When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

Autism: One family focuses on the fix, not the blame

Autism: One family focuses on the fix, not the blame

Elane V. Scott
Rick Stephens
Featured Guest:
David Shoenfeld

Dear Valued Stakeholders,

Consider this contemporary community leadership issue: In today's urban environments—where most of us live—seemingly ordinary health care issues are more complicated to manage than ever. Environmental concerns, including food production, water and climate change, have businesses and community leaders reeling from the cost, paperwork, and requirements for implementation of controls. Further, no one is absolutely certain said requirements will make a difference anyway. How, then, do community leaders establish priorities for services that will ensure healthy food, water, and air for their citizens? Especially when today's health problems are growing at exponential rates for families that are both caring for children and senior citizens, both of whom may be dealing with illnesses related to the mind and brain? What if the problem you need to solve is not currently solvable?

Solution: Take a cue from one of the most incredible salesman I've ever met, Patrick McCluskey. "I know …. As a sales guy, when I ask a question and cannot get an answer, I need to ask a different question."

When David and Debbie Shoenfeld heard the doctor's announcement that their son had autism, 17 years ago, they didn't know what it meant. They didn't know anything about it. They had thousands more questions than doctors had answers. The problem was not solvable. On the surface, the possibility that their son could get the help he needed from existing medical professionals, resources and facilities, seemed unlikely, if not impossible. In fact, the problem facing them was so obscure and little understood that they weren't even certain what the exact problem was that they were going to try and solve to get him well.

Remember, this was 17 years ago… when the diagnosis of autism was still fairly small in numbers. This fact also meant that there was much less organized information and support, much less understanding of the disorder called autism. In fact, when I queried Debbie Shoenfeld about the first time she heard her son's diagnosis, I asked if she was told whether her son had a "mental illness" or a "brain injury". She said the doctors never said. Today, autism may be talked about as still a third kind of issue: "a developmental disorder". So, which is it? How did they even know that the diagnosis was accurate? With such skimpy diagnostic information to go on, what could they do next?

In this warm and intimate Birth2Work Radio interview, David and Debbie share their story about bringing up their son, Blake, side by side with his sister and with a small community of families dealing with like issues. The families shared knowledge, wisdom, successes and insights as they walked together, helping each other with practical advice and hugs as they lived their own stories along the road to success. David, no stranger to complex problem solving in his demanding business positions, focused with his wife on one motivational thought every day: "Fix the problem before you fix the blame."

Like so many parents given this diagnosis today, they will likely never know what caused their son's developmental delay in the first place. What the Shoenfelds did know was that they were capable of adapting to a multitude of small day-to-day changes in their lives that would surround Blake with the reinforcement he needed to gradually become the very capable young man he is today. Their story is for us, at Birth2Work, one of the most exciting metaphors for today's community environment where problems are complex and without a single, silver bullet solution. They never quit. While they never have been able to pinpoint precisely the problem they were trying to solve, they stayed focused on answering the right question every day with actions: What do we need to do every day to be certain that Blake has the best opportunity to grow and become a capable citizen and a productive man? Take note America.

Many in the business world are keenly aware that the majority of the American workforce, the aging Baby Boom generation, is going to retire en masse over the next 20 years. Consider the following information from a March 22, 2010 Wall Street Journal article.

"Right now, there are about five times as many people looking for work as there are jobs to be filled. But by 2018, a new study argues America could be facing the opposite problem — more jobs than there are people to fill them. It comes down to demographics, argue Barry Bluestone and Mark Melnik of Northeastern University in a study sponsored by the MetLife Foundation and think tank Civic Ventures. Retiring Baby Boomers will leave a huge number of job vacancies in their wake. The two project that by 2018 there will be 14.6 million new nonfarm payroll jobs, plus some additional jobs in farming, family businesses and so on. Meantime, with no change in immigration policy or labor force participation rates, there will only be about 9.6 million workers available to fill those positions, leaving a gap of more than 5 million jobs that are vacant."

That means no element of our economy will be untouched by the enormous swath of the population cut from our workforce, and thus making every member of the future American workforce of even greater value and importance. Business and other economic sectors cannot assure their own future without keeping some thoughtful attention on the quality of the development of those who are coming through today's workforce pipeline. Today's issues in education are tomorrow's issues in business. Today's youth obesity epidemic means exponentially higher costs in tomorrow's healthcare. Children are not someone else's responsibility until they join the workforce and then suddenly become adults. Business can't afford to ignore the issues plaguing children and parents now if they have any hope of garnering the intelligent, thoughtful, problem solvers that will be necessary at all skill levels of tomorrow's workforce. With a growing number of youngsters being diagnosed with brain related problems, Blake's story and his parents' response, is a model for us all.

Elane V. Scott