When Jamie Upshaw’s 5-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, she found it a hard pill to swallow. But even harder was finding support and resources for families facing autism in her community.
“The outskirts [of Pittsburgh] are thriving, but there’s not a lot in Hazelwood or any of our African-American communities in terms of assistance or support,” said Upshaw, who lives in Hazelwood. “So I said, ‘We need it. Let me see what I can do.’”
A Pittsburgh native and mom of three, Upshaw is the founder of Autism Urban Connections, a support group for parents and caregivers of children with autism and related disorders. With an extensive background in public and community service, including a master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Point Park University, she is a Certified Parent Ambassador under the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh.
While a case manager at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, Upshaw saw behavioral issues that she believed were related to never-identified disorders.
“I see the disadvantage we have,” Upshaw says. “Our African-American community is getting diagnoses three to five years later than any other race. Why is that?
“When these research studies are being done, who are they including?” Upshaw asked. “We’re getting far more diagnoses of ADHD, which means wrong treatment, which leads to Shuman Center and the courthouse. It’s a sad reality. I’m here to change that.”
Upshaw connected with staff from Autism Connection of PA (formerly ABOARD), who sent information and offered help. The first support group meetings were held in Wilkinsburg, but that location didn’t attract attendees. Upshaw made another connection with the Greater Hazelwood Community Center — and Autism Urban Connections was reborn.
Upshaw prepares dinner and welcomes children to her monthly meetings attended by nearly 20 parents and family members every fourth Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. She also arranges for therapists and representatives from other organizations to attend meetings and assist members with needs and questions.
In addition, she hosts an annual autism awareness luncheon and she is seeking grants for a second program unique to Pittsburgh that she hopes to offer families.
Starting in January, the new program is a Coffee and Tea Time series that will meet twice weekly for eight to 12 weeks with programming for parents and creative arts activities for the children. The current plan is to host the series at St. Stevens School in Hazelwood and utilize the arts program at the Center of Life, a community organization that provides music and arts programming.
“The arts are the way to a soul and can really give non-verbal people a way to express themselves,” explains Upshaw. “My son sees things I don’t see. He makes me look at the world in a totally different way. I wouldn’t change him for the world. I’m going to change the world for him.”
Upshaw wants both programs, the support group and the series, to provide services for families. But she also hopes to encourage families to connect with one another and be more comfortable learning about and discussing autism. She knows many African-American parents are reluctant to seek a diagnosis.
“We don’t like the stigma of mental health problems; we already face enough stigmas and we don’t like people in our homes for fear of being judged,” says Upshaw. “But I’m a big proponent of early intervention and helping people find their own ways of dealing with things.”
All are welcome, including children, to attend the next Autism Urban Connections meeting from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at Greater Hazelwood Family Center, 5006 Second Ave., Hazelwood. Find more information online at Autism Connections of PA and Autism Urban Connections Support Group or by contacting 412-853-0115.