Miracle Monday: “When Autism Speaks” with Ellen Bry

lostandfoundRecently CatholicMom.com ran an interview that I did with Ellen Bry, star of “Lost and Found Family.” Ellen is the mother of three grown children, including two sons with autism. I was delighted when Ellen took time to chat with me about what it’s like to raise — singlehandedly — two young men with special needs.

One of the greatest challenges of parenting the special-needs child is managing one’s own expectations. “There’s a kind of smugness among very bright, accomplished people, an engrained bias that being bright and accomplished is somehow being ‘better.’ When you have special-needs kids, you realize immediately that intelligence in merely another gift that you’re lucky enough to get – but not a God-given right. It’s surely as much of a fluke as being good-looking. A sharp intellect is a gift, nothing you deserve, just something you’re lucky to have. Other human qualities are more important – love, decency, compassion, goodness, and kindness. My two special-needs kids have those in abundance.” When parenting the special-needs child, love means learning to appreciate each child for who he is, rather than what he can or cannot do.

Want to read more? Just head over to CatholicMom.com and check it out. While you’re there, you might appreciate another CatholicMom.com post, “Prayer for Families Touched by Autism.”

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Top 3 Things Parents of Autistic Children Can Do

Valerie_VanamanYesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a remarkable woman, special-needs legal advocate, Valerie Vanaman.  A senior partner at Newman, Aaronson, and Vanaman, for the past forty years Valerie has defended the educational rights of special-needs children and their families.  She has also served as a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School and as an attorney for such public interest organizations as the Children’s Defense Fund.

Yesterday I spoke with Ms. Vanaman in connection with my article on “Lost and Found Family” and its star Ellen Bry, which appeared today at CatholicExchange.com. Ellen had spoken to me in glowing terms about Ms. Vanaman’s lifetime of service to the special-needs community (Ellen has two grown sons with autistic spectrum disorders), and suggested I speak directly with Valerie. I was delighted when she took time to chat with me by phone. 

I asked Valerie to suggest three things that parents of autistic children can do for their kids. She said:

1.  Make sure you are confident in the assessment data you have. If you’re not confident that your doctor or advocate has a complete picture, you must speak up!  “Autism comes in many forms and styles, with many different needs. It is not helpful to approach it too broadly or generally. Autism crosses a wide span of people and issues and needs. You can’t lump them all together. In addition, your child’s needs will often change – have you kept up with them?”

2.  Look at the array of services and resources available to you, and explore them all to find the one that best suits your situation, your child. Two good places to start are online resources such as “Autism Speaks” or the “Council of Parent, Attorneys and Advocates.”  Groups such as these can be especially helpful in getting a “big picture” on what is working for children with autism on a national scale. “All efforts at generalization in this field do a disservice,” observes Vanaman. “Special needs children can benefit from integrated classroom situation, if the school is committed to modify the curriculum. A child who is going to have difficulty getting academics but likes being around his peers, may benefit from leaving him in the classroom even though all the drilling in the world won’t dramatically increase the student’s ABC ability. On the other hand, there are children for whom leaving the main stream for a portion of the day might provide some great benefit.”

3.  Find a local support group. There is no substitute for parent-to-parent communication, or finding a local support group that can give you the inside track on what is available in YOUR area. “Parent organizations are essential. At the end of the day, it’s the only way to know how to think about the problem. Most parents are thrown into the situation of having a child with an autistic spectrum disorder – it’s not the child you expected to have. How do you get your head around it? That’s a significant issue that parents need, to sit around with another group of parents to learn how think about it.”

Since the passing of the 1976 “Education of Handicapped Children Act,” Valerie has been a fearless defender of children who were once marginalized, working first with the Children’s Defense Fund and later in her own practice, located in Sherman Oaks, California. During that time she has seen the emergence of many therapies and treatments that have greatly improved the quality of life for her clients. Ultimately, however, it is the parent who must safeguard the needs and best interests of the child.

“Particularly when the child is young, if you’re not seeing progress, you need to find out why. You can’t just keep trying the same thing. If a particular therapy or approach is no longer working after 6 months or so, you may want to find out why not.”

Weekend Ponderings: A Girl Named Sara and 9/11

Last night I saw the WE program “9-11 Millionaire Widows.”  It describes the lives of several families of 9-11 victims, 3000 of whom received nearly $7 billion in compensation since their loved ones were killed in the Twin Towers attack.

Ironically, the image WE used on their website is not, technically, of a widow. Lisa Goldberg was a “partner” to Martin McWilliams, a fireman who was crushed in the North Tower when their daughter Sara was an infant. The couple was not married, McWilliams left no will — and his parents contested her right to accept the money on their granddaughter’s behalf. Granted, Lisa was the mother of their grandchild — but at the end of the day, she was not their son’s wife. In their eyes — and, as it turned out, in the eyes of the court — she had no legal standing.

Like many who sought compensation for their loses, Lisa claims it’s “not about the money.” “My existence with this man has been deleted. That’s the hardest thing that I have to live with, besides him really being gone.”

And yet, as I heard her speak, I couldn’t help but wonder: If they were so much in love, why on earth did they not get married? While marrying ONLY for the sake of an unplanned pregnancy is not always the best course, being in love AND having a child would seem to be a very good reason indeed. (Ironically, several articles about the show refer to McWilliams as Goldberg’s “husband,” and yet McWilliams’ mother indicates the couple were not even engaged at the time of her son’s death.) 

A “baby daddy” or “baby mamma” is not the same as a husband or a wife. If you’re going to create a family, for heaven’s sake … commit to it! On the other hand, if a couple brings a child into the world, but doesn’t have the confidence or commitment to formalize their union and create a real family, how can they expect the rest of society to “recognize” what does not in fact exist: a life-long, exclusive union between husband and wife? 

The marriage bond is the foundation on which every human society is built and sustained, and it provides the security every child needs.  In this scenario, it wasn’t the government or the legal system who let that little girl down . . . it was her parents.

Saturday’s Gospel speaks to this point. In the Book of Luke (6:43-49), Jesus says:

“…I will show you what someone is like who comes to me,
listens to my words, and acts on them.
That one is like a man building a house,
who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock;
when the flood came, the river burst against that house
but could not shake it because it had been well built.
But the one who listens and does not act
is like a person who built a house on the ground
without a foundation.
When the river burst against it,
it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed.”

What kind of foundation are you building on today? Has it been ordered according to God’s plan for the family — or your own preferences or opinions? If something happened to you today, if your “river burst,” would you leave behind a legacy of life . . . or self-indulgence?

Next week at CatholicExchange.com (9/15), I’ve posted an article about an upcoming movie called “Lost and Found Family.” Be sure to check it out!

“Lost and Found Family” Today on Teresa Tomeo’s “Catholic Connection”

lostandfoundThis morning I’ll be a guest on Teresa Tomeo’s “Catholic Connection” to talk about my upcoming talk at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The talk will be on September 17 at 7:30 pm, and will include representatives from area foster care and adoption agencies to answer any questions you may have.

On the radio program, I”ll also be talking about a special family movie about adoption and foster care, called “Lost and Found Family,” starring Ellen Bry. The movie has a limited released (may be ordered on DVD) on September 15. I had a chance to interview Ellen by phone yesterday, and talk with her about the movie and about her work with “Autism Speaks,” a charitable organization that raises funds for research and treatment of austitic spectrum disabilities. Stay tuned!