by Diana Anderson, Founder of the Special Needs Parent Support Group of Seminole County

As special needs parents, we have to fight…for everything. IEPs, services, equal treatment of our special needs children. As our children grow older, we have to start thinking about what will happen after high school; Will they go to college? Are they capable of holding down a job? Who in my community will hire my child?

I have a 17 year old son with Autism and I am now faced with these issues. I run a support group for other special needs parents. So I know I am not the only parent to face this issue. Whenever I am out in my community, I try to speak with business owners about the possibility of considering hiring a special needs individual. Most seem receptive to the idea. After I met with my Vocational Rehabilitation representative, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands if I was to find my son a job that would cater to his passion…animals. He is an animal whisperer. So I reached out via social media to local businesses to see if anyone would hire him. He has been interning since April as a dog groomer’s assistant. He thinks he has died and gone to Heaven.

So this year when my Facebook feed was being blown up with political endorsements, I decided that I needed to take things a step further. I needed to get my local government involved with our special needs community. Going to a town council meeting can seem very overwhelming. I again, utilized social media to reach out to the individuals running for my local town council. Out of the 7 candidates, 3 showed up to my parent support group meeting. They talked about their platforms and then they listened and learned about our concerns as parents for our children.

After this meeting, one of our local restaurants held an Eat and Greet with the candidates running for council. You got to spend 7 minutes with each candidate individually and talk to them about any issue you felt our community had. I jumped at the opportunity. Why? Because out of the 7 I got to meet that night, at least 2 would be on town council. Did I expect them to have solutions on the spot? No. But I was going to put the special needs community on their radar. My job as a special needs mother is to advocate for my son wherever I can. And trust me…I do! I need a warning label “Special Needs Mom – you have been warned I will talk to you about the needs in our community…proceed with caution!”

I asked 3 questions of all 7 candidates: 1) If you get elected to town council, how do you propose to bring jobs to our community for special needs individuals; 2) How would you resolve the transportation issue that faces our special needs community, as many are not able to drive (and currently convicted felons can ride the Lynx bus with them); and 3) How would you bring affordable housing to our community for our special needs population?

Some of the candidates sat there for a moment with their mouths hanging open…I did not come to talk about the overgrowth of our town, the road widening projects, our parks…I came to talk about an issue they had not thought about. Oh my goodness, a blonde with a brain? Most genuinely seemed concerned and wanted to know more about who I am and what I am trying to do. I just put the special needs community on their radar. Not the happy-feely sort of being on their radars, but the we-need-a-solution kind.

Why take on this kind of battle? Because as our children age, we all are faced with this issue. Group home? Independent living? With me for the rest of his/her life? Can they work? Where will they work? I lose a lot of sleep over this. I have always been one to tackle big things head-on. I think about the ramifications later.

Did I get a solution that night? No. However, some candidates were aware of different opportunities and programs in our area for individuals with special needs. Some really want to make a difference and learn more and some were just plain clueless. Someone actually thought that having our special needs community clean up our parks was a great idea. It took all I had to not take my shoe off at the table and use it to knock some sense into them. This is the kind of attitude that we have to fight against daily.

I am my child’s advocate. You are your child’s advocate. I will not accept being told there is something some teacher, specialist or even a family member thinks my child is not capable of doing. He might have to do it differently, but he is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to.

This is where you come in. You have to figure out what your special needs child likes. What interests them and how do you foster that interest into a career? It took me many years to figure this out. But if you get involved in your child’s life full-time, you can figure it out. You have to help your child. Because if you wait for Voc Rehab or Big Brother, you will wait forever.

Go out and talk to businesses in your community. Ask your elected representatives their views on the special needs community and creating job opportunities. If they are on board, great. If not, then you know how to vote in your next election. Unfortunately, the candidates who I felt would help me did not get elected. The ones that I felt would do the least to help our special needs community did. My job as a special needs mom and advocate just got harder. Does that mean I stop trying? No, I just try harder. Because our children deserve every opportunity, even if we have to create that opportunity for them. Never give up. Never accept what someone tells you about your child. If I did, I would believe that my son was not capable of doing anything. He is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to, with a lot of support from his mom and anyone else I can enlist. When you are a special needs parent, it does take a village. Find your tribe.

Diana Anderson is the mother of 3 children. Her youngest has autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities. She works to make a difference in her community by bringing special needs awareness to every person she meets and bring acceptance of all with disabilities. For more information search Facebook for Special Needs Parent Support Group of Seminole County.