March 2024
Erika Lamboglia (MNLEND 2021-22), Fanny Fernandez (MNLEND 2023-24), and ICI's Andrea Castillo promote resources to families with autism at a community event in the Twin Cities.

Recent autism awareness events in the Twin Cities metro area have drawn hundreds of participants, raising hope that early action, particularly in underserved communities, will empower families to connect with critical services.

The events continue a longstanding partnership between the Minnesota Act Early Project at the Institute on Community Integration and Help Me Grow MN , an initiative of several state departments that works with local service agencies to promote healthy early childhood development, particularly in historically marginalized communities with little access to autism-related services.

One online community event, “Motherhood Matters: Nurturing Well-being from Pregnancy Onward” and a live event in Dakota County each drew about 400 attendees.

“Some of the reaction from families at these events has been very touching,” said Fanny Fernandez (pictured at center), a current MNLEND fellow who is a mental health advocate, a doula-childbirth educator, and a lactation consultant. Herself a mother of children with disabilities, she is hosting and attending events as part of her MNLEND fellowship. “A few families came up to me just to say how important it has been to them to have these resources.”

Working with ICI’s Andrea Castillo (pictured at right, MNLEND 2021-22), Fernandez talks with families about the early signs of developmental delays, offering connections to free resources. They often hand out free story books written for adults reading aloud to children that offer developmental tips and information along with the story.

Their work goes deeper than just the events, said Jennifer Hall-Lande, director of the Institute’s Act Early work and a MNLEND faculty mentor. Castillo and Fernandez have strong ties in the Latino community and integrate their knowledge and advocacy holistically as community connectors. As moms of children with autism and other developmental disabilities, they are living resources for their neighbors and friends. In community outreach efforts, Hall-Lande and Castillo also share critical autism prevalence data through the Minnesota-Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (MN-ADDM).

“It’s been gratifying to see the reach of this advocacy, and it speaks to the cumulative value of the MNLEND fellowship program,” Hall-Lande said. “With each new LEND cohort, the message that early action makes a critical difference for helping children develop to their full potential is reaching new, diverse communities.”

It’s important to keep widening the circle, Castillo said, particularly as the Latino community grows in Minnesota. Families new to the state have many questions about services here for speech therapies, developing motor skills, and other challenges. While they may be reluctant to ask for help, particularly from schools, having guidance from parents within their culture is often welcomed enthusiastically, she said.

“Fanny has been very successful with her healing circles in the community and has a lot of experience as a doula, so it’s been great to work with her as she brings information about signs of development issues into her work,” Castillo said.

Fernandez, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil when her twins were toddlers, relates well to other Latinx families who have struggled to find services for their children. Her own children, including the now-adult twins and two younger children, have had various learning, emotional, or mental health issues.

“I had to learn as I went,” she said. “There were some rough times, but survival kicks in and my spirituality has helped me so much. I call it surfing the waves of life. Sometimes you fall off, but you get back up and keep going.”