What she feared more than death was the thought of leaving her son alone in the world. After all, Anthony was not like other children. He was really not a child, at all. He had just celebrated his fortieth birthday.
Anthony has the mental capacity of a five-year-old. Born severely autistic, he can not be left alone for more than a few minutes for fear he might hurt himself or wander off. He is demanding and will throw a tantrum if he wants something badly enough. He is loving and gentle and helpless.
Over four decades ago in the children’s ward of Knapp Memorial Hospital in Weslaco, Texas, no one thought Anthony would last the night. Born premature, his skin a frightening purple and the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, doctors warned Diana that if he lived, he would have severe brain damage. He had been deprived too long of oxygen. But Diana would not accept the doctor’s prognosis.
When he was four months old, he got double pneumonia and a fever that raged above 104 degrees. Nurses soaked him in water with ice cubes but even that would not bring it down. Doctors told her that if he lived, he would never walk or talk. He would be, they told her, “a vegetable.” But again they were wrong.
It was evident to her that her son would not be a so-called normal child. He missed all the developmental benchmarks: He could not communicate, and he cringed with loud noises and shrieked in pain when touched. It was the mid-1970s and doctors diagnosed him as a schizophrenic — a false diagnosis that Diana never believed in the first place.
Diana has seen what happens to adults with autism when their parents or loved ones can no longer take care of them. If lucky, they end up in group homes with other developmentally disabled adults and a caretaker. Anthony would not like that.
"For most older Americans, care will come from unpaid family members or friends, who contributed around $600 billion worth of free labor to the...