Adam, The Autistic Self-Advocate

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Autistic Self Advocacy, Communication) by Estee on 18-10-2010

“Turn it off!” I had been watching some old videos of Adam before he was even two years old. Adam, now eight-years-old, stood in front of the television and watched for two minutes intensely before he told me what to do.

There are two therapists in that video, in front of him talking fast and loud. He is sitting in a chair and they insist that he stay there — he small enough that every time he tries to escape they physically replace him onto the chair. The video begins with Adam crying, squirming and trying to get away. He is so small, such a baby. He is saying many things, although they are hard to hear because the therapists are talking so loudly compared to his forming, warbled articulation. As one of the therapists replaces his tiny body in the chair, she tickles his stomach.

“Don’t,” I hear him say in a super tiny voice. I hear him say it now re-watching these, but I may not have heard it back then. I may have not heard it in the frantic effort to get Adam to do and say what the therapists wanted him to say. I would have not heard it over their loud voices.

I am watching these videos six years later, as Adam has developed and changed so much. I feel we have very much entered a new phase of life together, a new phase of understanding our lives as an autistic family.

Adam then went to his Vanguard device after telling me to shut off the TV. “I am uncomfortable,” he pressed. I suppose I can say, said. We call it his talk box. The Vanguard device, which is a series of pictures and words can be programmed to make sentences. Things like verbs, feelings, activities are all categorized on it so Adam can tell us many things. Sometimes Adam can type sentences on his computer, sometimes he uses the Vanguard and sometimes, especially this past weekend, Adam can talk. Adam talked more this past weekend than I can remember in his lifetime.

I have set out to watch those videos on my own without Adam present. As I watch them now, I am highly disturbed. We made him sit so young, and forced him to watch the therapists. Although this was NOT a strict ABA program, we did attempt to “programme” Adam in an ABA format. The therapists talked, they wanted him to answer, they dangled coloured circles over his head so he would repeat the colours, blew in his face, repositioned him on the chair — all at a roaring rate. I cannot imagine how completely overwhelming that experience was for Adam.

All I had in the beginning was ABA therapy. Then came along RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). I thought I kept helping Adam better each time I learned about something new because no one offered us any other solution. While I tried to follow my instinct, what was available to us wasn’t keeping pace with the values I was forming about Adam as an autistic person. Still, Adam was forced to “conform” no matter how much we said it was to “engage” him. Later, we became more adept at involving ourselves in his games. Later, we became quieter with him.

As Adam’s mother, I sometimes want to cry when I watch these videos. He was bombarded. In no way was he respected as an autistic person from the get-go. A couple years after that I definitely learned more and tried harder. Yet I wonder, since we are still talking about finding genes in autism and intervening earlier, what kind of life experience our autistic children will have and remember, when they are programmed to be typical.

I find it so ironic that Adam talked the most he had in his lifetime this weekend, and he told me to turn off one of those “early intervention” videos. I suspect he does not feel good about it at all. What makes me feel so guilty, because I love Adam so much, is that even though I searched for ways of assisting him while trying to respect him, he may have not been in those earlier years when he was so vulnerable. He couldn’t really communicate in words then. He has severe difficulties, even now, to do so consistently. As Adam becomes his own self-advocate, I just found it so striking to have this juxtaposition between the old videos against the Adam of today. Even back then, just because he wasn’t talking, he was still a person. I suppose I could say he was ignored like the moment when he said in a voice so quiet, “don’t.”

I think if someone had shown me this when we received the diagnosis, if autistic people could recount their stories and be available to all “new” autism parents, my life may have been calmer and Adam may have had better supports that accepted him as autistic. I write this with forboding, wondering what kinds of early interventions are being concocted for infant autistics. Certainly, I changed the approaches after those first two years, and he became happier for it. He has had many challenges, but he is also now talking. As he does so, while it is nice to know what our children are thinking, I can tell you it is not a solution. It is not the Holy Grail. We will have many years ahead of dealing with Adam’s unique way of functioning in the world, and I don’t always expect it to be easy. Communication is important. Acceptance is vital.

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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.