Every parent always worries about their kids' safety. We often check on how they're being treated, and ask if there's anything they need.
But for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), these safety concerns take on a whole new dimension.
One out of every 68 kids in America today is on the autism spectrum. Many of them may not actually have a voice, which means their parents' questions about their well-being go unanswered. That's a pretty scary prospect when a child is out of your sight much of the day.
My husband and I have been blessed with a son and daughter. Even at a very early age, I could sense my son Thomas wasn't hitting all the usual milestones. By the age of 2 ½, he still hadn't uttered a single word, and I could sense something was awry.
Ultimately, testing Thomas for autism took over a year of seemingly endless appointments and paperwork. Once the diagnosis finally came back, it helped us better understand his needs. But our struggles had only just begun.
It was challenging to find adequate child care. Eventually, we found a good facility, but like many others, its staff was unequipped to handle kids with special needs. As a result, Thomas had difficulty being part of interactive play. Instead of being part of the circle with the others, he was often reduced to tears in the corner. And not long after, he ended up with an injury in the local ER, unable to tell us what happened.
For parents of children with autism, these situations are heart-wrenching. They help explain why the basic safety of our kids is always our top concern. Of course I want my son to be able to go to high school and college, find employment, and achieve his full potential.
But he can't do any of that in a constant state of fear and danger.
That's why I was thrilled when I saw Hillary Clinton's autism initiative. Just minutes after she released it, my social media lit up with links to the program from far-flung friends. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that her plan takes a comprehensive approach to ASD, particularly when I read the entire section focusing specifically on child and youth safety.
As tough as Thomas' situation has been over the years, compared to many other families, we've actually had it easy. I've been fortunate enough to sit on the Governor's Developmental Disabilities Council and the Legislative Task Force on Autism--so we've had a wonderful support network, and I've learned where to go to ask the right questions. Most other families aren't so lucky.
Sadly, many other ASD kids are subject to harassment or abuse. Some of them are subjected to outdated practices like mechanical or chemical restraints, or locked away in windowless rooms by staff that lack proper training. Parents are often not notified when this occurs, and their kids may never be able to report it.
Hillary's plan would enact the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would do away with these harmful practices. It would provide educational and child-care professionals with better training, and help enforce the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act to help prevent bullying.
And once these kids grow up safely, the plan also calls for more basic research into treatment, nationwide early screening, and pushes for states to require that health insurance covers ASD-related services. It would also launch the Autism Works Initiative, a public-private partnership to help people with autism find dignified and fulfilling employment.
So I was delighted by Hillary's plan--but I can't say I was surprised. As a native Arkansan, I saw her advocating for the children of this state from the moment she arrived in Little Rock.
As first lady, Hillary fought for more awareness and funding for autism research. In the Senate, she introduced the bipartisan Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act. Throughout her career, she's proven to be a champion for families by digging into the finer points of issues like autism to identify and prevent the specific fears that really keep parents up at night.
For the families of the 3.5 million Americans with autism spectrum disorder, these issues are deeply personal to us. Hillary has always understood that.
And my hope is that if more people show her kind of leadership, kids like Thomas will finally be able to grow up to become anything they can imagine.
Jennifer Martinez Belt is a mother and advocate for children with special needs. She resides in Little Rock.
Editorial on 01/11/2016