Emerging Tensions: Puberty, Autonomy and Safety

Filed Under (Aides and Assistants, Anxiety, Autism and Learning, Behaviours, Communication, Development, Family, Identity, Inclusion, Intelligence, Living, Love, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Safety, school, Sensory Differences, Single Parenthood, Transitions, Travel) by Estee on 13-12-2013

It’s the end of the term…I need a long break and so does Adam. His anxiety went up as soon as the clocks turned back. The darkness brought about a new mood, Adam’s ticking went off the charts and he started a new tick – a screaming tick. He wasn’t happy – he couldn’t stop it as the pressure mounted on him to stop. I felt pressure in trying to help him, because let’s face it, screaming disturbs the peace. It’s alarming. With it, Adam’s flight-fight prompts him to bolt when he sees pathways and stairwells. These are all the signs that Operation Calm Down had to be put into effect. By virtue of naming it so, it’s not the first time we have implemented it.

Dad took Adam on a short vacation and this allowed me to have one too. On my yoga vacay, I met another dad with an Asperger’s son. He too mentioned that his son ticks and these anxiety attacks, let’s call them for now, make it difficult to get back to schoolwork. His son’s grades are going down, he said. So too, autistic autobiography reiterates the length of time it requires to self-regulate…sometimes days. Although I’ve been busy with PhD study, I realize the patterns of Adam’s distress tends to be at regular intervals during the year, and after sickness. Now that his body is changing as well as his needs, I am considering a leave-of-absence to help him, but also to help myself in so doing.

In thinking of Adam’s life and the very complex anxiety he has, his motor-planning difficulties, his frustration so apparent as he tries so hard to talk (the other day he got so frustrated, he picked up a pencil and in his chicken scratch wrote that he wanted to go to “gramma’s house”), we can’t always expect a learner like Adam to spend day-after-day exactly the same. The seasons change, there are new anxieties in life and we all need breaks. This is one of the most fundamental obstacle I can think of in how we teach children in general – in chairs for too long, in small rooms, with little outdoor exercise because of liability issues. It’s not one person’s fault, per se. It’s how we’ve built our society. We live in cars, in buildings and we don’t get out much. If Adam had an outdoor learning environment as a major part of his learning experience, I think he would be able to take in much more (outdoor education is decreasing but can be made accessible to people with disabilities). In the summer with lots of activity, for instance, he can talk more – and this is a feat for someone like Adam.

It is therefore very difficult to be talking grades, assessments, intelligence and so forth without recognizing that, living in the settings that are the way they are, that my autistic son will be delayed in his learning. The focus is far to much on intelligence (or ideas about intelligence) rather than somatic knowledge, difficulty and other ways that we can learn. I know this because when Adam is “on,” and there are adaptations to his learning, he can learn. I am writing in these terms because when looking at sites or articles about autism, the terms and ways of thinking about intelligence and learning are so “matter-of-fact” or normalized that we forget about how other kinds of learning can take place. This makes so many people, the forgotten ones. In essence, I’m trying to move away from a linear model of development and learning which doesn’t work for many people.

When the body has to spend so much time readjusting and becoming comfortable, the rest of the school work (at a desk in a chair…) has to be put aside. It would be wonderful for schools and educators to think about this a little more – to integrate movement into every aspect of the day including field trips and outdoor activities – even in inclement weather (my parents never protected me from it). I fear with our autistic children in Canada, that we are growing more back towards re-institutionalization in a different costume; we segregate and we isolate in order for our kids to be “safe.” In this, I appreciated mother and author of the book Spark, on her autistic son, namely, her “philosophy of muchness.” Never stop exposing (even with ticks, flaps and screaming) autistic children from many things – theatre, music, the outdoors, and accept the difficulties and make room for them.

We need to change the way we look at the length of education – since not all bodies cannot finish high school by the age of 18 (or 21). What other modes of education might we employ? Considering this is not as much an “intelligence” issue (I hesitate because I do not like to promote intellectualism which I find further separates people) as much as a somatic one.

Which leads me to some new revelations for me as a mom: that Adam’s “voice” is a part of his growth. It’s hard on me to watch him in a kind of pain from which he can’t escape (sometimes the ticks are a loop he can’t stop and sometimes they are willful – one “behaviour” can serve many different purposes) but also, I want so badly to give him the tools he needs so he can gain some latitude in his life. His life is so restricted with people always watching his every move – and this is, as I mentioned, for safety reasons. I often wonder, if given a great expanse of land to explore, could he feel better? What will his choices be for how he needs and wants to live his life? How can we support that? How do we stop protecting (or at least let up a little) in a dangerous world? I am certain some of Adam’s stress comes from having very little autonomy, and although he is strong and willful (which I believe will bode him well), if you can’t communicate fluently in our society, or you can’t cross the street by yourself, your autonomy is limited. This, of course, is where the concept of supported-decision making and assistance comes in, but assistants (and parents) really need to understand this and how to be good listeners (for some reading, look to Val Williams’ conversational analyses between caregivers and non-verbal individuals). Think of the life-skills training in addition to the education that our children also deserve. This takes more time than the allotment prescribed during the Industrial Revolution. I mean, it’s time to move on.

Then there is the need to reconsider how we look at behaviour from the outside. This is a problematic approach because we cannot know how Adam feels on the inside, yet we have lots of autistic autobiography to help us. When we tried redirecting Adam with a behavioural approach, this enraged him – he smashed himself into the couch and crumpled the paper from his Zeotrope in his little fists and threw them to the ground. The basis of this was to get Adam to stop screaming, but it did not account for the fact that he perhaps could not stop. This is the same for Tourettes (which I think Adam “has”) in that if you call more attention to the action, it will increase it. Instead, deflecting to relaxing activities seems to help more in addition to the sensory (deep pressure) that Adam needs.

An and calming approach worked much better than a behavioural one – this is what has to be done before we can teach any lessons – social and academic. Social stories and cognitive behavioural training are now a part of Adam’s week in addition to us seeking more adventure for him – rock climbing, circus arts and swimming. For CBT, another boy character is inserted into social stories to take the attention away from Adam. This way, Adam can relate to the character without feeling targeted. I gleaned this from reading Donna Williams’ Exposure Anxiety, which makes a lot of sense where Adam is concerned.

I fully believe after 12 years of being with Adam that seeking cooperation through engagement is our obligation, not his because he is still learning. He is a child who wants to learn, but we can’t do that by mere compliance. He complies when he is respected and engaged and also knows the rules (teaching boundaries respectfully will be our new challenge). I’ve started teaching three key concepts in various formats and in daily life to Adam – cooperation, patience and gratitude. In teaching Adam these concepts and ways to enact them in daily life, I also have to do so towards him. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Puberty will be challenging for Adam and for me. I am protective mother noticing the need and beginnings of separation. On the one hand it seems that Adam needs his structure and certain environments especially when he is feeling uncertain. On the other hand, he is truly becoming a teenager who is showing more signs of frustration and wanting to expand his world (this is different than bolting or escape but could be sometimes related). These may always be competing impulses in him, I don’t know. All I can tell is that they both exist within him. How do I give Adam boundaries and his own need for control over his own life now and ensure his safety? I’ll keep you posted on how this goes too.

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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.