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Advocating Otherwise: Problematizing Autism “Advocacy”

Filed Under (Advocacy, autism) by Estee on 27-02-2015

Read the work of Anne McGuire, now a Professor at U of T:

Technology & Autism: We Still Need Acceptance

Filed Under (Acceptance, Capital, Communication, Computing/iPad, Parenting, Technology) by Estee on 05-02-2015

Adam is learning to become an independent typist so quickly now. While it makes me proud and happy for him because he wants to be independent (he has written so many times), it is really important to know that independence, for all of us, is an illusion.

First, Adam has been typing since he has been around 4-5 years old. Most teachers and therapists aren’t all familiar with how support can enable a non-speaking person to type (and possibly become independent). While we began early, we didn’t obtain the commitment from teachers who would not learn how to support him, in my view, because they didn’t understand the meaning of support.

When a person has many motor planning issues associated with their movement and speech, it can be very difficult to feel grounded enough to type. The purpose of support is to enable the body and the mind to ground (if you will allow me a metaphor). A support person also offers the emotional security in a task that is so challenging when the body and mind coordinate many different stimuli and tasks. We take for granted how we multitask, and how our bodies coordinate speech and bodily movements effortlessly. For Adam, he has expressed numerous times how he has required help.

The important addition in Adam’s life has been the support we had been looking for all these years; this means daily use of typing in all settings, almost all of the time. Adam now has access and support every day. As such, he has moved so swiftly in his ability and language expression that we are all confident that he is moving to more consistent independence.

However, I want to caution everyone here, for the emotional support of others may be needed, as well as patient and gracious listeners. Just because Adam can often type without physical support does not mean that he might now need another person nearby giving him the confidence he needs. Also, while the level of support may fade, some people may always require some level of support throughout their lifetime. In my own research, I’ve found that a generous and encouraging co-presence – of love and a presumption that Adam is intelligent and curious, has encouraged him. He has been very frustrated for how he has been treated over the years as a boy who hasn’t understood what is being said, and is eager to learn even though his day-to-day life may be challenging.

While the iPad has markedly changed the reception of Adam by others – providing Adam’s voice and enabling friendships and school work through text-to-speech technology (we use Proloquo2go) – technology is not a panacea. Too often, we make the grave mistake of thinking that if we push our children hard enough, they will learn how to speak or type, etc. “Just as long as he can communicate” thinking will not erase the experience of being autistic. Our modern notions of independence are skewed by a market-economy that demands that we, as parents, produce the most efficient workers. This is also proving to be a big issue as our autistic children turn 21.

The ABA movement, when it was nascent here in Canada in the 1990’s-present, presented itself as an early-intervention treatment to recover the autistic child. The idea that earlier (and quicker) is better, fuels parental desperation and fosters an inauspicious environment for learning. These therapies also promised parents that remediation was a passage to full inclusion in our society; that the only way to participate and contribute was to be cured of autism. Many a rights-based/legal argument constellates around the notion that to be remediated is a right; to be cured is a right in order to assure this passage to normality. All of these notions are based on a modern concept of an abstract citizen as it was formed by way of the Social Contract. In this, none of us are citizens precisely because none of us can pull our own way; we are all dependent upon one another for every cycle of the market, and for the function of our daily lives. Every rich man or woman has an army of support that enables him/her to earn that living – or production; as such one can deduce that all participants of production should be “owners.” It’s about who has the power over that capital, of course, that is called into question and is part of the discourse regarding social support.

What would it mean to think of autistic contribution and the desire to be autistic? Adding to this, can we think outside the box of productivity as we currently conceive it in modern economic terms? We have seen autistic contribution proved many times, in speaking and non-speaking ways, and perhaps it is this aspect, as having to prove oneself as normal (as possible), that troubles me. I want to call into question about how we all markate and market autistic contribution.

My interests are on how society expects autistic people to speak in “normal” ways as a passage to citizenship. As displayed in the film, Wretches & Jabberers, for instance, even when autistic people achieve communication, they are not considered full citizens; they are not included into schools or considered for employment. Here too we must acknowledge that in our society, there will be some bodies who have more material needs than others (Erevelles, 2011). How does the notion of achieving one’s “fair” or “equal” share leave out many people with significant disabilities? And what are we doing (positively and negatively) in terms of elimination of those bodies in the name of “equal” distribution?

Our questioning about autism and technology should be not just how it can make autistic people independent, but how we can change our views towards autistic people; and the right to support and education past the age of 21. Education is another system that supports economic output, of course, and needs to be reconsidered. Certainly we also know that for all of us, time-plus-experience enables knowledge. We need to provide education past that hurried (and hallowed) age of 21 and to grapple with the very troubling issues that confront us within our current system. All of these considerations may help us rethink our systems of support.

Just because we have new enabling technology doesn’t necessarily mean we accept autism. There are many contributions we all make to one another that are not counted as capital; that exist (and are valuable) outside the ledger. The ledger, after all, is a mere frame. We know there is always something left outside of it, and in this case, I am referring to a class of marginalized autistic individuals who are not considered equal because of economic potential. We need to think first about accepting autism while we consider how to educate and support autistic people with technology.

Reference:

Nirmala Erevelles, 2011. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. Palgrave MacMillan.

My Review of Wretches & Jabberers now in The Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

Filed Under (Communication, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Film) by Estee on 23-01-2015

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My review of the film Wretches & Jabberers can now be read in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies: CLICK HERE

Do You Think Your Thoughts Can Effect A Rat’s Behaviour?

Filed Under (Behaviours, The Autism Genome Project) by Estee on 23-01-2015

Listen to this study on This American Life and consider the implication for how our thoughts and expectations can effect the lives of our children. Interesting implications and I expect many discussions among your friends about autism, expectations, education and access. I wonder if our thoughts were positive about the genome could have the same affect. It’s all about thoughts.

Autistic Mother Pride

Filed Under (Poetry) by Estee on 22-01-2015

This might be worked on some more… I’m writing today and flipping through my binder of writing. I found this unedited poem as part of a poetic essay I was attempting last year. Please note I am not well-versed in the art of poetry, but enjoy the process of trying. I think it’s fine to share it as is. I might consider it for that horrid month of April and again for our Pride Parade in Toronto this year:

Pride has this mother
protecting
Pride!
threaded by a label
and stitched with love

Claimed
As Kanner did
on the great
scientific mother-ship;
He said they didn’t live before
as the “feeble-minded”
behind 19th century doors
of confinement
Pride!
coalescing
fragile identities
p-u-s-h-i-n-g
for new definitions
to be borne.

The Art of Autism

Filed Under (Acceptance, Art, Inspiration) by Estee on 20-01-2015

This video by Alison Ludkin, among other pieces of artwork and writings, can be found on Art of Autism – a site bringing the work of artists labeled with autism online. I suppose I chose it for my blog as Adam takes the train everyday to school and I try to take in all the sounds and stimuli with him. I try to imagine. As for this site, I recommend supporting the artists.

The Autism Acceptance Project brought art by autistic artists in an online gallery back in 2005-2007, with exhibitions in Toronto and online participatory space. As our mandate always has been to ask autistic people first what kinds of supports they want and need, the organization has (and continues) to seek autistic-person guidance and governance. When the site was maliciously hacked about two years ago, we lost much data and records, some of which is now stored at Brock University Library Archives. I must admit that I really enjoyed those days of curating artwork and today, Adam’s poetry and other endeavours, and nourishing them as best I can, is keeping me busy.

I am so grateful for the work by autistic people. My background as a curator of art (my first profession prior to my disability studies work) started my journey in looking at disability differently and began the whole blogging process back in 2005. I suppose when looking at shiny new sites – much better constructed than our budget or ability could muster back in the old-internet-age of 2005 – I am thrilled to have the opportunity to view work by autistic people. This site has such a wide array. This is work we saw much too little of prior to the Internet so it would be an interesting topic for many of us to explore (and a paper about online spaces I am writing at the moment).

May we also spread encouragement and support directly to the artists when we think about creating websites. I believe that the artists, if they are not directly reimbursed because of budget constraints, should at least be directly credited for their work with a link back to their galleries or websites may enable a generation of income and accolades. Also, it would be wonderful to promote not an “awareness” of autism – we certainly have that awareness out there. However, it’s the kind of awareness that can be problematic. As Kassiane S. states: “Awareness is easy. Acceptance requires actual work.” Perhaps a site dedicated to autism acceptance is critical now.

Mental ability and the Discourse of Disease – another comment on a Globe & Mail article on “Treating the Brain and the Immune System in Tandem”

Filed Under (Accessibility, Critical Disability Theory, Disability History, Discrimination, Ethics, Eugenics, Identity, Inclusion, Institutionalization, Intelligence, Media, NEugenics, Newgenics, Research, Science, The Autism Genome Project, What is Disability?) by Estee on 19-01-2015

Biopolitics_full

Again, the suggestion that mental illness – an umbrella term under which autism has also been thrust – is discussed in terms of biological disease. Says the Globe & Mail this morning: “It probably brings us closer to hammering in the idea that mental illness is a disease… It’s a disease we don’t fully understand.” You can link to the full article here by clicking this sentence. Let us put aside for the moment that our medical journalism lacks any critical thinking or understanding of a now broad oeuvre of disability theory and literature. A critique of the media is indeed part of this blog post. Journalism has become as cheap as reality-TV – let’s make something out of nothing. Sure, I’m a cynic, and I tire of news reports on autism and the discourse of mental illness as disease. They are indeed a big obstacle to much of Adam’s progress in terms of how people accept and view him.

The “great” modernist project has been built around not only biology, but revolutionary biology. This includes environmental – internal and external biological causes for “mental illness.” There are two components to that sentence to unpack; the first being that the modernist age has been defined by production and individualism. The notion of autonomy is conflated with the working citizen who fulfills the Social Contract by virtue of pulling oneself up by one’s own boot-straps. Simply put, it stands to reason in this view that our biological goals have largely been built on supporting what is a statistically “normal” “good”-working body. This was indeed a part of the Eugenics Project. Any body that falls beyond the bell curve, continues to be deemed a financial burden and a cost to society. Therefore, the creation of a dependent body is morally judged and biologically defined. This is typically what is constituted as a social construction under which we have created institutions, special education, early intervention and the like.

modernism-post-modernity-5-638

I am tending to envision (as do others) our present age not simply a post-modern age – although I prefer post-modern theory to redefine the human and extend to other ways of knowing outside of the medical model – but a bizarre hyper-modern period (Umberto Eco used this term in hyper-reality, aesthetic, theory). Briefly, this means that we have extended the Enlightenment project – the one that created modernity in search of normality – into overdrive, seeking to land the first man not on the moon, but to create his or her “theory of everything” to define disease – or the right or wrong kind of human. The first discoverer wins the big financial and reputational prize. Disability theorists do not en masse agree or disagree with the implications of biological alterations, and the use of technology has indeed proven to change the lives of many. I do not have the space herein to discuss all of these aspects.

postmodernism-an-introduction-8-638

Instead, let me point to a belief that every research project must create a cure as good as it was for polio. I mention this as an example of the drive to cure diseases of all man-made kinds as well (meaning the socially constructed ones). This raises all kinds of important questions about illness and pain itself including the right to live, die, moral judgements about illness, and so on. I am not mentioning polio for these reasons here, but as an example of how a drive for any cure or human improvement has taken on hyper-funded business investment in research and competition. As such, I am citing the profit incentive for medical research. The two tied are not necessarily wrong until or unless we examine our motives.

I challenge and disagree with many theorists (or bioethicists) who may purport that it is better to separate any linkage of today’s genome and biological research with early twentieth century eugenics. I believe (as Rembis, 2009; Hubbard and Wald, 1999) that we continue to link behavior with biology and have hybridized these into “mental illness/health.” This umbrella term seeks to broaden medical diagnostics from which many industries may profit, namely pharmaceutical and therapeutic occupations. The DSM V is nearly big enough to take a bullet, and it will continue to expand so long as we rely upon a medical model as our only source of knowledge. As such, autism numbers will continue to increase within this model, not because of something environmental or biological, but because of how we imagine and create discourses.

It’s not looking good for autism from where I sit under this rubric, I realize this. We all know that autism, like many other cognitive disabilities, are diagnosed by observation for which we have created an extensive lexicon of disease and abnormality. Bio-markers become a shared lexicon infused with moral implication. Yet, we also know that there are many other ways of knowing and a plethora of disability theory is ignored in most discussions driven by journalists or medical communities. Also, let us not ignore the criminalization of behaviour (an example of moral judgement stirred and shaken with biology) as a reason to create new research business. In this, please test my theory – there will not be one news report of a criminal act that is not linked to mental illness today. I’m not trying to create a conspiracy theory, but there is a definitive financial drive for ameliorating many bodies, and we all take a part in creating the discourse. (Reinforcing discourses is another blog post).

I will agree with Rembis when he states,

“Any informed discussion of the limits of behavioral genetics research must take into account the historically contingent socially situated nature of impairment itself. Such an argument would not deny the existence of impairment. Instead, it would begin with a critical analysis of the social, medical, scientific and juridical discourse at the root of taken for granted classifications of impairment. This type of critical analysis is already taking place in some of the arguments concerning mental “illness” and mental health services …as well as those concerning the social applicability and general reliability of the results of intelligence tests “(Rembis, 2009, 592).

He also bluntly states, “The recent emphasis on genes stems in large part from experts’ drive to tap into the hundreds of millions of dollars made available primarily through NIH Human Genome Project, as well as through huge multinational pharmaceutical companies. There remains, however, a much deeper desire among scientists of the world to bring the vagaries of human reproduction and development under scientific control that continues to drive much of genetic research. Only when we begin to think critically about taken for granted categories of impairment and examine the history of eugenics in a new light will we be able to assess the implications inherent in current and future efforts to control human reproduction and behavior.” (594).

Genetic discrimination (Hubbard and Wald 1999) is already in our midst as the “agents of truth” – a term used to describe how we take the words of medical researchers and how we view them (Rose and Rainbow, 2006) – have already defined autism as a genetic abnormality. Note, that I don’t agree with Rose and Rainbow, however, when they state that biopolitics is not about eugenics as much as capitalism and liberalism (211). Contrary to their position that we need to develop new conceptual tools for critically analysing how biopolitics plays out, I believe that it is impossible to untangle modernity, capitalism and our propinquity to find biological causes for aberrant behaviour and mental illness – morally judged designations with supposed (bad) economic implications. This blog post does not do all of these concepts and arguments justice; however, parents and professionals must all challenge the reasons for the propensity for researching biological causes for autism and/or mental illness. Without doing so, we risk losing opportunities for creating a vibrant future where autism is accepted and where our children may live in peace with education, friendship and family. It is a point of fact that charities such as Autism $peaks spends less than 4% of its budget on services for autistic people (services is another blog post too). Far from being utopian, this thought represents a need for examining social mores in order to overcome the obstacles that prevent social inclusion…for every body. Also, I will agree that the body is under great transformation in terms of identity politics in the way we imagine it, and the other ways of knowing and imagining it can and does exist outside of medicine.

Recently, I am interested, as a woman, theorist and mother, in the lovely intimacy I share with my son as caregiving can be a very physical act. Touted as a burden by many charities and the like – including fellow parents who yearn to have an independent child – I have been grateful to be put into a situation where my expectations have been radically altered; where caring has become an important part of my treasured (ever-changing) identity. This has been created by the reality of caring and the mutually negotiated relationship I share with my son. Therefore, reading accounts of genetically ameliorating autism, or relentless and repeated suggestions that disability (often shoved under the “mental illness” umbrella) is biologically caused or wrong, is troubling for my son and I on many fronts, some of which I have outlined here. Perhaps the Globe & Mail writer Wency Leung may take some of these points into consideration. We need to imagine otherwise.

References:

Hubbard, Ruth. Wald, Elijah. 1999. The Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers.Boston: Beacon Press.

Rembis, Michael. 2009. (Re) Defining disability in the ‘genetic age’: behavioral genetics, ‘new’ eugenics and the future of impairment. Disability and Society, 24:5, 585-597.

Rainbow, Paul. Rose, Nikolas. 2006. Biopower Today. Biosocieties. 1, 195-217.

Adam’s Disability Poem

Filed Under (Poetry) by Estee on 15-01-2015

stock-footage-disabled-person-in-an-electric-wheelchair-approaches-stairs-high-angle-view

A Disability Poem
By: Adam Wolfond

big stairs laugh at him..
Because hard to go up when you got just a wheelchair to get around in..
I think the long road will be hard for him to travel..
He feels like people dont understand him..
I understand him like gains to be made in our lives just want to be interesting and loved totally..
I could strive and make lives better

This poem was written by my 12 year-old non-speaking autistic son. He communicates on an iPad.

My Son’s Good News Journalism

Filed Under (autism, Communication, Inspiration, Parenting) by Estee on 13-01-2015

Today I received a call from the school (a good call) that Adam was upset. After given the chance to type about why he was upset, he was talking about the news and of justice. He is beginning to learn about Martin Luther King. He wrote at school:

“People keep talking shit about justice…laugh out loud in life there is no happy and free people.” He was asked if he saw this on the news: “Yes at home and on subway…Hang the reporters …on the news my feeling is that it only shows really one sided opinions…great people are ignored and also sad to hear about death…”

My first instinct as Adam’s mom was to help him understand bad news by thinking of how we all cope everyday. We hear of terrorism, killings in our own city, many injustices. It is hard to watch your own child be pained by it all. I told him about how I think we don’t understand joy unless we experience struggle and also that we cope everyday by thinking about the people we love and the things we love to do. It’s all I could come up with as he listened intently while noshing on rice snacks after school today. Then I commented on all that bad news we hear and rhetorically asked why that is. I would ask any other grade seven student the same question, so why not Adam? I commented that some people only watch the news when it’s bad news. Then I grabbed my copy of the Sunday New York Times and we looked for some good news stories. Dismayed that I could not find anything in the front section, I leaped to the arts section and we found a story about inspiration. I thought we could go with that. Adam leaned in and I started talking about how we need good news journalists. This is what he wrote and with his permission, he does want this published on my blog:

IMG_3353

Then Proloquo (the program he uses to type) jammed so we moved to a notes section and he continued:

IMG_3355

It’s hard to read from the screen shot so here it is again:

“It sells because people want to see bad things. I would love to have news that is good. A good news story would be about inspiration. I would write about my noteworthy experiences as my autism is my struggle. My very hard time with speaking is my struggle. I want the world inside my open mind to understand my intelligence and I most happy when I can type. I learned to type by patient mommy and I have an about a boy who has worked hard. I think that I am a good example for parents to know that open minds are required for their kids to learn how to type. I want people to read this.”

Adam, the good news journalist, wants you to read… and to hear.

With Tidings of Struggles and Joy

Filed Under (ABA, Acceptance, Activism, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Human Rights, Inclusion, Joy) by Estee on 29-12-2014

IMG_3315

This is a short post to wish all of you a happy holiday and New Year. Adam and I have had such a wonderful year – his wish now to write a book and all that progress with his typing. Finally out of the clutches of autism schools that haven’t realized Adam’s abilities, Adam is now doing his grade seven curriculum. Thanks to everyone who has supported us this year! It has been a joy for all of Adam’s family and closest support staff to witness Adam’s happiness and self-esteem that is noticeably changed since he talks more with friends and family by typing.

That said, despite proof, I am dismayed with “autism programs” here in Canada and the lack of activism we engage in as families. Compliance and normality still propel autism programs here, and rape a family’s emotional and financial well-being with the empty promise of recovery, cure and a semblance of “normality.” I ache for families and more so for autistic children – many forced behind closed doors for hours a day in “therapy.” This is no quality of life, no joy. This is child-abuse and unless we begin to identify the violence of these programs, little will change. When I think of a New Year, I spend most of my time thinking about the work that needs to get done. I think about what my obligation is as Adam’s parent and it’s not about therapy.

It is our obligation as parents to understand the autistic community that is comprised of other autistic people. We are much more obliged to read and try to understand the experiences of autistic people for the positive development and growth of our children. The autism agenda (that is research and policy) is set by non-autistic people who are telling parents that is their obligation to do everything and anything to cure their autistic child – this spans from starving them from certain foods so they appear less autistic to forcing normalizing therapies. Even if in a situation (because true inclusion and acceptance is far from achieved in our country) where there seems to be little choice at but to put a child in an autism school (typically with ABA therapy), a parent must do everything to find a learning and social situation that supports difference (and I realize that using that term risks totalizing) without the propensity and impulse to normalize. Sure, these are loaded sentences that I’ve spent since 2004 working through (you can read them in the blog), but they need to be because the situation is not as black and white as most media outlets (I need to write that letter to the CBC!) and research outfits will have you believe.

As a parent, I also have to pick my battles because there are so many to be had every single day. It is the reason why we can’t write about every injustice everyday here on this blog (although I think about it). Instead, I am working with Adam and his team on delightful things – his words, his thoughts, and yes, his pain that he cites within a society that doesn’t accept him. Even though that incites me, Adam is so full of love and acceptance for that very world in which he wants to belong. I’d like to think that maybe I’ve had a bit to do with that. Exposing Adam to autism conferences where most autistic people go (as opposed to the ones where researchers and parents go), has changed Adam in profound ways. I consider these to be in part, my parental obligation to him.

But speaking of battles, at the moment, I’m challenging a ski program here in Ontario that seems to be practicing a qualified inclusion. Qualified inclusion means that an autistic person needs to be independent before the right to participate. I’m trying to explain to these folks the meaning of what I call for now, “enabled participation.” This suggests that many folks require their own chosen support staff (chosen and employed by the autistic person) in order to participate in ways also chosen by them. This process takes time. Consent and choice is a multi-faceted process – not necessarily a yes or no answer. When someone is challenged with verbal communication, they require many opportunities to respond to how they want to live their lives. They require people who believe in them and who know how to support their movements and communication.

When I mentioned to this ski program that excluding autistic people from autism programs is discrimination because it is qualified on the concept of normality, I received an email that Adam would be accepted on the ski hill. Since then, however, I’ve received an email that Adam will “be assessed.” At the moment, those criteria for assessment remain invisible to me; they have not disclosed their terms and I may only assume that independence is top of their list, even though they have accepted him with his assistant on the hill. Such assessments need to be fully transparent. When they are, we have the right to critique them (because we know that all assessments are based on discrimination and bias – that only verbal, normalized ways of participation and response are acceptable). I am not only a parent, but a scholar in this field being talked down to and to some extent, manipulated. One would think that many-a-program, to avoid human rights complaints in the future, would tap my knowledge of policy and law and how to better “the autism program.” Autistic folks and some folks working in Critical Disability Studies are able to provide this input for policy-making and this needs to be harnessed. But…

This is the struggle that we all face as parents and we have to understand that the rules are set by non-autistic people that want to make systems that befit them, not the autistic person. Remediation, cure, recovery, normality, independence – these are NOT criteria for inclusion. This is not substantive equality in the legal sense. Substantive equality enables the disabled person in their disability to participate as they are. So, I’ve targeted a battle, a struggle. It is a frustrating process to trouble such organizational policies, but this is are real job as parents. Don’t buy into the rubbish that autistic people are trouble and the “problem” of autism must be eradicated. That’s a backwards way to look at the issue. Instead, as parents who have long-supported damaging policies and educational/therapeutic models that autistic people have long been critiquing (as they have been hurt by them), it is time we turn our minds and our hearts to supporting our children, no matter what age, to change the rules that have long excluded them.

To that, I want to end by reiterating Adam’s Christmas wish that he typed on Christmas eve: “I wish for love and open hearts.”

One must also believe that open hearts may open doors too. Wishing EVERYONE some joy admist these continued struggles.

The Creative Potential of Tourettes and Tics

Filed Under (Acceptance, Accessibility, Autism and Intelligence, Behaviours, Inspiration, Intelligence, Language, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, seizures, Tics) by Estee on 11-11-2014

Adam’s body tics and his vocal tics now include an exceptionally loud OW! The vocal component began about a year and a half ago with grunting – I wrote a piece to be published about my perception and response to it for a peer-reviewed journal. As it was accepted with an editing requirement, Adam’s grunting turned to full-on screams and my attention turned to that as my role became to help him emotionally, but also amp up his accommodations and preserve his spot in school. This accompanied an angst at school which was swiftly resolved thanks to a number of people committed to him. As Adam’s communication by typing has concurrently advanced, it is an important conflation – between an expressive burst and the body’s struggle to produce it not only verbally, but also to coordinate every aspect of the body to produce it by typing. Part of Adam’s tics are evidently language and emotion related – charged and urgent expressions and also impulsive and involuntary. Both can occur. This is how I understand it so far and how Adam has expressed his experience to me.

You can imagine that struggling to verbally communicate, involuntary body movement, motor issues are challenging for him – a fellow who is bright, eager and intelligent. It is equally frustrating for him to be called on it or deemed behaviorally inappropriate or asked to be quiet; he was more often assumed to be not listening, learning or paying attention as he soaked up knowledge. Instead, he was discussed in terms of what others could see and understand – and a calling of attention to his tics seem to escalate them.

I welcome the following Ted Talk by Jess Thorn on the creative potential of Tourettes and tics, often experienced by people with other disability labels such as autism. If given agency over creative expression with them, how might persons often stigmatized contribute to our understanding of humanity? What kinds of knowledge that many of us who do not share these experiences might be shared?

Independence Before the Right to Inclusion is Not Equality

Filed Under (Accessibility, Activism, Aides and Assistants, Discrimination, Diversity, Inclusion, Law) by Estee on 11-11-2014

We at The Autism Acceptance Project will be addressing the following:

We need to discuss problems with autism programs, our communities (including schools) and inclusion. There is continued segregation and fissure within the autism community over the notion of recovery and independence. Our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15, states:

Equality Rights

Marginal note:Equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Marginal note:Affirmative action programs

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (84)

It is, therefore, everyone’s duty to accommodate – equal rights means the right to be included. While Section 15 and other instruments exist and rights are stated, they are still not enacted. There are a lot of conditions for the participation in many programs, many of them made for the autistic population, and of course in our community-at-large. A recent court case cited this issue (Moore vs. British Columbia) whereby it was noted that remediation before the right to inclusion is not inclusion; this is in effect, discrimination. In fact, the term is adverse effect discrimination whereby the concept of remediation is a barrier to participation and inclusion. We can point to many autism services that segregate, punish, or attempt to normalize the autistic citizen as such. In Moore, this statement was made although not highlighted enough. The disability community must be involved in shaping the meaning of accommodation, and they are missing from the discourse in cases like Moore v. British Columbia, 2012. In short, remediation is not accommodation; the former can be viewed as a disciplinary term and the latter must be created in accompaniment with disabled people to enable disabled people. The case of Moore can be scrutinized in more depth regarding the ontological constructions in policy and law that continue to exclude people with disabilities in the school system and in other programs.

Problematic is our notion of independence as a criteria for participation and enabled (or supported) participation in the community. As a result, many autism programs, and of course universities and schools, maintain this barrier to participation. It happens when human assistants (appointed and/or approved by the autistic person) are not allowed to accompany autistic citizens; when children are segregated into autism classrooms; and when many folks who have significant challenges are not provided access under the assumption that they are not able because they are in need of support. Such assistance is akin to the deaf requiring an interpreter, however, our notions and associations around independence remain the foundation under which exclusion still occurs; such notions require our demolition. These conditions to participation are neither accommodation nor equality. This is also supported by Rioux and Frazee:

“Equality under s. 15 entails much more than simply ‘accommodating’ persons with disabilities into existing societal norms and structures leaving unscrutinized those norms and structures themselves. Substantive equality challenges the very existence of mainstream structural and institutional barriers, including the socially constructed notions of disability which inform them. For persons with disabilities, equality means the right to participate in an inclusive society. It does not mean the right to participate in mainstream society through the adoption of non-disabled norms.” (Rioux and Frazee, 1999).

If you attended the talks and film screenings in Toronto with the film’s subjects Larry and Tracy (Wretches & Jabberers) – autistic people who type to communicate and require assistance – it becomes clear(er) that most autistic individuals who are given access to assistance and communication devices with support can participate. It also becomes clear the levels of injustice that take place everyday for citizens who struggle with speech and physical differences. However, most of our therapies are built to make the individual as independent or non-autistic as possible. We require a standard (and law) by which service and assistance supports the rights of the autistic agent to be included. We know that many people will never “measure up” (as we like to think that they can be normalized through isolating intensive interventions) to become fully independent, but can enjoy life and participate given opportunity and access. By segregating autistic people and putting these conditions on their participation, we as a Canadian society are devaluing the autistic citizen.

We will be discussing ways and means to address this barrier, and call into question organizations (many of them autism organizations themselves who claim to provide services that are funded by the public purse) who provide a qualified inclusion – to those people whose bodies appear and behave as “normal” as possible. There will be thousands of autistic Canadians who will, as such, never achieve the quality of life that the Charter states, is their entitlement.

For further consideration and discussion, please view this video with Yvonne Peters, Gwen Brodsky, Ravi Malhotra who Discuss Inclusion After the Moore Case. This video provides some legal context for this discussion:

Reference:

Rioux, Marcia H. and Frazee, Catherine. (1999). The Canadian Framework for Disability Equality Rights in Melinda Jones & Lee Ann Basser Marks, et al., eds. Disability, Divers-Ability and Legal Change, Kluwer Law International. p. 89.

Grace and Disgrace on the Subway

Filed Under (Activism) by Estee on 07-11-2014

I’ve been thinking of writing about the faith I often have in daily encounters with people on our subway also known as the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). In addition to the autism label, Adam also has tics known as Tourettes Syndrome. His manifest in a loud “ow.” This will turn many heads, mostly to see if everything is okay. Sometimes Adam can get stuck in his ow. It will attract attention and I have tried to help him cultivate a tool box of things where he can help himself get unstuck, but he still requires support in this.

I know so well about the feeling of being stared at, and I know that Adam feels it more. The more people raise the tension in the room, the more Adam will tic. It is stress-based or triggered by various thoughts and emotions, largely negative ones. I think that most people are very forgiving which makes me (mostly) proud to live here in Toronto. Sometimes people will give us more room and smile at us. I like to believe that others see how I positively interact with Adam and witness our loving relationship, and this also eases the situation.

Rarely do we get an irritated stare, but it does happen once in a while. Sometimes I will find myself just wrapping my arm around Adam, or just going on with our activity and ignoring it. I like to lead by example, and I do think this is what we parents have to do in these situations. As my father continues to tell me, don’t give a shit about what anyone else thinks. Yes, sometimes easier said than done, but considering the circumstances, it really helps.

Although a lot of my writing is fed up with disgraceful behaviour and assumptions from a society that seems so restrictive in terms of where Adam can be and how he is allowed to participate in his community, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find the good in everyone. I suppose it’s the counterbalance to an often tough situation.

I’m doing it now. I want to thank all those people (who will never read this) for their acceptance on the subway – or maybe it’s just not wanting to bother. At any rate, non-interference really helps.

At the same time, I want to also mention the two young men who walked in front of me the other day talking “about this guy with Tourettes who dropped a tray and said fuck fuck fuck fuck…” Of course the guys were laughing out loud and I so wanted to say “Excuse me guys, but my son has Tourettes and he can’t help it. It would be great if you could be more gracious about it – yada yada.” The same thing happened today when an autistic man was on the subway and wanted to talk to people. He approached two young black men – and I will describe them because it is an example of how an acceptance of racial diversity doesn’t automatically relate to an acceptance of ability diversity (or disability). The autistic man approached them and was talking to them – it surprised the two young men. They looked at the autistic man oddly and began to laugh at him. I realize that they were surprised and didn’t know what to do, and oftentimes nervousness manifests in a cruel laughter. Then, I thought that the right thing to do would have been just to say hello to him – that he was just trying to be friendly even if his way wasn’t typical. This too caught me by surprise today – I was reading a book and thought, if my timing was right, I would have walked down and just said, “hey guys, maybe you could have just said hello. He looked like he was trying to be friendly. There are a lot of autistic people…yada yada.”

If we could stand up for others in history, isn’t it also time we stand up for disabled people when the situation warrants? I admit I was too late and I’m kicking myself for it – am I too a product of our modern malaise and social detatchment? I like to think we can nurture grace by being gracefully forthright.

A Rights-Base Approach for Autism

Filed Under (Activism, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Discrimination, Inclusion, Politics, What is Disability?) by Estee on 05-11-2014

Adam is typing a deluge of sentences, feelings, anger at being ignored by certain people; upset by some people in his life that still do not “see his mind,” as he puts it. As Adam’s parent and protector, I know there is good reason to share our journey and good reason to protect Adam’s growth by not sharing too much. I am cognizant of his consent so I will make hints and speak generally.

We all know that there are people who like to doubt and target the autistic child or adult. Adam has a cadre of supporters around him as he is learning to assert his rights and self-advocate now as a more fluent typist. The flood gates are opening and hopefully the people in his life will pay attention. Despite his prolific writing, there are many who don’t.

I was disappointed to read that an autism school, after having seen the movie Wretches & Jabberers, ream off reasons why it is so necessary for autistic people to become independent. We have a huge problem as we still cite autism as a problem in our society (mostly because of a lack of independence) and this makes it hard for many to live good lives. A blog post is not enough space to qualify what makes a good life, or how the notion of freedom and individualism is also a part of the disability rights movement itself. I will just go on briefly about the state we are in without those qualifications.

Instead of talking about rights to access, inclusion and support, our communities continue to discuss ways to make people independent before the right to inclusion and participation in society. There is a major flaw with this premise in that for most, this will result in permanent exclusion and segregation into special schools and disability centres. One method to reverse this may be to make it mandatory for acceptance and support to enable the right to be included, but of course we need a value system to buttress this. Until we understand how autistic people can be enabled, and how they wish to be supported, we usually set the stage for an inequitable and unjust relationships whereby the people who “teach” autistic people put themselves in a superior role of remediator (therapist, teacher, etc). This means that we believe that the normal body and behaviour is considered the “right” way to be in society.

We have to understand the necessity of support before we go further, and seek counsel from autistic people in how they wish to be supported.This happens in our everyday interactions, as every behaviour is a mode of communication. Good support that is grounded in understanding rights, the theory behind that, and more pointedly, the movement differences of many folks with disabilities helps us to understand the need for support (there are more points to be made but I just wrote these to be a starting point for discussion). However, we also have to remember that the supports are not universal because there is no monolithic autism. It is this tension about competing needs in the service industry that makes this complicated. Not every autistic person requires the same support, but everyone does require the same access and rights. Rights requires a more detailed discussion too, but again, I am writing from a basic premise that our rights in society are established even though they not always acknowledged or enacted.

Sometimes support can enable people to become independent. Other times, it can enable that much more independence than before, but not absolute independence. Of course, this is a fractured notion since none of us are independent. We can think of a myriad of examples of how we are all connected despite our heralded idea of individualism and the notion of freedom associated with this. By way of philosopher Charles Taylor, I quite agree that our modern notions individualism and freedom are tied in with instrumental reason, that is, a means to an end. In ordinary terms that relate to autism and independence, this means that the heralded modern ideal makes it incumbent to be independent to be included and to work (the means, to be independent, becomes the end, a person who costs less and is efficient to producing goods in a market economy as it is today). As such, the ideal is exclusive and does not work for the majority of autistic people. What we will have left after the misguided premise will be more need for adult services which continue to segregate and have done nothing to enable communication, choice, and participation.

The film Wretches & Jabberers certainly promotes the idea of the independent mind – but that mind is enabled by support. It refutes the assumption that a cogent mind and a fluent body must co-exist. We learn that the body will often not do what the mind is thinking, and that the body also has its own unique ways of knowing through movements we call “inappropriate” (the term “inappropriate behaviour” should be reserved for people who inflict ill will to another). Without support, many autistic people who have movement difficulties, inability to speak, and other difficulties, would never gain access to any communication whatsoever. In turn, it is equally unjust to take an autistic person’s voice away when a therapist or a support worker wishes to be successful in helping the autistic person to the point that it enables the therapist’s own career. For example, in many therapeutic settings, a therapist will do certain things to over prompt the autistic person to gain a positive outcome or may falsify data results. This happens with supported communication just has much as it happens in ABA and with other methods. A “best practice” seems to me to take all of the above into account to ensure that the checks and balances are there to test the support worker more than the autistic person – which requires a rights-based approach.

Supported communication’s time has come as more and more autistic children gain access with support and later do become independent. Maybe this is more so than in the 1990’s because many have matured from childhood to become regular and mostly independent (through typing) communicators.(For the time being I am not going into the problems of a positivist to this). It is this burden of proof, incumbent on the autistic body, that has sadly been necessary as a result of a doubting public on the intelligence of individuals who cannot speak, or who make “inarticulate” sounds and effusive bodily movements. However, let us not withdraw support for those who require the assistant or aide worker to contribute, work and communicate. For many, this interdependency will be vital to life. In this sense, plenty of proofs (as quoted from the film) are not enough. We need a proof of commitment from every person in society; we need the proof that autistic rights/disability rights mean something in Canada. We need to be able to enforce those rights.

So this obviously, I hope, points to something I think we all need to discuss: ourselves. What is it about society that keeps autistic people from participating as autistic people? What assumptions do we make about disability and belonging and why is most of it lip service and not action? What is a rights based approach to helping autistic people? Why are we avoiding helping people to use devices?

One thing I have learned is that we learn to include by including. Adam is severely autistic and intelligent and has so much he wants to offer. He has friends. He complains about being ignored by some people who likely assume that he doesn’t understand. These complaints suggest something very wrong with our assumptions that despite the work of autistic people for us to hear and see them, continue to be ignored. Why? What more proof do we need?

Now I come to the who benefits question. I’ve written about this before, as have many writers and theorists. Perhaps we have to take a look at the industry we have created from the vulnerabilities of others. Who is getting paid? Who is getting attention or even celebrity in the autism world and why? I’m fed up with an expert culture feeding upon parent’s imaginations and pocket books. As I see and do in our own autism lives here in Toronto, education and access can work. We are living and breathing examples of it. But ours is a hard-work story. It’s not a cure story, and not one that feeds into celebrity culture.

Every day I work to figure out why and who this can be made accessible to the many families who are in need of support, but either are drained financially or must be subservient to a program that they must take or get nothing else. You may think at this point that it costs too much. Indeed, that’s the economic cost to society argument that comes at a great cost to many. It is inhumane. The great cost is continue to promote a method of therapy fueled by an attitude that continues to segregate. We tend to concur with an argument that abuse perpetrated by aide workers happens because of economic reasons – that the worker is being paid too little. I realize this could be a topic of its own, but I can’t resist inserting it here. How can we accept this low standard for disabled people? We would not accept this for children, but over and over again we hear it happens to disabled people and write off the story instead of talking about our collective ethical responsibility to improve our attitudes and values towards the disabled in our society. And this needs to happen among people who are not touched by disability as much as within disabled families. The only way we can make it happen is together. The only way we can improve our lives is to change the way we discuss autism and society.

I would love to have a voice loud enough to make a call to all schools and autism organizations, parents and autistic people, to include these discussions in the autism agenda; perhaps I can only hope some people will take what they need from this and many other posts written by autistic people. We need to come together to create this collective voice! Very often these policy documents are centred around therapy and services. Ethics, value, inclusion are sidelined by discussions about how to make the autistic person independent through therapy. I believe that a person-centred approach could be focussed more on these autistic rights and ethics discussions. The question is, why hasn’t it?

Rights is not necessarily (and most definitely not exclusively) about the right to therapy but the right to be autistic and included. In the meantime, since these rights are established (although not acknowledged for autistic people in Canada as we can see by our public institutions) we must do everything to provide access to communication tools beyond a PECS system. Autistic people are intelligent and the spectrum notion is highly misguided in terms of our understanding of people, yet it satisfies the need for a quick summary of autistic people for non-autistic people. We must also urge people to rid the notion that the autistic person will miraculously one day type clear thoughts or speak – it is unfair for the autistic people and supporters who toil to communicate. This is not to say that an autistic person will not come to speech later in life. Indeed Adam can talk the more he types but talking is different than typing. You can read up on that yourself. Not all autistic people will ever be able to talk even though they will be able to type (notice my assertion).

As many will attest who have learned to type, it’s a long and arduous process for both the typist and the supporter. Adam is now 12 and is just beginning to really express complicated things. We’ve been at it since he was 4, and we still have a ways to go. This is the kind of patience, perseverance and belief that all of us require to support the autistic person into adulthood. I know that Adam will go on in his education, so long as we can fight for the right for him to be classroom at either college or university. As Adam grows and learns now that he is out of autism classrooms, I can say safely that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. This is also the case for his speaking up to the people in his life and about his own experiences as a person who has had to live with this autism label and all that it comes with. I am not underestimating the ongoing challenges that he will have to contend with, and how I will have to support him in this. I am often enraged by our culture that perpetuates despair for families instead of supporting them in making all of our “autistic lives” good and contented ones.

It takes a fight to avoid the pull of “experts” who will insist that your child has the “intelligence of a 5 year old,” or from the doctor who, after an 18 second observation will tell you that your child’s tics require psychotropic medication (the list goes on). For certain, every person’s situation is different and will require different supports, but the point is that too often we let the medical profession and the medicalized therapeutic professions do this to us and we all need more empowerment and support to critically think about what it is that prevents our children from being in a classroom to being out in the community with all kinds of people – not just fellow autistic ones. It is better to find someone who will spend time and listen with us, start with conservative approaches, and of course, put the rights of the child first. We must find each other for support along the way.

While I get fed up with the barrage of public opinion (indeed another flaw of modern culture that insists that individualism is associated with this free opinion) that suggest that independence is of utmost importance and the underlying prejudice (and thus barrier) that exists within that statement, I think that we have a lot more work to do. Sometimes we have to be brave in this and say it like it is.

This is Our Halloween

Filed Under (Acceptance, Accessibility, Adam, Autistic Self Advocacy, Communication, Development, Family, Holidays, Joy, The Joy Of Autism) by Estee on 31-10-2014

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We got up a little earlier today to rush to get Adam’s makeup on for Halloween here in Toronto. Adam decided to be a happy bear, so we came up with Happy Panda – it’s also a story about mindfulness that we sometimes read. It just feels right to show a happy little autistic guy, a preteen no less, who types to talk and gets excited like every other kid about Halloween. Adam is part of the whole process in deciding what he wants to be. Since Adam started typing at the age of 4, and is now 12, he has become more able to self-advocate and tell us a lot of what it is like to be Adam.

Here he is (below) inspecting my make up job… I must admit I wasn’t sure if he liked it when it was all done… and I didn’t have time to discuss it with him as we were rushing out the door. But he seems to be thinking about it here:

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Alas, in this next shot, Adam is a Happy Panda posing for the camera. Today at his (inclusive) school he will go trick and treating around to each classroom. It’s raining in Toronto, so it is unlikely he will go out tonight with his dad… I’ll miss Halloween with Adam this year. It’s the first year ever I’ll miss it with him.

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I hope all autistic families will enjoy their Halloweens if they want to. I never believe in forcing our kids to do things that are expected, but at the same time, I also believe in inclusion and participation in ways that the kids can and want to participate. I always tried not to expect too much when Adam was little. We stayed in one Halloween when he preferred to hand out candies rather than going door-to-door. That remains a really fond memory because Adam chose to do this and he enjoyed it so much. Before he could self-advocate with words, I gave Adam an array of choices, making costumes that reflected his interests. Since Adam was deemed hyperlexic and loved numbers and letters, I stitched letters and numbers to his clothes and named him “Alphabet Boy” – indeed my kind of superhero. This year, it helps a lot in all activities to make up our own social stories so that Adam knows what is expected, and I have him participate in writing them by making choices before decisions are made. This can involve all the steps that are made from ringing a door bell to what to say, to how many doors Adam can knock on so he feels a little more secure about how the evening is constructed. It’s also part of why I like the process of making Halloween costumes (although I’m not that talented at it, I still enjoy it) because it gets him involved and a chance to anticipate and be a part of any given event.

Two years ago, he wanted to be a ghost, and we managed to make together a Tim Burtonesque version… he loved that one; in fact I think he’s channeling Tim Burton again this year! Here’s a photo of that costume:

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And another year, he fell in love with a cowboy costume from the store – he wore that one two years in a row:

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It’s been a joy to watch Adam grow and develop over the years. Having an autistic child is wonderful to me, the challenges included as they have encouraged me to think outside of the box. Let’s all make our Halloweens what we want or need them to be, and find our contentment with that!

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.