photo by Steven Depolo
Back in the ‘80s, my daughter’s preschool class included a pair of twin girls. One evening my wife told me that one of the twins was leaving the program because she had been diagnosed with autism.
Like most young parents in those days, I knew next to nothing about this condition except that it sounded terrifying. It conjured images of someone uncommunicative - maybe to the point of being catatonic - or, alternatively, someone so unmanageable that getting a child with the condition safely to adulthood would have seemed nearly impossible. We sympathized with the girls’ parents and wondered how they would cope.
Very well, as it turned out.
All over America, as autism diagnoses rapidly escalated during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and as the condition became better understood as a wide range of conditions now known as autism spectrum disorder, parents, doctors, teachers and other professionals simply refused to give up on those children. They did not see young people with ASD as “abnormal” or contrast them with “normal” children; instead, they learned to understand and address the many ways in which ASD can present itself, and they figured out how to help these children grow and adjust to a world populated primarily by those of us whom they now called “neurotypical.”
For many of these parents and their offspring, the biggest challenge these days is in ensuring that individuals with ASD are able to support themselves and find the greatest possible measure of independence and happiness as adults. Now, however, there are many useful programs and resources to help those with ASD and their loved ones to pursue these goals. Our firm has been pleased to work with Entrepreneurship 4 Independence, one such resource, which my colleague Shomari Hearn has previously discussed in this space. His personal work with Legal and Entrepreneurial Empowerment for Persons with Developmental Disabilities also displays a passion for providing such support.
I don’t know too much firsthand about the issues that individuals with ASD face. But I would expect that a successfully integrated adult life for those on the spectrum is most accessible to those who benefit from a childhood that has as much in common as possible with those of their neurotypical peers.
Technology can help. Two weeks ago a mother wrote in The New York Times about the way in which Siri, the artificially intelligent voice of the iPhone, has become her 13-year-old’s best friend. With its mechanized patience, Siri answers the author’s son’s many questions and teaches him (gently) how to respond to verbal social cues that are challenging for many individuals who have some form of ASD.
For even younger children - and their parents - today’s Halloween festivities can present a big challenge, but also an opportunity. Many children with ASD have difficulty handling changes to their routine, and from a child’s viewpoint, Halloween is certainly anything but routine. But technology helps once again. Parents of children with ASD have many online resources to help them prepare their child to have a happy Halloween - and a safe one, since some of these children have a tendency to wander off.
I have enormous respect for the generation of parents, like those of my daughter’s classmate, who refused to surrender to stereotypes or to give up on their children and the prospect of a full and satisfying life for them. An entire cadre of children who are now in their 20s and 30s benefited, and continue to benefit, from their parents’ vision and dedication. Another generation now follows in their footsteps, growing up with ASD without as much of the fear and isolation that once came with that diagnosis.
So don’t be shocked if, sometime this evening, a young person knocks at your door and hands you a card that says, “Hello, I am So-and-so. I have autism and can’t yet say ‘trick or treat,’ but I’m trying. Happy Halloween!”
If I see one of those cards, I will wish that youngster the happiest Halloween ever. And I might slip an extra piece of candy to the parent who is sure to be standing watchfully nearby.