This post is written by Liz Bell, mother of Tyler Bell, who was recently featured in an ABC World News Today segment on preparing adolescents with autism for adulthood. Liz is married to Peter Bell, Autism Speaks Executive Vice President of Programs and Services. They have two other children, Derek and Avery. Liz is a member of the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee and was the primary author of the School Community Tool Kit. In addition, she serves on the Parent Advisory Committee for the Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit which is under development and scheduled to be launched this fall. Liz is also a representative on the New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment for Autism.
Great, we might share the intense teaching and planning required in making the future of a young man with autism a little less uncertain. We can highlight the variable needs of this growing tide of soon-to-be adults with autism.
But “yikes!” How will my 17-year-old son behave in front of complete strangers with a camera in his face all day? What if this complicated message gets garbled, highlighting the challenges but not the gifts, the needs but not the opportunities?
Thankfully, Tyler greeted that camera with a grin on his face, and followed the flow of a familiar daily schedule in his hard working, innocent way. The ABC team turned eight hours of filming into a three-minute segment that helps to profile the needs of young people like Tyler, and hopefully initiates consideration of their place in the world. Now online, the story has sparked a conversation, which is a great thing.
But we need to keep talking. Some online comments outline the variable needs of the autism population – from college graduates who have trouble keeping a job to complex children with no language and few functional skills. We need options for all individuals on this broad spectrum. Other comments offer traditional ‘solutions.’ He can get Medicaid, sign up for get SSI, set up a special needs trust. True, these programs may provide some money, until it runs out, but how do you maximize its ability to provide a meaningful life, to establish supports that will take over once we are gone? You can place him in a sheltered workshop or a group home. Perhaps an option for the handful of individuals for whom there is space and funding, but this old model of isolated care won’t accommodate all of our kids…or be what they want. And that is the part of the conversation that we really need to move forward. How do we create the systems, opportunities and community mindset that will allow all individuals with autism the right to be safe, but also engaged, fulfilled and happy?
During that day of filming, while the rest of us were self conscious, for Tyler the camera was superfluous. But the cameraman was not, quickly noticing that, despite how hard it clearly is for Tyler to learn, he exhibits pride in accomplishment. For him, competence breeds confidence, so we teach him skills that make him feel useful and valued. We strive to fulfill his needs for humor, exercise, beauty, and joy. We want to develop a future that will allow Tyler to grow, not just to be taken care of, and to flourish.
Visioning this is a lot of responsibility for a parent, so we employed group brainstorming in a MAPS session, expertly facilitated by Dave Hasbury of Neighbours, Inc., where we explored Tyler’s strengths, likes, and possible opportunities, to keep us working in what we hope to be the right direction. We are heartened by a team of people who now have a shared perspective of where he might go.
But it is still mostly up to us to make it happen. We learn as we go. We build on strengths and we layer on, tiny step by tiny step, experiences and skills that help to create more independence, more joy. We immerse Tyler in the world and build a community that better understands him. We look to what motivates Tyler, and find ways to use his gifts to provide meaningful contributions to society and a sense of belonging. We reach out for help.
Last year, we asked the friendly owners of our local Rita’s Water Ice store if Tyler might have a volunteer job. We explained that job sampling is a big factor in strategizing for Tyler’s future. Since they had already opened their hearts to Tyler as a frequent customer, they gave him a Rita’s hat and the chance for us to work with him, as he worked for them. This year, it’s a paid job – just an hour or so a week, but an opportunity to punch a clock, have a boss and be ‘professional.’ Does he do the same work as the other teenagers there? No, but they value his smile, the fact that he joins them in dancing when they are so moved, and that he doesn’t pull out his phone to text in the middle of his shift. Yes, these are gifts, as is the perspective of Tyler’s Rita’s bosses, who recognize and celebrate his contributions.
And so Tyler earns a paycheck, the most important predictor of paid work after graduation. But he doesn’t work for that – it’s his favorite Cotton Candy water ice that compensates him for a job well done. And his pride.
After the filming, the rest of our family decided that we aren’t cut out for reality TV – life is complicated enough without having to turn off a mic to use the bathroom. But we would like to continue to be part of this conversation, in visioning meaningful lives for all families living with autism. After all, our children have a right to an amazing future.