Memorial Day: Autism Among the Fallen?

A few years ago the media picked up on Israel’s active recruitment of people on the autism spectrum to serve in certain specialized military roles.

While the Armed Forces here in the U.S. automatically disqualify applicants with autism, there are waiver provisions allowing people with the diagnosis to serve. The standards vary from branch to branch.

Historically, it is very likely that people with autism served in our Armed Forces. For one thing, autism is a recent diagnosis and many generations of autistic Americans would have been seen as little more than “a bit different.”

In wartime, all kinds of standards go by the wayside. Plenty of Americans, due to patriotic fervor or financial desperation, lied about their age, medical condition or immigration status to sign up for combat – and the government, desperate to fill the ranks, didn’t give them too hard a screening. Such was the case with one of our most decorated soldiers of WWII, Audie Murphy.

So it’s likely that autistic Americans have gone in harm’s way for the rest of us.

Identifying them is not easy. Through the middle of WWII, autism wasn’t even a known diagnosis.

Which means that those autistic Americans who gave the last full measure of devotion are like those in The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is inscribed

Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God

For families with autism, this Memorial Day might be more of a blur, as so many have been locked in at home and locked out of schools and other programs for months. A holiday is like any other day under Covid-19 measures.

Yet we should pause and be grateful for the sacrifices of those who’ve gone before, which surely included people like those in our care. And we should realize that those in our care might be tomorrow’s heroes. There’s a lot we just can’t know, so we soldier on in our various ways.

Featured image is of Black Hills National Cemetery in South Dakota.

Quarantine Impact On People With Special Needs

We just got news from ours son’s service agency that our separation must continue, at least into the near future. A group email from the agency included,

People living in (Agency) settings cannot go back and forth between their family home and their (Agency) home.

It is sad but necessary. Even if people with special needs do not have medical conditions that make them more at risk from Covid-19, they might have behavioral factors like not washing hands without direct supervision. Or sensory issues, like overwhelming discomfort with face masks (the sensation of the mask on the face or the feeling of straps around the ears or both).

Many people with special needs live in group homes or institutions with dense population, so as we’ve learned the hard way from nursing care facilities it is essential to control contacts in order to keep the virus out.

We know from a staff contact that something like cabin fever is setting into our son’s group home. Anxiety is high and behaviors reflect that.

I wanted to get some perspective from people with special needs as to how they’re dealing with the quarantine. I reached out to one very verbal young guy, but I framed my question poorly.

I asked Has Covid-19 caused any problems for you?

I should have anticipated him reading that in the most literal sense. His reply was I’m healthy.

But on his Facebook page, I found this, dated two weeks ago: Hey everyone friends and family I am going stir crazy I miss doing my special Olympics events. I hope we get back at it this fall.

The mom of a non-verbal daughter with autism tweeted, her schedule has been gutted due to Covid closures. Fortunately they are in a place with open beaches and the young lady loves spending time in the surf.

Cabin fever due to lost opportunities is not unique to the special needs community. Neurotypical folks who’ve lost work or social activities are sad, angry, anxious, depressed and all kinds of other stuff, too.

It’s hard for me to comprehend, let alone express, the difference between a quarantined person with autism and a neurotypical person stuck at home. I’m prone to read it my way and treat it as an emotional matter.

But the difference is that of a person with a hand on a hot stove. Our well intended responses to a person laid off from work – “Hey, you’ll be OK,” “Hey, the government is sending a stimulus check,” “Hey, you still have your health and family” – would be considered inappropriate (if not insane or sadistic) responses to a person whose flesh is charring.

Many people with special needs, like my young friend missing the Special Olympics, can understand rational explanations like “There’s a bad bug out there and we have to stay home so we don’t catch it.” Yes, he’s bummed about the disruption of things he likes, but he gets it.

Many others, like our son, are more like the example of a person getting burned on a hot stove. There’s pain and all kinds of other neural sirens blaring through their system and not open to reasonable words about cause and effect or promises of a better tomorrow.

For caregivers it’s the ongoing nightmare of stuff you really don’t get and can’t fix for those you love.

Since You Can’t Take Mom Out To Dinner…

Not to discount the work of husbands, dads, brothers and other caregivers, but women are the historic majority of caregivers.

Mother’s Day is at hand in the U.S., and it’s shaping up to suck. Everybody’s been stuck at home together with school closures, work shut downs and furloughs and quarantines. Restaurants are closed, so mom doesn’t get a dinner out (and the restaurants lose another important date for staying profitable and keeping folks employed).

Now, I’m a decent cook and could whip up one of my wife’s favorites at home, but I’m at work most of this coming Mother’s Day AND she’s under the weather and talking about a menu just makes her queasy.

Adding insult to injury is our local son stuck in his quarantined group home. 3 miles away and we can’t get mom and him together. Henry the Golden Retriever better make extra effort to be a good boy this Sunday.

So,with all this woe duly wailed, I’ll at least offer this online tribute to care giving moms, in particular my Melissa. Enjoy some pics of her adding love and joy to our lives…

She brings a smile when Joey’s grumpy.
She goes to restaurants where she can’t eat most of what’s on the menu because it makes Joey smile.
She raised a Naval Officer!
She shares love with our friends’ kids, too!
She indulged me in a Sake Bomb after we moved Joey into his group home, even though she was feeling less festive than I.
Even though Joey doesn’t drink, she took him to a grown up venue for his 21st birthday burger!
She’s adopted a number of other family members over the years.
She married me and May 26th will be 30 years (that’s Pearl Anniversary if you’re sending presents).
Join me in wishing her a sweet Mother’s Day!

Reach out this weekend and show some love to some of the locked in moms and other caregivers. There are plenty of women out there who, by caring for those not their own flesh and blood, should be honored as moms just the same…

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. (Romans 16:13)

Special Ed Distance Learning

I could be glib and suggest that any effort to communicate across special needs is a form of distance learning.

But Special Education presents challenges in the best of times, and even more with the school closures due to Covid-19.

Our local news aired a good feature on this. It gets beyond lamenting the hardship to show some of the creative efforts to keep Special Ed going over distance. The needed collaboration of family and school comes into focus, and maybe that’s one of the silver linings of our Covid-19 cloud. As one Sioux Falls teacher explains,

For my students who are more significantly impacted and have those significant disabilities, a lot of the time the parents are the ones working one on one with their child doing the things that I have assigned, but they’re really the ones that are really providing those interventions, through my specialized instruction that I’m providing them and the tools that I’m giving them.

It’s all individualized based on what the family needs, for what is working for their family, and where families are at. So if families are feeling overwhelmed and their focusing on the mental and physical health of their family, then that’s what I’m stressing, first and foremost, before anything academic.

I think it safe to say that family caregivers are always essential personnel, albeit unpaid and unable to be laid off even if we wanted a furlough (which some days sounds super attractive).

The news segment reports the painful reality that sometimes the family caregiver is the only one on the job. As one disability rights advocate relates,

We’ve represented a couple families who have had issues with schools not providing services, not providing the related services like speech and physical therapy and occupational therapy, and so we’ve worked with the parent and the school to create a dialogue and support the parent, so that the school understood their responsibilities to provide services.

I’ve shared here that we are empty nest, with the school days behind us. But hearing reports like this one lights up the old feelings, and our hearts go out to families still on that leg of the care giving journey.

Keep at it. Even with the gaps and failures, personal or public, you’re the best resource to those in your care.