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Out of the dark ages.

Today, you and thousands of people in America have some understanding of autism. Autism as a disabling condition is finally out of the dark ages. But I remember the pain of parenthood during those dark ages. My son Mike is 36 and autistic.

I remember when Mike was sent home from public school in the first grade -- not for the day but forever. I remember the "authority" who said the cause of autism was clear: refrigerator mother. I remember my son's caseworker telling me that if I wanted to help my son, I had to understand that I was a major part of the cause.

Today, my son works in the bookstore at Mount Hood Community College where he has worked since 1983. He is a success. Not a doctor or a lawyer, but a man working almost full time, living in his own apartment and paying his own bills.

Mike is succeeding beyond my wildest dreams -- and in spite of the experts. Oh, he still marches to a different drummer, but he's darn sure a member of the band!

A lot of people are responsible for that: teachers, counselors, friends, a patient employer, me, Mike and a group called the National Society for Autistic Children. The Oregon Chapter, a fledgling group in the early 1970s, had the audacity to come to the Oregon Legislature to ask, even demand, public education for our children.

There were a couple of charity groups for children back then but certainly no advocacy groups. Sometimes people put their hands out for children, but few put their fists up and demanded what was right for kids like ours.

But our little group was fortunate. The Parkrose School District was in a ederally funded research project to see if "emotionally disturbed" children could be educated in public school. Our children were in school and we didn't intend to take them home when the money ran out. So we began to organize.

We invited then-State Rep. Frank Roberts to one of our meetings and asked him to introduce legislation at our request. He agreed. The bill required public education for children with emotional disabilities in Oregon and created state and local advisory groups -- groups that had to include parents.

And then we began to advocate. We started a speakers' bureau. We talked to Kiwanis and Rotary. We added new members and supporters. We opened a little bank account. We wrote to the newspapers and legislators. And we got ready to lobby our bill at the Capitol.

Rep. Roberts warned us our chances of success in the 1971 session were slim. He said new ideas take years, especially if they ask for money. But we were undeterred.

I agreed to become our group's lobbyist. I was recently divorced and raising my two sons without child support. Although I was working full time at low wages, I took every Friday off and spent it at the Capitol lobbying for our special bill.

I had no experience, I was scared and I couldn't afford to buy a cup of coffee for a senator or representative. I didn't even know where the restrooms were. But I was determined. I knew our cause was right, and the rest I could learn. And I did. I worked for five months and talked to every senator and representative.

I convinced the Senate Education Committee to hold an evening hearing so members of our group could attend. One of the 30 people who came was my then-teenage son. He had written his own testimony and wanted to share how wonderful it was to be in school with other children, how much he was learning and how much other kids were learning about him.

The committee and then the Senate passed our bill unanimously. Then every member of the House except one voted for our bill -- and he was in the men's room.

We'd done it, despite two professional lobbyists from the school boards association working full time against our bill. The mountain of government was movable, and we had moved it. From then on, I knew that one person could make a difference.

Out of the dark ages.

It's been more than 20 years since our bill was signed into law, and many things have changed. Representative Frank Roberts became Senator Roberts and my husband. A new generation of parents and professionals have come along to advocate for the special needs of so many of these special children.

My political credentials have expanded since I was that green, lost, citizen lobbyist. Today, as governor of Oregon, I have a unique opportunity to work for programs and policies that give every Oregonian the chance to succeed to the best of his or her ability.

There have been other political and legislative successes in my life but nothing quite like that first bill that took my son out of the dark ages.

In recognition of her advocacy for the rights of children and people with disabilities, Gov. Roberts has received two Civil Liberties Awards and a Distinguished Service Award from the Oregon Commission for the Handicapped.
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Title Annotation:public education for autistic children
Author:Roberts, Barbara
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:849
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