Monday, June 05, 2006

The Pressures Parents Face

The first section of the piece "Autism's Parent Trap," in today's New York Times is tough to take, but it's worth reading to the end. Because while the writer, Cammie McGovern, speculates about what drove parents in a trio of recent tragedies to murder their autistic children -- does she really know? -- she makes some important observations about the pressures parents face.

McGovern, a novelist who is the mother of three kids including a 10-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, argues that it's parents' unrealistic expectations that they, if they empty their hearts, souls and wallets, can find a cure for their child's disorder. She says, in so many words, forget it. Forget the tales you have read in books like "Let me Hear Your Voice," by Catherine Maurice, that talk about autism cures. Instead, McGovern says: "I've never met a recovered child outside the pages of those old books. Not that it doesn't happen; I'm sure it does. But it's extraordinarily rare and it doesn't happen the way we once were led to believe."

She goes on to write: "Every parent of a child on the autism spectrum knows this feeling: I've done everything possible; why isn't he better? The answer is simple: Because this is the way autism works. There are roadblocks in the brain, mysterious and unmovable. In mythologizing recovery, I fear we've set an impossibly high bar that's left the parents of a half-million autistic children feeling like failures."

Parents should understand that their kids can get better, she writes. Just don't expect a cure. "Being more realistic from the start might make it possible to enjoy the journey and to see it for what it is: helping a child who will always function differently to communicate better and feel less frustrated."

There are two reasons McGovern's essay is in the newspaper. Aside from citing an apparent pattern in recent news headlines (a trio of tragedies in which authorities allege parents in Illinois, Oregon and Hull, England, killed their autistic children), McGovern has a novel "Eye Contact" coming out this month, which she explains on her website is a story inspired by her parenting experience. In the book, a main character is a barely-verbal autistic child who witnesses a crime. His protagonist mother's quest to "unlock" what he knows is at the center of the plot.

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