by: Anab Kayad, Family Support Specialist and Coordinator + Megan Weber, Program Director of East-African Autism Day Treatment/Mental Health Day Treatment at the Harman Center
Megan: In thinking about mental health in the Somali community, what (if any) changes have you seen, and what do you hope the future holds?
Anab: I believe the community is becoming more accepting of autism and is starting to see that families with kids with autism can not only heal or improve, but their lives can also be more typical with less overall shame. One of the reasons behind this shift is that families may know someone who has a child with autism, and they want to support each other and help each other find services. There continues to be a difference with the younger generation versus the older generation and those who are new to the country. The older generation continues to have a lack of understanding and just wants a child with autism to be “fixed.” I hope that the future holds more families accepting their child regardless of their needs, that this is more normalized with less shame and judgement from others in the community.
Megan: What has your experience been like working in the mental health arena within the Somali community?
Anab: My experience working within the Somali community has meant constantly trying to adjust to unique needs of the families we serve currently and those that reach out to me wanting support. Some families are more reserved, whereas some are willing to give more information, have more knowledge about their child’s needs, and therefore have several questions. It can be challenging at times, but I remain hopeful and truly want to walk alongside the families and find ways to provide education, support, or resources. At times I feel a sense of guilt because I want to help every child, knowing that early intervention is effective and knowing that our support and services will make a difference, but not all families are ready to receive services. In these situations, I validate their process and let them know that when they are ready, I am here.
Recently, a family who reached out to me for help in accessing services told me that when they first came to this country, they had little support and struggled in providing basic needs, such as food. This parent walked into a Somali-owned grocery store and told the owner she needed help purchasing food. The Somali owner told her to take what she needed and when she was employed, to pay the owner back. And that is exactly what happened. The parent paid the owner back every penny. This is an example of taking care of each other. That is what we do within our community.
Megan: What do you think people wouldn’t expect about your work?
Anab: Culturally and religiously, we take care of each other in our community, so you see me intervene more with parents and families. I, of course, stay within the appropriate boundaries, but I am Somali, and I am here to support above and beyond what may look more typical for some who are not in the community.
Megan: Why did you want to get into this work?
Anab: I understand what our community needs. They need somebody who works in our field, who is sensitive to the culture, who is understanding, who can provide not only language support but interpretation and explanation of what in English does not always translate well into Somali. I started thinking about this work when I had a neighbor from Ethiopia who struggled with her child who had challenges and what now looks like autism. We offered to watch her children, including the child with additional needs to help support this mother. I enjoyed engaging with the child who needed a different type of interaction and play. I joined her in her sensory play and tried to have items around that she preferred. Her mother told me that she only wanted to play with me, that I was a positive and safe person for her. It was then I knew I wanted to work in this area, and I heard from a friend about an opportunity at St. David’s Center, working in the Autism Day Treatment program.
The most rewarding part of my work is obvious: Having children in the community receive services that they need, providing education around autism to families, connecting families to each other for support and to share their stories, allowing space for grief, sharing in their excitement when their children show progress and are successful in areas that were once challenging, alleviating some level of stress in the lives of families, and helping them understand that they are not alone in their journey.
Megan: What are the most gratifying and/or challenging aspects of your job?
Anab: As I mentioned previously, there are several children and families within the community who need our help and services and who are coming to us with different levels of understanding and education, and I do need to constantly adjust to the variety of needs – not only of the children – but of the families, too. Families who have been in this country for a long time reach out to me as well as families who are new to this country. Some families do not know how to articulate the needs of their child, other than that they need help, so I do my best to explain what we offer here at St. David’s Center or elsewhere if needed. I often have the family come to the center so I can try to better understand what specific supports might be helpful.
Megan: How have you seen the subject of mental health regarded in the Somali community?
Anab: My hope for the future is that there is less stigma around autism and mental health, and although I have seen a shift in an increase of awareness and understanding of autism among some families, the stigma around mental health and autism is very much still present in the community. Mental health can often be looked at as a curse from God and at times can be labeled as “God’s punishment” or seen as, “That person is ‘crazy.’” There are families that think mental health issues do not exist in Africa, but I think they just do not have language around mental health or available services.
Every family is unique within the community, but the sense of responsibility to each other and the desire to take care of one another may be different within the Somali community. All families, regardless of their culture, background, and race want to build positive, trusting relationships with professionals, and that is something we all offer here at St. David’s Center.
I think the most important approach is to help families normalize ASD and mental health. There are several families in our community who are struggling; you are not alone.
For more information about services and career opportunities at St. David’s Center, visit stdavidscenter.org
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