The Way We Were

The way we were before the mid 1970s is that we were a country of large mental institutions where we sent the people with mental impairments or challenging behaviors. When my son was born in 1975, handicapped by autism and severely mentally and emotionally  impaired, I set about looking for the right institution for him. I thought they had the answers to my problems. I was told that there were “places for people like him”.

The more I discovered about these institutions, the more depressed and horrified I became.  I found that children with my son’s challenging behaviors were heavily drugged, restrained or both. I talked to parents whose children were institutionalized and heard many horror stories. The way people  were showered is they were lined up naked against the wall and hosed down. People were dressed in the dirty clothes that someone else had worn the day before. Electro-shock therapy was routinely used.

I found out so much that I realized that I could not institutionalize him. That was not MY answer. I was paralyzed by fear and did not know what to do. I was afraid to keep him and afraid to turn him over to anyone else. My fear of what would happen to him if I didn’t keep him at home was greater than my fear of keeping him.

In 1975, the Federal Government mandated that the states close down the big institutions if they wanted federal money. Now there was the problem of what to do about them. That was left up to families and caregivers who did not have the answers either.

A study was done that found that the biggest  categories of people in institutions were severely mentally impaired, severely multiply impaired and autistic. Michigan State Senator Debbie Stabenow,  (now a United States Senator) became my hero. She authored a bill so that parents of children in these categories would get a stipend from the Department of Mental Health to help keep their children at home. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to let me know that someone cared. Isn’t a society judged by how it treats the poor, the elderly and the disabled? Someone has to care about them.

So, without knowing it, Senator Stabenow became my “spoonful of comfort”.  We need people who care in positions such as hers. This all happened during the 1980s. but I will never forget how she impacted my life.

I have learned so much during my “autism odyssey”.  I have learned that there are people who care and there are people who don’t care. We are a society who worships the biggest, the brightest, the richest, the prettiest. Are people with disabilities worth less because they do not fit these categories?

Until next time: May you have Peace, Love and Prosperity in your life.

Claudreen Jackson

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