Changing Terms

Filed Under (Acceptance, Autism and Learning, Critical Disability Studies, Inclusion) by Estee on 23-04-2010

Here in Toronto, I sit on Inclusion Committees. My son has been included in a Montessori classroom but we are going to leave after June. The school gave Adam loads of acceptance and enabled him to bring his aide, his adapted programs, his computer laptop and the like. The school was wonderful in that it was a calm environment that had concrete Montessori materials for him to use.

We had to adapt his program, ourselves, while staying within the structure of the classroom. He worked alongside the other kids and the other kids loved him. He learned how to engage with them and they learned how to engage with him. It was very important at the time we made the move to a Montessori school that Adam be with peers and be able to learn to tolerate them, the noise, and being able to play and learn with others. It was the right move for him. My wish is that schools would provide more education about people with disabilities: how to be more patient, tolerant and accommodating, and there are programs in Toronto that are attempting to achieve such goals. Last night, I attended Inclusion Awards night in Toronto and spoke briefly with The Honourable David Onley (Governor General of Ontario) who is himself disabled.

It was a successful experience and I have to admit, we’ve not had any problems with our school choices like so many other families who must endure the public school system, the IPRC process and assigned E.A’s. In addition, too many “special needs” schools ironically turn down autistic children with behavioural challenges or children like Adam, who have difficulty talking. I understand that that is very difficult, heart-wrenching and it seems we sit on pins and needles waiting to see if we either get the luck of the draw or if we have to endure another heart-wrenching process as I have also been privy to it. This is the most unjust process I can think of as no child should be turned down from any school, let alone the “special needs” schools, but this is the reality right now. Here in Ontario so far, Inclusion is only as successful as the person who is leading the process within the school. A teacher is only as good who understands the child as a unique and whole human being, and is willing to go the extra mile. But for those of us who live through this daily, I’m not saying anything new.

Although I am thankful for our successful early years, our weekends were left struggling to find play-dates from many of these children. Adam always gravitates to the other students with special needs anyway, so it became easier to enroll him in social programs for special needs children. It’s a common story: like attracts like. We feel more comfortable with the people who may understand us and with whom we may understand, and we have to allow room for all of this in the Inclusion process. Adam’s school was a brilliant jumping board for Adam to graduate to the next level, so he will be attending a school that will be able to accommodate his learning needs more appropriate to his new found curiousity. Or so I’m hoping.

Inclusion is nascent in the Toronto community. Still, there are attitudes to hurdle, not to mention a reluctance to invest time, money and training, perhaps because these attitudes are not really up-to-speed. If a question I received yesterday from another parent with a child with another disability was any indication (“is your son violent?” ),one may begin to understand the many general assumptions that exist out in the world about autism and wonder if fear is the biggest barrier to Inclusion. I certainly don’t blame anyone for asking such questions — there are people with many challenges out there. Adam is not violent. He is affable, social (for an autie — he just does it differently but often craves being with others even if he may engage in the “Adam way”), and he wants to learn, even if he struggles with what appears to us like distraction (or should I rephrase that and say it is also us as the parents and teachers who struggle with it because it challenges us to have to learn and see the way our children might?). Adam is talking more now and he was approved for a new device which will enable him to communicate even more. He is bright, able in so many ways. He has a handicap in a world where his style of being is the minority, mind you, but this doesn’t stop him, or me, from moving ahead.

This is the first year I’ve engaged Adam in more special needs programs — for social skills, life-skills and general leisure. He is still Included in a “regular” summer camp, but Adam now needs a different kind of support as he grows into the world. I am very happy for him that he will be gaining these new skills and looking forward to his ability to help others, as I believe it is crucial in life that we all find our areas in which to swagger. In fact, as I’ve sat with it for a few days now, I’m thrilled. I still have no doubt that he will be able to do contribute and go on to further education in his future. It’s not an outrageous expectation: I’m basing it on the person I see in front of me who is utterly capable and who is a privileged boy in that he is being given two healthy, willing parents who enable opportunities for him in his life. I still work in Inclusion because I want to see more opportunities for Adam by the time he reaches his twenties. We have to work at all angles — both in Special Education and Inclusion. The trainings co-exist and are not exclusive of each other.

This lead to another thought I had this morning as I still read the many pleas for money for “Early Intervention.” I wondered why, after I’ve come so far in my own thinking, the term still bothers me to the extent that it does. So here’s my answer: Adam doesn’t need intervention. I may be lucky that Adam is an only child as I have nothing and no-one to compare him to except for my own childhood. I figure we have made our own normal. Our weekends are full — yes, we do visit friends and other children, we have programs to attend, concerts and plays to see — and yes, these have to be pre-planned (but then again, what family doesn’t organize a play-date?). No, I cannot drop him off and leave him alone in someone else’s house yet, but like all things Adam, he will do things his way and his own time. I could sit here and cry and bemoan that fact that he is not doing all of the “typical” things other boys his age might do, or imagine that he is somehow lonelier for it. But is he? He has no siblings to compare himself to. He is competent in our home, a burgeoning artist, musician and cook. He enjoys other children and will likely gain a long-time friend when he is ready. Like myself as an only-child, he has learned to entertain himself or play with me or spend time with his grandparents or much older half-siblings when they return from university. For us, our normal was early engagement and we grew into acceptance. For certain when Adam was two years old, I believed all this engagement would make him more “normal,” whatever that meant to me at the time. Six years later, I can see that our life is normal. It is normal to us and aside from our personal struggles recently with life transitions, I really love our life. I figure that one of the many gifts I might be able to give to Adam is my belief in this. All I have to do to believe it, is to let go.

The idea that one has to intervene still suggests that something is wrong. The other day, my best friend’s niece was on the A&E show called Intervention. Amy suffers from aneorexia/bulimia and is in serious trouble. The family asked for the show’s help in getting Amy the help she really needed. If not, Amy would die. To me, this is the seriousness of that word Intervention: it suggests that something is seriously wrong and is akin to the analogy that autism is like “a fate worse than cancer.”

It is not. Autism is our normal. Autism simply means that I needed to engage differently at those early stages of growth, not employ the tactics of early intervention. I wish I had had someone to tell me this when Adam was first diagnosed as it has taken me time to grow into my thoughts and words. Adam was not ready for the forty hours of ABA that was suggested back in those days, and we all know that even with all that ABA and all those promises, our children are still autistic.

When I hear parents complain about autism (see this blog on Kim Stagliano and her recent tirade on blaming autism for Aiden Johnson death), I can feel myself being sucked into a vortex and I do not see how that helps us become better parents to our children. Yet I suppose if certain parents truly feel empowered by believing autism is like cancer, if that gives them some kind of hope as the walks, marathons, runs do to defeat disease, then they will work and talk hard. They will use fighting-words.

I am of the belief that by fighting, one is defeating the child, not the autism. I am of the belief that by attacking the child from every angle like a huge dose of chemo sends a message to that child with a different perspective and manner of engaging in the world, that THEY are wrong. I see autistic children as they grow older with those beliefs surrounding them, absorbing the idea that autism is a disease and that “they are more than their autism.” What does that mean other than a denial that autism has truly effected the way one perceives and engages with others and the environment? Why not be proud of that and learn ways to take advantage of it?? I’m so sad to see parents fight so hard and then become so despondent.

I propose that while we are changing schools next term, that we again look at the terms we use. Had I intervened with Adam in an aggressive way, I truly believe he would have regressed into himself and perhaps with more aggressive behaviours. Instead, I propose we act gently. We have to challenge ourselves everyday with the notion that there are many kinds of normal in this world and while the world may not yet totally get it, it is through our use of terms and our actions that will enable the rest of our communities to jump aboard.

I am very uncomfortable using the term early intervention for assisting autistic children. I believe we have to work to change not only our attitudes, but our terms have to catch up. Perhaps we can use terms such as early engagement and early promotion of the different forms of play that we can engage autistic toddlers in the same respect and presentation we promote play for typical toddlers. Of course, the earlier we can do this, the earlier parents may be able to accept their autistic toddlers, and this supports everyone.


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About Me


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 (, 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.