Published March 19. 2013 4:00AM
In the documentary "Colored My Mind," Tisha Campbell-Martin emotionally recalls learning that her son had been diagnosed as autistic.
"I kept screaming and screaming and screaming," she says tearfully. "And I kept asking why? Why him? Why us? Why?"
It's a powerful moment, but so, too, is when Campbell-Martin later describes how she fought for her child. She says she was aggressive in her efforts to help her family get what it needed. Now, she is stepping up for families like hers - arguing for early detection and intervention and trying to share her story and talk about the issue.
Campbell-Martin, an actress best-known for the sitcoms "Martin" and "My Wife and Kids," and the four other women in "Colored My Mind" have helped make a difference. The documentary concludes with their meeting with lawmakers and encouraging the passing of the 2011 Combating Autism Reauthorization Act. It did, in fact, pass and is providing $1 billion for research and treatment of and education about autism.
And the women spurred the creation of "Colored My Mind," in part to provide information to parents so they can better advocate for their children with autism spectrum disorders. They focus especially on the African-American and Latino communities.
The 18-minute film will be screened March 28 at the Mystic Marriott as part of The Lighthouse's annual Grace Curtis Conference. The Groton-based Lighthouse provides education programs for individuals with disabilities.
All the mothers involved will be present at the conference. In addition to Campbell-Martin, the women interviewed in "Colored My Mind" are LaDonna Hughley, Donna Hunter, Tammy McCrary and Shannon Nash.
They are also producers of the film, along with the Chaka Khan Foundation, which helps women and children at risk with a particular emphasis on education and autism. McCrary, who is Khan's sister, is co-chair of the foundation.
Also here on March 28 will be Nia Hill, who directed the film and is one the producers.
"The piece was to create an awareness, to create dialogue in communities that don't speak about mental health culturally," Hill says.
"... Research was showing such a rise, particularly in brown and black communities, in late diagnoses (of children with autism)."
The idea for a film about the subject originated with Nash and McCrary. They talked with their friend Campbell-Martin, who approached Hill about directing. The two had worked together on several movies. (Hill's other credits include executive producer for BET's "Sunday Best" and "The Family Crews.")
Hill says, "She contacted me and said, 'Listen, we have to tell this story. We're ready to share.'"
Originally, "Colored My Mind" was going to be a straight documentary, but Hill decided to script a narrative to weave into the interviews. That storyline is about a husband and wife who have just gotten the diagnosis that their son is autistic. Hill asked friends of hers - Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker - to play the parents, and she cast a child actor, John Duffy, to play the son.
"I really felt like it took a little weight off of the mothers to create the other story that interweaves with their real stories," Hill says.
She wanted to show, too, the broad spectrum of kids who are autistic - some are high functioning, some are not.
Hill also noted that most marriages break up after a child is diagnosed as being autistic. Of the women in the film, though, four of the five remain married.
"I went into this and thought, 'We've got to do something for the kids.' After meeting the kids, I thought, 'Oh, gosh, this is really about the parents healing.' The children actually don't know - they're in their own world," she says.
At the same time, she says, it's important not just to continue a dialogue on how awful and devasting this is but also to recognize that these children have gifts.
"That's why it's called 'Colored My Mind,' because everybody has different ways their minds work," Hill says.
So why not, she says, change the way we talk about it? Why not use a vernacular that's positive, saying that a child is unique and special rather than seeing them as a weight or something to be embarrassed about?
The women involved in "Colored My World," by the way, all put up their own resources to make the film.
"It's really a passion project," Hill says.