The reminder. I knew it was coming. I thought I’d be prepared for it. But I wasn’t.
Last week, Ronan got his first piece of mail from one of the branches of the United States military. For years, I’ve read about other parents of special needs children and their reactions when mail like that was delivered to their home. Sometimes it’s shock. Other times it’s sadness. Walking from our mail box toward the house while holding the envelope with Ronan’s full name printed on it, I laughed out loud.
Wait til I show the kids this! They are not going to believe it.
So that they could form their own opinion about the invitation to join the service that Ronan received, I left the envelope on the kitchen counter and walked away.
The advertising to join this dedicated crew was full of every patriotic concept I’d hope they’d include – if you’re mentally tough if you’re physically tough, if you are driven and not afraid of commitment, if you want to make a difference, if you want to build leadership skills and serve your country – it was a very well thought out message! But my son would be excluded from all of that. Unbeknown to whomever addressed that letter, Ronan has a disqualifying condition: autism. That and seizures give him no chance to serve in the US military like his grandparents, his uncles, his cousin, his favorite aunt, and his father have served. Others with an autism diagnosis may have gotten through the initial steps to join, but they were quickly sent home.
Just for grins, I went to the website of the group that sent Ronan the mail. On it, I could enter some personal data to see how good of a match Ronan might be. Ronan’s got several delays, to include his physical growth. He’s shorter than what the CDC growth charts suggest for a kid his age. He’s also weighs a bit less than their average, too. Typing those numbers in, I wasn’t surprised that he would need to gain some weight before a recruiter would even think to contact him. Ronan would also need to get busy working out.
For initial enlistment, Ronan would have to be able to do 35 push-ups in 2 minutes, complete 47 sit ups in 2 minutes, and run 2 miles in 16 minutes and 36 seconds. Ronan cannot walk more than 2 blocks before needing physical assistance. That comes in the form of either one of us holding his hand to encourage him to keep putting one foot in front of the other or getting his stroller out. If Ronan’s not too tired, he can hold the handle of the stroller and use it as a walker. If he’s too exhausted, which is often the case, he climbs into the stroller and signs for us to please push him. I already knew this, but a fast-paced, high-energy career like what the military offers would be ill-suited for Ronan.
I’d left Ronan’s mail on the counter all afternoon. One by one, each of the kids had the same reaction I did. They laughed, and not in a mean way, but at the absurdity of the thought of Ronan in the military.
What?! The military? I’d like to see that!
Where did this come from? Do they not know Ronan??
If they really knew him, they wouldn’t think to send stuff like this.
Oh, THAT’S COOL! But… it’s kinda crazy. I mean, he can do a lot things, but I didn’t expect this. I guess if he learned how to talk and get better at a couple of things, like putting his clothes on by himself and correctly, maybe he could go. He’d really need to listen better and focus more first though. He probably should learn how to use the bathroom by himself, too…
In order to shed some light on why Ronan would have received this kind of mail, we talked about selective service, the draft, and also about what the military does for our country. Already knowledgeable about several aspects each of the branches offer, I didn’t need to lead the conversation. So I just listened. They were somewhat discouraged thinking that Ronan would be asked and that he could be told to join simply because of his age. The siblings knew a great deal about the military already, and they knew that it’s just not an option for their severely disabled brother. They do, however, hold our nation’s military and its members in high regard and are grateful for them.
It takes courage and determination to serve in the military and is one of the highest honors. It isn’t for everyone, even for children who grew up full-time in that community. It isn’t and won’t be for Ronan, and I’m okay with that. My child, and others with similar diagnoses may not be fit to serve, but I appreciate every single person who does. As a military brat and also a military wife, I have only the deepest respect for the honorable men and women who do answer the call to serve our country. They defend my country, and in doing so, they protect my freedom. I would hate to live life without them.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.