On April 2, 2015, President Barack Obama issued a White House proclamation recognizing World Autism Awareness Day, declaring that “… everyone deserves a fair shot at opportunity” and celebrating the work of “… advocates, professionals, family members and all who work to build brighter tomorrows alongside those with autism.”
We Have Come a Long Way
In the last 20 years, there has been a significant increase in the diagnosis, treatment and available support programs for both autistic individuals and their family members. Research into the disorder and various treatment protocols have also become much more advanced. Autism awareness has become an international effort with April 2 being designated as World Autism Awareness Day and with worldwide recognition in several NFL stadiums, China's Oriental Pearl Tower, London's Trafalgar Square and even Niagara Falls, all being lit up in blue in commemoration. This level of recognition confirms that there are millions of people worldwide who are diagnosed with autism, which presents challenges not only to those suffering from the condition, but also their families and other loved ones.
New Savings Opportunities for Disabled Individuals
Thanks to new federal legislation and a movement among several states to further implement the federal law, families with disabled members, including autism, can save for disability-related expenses without disqualifying the disabled person from government benefits. In addition, the law also provides that savings can accrue on the earnings and distributions from the savings accounts without imposition of any income tax.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama signed the "Achieving a Better Life Experience Act" (ABLE Act of 2014). The ABLE Act is built on the foundation of the current 529 Education Savings Plan that helps families save for college expenses. The ABLE Act allows families to invest in tax-free savings accounts for disability-related expenses. Several states have now adopted the federal ABLE Act and said administrative procedures to implement the benefits of the Act for their residents. It is expected that initiatives in all 50 states will ultimately be undertaken to allow residents of each state to take advantage of the federal legislation.
My son, Casey, now 20, is autistic. Casey was diagnosed with a form of autism when he was four years old. Casey is blessed to be part of a family where he has and continues to experience the love and support of his mom and dad, a twin brother and big brother. We all are blessed to have Casey as a son and brother given the inspiration he provides all of us with his unique perspective on the world. Our family experience has been and continues to be combinations of experiences that are happy, sad, challenging, frustrating and rewarding. Special needs individuals encounter unique challenges that translate into unique challenges for the entire family unit.
Casey was able to obtain a high school diploma, has a brilliant mind with a passion for learning history, but still struggles to make and maintain friendships and achieve emotional balance in order to continue his education and even obtain a part-time job. As parents, we all want what is best for our children, but with a special needs child, it is especially frustrating when options and opportunities seem absent to make our children's lives better.
How We Can Help
As mentioned above, autism has been recognized internationally as a neurological disorder impacting individuals and their families all over the world. There are hundreds and even thousands of advocacy groups and organizations representing various efforts to improve the lives of individuals diagnosed with autism as well as their families. As a result, we can all consider supporting those groups and organizations with our volunteer time, money and other support.
While all of the aforementioned responses are necessary and appropriate, as Casey's father, I think I would say the best thing anyone could do for my son would be to just give him a "chance." Give him a chance to be a friend. Give him a chance to be an employee. Give him a chance to feel a sense of self-worth, confidence and satisfaction of achievement that all of us pursue in our daily lives.
So let's recognize all of the individuals with disabilities or special challenges and ask ourselves what we can do within our own life experience and with our own resources to support and make those individuals' lives better.