This morning, the headline of my San Diego Union Tribune read: Case stirs military recruiting questions – Autistic man in brig, facing court-martial. I read this after helping my son – who is non-verbal and severely impacted by autism – get on his special education bus for the ride to high school. He too has been recruited by the military.
How Pvt. Joshua D. Fry was recruited – he lived in a group home and is under limited conservatorship – is beyond comprehension. However, I get enough emails from parents to know they deal with recruiters all the time. I even wrote an article about my son’s experience.
Please understand I am not anti-military (some of my closest relatives serve and I support them) or against people being enlisted who are on the spectrum and able to serve (I have friends with Asperger’s Syndrome who probably would do a fine job in the military). This story makes me wonder where the recruiters go fishing for non-autistic, supposedly neurotypical people to serve their country.
Having raised a person severely impacted by autism for 20 years, I have learned the only way to survive is to laugh at all the absurdities we parents are often subject to. So if you do not enjoy sardonic wit, I suggest you do not read the following article I wrote which was first published on www.ageofautism.com:
“The Marines are Looking for a Few Good Men” Rarely does the war in Iraq coincide with the war on autism in my house. Yet a few months ago, the phone rang and my hands were full of crap, literally. Normally, I would have let voice mail pick up, but I was expecting a call from my daughter. I ran to the phone and picked it up with the rubber gloves I was wearing. I was in the middle of cleaning my 18-year-old autistic son’s most recent failed attempt to make it to the toilet in time. Timing is everything.
“May I please speak to Jeremy?” requested a strong male voice. This is an unusual request in my house, as my son Jeremy is nonverbal. “He can’t come to the phone right now. Who is this, please?” I asked. “Take this number down, and tell him to call Ron,” the male voice instructed. “What is this about?” I inquired. “I’m from the Marines. I’m calling all the seniors from Torrey Pines High School, and I want to tell Jeremy what we have to offer.” “Really,” I replied, “Do you offer toilet training? I’ve heard you are really good at teaching bed making, standing in line and following directions. We are still having trouble in those areas, too. When can he start and where do I bring him?”
Actually, that was the conversation going on in my head. I just laughed and told him my son was autistic, nonverbal, and couldn’t talk on the phone. When you have a son as disabled as I do, you learn to be grateful for the smallest things. Like the fact that your son will never be eligible for active duty and that he doesn’t risk the possibility of getting killed in Iraq. A short time later, Jeremy received a letter from the Selective Service System, who obviously were still looking for a few good men. This letter informed Jeremy that since he was now 18, he was required by law to register for selective service. Included was an application to fill out listing three categories of possible exemptions. As I read the application, I thought “OK, I’ll just have to check one of these off for Jeremy and mail it out.” To my dismay, there were only three possible exemptions listed: “Females”; “Members of the Armed Forces on full-time active duty”; and “Men who are unable to register due to circumstances beyond their control, such as being hospitalized, institutionalized, or incarcerated.” I couldn’t believe it. My son did not fit into any of those categories. Where was I supposed to check for “Males over the age of 18 who require 24-hour care because of their disability”? Was I supposed to sign Jeremy up and send him with his own private support person if he were ever drafted? So I decided to get creative. I drew my own box at the bottom of the list, checked it off and wrote next to it “My son is severely impacted by autism and requires 24-hour care and help with all of his every day living skills. Please see attached documentation.” I thought that would be the end of it.
Lo and behold, a few months later, Jeremy received his legal proof of registration card from the Selective Service System. He also received a pamphlet extolling him to “DISCOVER THE CAREER YOU WERE BORN TO PURSUE,” and informing him that they had “MORE THAN 4,000 JOBS TO EXPLORE,” and my personal favorite “88% OF OUR JOBS TRAIN YOU FOR A CAREER OUTSIDE THE MILITARY.”
Now, as a an expert on transition to adulthood services for those on the autism spectrum, I started fantasizing here. According to the 2002 report published by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education (ordered by President George Bush), unemployment rates for working-age adults with disabilities have hovered at the 70% level for at least the past twelve years. The Commission found that poor implementation of federal laws and policies in effect to help disabled students transition to competitive employment or higher education was one the reasons for such a high rate of unemployment.
Well, what if we put the Selective Service System in charge of transition programs and special education services from high school on up? They seem to be good at job development and effective at implementation of federal law and policies. I continued to read the pamphlet…. “Choosing a career is a big decision. What do you love to do? What are you good at?” Gosh, these are the same questions I ask the teens and young adults with autism in my line of work. “Join the military and find out.”
Seriously, I doubt I could ever get Jeremy to agree to join the military, even if it offered him a guaranteed career. During the 2004 presidential debate, my son sat with us in the family room, flicking a piece of string, seemingly impervious to what we were watching for two hours. Back then, my son was just learning how to use a letter-board as a means of communication and we were unsure of how much he understood of what he heard. (As shown on MTV’s True Life episode “I Have Autism,” Jeremy has recently mastered the use of a Litewriter, a piece of assistive technology that speaks out what he types). The next day in a workshop, Jeremy was asked to demonstrate his letter-board capabilities to a group of people watching on a video monitor in a separate room.
Soma Mukhopadhyay, educational director of HALO, presented a letter-board to Jeremy and said, “Hi Jeremy. Nice to see you. Do you want to tell me about something you did or something you watched on TV yesterday?”
SAW ON TV, Jeremy spelled out.
“What did you watch?” asked Soma
“Who do you want to see win the election, Jeremy, The democrats or the republicans?”
STOP THE WAR
“What happens when we stop the war?” inquired Soma.
SOLDIERS CAN COME HOME
All this just goes to show, my son may be autistic, but he definitely isn’t stupid.