Hands Together

My autistic son just finished his junior year of high school with a 4.0 grade average – for the entire year!

We cried, his teachers cried, he cried. The tears of joy, amazement, accomplishment, recognition of hard work, travail and group collaboration, coupled with pride, were simply amazing.

Years ago, we were told he would probably never graduate high school. Then, instead of taking tests, he just colored in the dots on the test forms. After batteries of tests, we were told he would probably need to live at home or in assisted living for the rest of his life. The future prospects were daunting; intellectually, emotionally and financially. But a village changed this.

Our son is and always will be autistic, but the teaching, his public Individual Education Program (IEP), his talented special educators, and the support that he has received from a “village” of people mean that he will now be able to go to community college, drive a car, and probably learn how to be an independent person, a parent, and potentially a leader within his community, despite his disability. He not only achieved a 4.0 this entire year, but he also passed his high school exit exam, a year ahead of schedule. He will be able to go on to college.

There is a wise saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”.

As a board member of the Center of Collaboration and the Future of Schooling, I know this saying is true from the work that has been done with thousands of children to improve schooling, learning and life outcomes for disadvantaged children.

When community, family and collaboration coalesce, the future of any child is enhanced, and the costs actually go down. The facts prove it.

But, these ideas are nice to contemplate when it is someone else’s child, someone else’s community and someone else’s disadvantage. Contemplation, however, does not change the world we live in. Reality changes the world we live in.

It is real when this applies to your family, your child, your community.

My son is what is called Asperger’s Syndrome. We began to see it in the second grade, and, after a period of our own denial, it quickly became apparent that he was “special”, and we then entered the world of socially, mentally, or economically disadvantaged children.

This is a world of stigma’s, stereotypes, bureaucratic obstacles, expensive options, and wildly divergent public, private and mixes of professional solutions. It is a world of “lost children”, social anguish and public policy quicksand.

We are fortunate. Our regional system had one the best programs for handling this type of special needs child in the country. It is a model for the rest of the country if not the world.

But the unfortunate facts are that the rate of autism has gone from 1:2000 to 1:42. The CDC estimated that 15% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 are diagnosed with the disability. The government states it is 1:100 . By anyone’s estimates, the situation is catastrophic. The systems for assisting this many disadvantaged children are not yet ready or even planned for.

In back channels it is now being discussed as a national security issue, because the rate of increase in this “disability” has grown so fast and the cost of dealing with it is so crippling that politicians do not know what to do with it. The public school systems and indeed the private school systems are massively unprepared.

Teachers; are unprepared as special needs children enter their classroom undiagnosed, disrupting them. Schools; are unprepared due to the special needs teacher education that is required to cope with these special students, and the world; as a whole, is not prepared for the costs of dealing with such a huge segment of our population that requires special education with all of the educator, administrator and facilities training and lifelong costs that are involved. Autism is a worldwide phenomenon which makes social security look like kindergarten and Medicare look like preschool. This is a global issue of multibillion dollar proportions. And it is here, right now. It is getting worse….

But where is this in our public debate? Where is this in the unrelenting political discourse about budget cutting? Where is this in the vicious divisive politically driven positioning about social entitlements?

Special needs gets lumped into and lost in the debate. Let’s be clear, this is not a social entitlement. It is neither a liberal or even conservative issue, This is social cost reality. These kids grow into adults and will either be productive members of our society or not. In social and economic terms they will either be contributors (viable consumers and taxpayers) or burdens (expenses).

Short minded politics and divisive ideological debate ignore these facts, This is an issue which will not go away and which has enormous social and fiscal impact on our world.

I can tell you that an investment in change, an investment in focused special education and the systems behind it and the people who care, does indeed have a direct and substantial impact. Having seen the results, I believe there is no option, and no room for delay or denial in the back room debates about budget cuts. Cuts to education in these areas will inevitably lead to a massive spiraling increases of additional costs later (later means 5-15 years).

The social value of this is undeniable, the education system benefits are undeniable and the return of taxpayer investment are undeniable. Disadvantaged children when supported, by a village, parents, community, teachers and government, can change from being lifetime social needs burdens to high value return contributors to the community.

I see the future in children like my son, nurtured by his “village” growing from someone who theoretically would never be able to hold a job or live alone or have a family, to being a socially capable individual with a 4.0 grade point average with a high return on investment for society’s investment in him..

If you want to see how special education can work right, take a look at the Coastal Learning Academy in San Diego, California.

These kinds of effective programs take leadership and commitment – from the top down, from courageous regional education supervisors, to the outstanding program administrators, and to those who make it happen, my son’s case manager, his teachers and the entire team, such as psychologists, speech therapists and teachers’ aides at CLA.

If our society can build programs that can transform a child from dysfunctional to a 4.0 student, there should be no question, that we can transform education, particularly when the payback is so high, socially, morally and fiscally. There is no room for partisan debate. This is only a debate about the future of humanity, the role of democracy and the role of governance in building effective society.

It may take different views, different leaders, different systems. But is can be done. We can see the results through our tears of joy and appreciation. Our son, our life and out future is the result of a system that has worked. We have worked hard, everyone has worked hard.

It has taken a village. We are so thankful.

www.health.com. may 11, 2011. CDC: Autism, ADHD Rates on The Rise Roan, Shari, LA times, May 8, 2100. Autism rates may be higher than thought

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