A Rights-Base Approach for Autism

Filed Under (Activism, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Discrimination, Inclusion, Politics, What is Disability?) by Estee on 05-11-2014

Adam is typing a deluge of sentences, feelings, anger at being ignored by certain people; upset by some people in his life that still do not “see his mind,” as he puts it. As Adam’s parent and protector, I know there is good reason to share our journey and good reason to protect Adam’s growth by not sharing too much. I am cognizant of his consent so I will make hints and speak generally.

We all know that there are people who like to doubt and target the autistic child or adult. Adam has a cadre of supporters around him as he is learning to assert his rights and self-advocate now as a more fluent typist. The flood gates are opening and hopefully the people in his life will pay attention. Despite his prolific writing, there are many who don’t.

I was disappointed to read that an autism school, after having seen the movie Wretches & Jabberers, ream off reasons why it is so necessary for autistic people to become independent. We have a huge problem as we still cite autism as a problem in our society (mostly because of a lack of independence) and this makes it hard for many to live good lives. A blog post is not enough space to qualify what makes a good life, or how the notion of freedom and individualism is also a part of the disability rights movement itself. I will just go on briefly about the state we are in without those qualifications.

Instead of talking about rights to access, inclusion and support, our communities continue to discuss ways to make people independent before the right to inclusion and participation in society. There is a major flaw with this premise in that for most, this will result in permanent exclusion and segregation into special schools and disability centres. One method to reverse this may be to make it mandatory for acceptance and support to enable the right to be included, but of course we need a value system to buttress this. Until we understand how autistic people can be enabled, and how they wish to be supported, we usually set the stage for an inequitable and unjust relationships whereby the people who “teach” autistic people put themselves in a superior role of remediator (therapist, teacher, etc). This means that we believe that the normal body and behaviour is considered the “right” way to be in society.

We have to understand the necessity of support before we go further, and seek counsel from autistic people in how they wish to be supported.This happens in our everyday interactions, as every behaviour is a mode of communication. Good support that is grounded in understanding rights, the theory behind that, and more pointedly, the movement differences of many folks with disabilities helps us to understand the need for support (there are more points to be made but I just wrote these to be a starting point for discussion). However, we also have to remember that the supports are not universal because there is no monolithic autism. It is this tension about competing needs in the service industry that makes this complicated. Not every autistic person requires the same support, but everyone does require the same access and rights. Rights requires a more detailed discussion too, but again, I am writing from a basic premise that our rights in society are established even though they not always acknowledged or enacted.

Sometimes support can enable people to become independent. Other times, it can enable that much more independence than before, but not absolute independence. Of course, this is a fractured notion since none of us are independent. We can think of a myriad of examples of how we are all connected despite our heralded idea of individualism and the notion of freedom associated with this. By way of philosopher Charles Taylor, I quite agree that our modern notions individualism and freedom are tied in with instrumental reason, that is, a means to an end. In ordinary terms that relate to autism and independence, this means that the heralded modern ideal makes it incumbent to be independent to be included and to work (the means, to be independent, becomes the end, a person who costs less and is efficient to producing goods in a market economy as it is today). As such, the ideal is exclusive and does not work for the majority of autistic people. What we will have left after the misguided premise will be more need for adult services which continue to segregate and have done nothing to enable communication, choice, and participation.

The film Wretches & Jabberers certainly promotes the idea of the independent mind – but that mind is enabled by support. It refutes the assumption that a cogent mind and a fluent body must co-exist. We learn that the body will often not do what the mind is thinking, and that the body also has its own unique ways of knowing through movements we call “inappropriate” (the term “inappropriate behaviour” should be reserved for people who inflict ill will to another). Without support, many autistic people who have movement difficulties, inability to speak, and other difficulties, would never gain access to any communication whatsoever. In turn, it is equally unjust to take an autistic person’s voice away when a therapist or a support worker wishes to be successful in helping the autistic person to the point that it enables the therapist’s own career. For example, in many therapeutic settings, a therapist will do certain things to over prompt the autistic person to gain a positive outcome or may falsify data results. This happens with supported communication just has much as it happens in ABA and with other methods. A “best practice” seems to me to take all of the above into account to ensure that the checks and balances are there to test the support worker more than the autistic person – which requires a rights-based approach.

Supported communication’s time has come as more and more autistic children gain access with support and later do become independent. Maybe this is more so than in the 1990’s because many have matured from childhood to become regular and mostly independent (through typing) communicators.(For the time being I am not going into the problems of a positivist to this). It is this burden of proof, incumbent on the autistic body, that has sadly been necessary as a result of a doubting public on the intelligence of individuals who cannot speak, or who make “inarticulate” sounds and effusive bodily movements. However, let us not withdraw support for those who require the assistant or aide worker to contribute, work and communicate. For many, this interdependency will be vital to life. In this sense, plenty of proofs (as quoted from the film) are not enough. We need a proof of commitment from every person in society; we need the proof that autistic rights/disability rights mean something in Canada. We need to be able to enforce those rights.

So this obviously, I hope, points to something I think we all need to discuss: ourselves. What is it about society that keeps autistic people from participating as autistic people? What assumptions do we make about disability and belonging and why is most of it lip service and not action? What is a rights based approach to helping autistic people? Why are we avoiding helping people to use devices?

One thing I have learned is that we learn to include by including. Adam is severely autistic and intelligent and has so much he wants to offer. He has friends. He complains about being ignored by some people who likely assume that he doesn’t understand. These complaints suggest something very wrong with our assumptions that despite the work of autistic people for us to hear and see them, continue to be ignored. Why? What more proof do we need?

Now I come to the who benefits question. I’ve written about this before, as have many writers and theorists. Perhaps we have to take a look at the industry we have created from the vulnerabilities of others. Who is getting paid? Who is getting attention or even celebrity in the autism world and why? I’m fed up with an expert culture feeding upon parent’s imaginations and pocket books. As I see and do in our own autism lives here in Toronto, education and access can work. We are living and breathing examples of it. But ours is a hard-work story. It’s not a cure story, and not one that feeds into celebrity culture.

Every day I work to figure out why and who this can be made accessible to the many families who are in need of support, but either are drained financially or must be subservient to a program that they must take or get nothing else. You may think at this point that it costs too much. Indeed, that’s the economic cost to society argument that comes at a great cost to many. It is inhumane. The great cost is continue to promote a method of therapy fueled by an attitude that continues to segregate. We tend to concur with an argument that abuse perpetrated by aide workers happens because of economic reasons – that the worker is being paid too little. I realize this could be a topic of its own, but I can’t resist inserting it here. How can we accept this low standard for disabled people? We would not accept this for children, but over and over again we hear it happens to disabled people and write off the story instead of talking about our collective ethical responsibility to improve our attitudes and values towards the disabled in our society. And this needs to happen among people who are not touched by disability as much as within disabled families. The only way we can make it happen is together. The only way we can improve our lives is to change the way we discuss autism and society.

I would love to have a voice loud enough to make a call to all schools and autism organizations, parents and autistic people, to include these discussions in the autism agenda; perhaps I can only hope some people will take what they need from this and many other posts written by autistic people. We need to come together to create this collective voice! Very often these policy documents are centred around therapy and services. Ethics, value, inclusion are sidelined by discussions about how to make the autistic person independent through therapy. I believe that a person-centred approach could be focussed more on these autistic rights and ethics discussions. The question is, why hasn’t it?

Rights is not necessarily (and most definitely not exclusively) about the right to therapy but the right to be autistic and included. In the meantime, since these rights are established (although not acknowledged for autistic people in Canada as we can see by our public institutions) we must do everything to provide access to communication tools beyond a PECS system. Autistic people are intelligent and the spectrum notion is highly misguided in terms of our understanding of people, yet it satisfies the need for a quick summary of autistic people for non-autistic people. We must also urge people to rid the notion that the autistic person will miraculously one day type clear thoughts or speak – it is unfair for the autistic people and supporters who toil to communicate. This is not to say that an autistic person will not come to speech later in life. Indeed Adam can talk the more he types but talking is different than typing. You can read up on that yourself. Not all autistic people will ever be able to talk even though they will be able to type (notice my assertion).

As many will attest who have learned to type, it’s a long and arduous process for both the typist and the supporter. Adam is now 12 and is just beginning to really express complicated things. We’ve been at it since he was 4, and we still have a ways to go. This is the kind of patience, perseverance and belief that all of us require to support the autistic person into adulthood. I know that Adam will go on in his education, so long as we can fight for the right for him to be classroom at either college or university. As Adam grows and learns now that he is out of autism classrooms, I can say safely that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. This is also the case for his speaking up to the people in his life and about his own experiences as a person who has had to live with this autism label and all that it comes with. I am not underestimating the ongoing challenges that he will have to contend with, and how I will have to support him in this. I am often enraged by our culture that perpetuates despair for families instead of supporting them in making all of our “autistic lives” good and contented ones.

It takes a fight to avoid the pull of “experts” who will insist that your child has the “intelligence of a 5 year old,” or from the doctor who, after an 18 second observation will tell you that your child’s tics require psychotropic medication (the list goes on). For certain, every person’s situation is different and will require different supports, but the point is that too often we let the medical profession and the medicalized therapeutic professions do this to us and we all need more empowerment and support to critically think about what it is that prevents our children from being in a classroom to being out in the community with all kinds of people – not just fellow autistic ones. It is better to find someone who will spend time and listen with us, start with conservative approaches, and of course, put the rights of the child first. We must find each other for support along the way.

While I get fed up with the barrage of public opinion (indeed another flaw of modern culture that insists that individualism is associated with this free opinion) that suggest that independence is of utmost importance and the underlying prejudice (and thus barrier) that exists within that statement, I think that we have a lot more work to do. Sometimes we have to be brave in this and say it like it is.

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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.