Son inspires councilman action on autism

Councilmember Derek Green with son Julian, during Autism Speaks activities. (Photo Courtesy of The Green Fund.)

April is National Autism Awareness Month, but for City Councilman-At-Large and Mt. Airy resident Derek Green, whose son has autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior, every day is Autism Awareness Day.

“As a member of City Council, I have been fortunate to work on a number of initiatives regarding transitions including The Philadelphia Autism Project,” he said.

The Philadelphia Autism Project was launched by Councilman- At-Large Denny O’Brien, Green said in a statement, to “bring together activists, parents, educators as well as physicians and clinics, all in one space to make one step shop … and the Bureau of Autism Services on the state level.”

On Friday, April 26, The Philadelphia Autism Project, in collaboration with the School District of Philadelphia, will host the Autism Expo at 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The School District of Philadelphia Main Building on 440 N. Broad St.

Green said while every family deals with the diagnosis of a child on the autism spectrum in a different way, his family was fortunate that Julian was diagnosed early.

Green’s son, Julian, now 18, was diagnosed when he was 2-and-a-half years old. Prior to his diagnosis, Green and his wife Sheila weren’t aware that Julian was having any communication or behavior issues.

“Unlike other children on the spectrum, Julian made eye contact and was engaging, and at that time, only one out every 200 children were diagnosed on the autism spectrum,” he said. “That number has changed dramatically since then.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated one in 59 children in the United States today.

Green, who graduated from the University of Virginia and Temple University School of Law, said once he and his wife, Sheila, got over the initial shock of having a child with autism, they focused on getting services for him.

“Navigating the system is very challenging because you have to learn all these different acronyms you never heard before, such as TSS for Therapeutic Support Staff or BSC for Behavioral Specialist Consultant,” he said. “It’s a lot of information in a language that you’ve never been exposed to that you need to understand in order to help your child.”

Green, who is the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Disabilities, said it can be difficult for parents to obtain all the services their child qualifies for because parents receive services from the city and the state, as well as their own personal insurance. He said it can be a challenge for parents to “stay on top of” referrals, doctor’s appointments, Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the school district of Philadelphia and behavior health appointments in order to advocate for their child.

Councilmember Derek Green with wife Sheila and son Julian. (Photo courtesy of the Green Fund)

“I am a lawyer, and my wife has a master’s degree in Healthcare Management, and it’s still challenging, because when you have a child on the autism spectrum, each phase of life brings its own dynamic, perspective and challenges,” he said.

According to Autism Speaks, “Over the next decade, an estimated 500,000 teens (50,000 each year) will enter adulthood and age out of school-based autism services.”

Green, working in collaboration with leading autism support organizations like Autism Speaks, The Philadelphia Autism Project, Jaden’s Voice, Project Elijah Empowering Autism (PEEA), Bancroft and Center for Autism Research at CHOP, is on a mission to make Philadelphia the first all-inclusive city in the United States by 2026.

“When people think of inclusion, they often think of diversity inclusion, particularly from ethnicity perspective to gender orientation,” Green said. “However, inclusion also includes people with physical and learning differences.”

He said people tend to be more aware and sensitive to people with physical disabilities that they can easily see versus invisible disabilities such as “learning differences” or mental health issues.

“We need to make sure when we are talking about inclusion that we are talking in a broader context,” he said.

He also talked about the importance of empowering people on the autism spectrum to advocate on their own behalf to educate the public.

“As a society, we have to identify how we can provide employment opportunities, educational opportunities and how we allow people to advocate for the best quality of life that they will have,” Green said. “And that’s something that’s going to impact us as a city for the state of this nation.”

He added that in 2026, the nation will celebrate the 250th anniversary of our country. Philadelphia has the opportunity to work toward the goal of making itself the city of inclusion.

“As an elected official, I am fortunate to be able to work towards this goal and be the best councilman I can be, but also be the best father I can be for Julian,” said Green.

For more information about The Philadelphia Autism Project, go to paautism.org/phillyautismproject