To help promote the new book, I’ve been pitching op-ed pieces to newspapers. It’s interesting to be on the other side of the pitch. It also makes me miss Mike Trimble, my old friend who was the Denton Record-Chronicle‘s prize-winning opinion page editor, even more. I just miss him too much to imagine what he would say about my writing, but I try. After a few missed pitches, I asked more writing friends for feedback and that seemed to make a difference. The San Antonio Express-News recently published this piece on “restraints” which could see reforms from the Texas Legislature this year.
I think Mike would agree that the word “restraint” is a horrible euphemism for the things that Texas school and institutional personnel can do to a person with a disability in crisis, or simply to make them more easy to manage. Actions that, if a parent took them, would likely trigger an abuse investigation.
I was a little disappointed that the San Antonio editors cut so much of my original text, including the key phrase, ‘restraints destroy relationships.’ I guess it’s too scary.
Here is the full text:
When a parent first learns their child has autism, you can almost see the worry lines etch their face in real time. Their road ahead has changed. They need a new map. They will also need an experienced guide or two.
And those worry lines will deepen fast if they live in Texas, where school officials can still restrain children in ways that parents cannot, where there are caps on insurance coverage, and where the waiting list for adult services lasts for decades.
As with anyone, an autism family can thrive depending on how well the community responds.
A few generations ago, doctors told parents to send their child with autism to an institution and never look back. Today we know that autistic children can learn. New scientific knowledge and therapeutic practices are helping children learn to eat, talk, use the toilet, and master other life-changing skills. In addition, the first generations of children who benefitted from that new knowledge and practice are adults now. Some say that the early intervention changed the possibilities for their life—doing meaningful work, raising their own families, participating in community life. That was certainly the case for our family.
Other autistic adults say that their individual treatment program was abusive and traumatic. We are learning that some practices can be harmful, particularly those that focus on getting a child to comply with social ideals. This nature-and-nurture debate can be confusing for families new to the diagnosis. Parents want to raise their child as best they can, and for many autism families, the responsibilities don’t end in adulthood. Our society has built-in expectations and vulnerabilities that can create more frustration than support. The way each of us responds to an autistic individual can hinder the possibilities for their life—no different from the effects of buildings without ramps, movies without captions, or busy intersections without audio cues. It’s on us, as a society, to recognize that autism comes with its own gifts and strengths, and to respond accordingly.
How can we do that? It turns out that the basic principles for creating a healthy community still apply: by learning, connecting and loving.
Learning is fundamental to raising any child, but takes on special meaning for everyone involved in an autistic child’s life. Our learning begins not just with understanding each child but also understanding the science of learning itself—something our society often does poorly. Science tends to be a slow, deliberative process. Science doesn’t offer fixed answers to problems, in part because change and experimentation are fundamental to science. The same is true for human thriving, especially for children. We all need room to grow, change and develop.
Connecting to one another can make a difference, too. We connect when we respond to one another in meaningful ways and make sure that everyone, including each child, has agreed to whatever work we are doing together. This also means we have a duty to watch for poor conditions and change them. For example, Texas must change the conditions—and the laws—that allow preschoolers with autism to be strapped to chairs for their school day or a young autistic child in crisis to be placed in handcuffs. Research tells us that we don’t need to restrain children for them to learn. Moreover, the way we connect and respond to children, especially vulnerable children, has profound meaning. Restraints destroy relationships.
With love as their superpower, parents can meet their responsibilities to their children, even when those responsibilities are formidable. We can create the same animating force in a healthy society when we champion every child’s agency and ways to include them in the entire community. When we step up to serve as collaborators, scouts or vanguards for the families around us, we help our entire community make progress.
We humans need both science and inspiration to create the possibilities for our long-term well-being. When we all keep learning, connecting, and loving, we can build a sturdy, sustainable community filled with places and paths for every member of our community, no matter their gifts and strengths.