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posted: 4/11/2010 12:01 AM

Special needs families reach out to candidates in 56th District

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  • Schaumburg parents Mike and Linda Baker with their autistic 11-year-old son Bryan enjoy the newly arrived springtime in their backyard.

    Schaumburg parents Mike and Linda Baker with their autistic 11-year-old son Bryan enjoy the newly arrived springtime in their backyard.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer


If it takes a village to raise a child, the adage is doubly true of a special-needs child, Mike and Linda Baker of Schaumburg believe.

The Bakers, whose 11-year-old son Bryan is autistic, know firsthand that families like theirs can't make it on their own.

And they know at this time of state cost-cutting that such families' voices need to be heard to keep politicians from considering abandonment of special education services a budget-balancing option.

Mike Baker has organized a Special Needs Forum sponsored by the Autism Society of America for parents, educators and others to reach out to the two state representative candidates in the 56th District - Democrat Michelle Mussman and Republican Ryan Higgins.

The forum is scheduled from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 4 at Schaumburg Township Hall, 1 Illinois Blvd. in Hoffman Estates.

Although either candidate would be a rookie in the state House if elected in November, Baker is putting pressure on them to take a leadership role and begin building support for the issue as he says Republican state Sen. John Millner of Carol Stream already is in his whole 28th Senate District.

"I don't want to hear we're out of money," Baker said. "I want to hear people thinking outside of the box. I'd like to offer the evidence of how many people are affected by this."

Millner agrees with Baker's approach in reaching out to politicians still prioritizing their platforms, as well as his assessment of special needs as more than just another special interest.

"We have to protect those most vulnerable," Millner said. "In terms of priority, who's most vulnerable?"

That's why Millner personally feels protecting special education funding for children is a much higher priority than providing free public transportation for seniors without first considering their income levels.

Mike Baker said he and his wife have been as proactive as possible in helping their son. They researched the special education leadership of Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 and relocated there after Bryan's prekindergarten teachers in Carpentersville expressed helplessness in coping with his meltdowns.

The Bakers are very satisfied and comfortable with the services they've received in District 54. But not only are they concerned about such services being reduced, they're hoping for improved services in other areas of their son's life.

Due to the lack of after school programs in the area that can look after Bryan, Mike must be ready for him as soon as the school day ends. Mike can work as a substitute teacher only the one day a week Linda can work from home.

And Bryan's autism is of a kind that may keep him from ever being fully independent, Mike said. Although Bryan may one day hold down a job, he might require a guardian to look after him for the rest of his life, Mike added.

Millner said his experience as police chief in Elmhurst has shown him that looking after special needs people is a societal concern that affects everyone. But more of his colleagues in Springfield need to understand this, he said.

Mussman said she's looking forward to hearing families' concerns on May 4. Although she didn't start campaigning with special needs as a top priority, she has a nephew with Asperger syndrome and said being responsive to the public is a legislator's top job.

She said she has no concerns about the forum's desire to persuade her opponent and herself to adopt the same point of view on special needs.

"Regardless of who wins, the community needs to be well served by its representative," Mussman said.

Higgins agreed that there needn't necessarily be a difference of opinion on every single issue.

"Both Republicans and Democrats can agree that they have a moral obligation to help the most vulnerable," Higgins said.

Higgins is an attorney in the health care industry and said he already has some ideas about reforms that can address the growing phenomenon of autism.

He said he would suggest moving along some state grants for autism care to Medicaid to make them eligible for matching federal funds. That, Higgins said, would allow for expansion of autism services without an equivalent growth of the state budget.

While the Autism Society of America plans no endorsement of either candidate, Baker said he intends to talk with others after the forum to weigh Mussman and Higgins' statements.

The 56th District includes Schaumburg and parts of Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Hanover Park, Roselle and Bloomingdale.