Children come into this world in a naturally vulnerable state. Unable to communicate their needs and desires, and unable to care for themselves, they rely on those who love them to advocate for their interests. Certain children are born with medical conditions, are part of minority groups or experience certain life circumstances that cause them not only to be vulnerable, but also to be marginalized by society.
Although my work has focused on the special needs community, and autism in particular, I believe that other youth are similarly disenfranchised, such as those who are homeless, victims of abuse and under-represented minorities with regards to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. It is important to be thankful to those doing extraordinary work on behalf of individuals with autism, especially to some whose recognition is long overdue, like Judy Shepard.
Too few have come to realize that the Matthew Shepard Act, which Ms. Shepard advocated to become law, serves to protect many disenfranchised members of society, including those with autism. Through the passage of this act in Oct. 2009, what was a huge victory for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) community, was also -- and sadly much less publicized -- a triumph for other marginalized groups.
The act expands the 1969 hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew, the 21-year-old student who was brutally tortured and murdered in 1998 for his sexual orientation, waited 10 long years for the act to be signed into law. She should be heralded as a hero of the special needs community too because, similar to minorities of sexual orientation or identity, those with disabilities had previously been omitted from existing hate crimes legislation.
There are others like Judy Shepard who see the similar needs of those in our society who are marginalized. It was Harvey Milk in his famous campaign speech who said, referring to gay youth, "You have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped ... will give up."
It is important for those of us in the autism community to honor Judy, who as of yet has not been appropriately recognized for her contributions to the special needs community. With the recent White House Conference on Bullying Prevention it has become clear that bullying of young people, particularly those marginalized or socially vulnerable for differences or perceived differences, is widespread.
In this arena, children with autism are very similar to LGBTQ youth. It has been estimated that those with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high functioning autism, experience bullying in schools almost universally. According to GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey, 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed at school; 61.1 percent reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation; and 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns. Bullying is the result of a lack of acceptance, and is the start of acts that can progress to violence from which Judy Shepard has worked tirelessly to protect so many youth.
The struggle for acceptance by those disenfranchised individuals is at the core of the missions of numerous nonprofit groups that seek to raise public awareness of the needs and concerns of their key constituents, whether it be the GLSEN or the Autism Society of America, Human Rights Campaign or Autism Speaks. We are all one; we are all advocating for the same equality, acceptance and hope for our children and their future children.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of The Mount Sinai Medical Center.