With world Autism awareness month coming to an end, I wonder, being the parent of a child affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and part of military leadership, did it help? Specifically, has military leadership become any more aware of the trials and tribulations that raising a child with ASD can have on military families? With a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 1 in 50 children having a diagnosis that places them on the Autism spectrum, the odds are better that you know a family with a child living with ASD than without. While some have used the terms “epidemic”, “tsunami”, or “pandemic” when describing this significant increase in the number of children affected by ASD, I am heartened by new streamlined diagnostic criteria, better identification safeguards, as well as access to available support services.
With the military being such a small subset of the U.S. population and having a Department of Defense (DOD) estimated 20,000 dependent family members living with ASD, this can mean that without enough community resource information, leadership and military members can struggle to relate when issues connected with ASD come to the forefront. Service members can find themselves between a rock and a hard place when they have to leave work early to handle a situation at school, with what can become a frequent basis, which is especially common when major life changes are added to the mix. For families living with a child with ASD things like moving, changing schools, changing schedules or upcoming deployments can present a challenge that, for a child with ASD, can seem catastrophic. These slight changes may seem small to our leadership, but can send shock waves to the ASD family system for weeks, or months.
Leadership has to walk a fine line between taking care of the needs of the service member and mission accomplishments. A critical element to this is to know your personnel, their family situation and the medical conditions, often referred to as “committed leadership.” Once leadership knows about a family’s needs, research can begin to locate resources to assist them and minimize the impact to the unit. Generally military leadership, middle or senior, is not provided training on the effects having a child with ASD can have on our service members. This, coupled with the mental and emotional gymnastics of juggling mission accomplishment and family needs, can lead to unneeded mistakes and injury-related mishaps when a service member’s mind is not completely focused on the task at hand. The problem is twofold; 1) Leadership, who is not personally touched by this, is normally disinterested in this type training and sees it as another excuse, or a scam and 2) Junior members are reluctant to explain the impact of this diagnosis on the family and that they lack knowledge of the resources available to them.
With an 11 year war still being supported, how can military leadership support families who are trying to serve their country and take the best care possible of a child with ASD? Acceptance is the first step; this requires a willingness to seek information on what life can look like in the home of that junior service member. Resources like Autism Speaks, ACT Today, Operation Autism and The Autistic Military Child can help to shed some light on common behaviors and triggers for ASD children. Ensuring resources are understood and accessible is the next step, this means getting familiar with programs like the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) and TRICARE programs such as Extended Care Health Option (ECHO). For a young family with a new diagnosis, these two supports functions can provide amazing support, along with additional guidance to community and military resources.
By no means should leaders be expected to become subject matter experts, but an understanding of ASD and the necessary and available supports for military families, can go a long way to supporting career retention, overall job satisfaction, healthy family functioning and mission accomplishment.