Every parent has dreams for their children — ambitious visions of the things they can accomplish as they grow into adults. But for parents of children diagnosed with a developmental disorder such as autism, those dreams must take a different direction.

LaTamia White says, “It’s a hard thing for a parent to say, ‘My child may not be all of the things I want them to be.’” She knows this from experience because it’s her 13-year-old son who has taught her the most about autism.
“It’s a hard thing for a parent to say, ‘My child may not be all of the things I want them to be,’” says LaTamia White, M.D. “When you get that diagnosis, one of the toughest things is to come to grips with these dreams you have to alter.”

White is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry focused on autism and other developmental disorders. But it’s her 13-year-old son Teddy who has taught her the most about autism. He was diagnosed when he was 3 years old, and White’s path in medicine suddenly became personal.

Now, as a member of the governor’s task force on autism, she is able to use her personal passion and her professional acumen to improve the Legislature’s understanding of the needs of Alabama children with developmental disorders.

Reviewing options
Captivated by the work of her great-grandmother, a midwife, White had always wanted to be an obstetrician. But then Teddy was diagnosed as she entered her fourth year of medical school in Florida. “I felt like psychiatry was my calling, and it changed my whole trajectory in medicine,” White recalls.

She came to UAB in 1999 for her internship and residency. Today, she is the new director of the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics.

The UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics care for thousands of patients throughout Alabama facing neuro-developmental disabilities, from autism spectrum disorders to Rett syndrome, cerebral palsy, inherited metabolic diseases, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome. Clinicians from different disciplines diagnose and treat children with developmental, behavioral or learning disorders.

“We see our mission as giving parents a one-stop shop,” says White, who became director in July 2008. “We want to treat them as a whole person. Parents have the comfort of coming to one place where everybody knows their child to find treatment for multiple issues.” Specialists at the Civitan-Sparks Clinics also train students in multiple disciplines to serve children with the disorders.

A statewide role
White has learned more about autism as a member of Gov. Bob Riley’s Autism Task Force. The Needs Assessment Committee’s charge is to explore how the state can help children diagnosed with the disorder. White says that in every panel and in every city the committee has visited, parents say one of their primary needs is having access to more clinicians who treat children with autism.
“I see children at the Sparks Clinics and at Children’s Hospital, and my wait list is almost always eight to 10 months long,” White says. “There’s a huge need; parents have to wait just to get a diagnosis or see specialists in the field, and that’s just sad.”

White says the task force has apprised the state Legislature of these needs and is trying to better organize efforts to treat the disorder.

“The only way to make positive, substantial change is to know what everyone is doing,” White explains. “If we’re unified, we’re going to do a better job.”

New ways of thinking
Parents must also face misconceptions about their children.

“That’s a hard thing to deal with,” White says. “People may underestimate those children and may not push them enough, so you constantly have to say, ‘My child has autism, but autism doesn’t define them. That’s not all that they are.’”

Teddy certainly has proven that to be true. He has Asperger’s disorder, which is characterized by difficulties with social interactions. Still, Teddy is in regular classes in school and makes As and Bs, White says.

And Teddy has helped White be a better clinician, she says. He’s taught her to listen to families and appreciate that “normal for one person may not be normal to another person. Sometimes we have a picture in our head of how someone should be when they’re cured,” White says. “Curing this disorder may not mean that they’re 100-percent better. It may be that they can go to school and ride the bus and not be disruptive. You change what you see as success.”