Advocate or Bobble Head

In the world of autism there are so many people claiming to fight the good fight; to stand up for what’s right for those with autism and their families- but who’s really DOING it? Have you ever wondered about that?  This is one of those “elephants in the living room” that no one wants to talk about. We can’t change it if we don’t expose it; if we don’t confront it head on.

In the approximately one and a half years that I’ve been in the advocacy world myself I can tell you from first hand experience that there is a huge difference between those whose who use the word “advocate” to polish their resumes and those who truly stand for what they believe.

In May of 2012 I eagerly joined the Vermont Autism Task Force. Not even a month after my daughter’s diagnosis I desperately wanted to DO something- not just for her, but for all kids like her. I remember sitting in my friend’s living room in tears. This problem was bigger than me and my daughter. What happens to the children that don’t get the help they need? With that on my heart I dove into advocacy. I wanted to be part of the solution. I wanted to make a difference. I had to at least try.

I remember how green I was… how eager. I remember sitting in the conference room at one of the first meetings I attended, taking notes, listening intently- and speaking up when I had something to share. I took my position with them very seriously. It was a Task Force- and that meant that we, as a group, could do big things to help those we served, right? I told my daughter’s therapists about my membership and offered to help if I could. I had this vision of being able to bring the issues to the Vermont Autism Task Force and have the collective effort of like minded people to tackle it with; to create a plan of action on how we could fix what was wrong.

A while later my daughter’s occupational therapist came to me. She was clearly distraught and frustrated. She explained that Medicaid was DEMANDING that she videotape an adolescent she worked with learning to dress herself – in the name of “training” a personal care attendant.  I was livid. Was this even LEGAL? I reached out to a co-chair of the Task Force who directed me to someone else within another organization. That person told me it was none of my business. Here I was thinking, “If they are demanding this from one child, how many more are they demanding it from?” To me it was the symptom of a larger problem. I refused to be silenced. I continued to make noise, to research the legality and learned that if, for instance, someone tried to cross the VT/Canadian border with such a videotape they would be arrested for possession of child pornography.

As I intended, I marched into the Vermont Autism Task Force meeting with this issue on my mind and explained it to the group. I expected outrage. I expected someone to say, “We have to do something about this!” What did I really hear? Silence. No one said a word with the exception of one member who only said, “Let me know how you make out with that…” WHAT?!?

It was in that meeting that I realized that Vermont Autism Task Force is by far not what it claims to be. I’ve since learned that the co-chairs were never nominated but in fact declared themselves as such. The only rules that exist are the ones the co-chairs make and choose to enforce. The rest of us? I’m not even sure they know we exist.

A few months went by and my disillusionment had given way to the stark reality that I was going to have to blaze my own trail if I truly intended to do something productive for these children and families. I created the Vermont Autism Network and started to work on my own.

One day while on Facebook a news story about a little boy with autism in Southern Vermont came through my news feed. His mom and aunt were desperate to know what was happening to him at school but he was unable to tell them. He lacked the communication skills necessary so they put a recorder in his backpack. He had been locked in a closet for most, if not all of a school day. He had been made to clean his own urine from the floor when the paraprofessionals refused to let him out to use the bathroom and they were heard joking about how long they could withhold food and water.  To say that I was upset would be an understatement. I emailed the reporter explaining who I was and asked him to let the family know that I was here to help in any way I could. Within 24 hours the family called, and from that moment on we worked together- his family on the local side, me on the broader, statewide side.

Not surprisingly, there was not a word spoken of this boy by anyone else on the Vermont Autism Task Force. The silence was deafening.

That was the true start to my advocacy work. I’d done a few other things before that, but to me, that is where it begins. That is where I found direction for my passion. I began conversations with state representatives and the Secretary of Education. I didn’t give up, didn’t back down. I still don’t. I never will.

Now, a year and a half after all of that I find that I have no desire to be a part of a “Task Force” that has no force. There are indeed some well meaning people on the Task Force but unfortunately the good ones are usually driven away by the inner politics and nonsense. People that truly want to help don’t stay because they learn quickly that that is not where it is going to happen.

I’ve since immersed myself in many other organizations and councils- and I still run the Vermont Autism Network. I’m just not as gullible as I once was. If I have anything to credit the Vermont Autism Task Force for it is the lesson it taught me. Just because an organization has a mission statement that rhymes with my heart doesn’t mean I should trust it.

Actions speak louder than words.

There are so many agencies like this one. Originally formed with good intentions but have meandered down the path of futility. Everyone sits around a table once a month and says things that sound good- but there is rarely any action to follow through.  I’ve coined them as “bobble heads.” Remember those things? They’d stick to your dashboard and nod their heads every time you drove over a bump; as if they agreed with every single one.

As both a mom and an advocate I am both saddened and sickened . Our children and families deserve better. They deserve people who aren’t afraid to fight for what is right; who speak the truth even if it isn’t popular. They deserve to be supported in their struggles. If these people can’t or won’t do what they profess to, perhaps it is time for them to get out the way.

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