Dear President Barack Obama:
Very simply what follows is the story of a young man with Autism who voted for the first time because he wanted to vote for you.
But it is also a tale about the wars at home and abroad and about the frightening implications regarding an epidemic that affects, at the least, a generation of children.
Our son Daniel Mulvaney is 21 and suffers from a severe disability, one that rendered him suddenly and terrifyingly mute at the age of three and half. As the child of young foreign correspondents who lived and worked in Latin America and Asia, he heard many languages at an early age. Before this regression occurred our Dan spoke English and used phrases and sentences in Spanish, Cantonese and Tagalog. Today, he still cannot utter more than one or two hard-wrought words.
For years, my husband and I have been trying to find out what happened, ever-hopeful that knowledge will lead to cure. I am now an author of non-fiction and novels published by Scribner and Bantam Dell. My husband ultimately led a Pulitzer-prize winning team of investigative reporters. Putting our two heads together we have come to strongly suspect what our instincts told us when this first happened: That Dan was environmentally harmed. It may have happened in Hong Kong where his regression occurred. The source of damage also could have been Mexico City – or Long island. Or any of a number of other places where we lived and traveled both before and after Dan was born. As we continue our long search we explore everything, including the possibility of tarnished or intrinsically risky vaccinations.
And while we do that life must go on. It is like this for most Autism families.
For years, in lieu of speaking, Dan has used facilitated communication, a technique pioneered in the United States by Syracuse University. This fall, using that academically- validated method, he expressed a desire to vote for the first time. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, he let us know that he wanted to vote for you.
Dan has also let us know over the years that he is staunchly against the war in Iraq. In our family, we are all against the war. Our typical son, Jack, who plays college hockey in Maine – a short ride from the Bush's summer compound -- announced quite pointedly that you would be his choice on his absentee ballot. Like many wives, I think I know who my husband voted for as well. He certainly seemed proud when Dan pulled down the lever with your name next to it.
My husband saw Dan vote, as did I. We both needed to be in the booth with him to make sure that his movement disabilities did not get in the way of his desire to cast his vote. We needed to make sure he didn't fidget so much that he would lose his opportunity to make his "voice" heard by pulling the curtain open before he made his decision.
Mr. President, I am taking up your time with the small details above to illuminate the complexity of Dan's disability. Autism – which has reached epidemic proportions both in the United States and worldwide -- doesn't just make it incredibly hard for the afflicted to communicate. It often makes it hard for them to be in the world. Dan, for example, can get fixated on anything resembling a rope or a wire. He's working hard at extinguishing this behavior but there have been periods when neither a computer connection in our house, nor a garden hose in our neighborhood, was safe.
Over the years I have tried, without much success, to find the silver lining. "Well," I would tell friends. "At least Dan will never have to go to war." Then he turned 18 in 2005 as the debacle in Iraq was raging and I was no longer sure of that. On a regular basis we received calls from Army recruiters asking if they could speak to Daniel Mulvaney.
"You can," our younger son, Jack would say when he answered the phone. "The bigger question is whether he can speak to you."
Once Jack simply put the receiver to his brother's ear. As the recruiter spewed out promises a look came over the face of our severely disabled son. If looks could talk this one would say "disgust."
No one in the military seemed to get it, though. We got more phone calls. Not just from the Army. The Marines wanted Dan too. We got offers of free backpacks, free credit cards. If only they had offered a free, live-in speech therapist.
There were times when I thought that the only way to stop the noise was to pack up Dan and one of his aides and put them on a bus to boot camp.
"They better have one hell of a drill sergeant," my husband agreed.
As it turns out, the military very well might have such a specialist.
While the recruiting surge at our home continued I heard and read time and again that many young men and women with "learning disabilities" – individuals less severely affected than Dan but with similarly few life choices – were joining the military. I also heard that superior officers were being trained to deal with these new recruits. Perhaps as the new Commander-in-Chief you can tell me to what extent this is true. I wonder, as well, how many of these "learning disabled" individuals are actually suffering from "higher functioning" autism? The labels are not important to me. What is important is how many of these citizens have been environmentally harmed – and how we can prevent his from happening in the years to come. With more then one in 150 children now being diagnosed with autism we already have a cadre of ill citizens growing up. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has said that our children make up the sickest generation in the history of our country. Evidence abounds that they were environmentally damaged and the damage continues. All one has to do look is look at the New York Times. Recently, for example, a story about lack of controls over heavily toxic coal ash was on the front page.
Like you I don't want us to be in this ill-advised war. But I do think we need a strong military presence – one that doesn't need to actually demonstrate its strength. But how are we going to have a strong military if so many of our children are sick? More importantly, how are we going to have a strong country if this continues?
For guidance, I would suggest that you look at the many articles on this, the www.AgeofAutism.com site. They describe and illuminate a compilation of the environmental insults our children have suffered and include some excellent science and investigative reporting on this vital matter. Please take what you read here very seriously. We in our family do. And please take Robert F. Kennedy Jr. very seriously too. What he, himself, has learned over the years could save the children of our country for generations to come.
As for our Dan, the calls for him "join up" finally did stop. My guess is that it was an Army recruiter on the South Shore of Long Island who saw to that. I happened to answer the phone the day he called and gave him quite a maternally-inspired tongue lashing. And to his great credit, he apologized for trying to recruit Dan and told me his mother worked with kids with autism. He also said that the lists recruiters get from school districts do not distinguish between students who are receiving Special Education and those who are not. His office was near one of the part-time maintenance jobs Dan has as part of his high school program. On a whim I asked this recruiter if perhaps Dan could clean his office as well.
"Sorry but we have contractors who do that," he said.
When I think back on that innocent, but nuance-laden, statement, I am glad that you are now our President. I know, too, that you will do the right thing when it comes to our kids.