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Dowries, Trust Funds, and Independence

Posted Jul 04 2009 9:42pm
I read an article by Kristina Chew yesterday discussing new legislation in West Virginia that will give tax credits to parents who contribute to trust funds for their autistic children's support as adults. Autism professional Barbara Becker-Cottrill gave an interview discussing parents' worries about what will happen to their children as adults, stating that trust funds can provide families with a sense of security.

In seeking to help families who worry about their children's future, this legislation addresses what has become a widespread concern. Because today's society is so poorly adapted to the needs of its autistic citizens, a trust fund often can be a reasonable option. I once wrote a post on this blog suggesting that parents who were spending large amounts of money in pursuit of miracle cures would be much better advised to put that money into trust funds instead.

From a broader cultural perspective, however, the idea that it could become routine to create a trust fund for the lifelong care of every autistic child leaves me feeling very uneasy. Such a system would be based on the assumption that children labeled autistic could not become self-supporting. By characterizing autism itself as the sole source of the problems encountered by autistic people in our culture, this would divert society's attention away from the many areas where it ought to be focused—miseducation, discrimination, ignorance, and lack of suitable accommodations. These are not the result of autism, but of socially constructed prejudice.

The practical effect of such a system would resemble the old custom of providing a dowry for a daughter so that she would not be left destitute if her husband died. In those days, it was taken for granted that a woman was not capable of supporting herself. Being an independent woman, to the extent that it was possible to be one, meant having inherited money from a husband or other male relative.

For many of us in the modern world, it's hard to imagine that there was once a time when a young girl, simply because of her gender, was thought to be inevitably destined to a lifetime of never being able to provide for herself. That idea seems absurdly primitive now. And yet, there are many people today who see nothing wrong with making the same assumption about a young autistic child. As we celebrate Independence Day here in the United States, I'd say that it is time to give that assumption a lot more critical scrutiny.
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