Ah, yes. My friend, Cole* had reappeared in my life after some obscene amount of time – that I can’t keep saying because it makes me feel OLD, so we’re just going to go with, “Oh, look, there’s Cole and he’s all grown up.” Deal?
Cole had made it clear that he was on a personal mission to learn more about the autism community and to figure out how to best leverage the resources at his disposal in order make life better for our families. And he was asking ME to help. So, um, no pressure. Right.
We set up our first meeting over lunch. The immediate goal was to give Cole an overview of the autism community – a daunting task in and of itself – and then to talk a little bit about the political landscape, the challenges we face both internally and externally, and to come up with a plan of action.
I knew that my perspective would never be enough. As we all know, when you’ve met one person with autism, you now know one person with autism. No one member of this community is representative of the whole. We have dramatically different (and sometimes even contradictory) needs. Our challenges are not the same. Our most immediate priorities vary radically. I was going to need help.
Since Cole was looking to start with the parental perspective, I sought out as many parents as I could. I did my best to reach out to as diverse a group as possible. And let’s be honest; I didn’t have to search too far to find people with very, very different views on what is important. I made a point of asking people both within my comfort zone and far, far outside it.
The following e-mail went to just shy of fifty parents.
Dear fellow autism parents,
What if an old friend that you hadn’t seen since college contacted you on Facebook?
What if that old friend sent you a message saying that he’d come across your blog while searching for autism resources.
What if he told you that he had been looking for a way to contact you ever since?
What if you then talked to that old friend and he told you that he’s on a personal mission to better understand the needs of the autism community?
What If he then asked if you’d be willing to sit down over lunch and help to educate him about the issues that we face every day as parents of children on the spectrum?
What if your friend, as it turns out, is the State Director for a very powerful senior US Senator?
What if he is asking these questions because he feels like he is in a position to HELP but isn’t sure where to begin?
Well, if it were me I’d e-mail some friends whose opinions I respect. I’d ask them for their perspectives on what is most important, most pressing, most direly needed in our community.
I’d ask them to tell me IN SPECIFIC TERMS what they would like our government to do for them and their children (and adults on the spectrum!) RIGHT NOW.
So, um – here I am.
Cause lunch is next Wednesday.
What would YOU say???
As the responses poured in, themes began to emerge. The following is a sampling of the topics brought up, many of which were urgently repeated again and again throughout the e-mails. (Please note: they are listed here in no particular order. These are not ranked nor prioritized in any way; they are simply written in the order in which the e-mails appeared in my inbox.)
Universal, equal, non-discriminatory health insurance coverage
Full funding of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)
Training of first responders and law enforcement officials
Support for Early Intervention
Transition services and support into and throughout adulthood
Creation of and support for appropriate adult housing
Job training, coaching and ongoing support
Incentives for schools to become structurally appropriate for all learners
Federal restraint and seclusion legislation
Mandated reporting of bullying
Universal access to augmentative communication devices
Tax rebates for homeschoolers
Independent research into environmental causes of autism including but not limited to vaccines
Studies of biomedical treatments
Broadening the scope of autism treatment beyond behavioral intervention
True access to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education)
Creating a culture of acceptance
Broadening education to focus on social, behavioral and emotional intelligences for ALL children
Reauthorization of CAA (Combatting Autism Act) (ed note .. and maybe a name change?)
Passage of the ABLE Accounts Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience) to enable parents to save for disability expenses
Immediate help for military families
Empowerment of the NIH (National Institute of Health) to launch an Autism Project
Physician training and ongoing education
Increasing public awareness of the early signs of autism
Provision of reputable, unbiased information about various interventions and treatments
Regulation of autism treatment providers
Education and ongoing training for teachers
Peer mentoring in schools
Education in the schools regarding developmental differences
Care coordination between schools, mental health providers and medical services
Research into longitudinal measurements of staging of interventions over time
Centers of excellence in each community across the country for education, training, socialization, coordination of services
Unification of the autism community’s various advocacy groups
Penalty-free access to 401k monies
Research into regression into autism
Coverage of and access to vital interventions such as social skills groups
Adequate coverage of ongoing occupational and speech therapies
Coverage of Neuropsych exams
Disallowing funding from pharmaceutical companies, both politically and scientifically
Holding Obama accountable for his campaign pledge to allocate one billion dollars to autism services, research and treatment
Maintaining federal health care reform provision of CAA
Support for AFAA (Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism)
Address 80% unemployment rate of autistic adults (ed note: depending on who you talk to, this number might be very light. And of those who are technically employed, a staggering number are dramatically underemployed.)
Access to SSDI benefits
Changing the qualifications for adult disability – threshold is currently based on IQ, recently lowered from seventy-five to seventy with no regard to social deficits.
I collected the responses and did my best to clean them up and make them relatively easy for Cole to digest. And though I did what I could to edit them for him, what I tried to leave in were the Thank You’s. I believed that Cole needed to hear the gratitude. He needed to see the constant refrain – “Please tell your friend how grateful we are that he cared to ask.”
And so it was that I showed up to lunch with a man who I hadn’t seen in twenty years and proceeded to hand him an improbably thick pile of papers. “It’s great to see you,” I said. “And I’d like to introduce you to some friends.”
To be continued …