Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a remarkable woman, special-needs legal advocate, Valerie Vanaman. A senior partner at Newman, Aaronson, and Vanaman, for the past forty years Valerie has defended the educational rights of special-needs children and their families. She has also served as a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School and as an attorney for such public interest organizations as the Children’s Defense Fund.
Yesterday I spoke with Ms. Vanaman in connection with my article on “Lost and Found Family” and its star Ellen Bry, which appeared today at CatholicExchange.com. Ellen had spoken to me in glowing terms about Ms. Vanaman’s lifetime of service to the special-needs community (Ellen has two grown sons with autistic spectrum disorders), and suggested I speak directly with Valerie. I was delighted when she took time to chat with me by phone.
I asked Valerie to suggest three things that parents of autistic children can do for their kids. She said:
1. Make sure you are confident in the assessment data you have. If you’re not confident that your doctor or advocate has a complete picture, you must speak up! “Autism comes in many forms and styles, with many different needs. It is not helpful to approach it too broadly or generally. Autism crosses a wide span of people and issues and needs. You can’t lump them all together. In addition, your child’s needs will often change – have you kept up with them?”
2. Look at the array of services and resources available to you, and explore them all to find the one that best suits your situation, your child. Two good places to start are online resources such as “Autism Speaks” or the “Council of Parent, Attorneys and Advocates.” Groups such as these can be especially helpful in getting a “big picture” on what is working for children with autism on a national scale. “All efforts at generalization in this field do a disservice,” observes Vanaman. “Special needs children can benefit from integrated classroom situation, if the school is committed to modify the curriculum. A child who is going to have difficulty getting academics but likes being around his peers, may benefit from leaving him in the classroom even though all the drilling in the world won’t dramatically increase the student’s ABC ability. On the other hand, there are children for whom leaving the main stream for a portion of the day might provide some great benefit.”
3. Find a local support group. There is no substitute for parent-to-parent communication, or finding a local support group that can give you the inside track on what is available in YOUR area. “Parent organizations are essential. At the end of the day, it’s the only way to know how to think about the problem. Most parents are thrown into the situation of having a child with an autistic spectrum disorder – it’s not the child you expected to have. How do you get your head around it? That’s a significant issue that parents need, to sit around with another group of parents to learn how think about it.”
Since the passing of the 1976 “Education of Handicapped Children Act,” Valerie has been a fearless defender of children who were once marginalized, working first with the Children’s Defense Fund and later in her own practice, located in Sherman Oaks, California. During that time she has seen the emergence of many therapies and treatments that have greatly improved the quality of life for her clients. Ultimately, however, it is the parent who must safeguard the needs and best interests of the child.
“Particularly when the child is young, if you’re not seeing progress, you need to find out why. You can’t just keep trying the same thing. If a particular therapy or approach is no longer working after 6 months or so, you may want to find out why not.”