Towards a New Autism Research

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism and The Media, Autistic Self Advocacy, Book Reviews, Communication, Computing/iPad, Critical Disability Studies, Development, Discrimination, Family, Movement Disturbance, Research, school, Sensory Differences, Transitions) by Estee on 06-07-2012

It doesn’t matter who you are, or how high you rise. One day you will get the call. The question is, how will you respond?” — African American U, Senior Administrator

Adam left for camp this morning. Last week, he did well at his piano recital. His lessons have been adapted for him — colour coding left and right hands, bass and treble clef lines, to give a sense of the many adaptations we’ve learned. Not only have we adapted lessons for him so that he may learn in “typical” ways, but I also asked the teacher to let him explore the piano on his own, as well as have her play for him. I became a musician when I was very young, and a neighbour let me bang away at the keys doing whatever I wanted.

I was proud that Adam was able to attend and play well at his recital. I asked that he make his little bow, and sure, everyone thought that was sweet. Afterwards, as there was another special needs person as part of the concert, I was noticing faces as he sang — his articulation was challenged. I didn’t see gleaming “ain’t that sweet” smiles. I saw strained faces. Not until the children who were fluent with well-pitched voices were singing did the “ain’t that adorable” look beam as high as the church rafters. That effected me a lot, and I pay attention to these subtleties every day. I don’t think people realize the subversive effects of a mere countenance. I, at least, read faces well. Adam seems to pick up on vibes, but that’s my assumption after knowing him for so long.

Last week, Adam was more verbal — asking me “what are you doing?” when I was at work at my desk and he wanted to play. In addition to a successful recital and these questions, we had a “good” week. Having Adam ask me a rare question is exciting. I am happy when he gets more verbal, types on his iPad, and now, starts to ask me questions. When the camp bus came for a visit last week and Adam got upset afterwards, he typed (independently), “why is bus going?” It shows that his world is expanding by his growing ability to communicate. I find myself relieved because I think it will make his life more fulfilling, if not easier in a world that favours the able-bodied and the fluently verbal.

Two days after his verbal “spike,” however, something that comes and goes but improves steadily all the time (akin to a graph with a steady climb overall, but with monthly plateaus and slight dips), and also possibly correlating to the end of school, the transition to camp, a possible cold or allergies (get the picture?), Adam began to twitch more and he lost his ability to talk for a couple of days. He is better at being able to type a few words when he is under stress. He couldn’t do that at all before.

While I still worry, mostly if I see him uncomfortable when it happens, I’m getting better at waiting him out. Whatever is effecting him needs to be processed by him in his own way. Within a couple of days, although the twitching slowly abated. He started to smile and become more verbal after a couple of days of the most intense part of it. I really do not understand what is happening to him neurologically and neither does anyone else. Only some autistic people can give me a sense of it. There is no guru or expert or scientist who has truly “discovered” what causes Adam to tic and twitch the way he does. We know of similarities in other disabilities. Adam was tested for seizures and at least on the day he was tested, it showed negative. These are but some of the things we don’t fully understand about Adam and what we refer to as his autism.

As his mother, I’m well aware of my bias, in spite of my enduring “acceptance” of him. Bias and ideas are so deep-rooted in us that acceptance is something we have to work on every day. (Boy, would I love to read that caveat in someone’s research paper on autism). As Adam’s mother, I realize that although I love him dearly and accept him as he is, it is still difficult to resist the temptation to praise Adam’s “normal” feats and accomplishments only, and not recognize his autistic ones. Like all of us, we are under such a strong ableist or “normalist” influence that we don’t praise, cite, recognize autistic-ness as often as we need to.

We need so much more of a new kind of autism research — one that captures autistic accomplishment without sensationalizing autism. Too often any achievement by an autistic individual gets refered to as “genius.” While in some cases in may be extraordinary, we do this because we are still not looking at autism as a whole in the way we should look at all of humanity. We fracture autism into little bits and pieces as much as we end up doing people.

When I attended Autreat too long ago now (I am due for a revisit), I purchased fifteen years of workshop notes and presentations. I remember when I attended being giddy that there were workshops for autistic kids on how to make their own stim toys. Autreat, founded by Jim Sinclair, who is also autistic, is run by and for autistic people.

For months now since he started in an autism school especiallly, despite my praise of Adam for his feats, I still wonder how I can nurture his autistic-self. So I went downstairs and dug the old material up. Here’s a clue of what I wish to study more about:

How to Play With Dolls: For Kids and Adults Jim Sinclair, disability educator and consultant, coordinator of Autism Network International

For purposes of this workshop, a “doll” may be any inanimate object that we play with by imagining it to have aspects of personhood. This includes the traditional toy-human type of doll, as well as toy animals, and any other toys or objects that our imaginations transform into living entities. In this intergenerational workshop, we will share and explore different ways that autistic people can use doll play for fun and for learning, and ways that parents, educators, and therapists can use doll play to help autistic people in developing skills and understanding…”

Music: What Is It, What Does It Mean To Us, and How Can We Use It?
Katja Gottschewski, musician and music therapist, Bodo, Norway

In this workshop, we will explore different aspects of music. We will look at differences and similarities in how we as individuals or as AC’s and NT’s [autistics and neurotypicals] define and experience music. It will be discussed how we can communicate through music. How is music different than language? Can music be a bridge between AC’s and NT’s?

Understanding How Plants Can Facilitate Connection in Autistic Children and Adults
George Salamunec, HTR, COTA/L, Certified Master Gardener, Susan Golubock, M.Ed., OTR/L
Autreat 2004

Working with, and understanding about, plants can be an effective tool for developing the senses, reducing stress, and learning to make new connections in autistic children and adults. Matching plants to one’s personality and needs is an important first step. Plants provide opportunities for autistic children to explore life, nurturing, modulation, non aggressive options and choices for dealing with natural adversities, and why learning about other life (and people) outside of ourselves is so important…

Making Employment Fit: Accommodations and Other Dirty Words
Joel Smith, Autreat 2004

Employment is difficult for many autistic people. We are square pegs who dont fit nicely into round holes. Rather than forcing the autistic into a job, would it be possible to change the job to better fit the autistic? In this presentation, ideas and real-life examples are presented of how jobs can be modified to best accommodate autistic sensitivities. We will also discuss how to modify your job without alientating your boss and co-workers.

That was from Autreat 2000 and 2004. Twelve years later, I am concerned (especially after attending IMFAR), how we hardly research autistic ways of being. We usually do it framed in a bias — comparative research against the “normal,” population.

We really don’t value what makes up the true and different, “not less,” accomplishments of the autistic person. I’ve read blogs where “experts” bluntly claim that there is “no value” in lining objects up. I’m not going to target the scientist specifically here, but I wonder how many readers of this may have at one time or another thought the same thing? Other than people like Temple Grandin, how can we all study the value of object-organization and how that is transferable into learning at school and later, in the workplace? I don’t think this is a trivial skill that needs to be solely relegated to the OCD side of the human column.

Just because we don’t see the value doesn’t mean it ain’t there. We don’t understand. We are viewing under a comparative, normal versus abnormal one, and that’s so limiting. While I try to make the “least dangerous assumption,” a term first coined by Dr. Anne Donnellan, I realize that I must work to continue to see Adam for who he is in all contexts. It’s a absolute daily task and obligation of mine as his parent. I wake up every morning thinking about this, more than I pander to alarmism. In fact, next time an autism commercial brings you to tears, please ask what buttons are being pressed and why, and if there’s a better way to achieve a quality of life for us all?

I’m also reading Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary’s newly released book Autism: Sensory-Movement Difference and Diversity and I would highly recommend it. I liked especially this example:

According to Oliver Sack’s book, Seeing Voices, in learning sign in infancy he will develop brain patterns remarkably different from his ‘normal’ peers. And he will continue to develop in different ways, but we can in no way call those differences ‘deficiencies.’ He will develop different social and cultural skills. If given the most standardized IQ tests, even with a signing interpreter, he will perform differently, and possibly less well, than his speaking/hearing peers. On tests that tap the developmental experiences of deaf people he would probably score far higher than his hearing friends. Yet it is no surprise but nonetheless sad to learn that for decades deaf children were routinely diagnosed as mentally retarded. Still today, they are often considered to have diminished capacity relative to their hearing peers, even when we clearly know that they can flourish if given the appropriate education and experiences. (p. 33).

Consider that, for the deaf which we think we’ve come, arguably, to understand and accept, of how far behind we are in autism to apply this level of consideration. Think how far behind! Thankfully, a small pool (and I hope a growing one) of researchers are taking up this call. In Steven Kapp’s (et al) paper Deficit, Difference of Both? Autism and Neurodiversity, there is also a call to discover the state of autism acceptance and “potential areas of common ground in research and practice regarding [how] autism [is] discussed.”

Scientists, working with the community, can help stakeholders with competing agendas make informed choices between rights, responsibilities, and needs at personal, social, and political levels by affirming that diverse societies respect multiple perspectives.

I’d like to see us all work towards the question of how to nurture autistic strengths and learning and balancing the real need to cope in this world as a minority, as well as continuing to value autistic contribution and being in society.

A Whole Better World
Autreat, May 2000,
Clay Adams

I can imagine a whole better world,
Where people don’t laugh at each other’s pain
A world where the sun shines on every one
And one’s well-being is everyone’s gain

Must we, in fact, feed off each other?
Fool the unwary, to sell our wares?

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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.