Ok. Let’s recap. We have already established from Part #1 of this series the importance of notifying your chain of command about the special needs autism brings to you and your family. And, in Part #2 we discussed the fundamentals of values that you must have in order to maintain good Soldiering as well as create a supportive environment with your command.
Let me say this first as a preface to everything else I am going to share about how to do this. Be honest. And be transparent. What does this mean? Well, the first one is self-explanatory. Being truthful in all things is the best policy, and it certainly applies here. Your situation at some point in the household is going to get crazy, demanding and challenging enough without you having to make stuff up about your home life in order to miss duty now and again. The second part is to be transparent. The best leaders are transparent – they allow the world to see into the way they conduct business, the way they communicate and the values they exhibit. Without honesty and transparency, your chain of command is just not going to understand completely the exceptional challenges you will experience at home.
This is what you are going to do with your chain of command:
1) Educate & Inform
2) Openly Communicate
INFORM & EDUCATE
You have to assume that no one in your chain of command understands what autism really is. At best, they only have a simple, perhaps even misguided understanding of what the disorder really is. With the prevalence of autism increasing and more mainstream media coverage being devoted to it, there will be all sorts of portrayals of autism in the years ahead in the media. This could be good or bad. More to follow on that. The term autism will bring to mind many images to many different people – that is, until you inform and then educate them. Your first step is to prepare for your meeting. First, you have to be educated in what autism is in order to effectively communicate your position to your command. This requires you to read, study, get on the Internet, familiarize yourself with the EFMP office on post, visit very helpful sites like, STOMP (Specialized Training For Military Parents), or Operation Autism to really inform yourself. As a matter of fact, Operation Autism has a very valuable resources guide that you need to download as a reference source. You can download it by clicking here. On pages 107-110, there is a fantastic resource for helping you formulate WHAT you need to share with your command. In this guide, they share that you should:
Step 1. Inform Your Immediate Leader/Supervisor
Step 2. Speak to the Commander or Command Representative
Step 3. Take Action
Step 4. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Please download the guide in the link above for some very helpful advice. You will see where I got some of the inspiration for this series as well! Just like the guide above suggests, you first need to inform your first-line supervisor know what your challenges are at home. Whether that person is your Team Leader, Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, Platoon Leader or you report to the Commanding Officer – start there and make sure you are going through the channels properly by utilizing the lowest level first. Set a time to meet with him and at the appointed time, have some of the materials suggested in the guide above with you. Inform your supervisor that your home life has unique challenges, that your child requires extensive therapies beyond typical education and that these needs can cause great amounts of stress at home. Explain to them that because of the special needs your child with autism has at home may require you to attend certain meetings at your child’s school, or with their doctor or other medical providers. These meeting will in all likelihood occur during typical duty hours. Inform them that your child’s and family’ health and wellness is extremely important to you and is your most important priority in life, next to you service in country. Explain to them some of the stresses and situations that have occurred in the past, what type of needs your child has and let them know that you work hard to provide your family the dedicated support that they need in all areas – financial, emotional, physical and even spiritual. Inform them that although autism is in your household and that with it comes very challenging and sometimes painful moments at home, that it will NOT interfere with your ability to accomplish the mission for your new unit. THIS IS VITAL. As a new Soldier you are going to express to your unit that your family (and you) have special needs to attend to, but you have to reassure them that you are the values-based Soldier that will still put MISSION FIRST when they need you to as a member of the unit’s team. They have to know that just because you have these challenges that you will still do your part without ‘special treatment’ or privilege on duty. When I first informed my command, after I got a chance to get settled into the unit, I made my meeting brief with my supervisor who just happened to be the Commander. I informed him that I had a couple special needs autistic boys at home. I informed him about the special position my wife plays in our home as the lead care giver and educator in our household and the special role that I play in our home as well. I explained the frustrations that the disorders causes us, events in the past and what it did to our family and me personally and how it may happen again at some point in the future. I assured him that although the needs of my family are great, that he could still expect 100% of my commitment to my duties as one of his leaders – that he could count on me regardless. I provided him similar reference material to the ones I suggested above so that he could learn about it more at a time of his convenience. Which he did! And yours will too.
After your chain of command has been informed and educated about what autism means and what it means for you, then you have to make sure to keep the lines of communication open. When an appointment arises that involves your child such as an IEP meeting, or doctor’s appointment, make sure you bring this up to your supervisor well enough in advance. Let them know that it is very important to you to attend this meeting, how long it will take and what controls you have put in place to handle your absence from regular duty. If you come to your boss with a solution and suggestions already in mind, this is very helpful and frankly the easiest way for you to get approval to attend these types of meetings. Even offer to work additional time on the weekend if you need to make up for the hours. Show them you are a team player. Make sure you have a firm understanding what the meeting is all about and why it is important for you to be there. I remember the time I had my first IEP meeting with our new school district. When my wife and I attend IEP meetings, they aren’t just and hour of pleasantries and we’re done with IEP in hand. Oh no, ours last for days! I knew for me to attend I was going to have to explain completely what an IEP meeting is and why my presence was important as there was a good chance I was going to perhaps even take leave if it dragged on too long! Fortunately, because I set up a conduit of proper and open communication with my boss I was able to work out the time necessary to attend the meetings I needed to be at.
Also make sure that you share the good, the bad and the ugly with you boss about what is going on at home. I am not saying you should dump all over your boss and battle-buddies, but if you had a difficult night because your kiddo wouldn’t sleep at all and all they wanted to do was stim, yell and watch ‘The Wiggles’ all night long then tell them! Otherwise they may attribute to those dark circles under your eyes to a late night at the bar, instead of what you really endured! With open communication you keep them informed and also keep the door open if they want to help. I can’t tell you how many times my Commander and battle-buddies offered to help in so many different ways. People in the service know the importance of looking out for and helping each other out. Take them up on that offer now and again.
Perhaps I will write a fourth installment on how exactly you can keep the lines open and dig deeper into the art of effective communication, but for now I will leave it at this. Please get the guide I suggested above and search out on this and the blogs I have listed in the column to the right. All will be additional helpful sources for you.
Good luck to you friend. Oh, and if this helps you in some way make sure you drop me a line, or a comment and let me know how! Hope it helps!