Repost from 2007: A Review of Autreat

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Organizations/Events) by Estee on 13-08-2010

Last weekend, I attended my first conference in over two years. It was the Blogher Conference in New York City where I met up with fellow autism-mom bloggers. I remarked on how I noticed the positive attitudes towards autism among parents that wasn’t so prominent a few years ago.

In response, I got a comment stating that I should attend Autreat. Well, I had in 2007. Back in my earlier days, because the climate among parent communities was so negative, I sought out autistic individuals who shaped my view of autism and assisted Adam and I on our journey. I thought instead of having people sort through 800 pages of archived Joy of Autism blog (on the right margin), I’d dig this up. It’s a copy and paste job, so  I apologize in advance if the formatting appears off. No matter how I tried to fix it, it just kept reverting into a mess.

I called this post:

Are We Listening?

The audience waved their hands in the air – the deaf sign for waving. There were others who

rocked back and forth, some other adults who gracefully flapped their hands. Drake sat in

the front and squealed in acknowledgment when the speaker said, “just because you

don’t cry, doesn’t mean you are not sad,” in acknowledgment to how many autistics take time to

process their emotions. The squeal was a “yes yes!” to the speaker’s comments, and in any other

setting, this highly intelligent, non verbal autistic eleven-year-old may have been

asked to leave, or others might have stared, thinking that he didn’t

think of anything at all. Yet Drake kept doing this. He sat longer

than any other eleven-year-old I’ve ever met and made his noises

in acknowledgment of the important points.

“I am fortified by being here,” he wrote on his Lightwriter, a keyboard with a small

screen that speaks for him after he types his sentence.

I sat in the room and wished Adam was with me, his soft fiveyear-

old hair brushing my jaw, snuggling up to me as he always

does, and then taking breaks to jump up and down. Yet, I felt

comforted in knowing that he would be there next year, and the

year after that. I felt comforted that all of these people are him

years from now, and how privileged I felt that they were paving

the way, for it is a tough way, like swimming up a rapid flowing


It is rare to sit in a room with so many other autistic people, some

walking back and forth in the lunch room humming to themselves

in a heightened perhaps even ecstatic state, where I can only

imagine in other less accepting settings, would be frowned upon.

When I came to squeeze into the small space where this young

man hummed to deposit my lunch tray, he politely moved away to

make room for me, extremely aware despite the fact that some people

might believe otherwise.

When I saw him next time in the leisure area, he was asking others

to play a board game with him. Other autistic kids were hanging

out together, and sprawled themselves out on couches in front of

the TV, not unlike other teenagers. Around the grounds, people

wore badges that indicated if they wanted to talk, if they would

only talk to people they knew, or if they did not wish to talk at all.

There were many times I wanted to flip my own badge that

indicated the latter – as I am a person who likes to absorb and

observe, yet have been taught to socialize and be diplomatic and

suffer from a compulsion to keep that impression going. Although

it’s a skill I’ve acquired, I still find it exhausting. I wished that

those badges existed at the many functions I have attended,

where most people pretend to be something that they’re not, or

interested in things that others say that they actually have no

interest in at all. I consider all the wasted time I’ve had to spend

doing “small talk.” and all the time I spend in explaining life as we

know it to people who don’t have the time to understand.

The heat was oppressive this time of year. Yet, we were shaded by

trees. My hair unkempt and my skin moist from the humidity, I

unraveled. I could do what I needed to, to think. We were free to

lie down during lectures, or roll up and be comfortable on the

otherwise uncomfortable frayed wool couches — remnants from

the 1970’s. No lights were on in the summer heat, the hardworking

garbled hum of old air conditioners tilting precariously in

the windows of the lecture room.

The atmosphere was as honest as the discussions were. We tried

to figure out how to manage all the issues confronting autistic

people today, how to give another message to parents that there

are more options than they are aware of – because they don’t hear

it when all they hear about is ABA (in Canada specifically). The

atmosphere was welcoming, where fear and confrontation were

strangely absent. Strange because it is a sad reality of autism

politics these days – where some non autistic people never get

exposed to disabled people to hear the real views and issues. It

was strange as it was relieving. This was autism, and it was

comfortable. I didn’t have to be appropriate, I could say when I

had to leave without a guilty fuss. No one will judge me here. And

no one will be judged.

It’s called Autreat. It’s a place I’ve never felt or experienced

before, and I will want Adam to come again so he too can be

fortified. Adam’s fortification is what’s tantamount here, as I try to

raise him so that he knows who he is with autism, amidst a world

that doesn’t understand it or explains it inappropriately. It is

important that he understand himself as not a defect, but as a

person. It is why we as parents cannot accept misery rhetoric,

because no matter what level of “functioning” (that term means

nothing as it has no bearing on either intelligence or awareness), no

autistic child should have to grow up in an inhospitable

environment that threatens their self-worth. Inhospitable and

unsafe environments are those in which we seek to normalize and

reward normal responses to tasks where the autistic response is

never acknowledged, rewarded or accepted, thus valued. By never

rewarding an autistic person for being autistic, we threaten their

self-esteem and identity. Most will grow up being confused

because every well-intentioned therapist was so “nice” to them.

We have to train our therapists and clinicians to understand

autism – because most of them currently do not. They do not yet

understand how an autistic person learns. They turn to

operationalized methods that all seek at this time to make the child

not autistic, without valuing the autism. DRI and RDI are also

designed to “create a mind,” or have a child “play normally” to

which the autistic audience gasped in disgust. What are those

“gurus” implying? That the autistic people who could sit and listen,

and contribute, either verbally or in writing need to re-create their

minds in a fashion that suits the rest of the so-called “normal”


I surmised that many parents are and are reluctant to give up

ABA becasue they may not understand that there ARE so many

options and so many opportunities to educate and for a great

quality of life. The latter is what hopefully unites us. What

disunites us is the definition of what that quality of life entails – a

life with or without autism. I seek the former because I have seen

that we can live a good life, thank you very much.

Quality of life is not determined by whether or not you drive a car,

but rather, what you make of your life, and your attitude. Autistic

people are capable, and how can we express to parents who only

see — particularly those whose children who are more profoundly

affected by the disabling aspects of autism – sensory issues,

anxiety, no spoken communication – that their children are there

and aware.

How can we express that the most important thing – our

children’s right – is to be who they are, but to provide AC

(augmentative communication) in the absence of speech, instead of

trying to force them to talk when they cannot.

How can we express that it is the teachers and clinicians who must

learn how an autistic person learns, and not expect a typical

response that can render an autistic person a robot. (All an autistic

person ends up learning is to respond the way the instructor wants

so that they can get the hell out of there).

How can we express the dangers of therapies that try to teach in a

way that is not natural – for our benefit so WE can feel satisfied

that the child has responded – that the child may in the future as a

result of such approaches, not understand who they are?

This is the most important aspect. Know who you are. Accept

your autistic child for who they are because this will allow

them to know themselves. Pave the way for acceptance and yes,

teach. But learn first. Learn how an autistic person learns and keep

trying to adapt until you find the method that clicks with your

child. That will constantly change.

Be a parent, not a therapist. Do not treat your child as a project,

but rather, treat them and raise them as a child. Model actions so

that a child can learn. Do not expect typical answers to “what is

this?” and other typical questions. Find out ways to pull out what

the autistic child does know. Do they know and answer better on

the computer? Then use that. Accept all forms of communication,

for they are valid and real. We are all obligated as parents to find

the AC that works best for our children. That is their right to have

over and above all those other therapies and monies wasted on

“behavioural therapies.”

Allow breaks for autistic children to re-focus. Truly seek to

understand their sensory needs. Do not offer artificial

reinforcements, like “good talking!.” They are fake and the child

will know it. Accept echolalia as sometimes the only language a

child can retrieve, particularly in moments when they are

overwhelmed, and then listen to what their body language and

faces are telling you.

Most parents want the best their our children. The difference is in

how we regard autism – a medical disease, which it is not, or a

disability with social implications, in other words, we have to deal

with the societal barriers that obstruct the opportunities for our

children. We cannot accept the latter. We must accept autism and

move on with the real barriers – the attitudes that will continue to

proliferate segregation.

We need to be advocating for inclusion in the school system and for

the accommodations that need to be made to acquire that. We

need to educate others as to the value of doing this – for all

children, not just the disabled ones – in cultivating sensitivity and

understanding. We need to teach our children how to advocate for

themselves – yes, even the non verbal ones. And for those who are

more profoundly affected by the more disabling aspects of autism,

we can seek the help of other autistic individuals to be mentors

and to advocate for the services that do not degrade and oppress


The one thing we must do is to make other parents aware that

there are so many options about which they hear little or are

belittled by an ABA movement that continues to espouse

inaccurate facts about ABA under the guise of false scientific


We need to stop participating in genetic research studies which

determines only “prenatal risk” and threatens the existence of

autistic people. This research is done under the guise of providing

“better and earlier interventions,” which are non existent. What

babies need is love, support and engagement like any other baby.

The only purpose of this research is to determine genetic risk

factors. We do not hear about research that seeks to help autistic

people be the best autistic people they can be.

We need to redirect our attention to merging help (with the more

disabling aspects of autism) with respect (respecting the autistic

person’s right to exist) and realize that there is life beyond an

over-simplified “cure.” Further, helping the more disabling aspects

of autism (anxiety, sensory issues) can exist outside of a “cure” for


I urge every parent (but for those who visit this blog, I bet I’m

preaching to the choir), to actively seek out the alternatives and

become proactive in not accepting strategies that change your

child to “appear normal” because they will ultimately be very

damaging to their self-image as teenagers and adults, and we will

have greater problems to contend with later. There are options

outside of ABA which takes time from you to actively watch and

listen and respect your child.

Above all, as Anne Donnellan said in 1984, “make the least

dangerous assumptions” about your child. Or as Douglas Biklen

said, “presume competence.”

“The least dangerous assumption states that in the

absence of absolute evidence, it is essential to make the s

assumption that , if proven to be false, would be the least

dangerous to the individual.” (Zach Rosetti and Carol Tashie

from the Communicator, Autism National Committee Newsletter,

Inclusive Education edition.)

The constant banter that autistic or non verbal people who do not

look you in the eye are “not there” or “not aware,” or “cannot

speak for themselves” is an extremely dangerous assumption. All

people can speak for themselves in many different ways.

Are we listening?




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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.