Tina Brown: The Forever Child

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When my husband and I used to attend the event titled “Transition Weekend” at our son’s private special-needs school in Massachusetts, the presentations that were hard to bear were from the financially strapped parents of kids who’d graduated two or three years past. These were the wistful mothers and fathers who got up and told us to make the most of our last year or two at the school because those would probably be the happiest years of our parenting lives. At this nurturing place, our kids were continually supported, encouraged, and taught skills for independence. They had friends on tap. They had activities that stimulated and distracted them.

“Since Julia left,” I remember one mother recounting in a weary voice from the dais, “she rarely gets out of the house. There are no state programs for young adults like her near us. Julia used to go two mornings a week to a program where there was music and a social group, but that closed last year, and we can’t afford the fees of the only other program on offer. I had to give up my job. She watches TV most of the time. She used to always be cheerful. Now she’s doing less and less. We’d be grateful for any suggestions.”

Many of the parents we got to know at these heartbreaking Transition Weekends were divorced. Marriages so often crack up under the demands of special needs. Usually it’s the mother who shoulders the burden alone. Some husbands prove unable to accept that their son is never going to fulfill a cherished paternal dream. There is a commonly cited statistic that the divorce rate among parents of autistic children is 80 percent. It’s not true, but as one mother told us, it feels true.

Many others—as in my own family—forge deep bonds with each other and with other mothers and fathers in the same boat. Sometimes it feels like membership in a secret society. Sitting next to strangers at dinner, I always know, from the hesitation and a sudden vagueness, if their son or daughter is in our “club.” And when I share that our adored 26-year-old son has Asperger’s, there’s a sense of instant understanding. You can now forget the small talk and get down to what you really want to talk about—the child: What’s taken the place of school in his life? Where did she find new friends, a safe sex life? Has he a job he can do without stress? I tell them about a lifeline in our own existence, Job Path, a small, vibrant organization in Manhattan led by an amazing woman named Fredda Rosen, who seeks out and badgers willing employers to take on one of these young adults and supplies a job coach to make it happen.

In march a startling new official statistic emerged: one in 88 kids falls on the autism spectrum. The better-off parents can try to patch together a tolerably happy existence for their “forever child.” But what can the many millions of parents with limited means do as more and more special-needs kids reach adulthood? We are about to face a social crisis that nobody is talking about, which is why Newsweek asked Michelle Cottle to address it this week.

It’s cheering that Daniel Gross, the author of our cover story, comes along now with the counterintuitive view that America is not in decline after all. He confronts the conventional wisdom of “declinism” with a robust mix of statistics and argument, and offers us reasons to be more cheerful about the state of the American economy than we have allowed ourselves to be. He calls his news of a resurgent U.S. economy Better, Stronger, Faster—but let’s make sure, this time, that it includes those parents and kids who will never be in America’s next go-go cycle.

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