A Discussion Whose Time Has Come

I love pets.  Dogs, cats...wonderful creatures.  They share our homes and make us laugh in YouTube videos.   They're special members of our families.  I used to have pets so I get it.  Truly.  And I know that comparing a Collie or short-hair to anything else is probably unfair.  But life isn't always fair. In the world of work/life where companies are striving for employees be happy and productive, many are offering "pet insurance" to ease the financial pressures pet owners face.  The thinking is that employees will worry less about the vet bill and more about the looming client deadline.  I'm in favor of anything that helps an employee balance -- or better juggle -- their often competing life responsibilities.  Which brings me to the comparison.

I just read an article where the focus was parents talking to parents about what to expect when their child is diagnosed with autism.  Nothing new, as I've spent 14 years *listening* in corporations, online forums, parent support groups, and a host of other places where parents come together to share the "real scoop" on life pre and post an autism diagnosis.  I've heard most of it and with every story heard, I find myself shaking my head both in disbelief and admiration.

In this recent article, one parent said: "Be prepared to go into debt, borrow from family, increase your mortgage, take out a line of credit to pay for interventions...".   Go into debt.  Borrow from family.  Take out a line of credit. Can you imagine being a parent who needs to take out a loan to get your child what he or she needs?  Sitting down with your parents to ask them for money so their grandchild can learn to speak ... or make a friend?  Trying to decide whether you can keep working to pay off that loan or repay your parents (not to mention pay for all the *other* needs) when the time you'll need to orchestrate your child's daily and weekly schedule will take far more than two weeks paid vacation or short-term family leave?

Which brings me back to pets.   I realize this may not be popular with the "pet set," but if -- as a former HR Director with a choice to make -- I had to choose between supporting the needs of employees with children or pets, children win.  Hands-down.  Before the barbs are tossed, it's important to say that in an ideal world, every employee's needs would be supported so that everyone would be fully productive and engaged.  But this isn't the ideal world and choices are part of the equation.  Companies grapple with decisions about where to put their limited benefits dollars and how many choices to offer employees when benefits options are included.  But -- and my shield is poised -- there's a huge difference between helping an employee pay for a flea treatment vs. helping an employee raise a child.

Children who will attend college, work in companies, pay taxes.  Children who will make contributions to science, technology, performing arts.  Who will move from dependent children to independent adults poised to purchase the products and services your company produces or provides.  No one would ever want less for a child.  And no one would ever dare limit a child by a diagnosis.  Yet the future for these children rests on their parents -- current working parents facing choices that defy description.

So it's baffling to me that smart, forward-thinking companies seem to place more importance on helping employees care for their pets than to raise their children.   Is it a lack of understanding or a reluctance to get involved?  Or is it a preconceived idea that children with autism will not reach the expectations that many consider to be "typical" of children moving into adulthood so why bother?  No, it can't be that.

A number of years ago, I worked with parents who sold their home and moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment turning their second bedroom into a therapy room for their child.  They also sold their second car and carried their "change of season" clothes packed into large plastic containers in the trunk of their car.  And just recently, I met parents who are in the throws of bankruptcy because they used every penny they had and maxed out their credit cards to support their child's needs.  Life-altering choices are being made by employees every day to help their children.

Companies play a pivotal role here.   The same subsidies offered to employees trying to adopt should be offered to employees to help offset the staggering costs of therapies or home-interventions.  Discounts on legal support should be extended to employees in need of a special education attorney to secure a private school for their child.  On-site health fairs should include experts in special needs and special education to enable employees to access supports and resources easily and more cost-effectively.  With health and stress-reduction being core areas of focus in the workplace, few things compare to the financial, family, work, and personal pressures on an employee raising a 6-year-old or 13-year-old with autism.

I have nothing against pets.  Really, no problems at all.  But a problem does exist when supporting tails that wag or fluffy balls that purr seem to take priority.  A disconnect exists -- companies are striving and competing to achieve "best company" status yet are overlooking the growing number of working parents desperately needing a lifeline.  Pets and children can live together beautifully both at home and in the workplace, however when a choice needs to be made, the child has to win every time.