBC News report back in March. “Among all U.S. 8-year-olds, 1 in 36 had autism in 2020, the CDC estimated. That’s up from 1 in 44 two years earlier. However, new estimates suggest that about 3% of Black, Hispanic, and Asian or Pacific Islander children have an autism diagnosis, compared to about 2% of white kids,” according to the report.

      In minority communities such as Watts/Willowbrook, a median household has an income of $25,161, and only 2.9% of residents have a four-year degree. The new center looks to change the narrative that there is a lack of physical resources for Black and Latino children with autism. “Research is telling us important, exciting things about the effect physical spaces have on improving social communication, cognition, and motivation,” said Arshya Vahabzadeh, M.D., a leading expert in innovations around autism. 

      The facility will provide access to practice life skills in spaces such as a “light-filled kitchen where nutritious recipes are tested, a model bedroom where a teen can practice making a bed and folding clothes, a game room and a music center for teens to connect socially and challenge themselves with activities from laying their own music beats to hosting a podcast.”

“These rooms feel like living, breathing spaces that invite you in and ground you even as they make you feel part of the world,” said architect and designer Branka Knezevic. “I am so thrilled to have been a part of this collaboration and envision spaces that support growth and creativity.”

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