Five minutes into a conversation with Dr. Kelly Negrón, the passion fueling her work with families impacted by autism is palpable.
It’s not just her work, it’s her mission.
International borders aren’t stopping her from continuing the work she started at Equanimity, her practice in south Florida that will soon continue in Mérida. She, her husband and her 15-year-old son moved to Mérida last year.
Dr. Negron and her husband emigrated to the United States as children but wanted to experience Latin culture outside the United States.
“Through lots of research, we discovered Mérida was an extremely safe and traditional place to raise a family. After visiting here, we immediately felt at home. Yucatecans are so warm and welcoming,” she says. “What we feel connects us most to Mérida is the language, the openness of the people, their strong family values and the absolute peace we get to enjoy as a family.”
Since she was a little girl in Venezuela, she wanted to be a doctor. Her path to get there became clearer when she witnessed the challenges of her nephew, who was diagnosed with autism.
“When my nephew was 6 years old, a teacher said to him that it was good his parents were well-off financially because he was definitely stupid and wouldn’t do well in life,” says Dr. Negrón, “He is one of the brightest people I know.”
She channeled her anger to understand autism better.
“As with almost everything in history, in the beginning, we always blame Mom. Her diet, was she stressed? ‘What did you eat to make your kid autistic?’ or ‘you’re old.’ There was a time where it was described as a ‘cold mother syndrome,’ like if your mom was cold, and she wasn’t loving, she wasn’t warm, you were obviously a child with autism, you know, like all these horrible things,” Dr. Negrón shares.
“I wanted to look at the epidemiology, the root of autism,” she continues. “We still don’t know what causes autism. And we have children who are affected all over the world, all over the world. And we don’t know what causes it.”
What Dr. Negrón does know is how Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy and early intervention can positively impact children along the autism spectrum.
ABA therapy focuses on specific behaviors and skills like social interaction and communication. It is instrumental in assisting individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Dr. Negrón is working toward creating an early intervention program in Mérida for children ages 2 through 6. It would mirror Equanimity, her clinic in Florida.
In the Florida clinic, therapists work one-on-one with each child throughout the day in a setting that looks and feels like a typical preschool classroom. Every year they have a summer camp attended by children from all over the world. That is where therapists work with the children on things like outings to the grocery store, museums, etc., so the children learn how to function in those environments.
Equanimity Mexico offers ABA therapy in the child’s natural environments, like home and school. But, Dr. Negrón plans to provide children in Mexico with the same comprehensive service.
“In the US, we start observing kids as young as three months old and diagnosing kids at 2 or 3 years old. In Latin America, we hold diagnosis off until after 5.” Delaying diagnosis causes children to lose years when they could have received help.
As a representative of the International Behavior Analysis Organization (IBAO), Negrón is working to bridge this gap. Her drive for change has only increased since becoming a mother this past year.
Dr. Negrón is also working with the IBAO to increase the quality and availability of certified ABA professionals across Mexico. The organization offers a directory of professionals across the globe who have gone through the rigors of obtaining the education and practical experience required to be certified.
Although there are benchmarks and red flags, Dr. Negrón hesitates to give parents warning signs. The presence of any attributes doesn’t mean your child has autism. “It just means we need to pay attention,” she says. “It’s called a spectrum for a reason.”
She has this advice for parents: “The biggest way to advocate for your child is to respect their preference and individuality,” she says. “They are their own individual person. Is it what you want or what’s best for your child?”
“Let’s separate autism from the child’s personality and who they are, and let’s advocate for them to be allowed to exist as human beings, to have the same right and access to things.”
Some centers force children into various types of therapy, like speech, occupational, ABA, etc., to receive behavioral therapy. “Not all children on the spectrum need speech therapy or occupational therapy. And if they do, do they need it all at the same time?” Dr. Negrón says. Parents can educate themselves on the different types of therapies so they can be empowered and participate in creating a plan for their children.
“I used to answer my own phones when I first opened my practice,” Dr. Negrón shares. “Parents would call in tears after receiving their child’s diagnosis. As a parent, you go through a grieving process for your ideal child.”
“I just want families to know where they can go for support,” Dr. Negrón shares, “because every minute your child receives therapy counts. It’s what’s going to predict whether they have a fulfilling, independent life or not. And we should take that seriously. Anybody working with these children should take that seriously. It’s not just another dime in your pocket; it’s somebody’s life.”