We Are Still a “Burden”

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Discrimination, Inclusion, school) by Estee on 25-11-2011

(Photo Inset: Danvers State Mental Hosptial, Danvers Massachusetts. Credit: Ayslum: Inside The Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, MIT Press, 2009.)

“Autism is a growing burden on society in Ontario,” said Steve Hudson, co-chair of the Spectrum of Hope Autism Foundation. Mr. Hudson is promoting the Kae Martin Centre, a place that will house autism research and life-skill teaching under one roof. I kindly ask for an apology from Mr. Hudson for his unfortunate use of language.

As for the Centre, in one respect, it always sounds like it could be a relief — there are very few programs that adequately teach, or even recognize, autistic strength. On the other hand, when I read in our national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, that autistics must have a place to be sequestered to “learn how to cook,” shivers run up and down my spine. My son, and many others like him, can do more than learn how to cook.

There’s nothing wrong with learning to cook, or being a cook, of course. It is wonderful that there are places being created to learn the skills that autistic people need to learn. But in autism we do know that continued, or Life Long Learning is a must in the making of an autistic life and education. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. In my forties, I returned to university for my M.A. and I’ve been taking courses, and will, all of my life.

Autistic people and their families want to be a part of the community. Autistic people wish to receive accommodation and recognition as whole, valuable human beings. As soon as people present with a disability, odd behaviour, we automatically think of them as aberrant.

I can’t believe sometimes that I still have to write posts like this. I keep hoping that “autism advocates” will actually become educated by listening to the autstic population around the world, many of whom are considered “severely autistic,” but have learned to socialize and communicate by typing, for instance. I am so despondent, admittedly, when I hear that the use of terms like “burden” are ways to appeal for money. What about accomplishment? What about the many autistic individuals who contribute right now? Could we be achieving more for our autistic children, young and old?

We are so behind other disabilities that were once viewed the same way — children were segregated, treated as dumb, assessed as unable to contribute anything to society. Later, such as in the recent HBO Journey Into Dyslexia, these same “children” are now talking about how their disability has advanced society itself. Many of our technologies that we use and take for granted today, were invented for individuals with communication disabilities.

As I read the article, the first thing that came to mind was what kind of research would be housed under one roof? Will it be to understand autistic thinking, processing and ability? How to teach the autistic person? Or are the same founders duped by the ABA is the only scientifcally proven therapy for autism myth? It is not scientifically proven. It simply has the most scientific research behind it. as Jonathan Adler states in his recent book, Challenging the Myths of Autism, “the most evidence does not mean the only evidence.”

I have to be honest. I have mixed feelings of putting Adam in an ABA school. Sure, everyone is nice and so far it’s eclectic, so for us it’s the best out there. Even writing about this, and I feel I put ourselves at risk for displacement where there is really no where else to go. Yet, I have to be honest in hopes for more services for us and every other autistic family out there. I think a civil dialogue about the issues pertaining to autism and their therapies and education is the best way to progress. I do this with Adam’s current school and it’s going very well. I also see that Adam is calmer and happier there. The staff is friendly and organized and have been so helpful to me. I do wonder if there is far too much time be wasted on baseline protocol — testing things Adam has known for years, and I worry about falling more behind. It’s too soon to tell and I’ll report back. From the other point of view, Adam has to get more “fluent,” and I don’t disagree that practice is important for Adam. It is my opinion that Adam’s disability is not fully taken into account by all schools, ABA or not — his catatonic-like movement and inconsitency. This school that I have Adam registered in, however, does teach him what I want them to, like literacy and typing, but of course everything in ABA becomes operationalized. All other methods tend to become ABA methods, even though they didn’t start off that way. What an autism school can do for him right now, where there is such a lack in Ontario, is provide him with better understanding and structure. They also have the ability to help us with some of the more challenging behaviour that arises from time-to-time, and seem to treat Adam with respect for his anxiety. What I am trying to say is that many methods matter and have to be included in the curriculum and in some settings I see this being incorporated more. I am always sending emails about understanding Adam’s behaviour and treating him with respect. I often wonder when people will become sick of me. But I cannot stop. There is a part of me that knows that we all have to work with what’s already out there.

Throwing him into a school with others where there was no such understanding and for Inclusion sake, didn’t work for Adam at this point in time. His current school is willing to deal with what I want for Adam, while making other suggestions and I’m willing to give it a try now that he is older and the method could be more suitable to him. Overall, though, an IEP for an autstic child must include life skills, academics, communication and social skills training, among so many other things. Adam is lucky to have all this and we are always asking questions about priorities and balance. Each autistic child’s needs are very different. What I want is for Adam to be accommodated for these needs in all settings. Adam enjoys his peers, but peers are not taught to accept Adam after a certain age. Adam isn’t viewed in these settings as someone who can contribute. He’s viewed as someone who needs extra help. That someone who needs extra help is viewed as the burden. So I’m worried just about every day. I want Adam to be safe, happy and learning. He wants to be out of the house and with others and he typed a couple of weeks ago “I want friends.” How do I ensure that he is being included in society, programs, and where he also wishes to be? How do I ensure he doesn’t become so bored (because he has a curious mind), because he can’t respond consistently? It tears me apart.

So when I hear of Autism Centres, I get a mixed reactions. I want Adam out and about safely, and he comes out and about when he’s with me every weekend. I get queasy that Centres, and the lack of enforcement of Inclusion Policy in Canada, will continue to force us away from our community, and we become more isolated. I spend hours trying to find activities for Adam where is is happily included with an aide, but it seems to be getting more difficult. My mind is haunted by images of insitutions, even though the last one was closed in Canada in 1972.

We tend to think of mental hospitals as snake pits, hells of chaos and misery, squalor and brutality,” says Oliver Sacks in his introduction to Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. “Most of them, now, are shattered and abandoned — and we think with a shiver of the terror of those who once found themselves confined to such places.”

“Like so many lofty ideals, the asylums failed to live up to their expectations.” Asylums were supposed to be places where disabled and mentally “ill” individuals could learn life skills, do art, create community. We all know what happened to these facilities and the levels of abuse inside of them.

I dream of autism schools somedays, ones that are as well revered as schools for gifted children (as many of our children, once they can start typing can end up there). I dream of Adam being included safely and accommodated in a public school where he is accepted and respected. I dream of people talking of autstic ability seriously as part of autism, not as an anechdote to autism, for that’s just another way of writing autistic people off. On the other hand, I am worried sick about the fate of Adam and where I place him every day. Is he really learning enough, to his abilities? Or are his deficits the only thing that will ever be the target in his IEP? How much time in a day does this single mother have to defend, program and place him?

I want to be happy about a new place where Adam is viewed as someone who can make it, who will contribute, who is intelligent. I have a dream. I know that typical people don’t think they need to care about us or where we will end up. Yet if you really think about it, it is our greatest lesson in the study of humanity. Our growing disabled population challenge our views and the way we treat others. In the words of Michel Berube, of the popular memoir about his son with Down syndrome Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, An Exceptional Child, writes in his introduction to Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity about the field of Critical Disability Studies: “I now believe that my resistance to disability studies is a piece with a larger and more insidious cultural form of resistance whereby nondisabled people find it difficult or undesirable to imagine that disability law is central to civil rights legistation…as Simi Linton shows us [Critical Disability Studies] should be central to what we do in the humanities. And perhaps, just perhaps, if disability is understood as central to the humanities, it will evenutally be understood as central to humanity.”

The weight of our morals and ethics about how we treat and regard autistic people may be our real burden. So I guess I’m back at the blog, here, defending our right to be smack dab in the middle of our wonderful city, hoping for Centres and schools that will celebrate the lives of autistic people, their strengths, ability and potential. All I can ask, is to please see us as fully whole, not broken, human beings.

Adam and Estee on Writing

Filed Under (Adam, Communication, Estee, Writing) by Estee on 17-11-2011

I haven’t written in a long time. Since we changed schools I decided to focus solely on Adam. I’m also very cautious of what I write about, because while it’s important for me to do this, it’s important to protect Adam’s dignity as he is maturing fast.

We made the official switch to an ABA school. Frankly, it was getting exhausting trying to find an inclusive school to support Adam’s needs. Adam needs understanding, lots of structure, lots of practice for the work that’s difficult for him, and people who greet him every day with a wide smile. I have been struggling on how to write this because I’ve been so critical of ABA. I have come to peace with this decision for now. We didn’t have good early experiences. I’ve learned that it’s not just some ABA therapists who didn’t accommodate or treat Adam with respect. Understanding autism, accommodating, accepting isn’t reserved for the non ABA teacher. Maybe times are changing.

Adam has Occupational Therapy equipment and goes to the gym every day at his school. He gets his sensory breaks. He uses a Vantage Lite and now the iPad — from the notebook, to text-to-speech for typing, which he is doing more independently. He also enjoys using the Vantage Lite. Adam also started using the Vital Links headphones which help him be able to calm his body and sit at a desk and do work. This works by choosing various MP3 music chips. He can sit and work and still hear and listen to his teachers. It’s a much better option than the Ritalin we once tried in his other school — a nightmarish experience.

After June, Adam went also to a new camp. We lost our aide worker of seven years. For the first time I had to let Adam “go.” I had to learn to trust that others would treat him well and I had to trust that Adam would rise to the occasion.

He did, although his new obsession with exploration and doors took over. He typed to me in the summer that “door is a question.” A question so powerful, in fact, that sometimes he seems to have little control over his insatiable curiousity.

We incorporated exploration time at the end of each day, with supervision. He was still adored at his new camp as he was at his older camp. Both camps are fully inclusive. He needed a bit more support after incidents at the end of his the year at his other school. I called the summer “operation calm down” as Adam was highly stressed and the door obsession began. As the summer unfolded, he calmed. By the end of it, his ability to speak reliably soared in ways we had not yet experienced. He was relaxed and happy and of course, we always try and type a little more each day at home since he got his iPad.

This was the biggest change in Adam’s communication — his verbal ability increased and between typed and verbal, I could trust that what he said, he meant. Instead of echoing or saying things he learned elsewhere, Adam began telling me real things and he still does — from how he is feeling, to what happened to him, and what he does and doesn’t like or want. Some days I will get an interesting full blown description of something I didn’t quite ask for, with language full of imagery that I have to interpret, which gives me clues into the way Adam sees things. I have asked the school to verify things I do not know, in order to test myself as Adam’s communication partner. I am always trying to ensure that I enable Adam by testing myself and watching for his cues. I am a work in progress.

Adam writes emails to me every day — something I still insist as part of reciprocal communication (and a safety necessity in my view). Yesterday, he independently wrote me that his tummy was sick. I had to call the school to verify and the senior therapist ran down to check on him. “Isn’t this a wonderful call?” I said. Sure, my son could have been barfing, but hell, he could tell me! Adam is assertive when he can speak. I can see more clearly now that he has a fighter spirit.

Yesterday, Adam was unusually upset in his OT appointment and I had to intervene. I brought in the iPad and he typed “I want dinner!” As he typed, he said the sentence before he finished typing the word dinner. When Adam is anxious, like so many autistic individuals express, it can be harder for him to access language. Sometimes it’s not, so there are no clear cut “rules” here. Yet, as soon as he was able to have access to the device to type, he immediately calmed down.

The same thing happened this morning. He was quite upset. I brought out the iPad to type on the text to speech application, which he really likes. I asked him if he was feeling tired or sick. He wrote back, “No school because I tired.” He smiled because he obviously feels more empowered when he can tell me what he really wants to say.

I get asked a lot from parents on how I taught Adam how to type. Believe me, I was criticized by people who believed that supported, or facilitated communication, was a hoax. I simply kept it up (I started when Adam was around four years old). Now Adam can type unsupported most of the time. My priority with his school is following up with is literacy and unsupported typing. At home, we play poetry games and type in the nuanced ways that are difficult to explain without writing it out in a longer essay or post. It is always best to see Adam and I doing this a few times to see how varied it can be.

Today, I promised myself I would write again, and I’m enjoying writing about Adam’s writing, which is much more interesting than mine. Sometimes I feel that I am climbing a never-ending mountain when I say it is Adam’s neurology, not behaviour, that make it difficult for him to communicate and do tasks consistently. So I stopped writing and talking for a while and just lived our lives. This is one of the reasons I had to take a break. I needed to be with Adam, go through all the changes, and just be.

So far, I like what I see as Adam happily runs to the school door every morning. We went through some difficult days with certain ABA therapists when Adam was a baby. It is now, as he’s older, that I see that consistent practice is important and helpful to him, as well as a structured day that he can predict and have some control over. For Adam, I am still convinced that the early engagement was very important through a play-based method. He always had a combination of methods that are currently out there. Being with other children was wonderful. I wish he could still be with all kinds of children, of course, especially since he typed a couple of weeks ago, “I want friends.” But when schools do not fully understand and accept autistic kids, I had to pull back and ask myself where Adam might be treated better. In this case, he’s in a place where the staff seem open minded and we work together on planning Adam’s programs and various teaching methods. Adam’s extracurricular activities include now skiing, a Friendship Club, piano lessons, and an art class.

I am hopeful because I know that Adam will progress because of maturity and because of finding the environments, support and methods that best suit him, and these may or may not change. I am also hopeful for myself that be it good or bad, writing and talking about Adam in respectful ways is still very important to how I support myself as his mother. Both Adam and Estee find writing really important, and I know Adam would tell you so.

Every parent has a dream and an expectation for their children, and expectations never quite turn out how we envision. I always had a dream that Adam and I will tour around and he will be able to tell you many things on how he grew up and learned all by himself and I can talk about the journey I took to try and help him. I can imagine Adam and writing to each other, because that’s what we are doing! Maybe soon I’ll find the energy to show you. I believe Adam the fighter will want to show you for himself.


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 (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.