Martha Ziegler and her daughter Mary Ann, now 46 and autistic, share their lives together as they move through mystery and discrimination to revolutionary change in the disability arena. Mary Ann’s story extends from a time when her local public school legally excluded her, to an experience of full inclusion in middle school, and ultimately to adult life in a welcoming community.Mary Ann proves that someone with autism can make remarkable progress, even learn a second language. At the same time, Martha’s leading role in changing state and federal policies demonstrates the power of informed, enthusiastic parent involvement.
“Yo soy allegre asser aqui.” (I am happy to be here.) My autistic daughter, Mary Ann, taught me this sentence the day before I left for San Juan, Puerto Rico, to help my friends and colleagues celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their parent center for children with disabilities. My pronunciation is almost unintelligible, but hers is perfect - at least as perfect as that of her teachers and the actors on the TV program, Sesame Street. Mary Ann is the only member of our family who speaks Spanish, and we all are proud of her accomplishment, even though she is autistic in Spanish as well as English. The last thing that entered my mind was the possibility that my dear daughter Mary Ann would spend a lifetime serving as my teacher and also as teacher to many others. Here was a role reversal I could never have anticipated: my formal education had prepared me to teach English in college, not to teach children with disabilities or even to study linguistics or behavioral psychology. As I look back at my years of immersion in 17th century English poetry, I am struck by the irony of living with a lovely daughter whose very life is one continuous poem, filled with music, color, and metaphor.
Martha Ziegler is a national heroine in disability policy and also the mother of an adult daughter with autism. She founded the Federation for Children with Special Needs and the federally funded program of Parent Training and Information Centers serving families of children with all disabilities.