Technology & Autism: We Still Need Acceptance

Filed Under (Acceptance, Capital, Communication, Computing/iPad, Parenting, Technology) by Estee on 05-02-2015

Adam is learning to become an independent typist so quickly now. While it makes me proud and happy for him because he wants to be independent (he has written so many times), it is really important to know that independence, for all of us, is an illusion.

First, Adam has been typing since he has been around 4-5 years old. Most teachers and therapists aren’t all familiar with how support can enable a non-speaking person to type (and possibly become independent). While we began early, we didn’t obtain the commitment from teachers who would not learn how to support him, in my view, because they didn’t understand the meaning of support.

When a person has many motor planning issues associated with their movement and speech, it can be very difficult to feel grounded enough to type. The purpose of support is to enable the body and the mind to ground (if you will allow me a metaphor). A support person also offers the emotional security in a task that is so challenging when the body and mind coordinate many different stimuli and tasks. We take for granted how we multitask, and how our bodies coordinate speech and bodily movements effortlessly. For Adam, he has expressed numerous times how he has required help.

The important addition in Adam’s life has been the support we had been looking for all these years; this means daily use of typing in all settings, almost all of the time. Adam now has access and support every day. As such, he has moved so swiftly in his ability and language expression that we are all confident that he is moving to more consistent independence.

However, I want to caution everyone here, for the emotional support of others may be needed, as well as patient and gracious listeners. Just because Adam can often type without physical support does not mean that he might now need another person nearby giving him the confidence he needs. Also, while the level of support may fade, some people may always require some level of support throughout their lifetime. In my own research, I’ve found that a generous and encouraging co-presence – of love and a presumption that Adam is intelligent and curious, has encouraged him. He has been very frustrated for how he has been treated over the years as a boy who hasn’t understood what is being said, and is eager to learn even though his day-to-day life may be challenging.

While the iPad has markedly changed the reception of Adam by others – providing Adam’s voice and enabling friendships and school work through text-to-speech technology (we use Proloquo2go) – technology is not a panacea. Too often, we make the grave mistake of thinking that if we push our children hard enough, they will learn how to speak or type, etc. “Just as long as he can communicate” thinking will not erase the experience of being autistic. Our modern notions of independence are skewed by a market-economy that demands that we, as parents, produce the most efficient workers. This is also proving to be a big issue as our autistic children turn 21.

The ABA movement, when it was nascent here in Canada in the 1990’s-present, presented itself as an early-intervention treatment to recover the autistic child. The idea that earlier (and quicker) is better, fuels parental desperation and fosters an inauspicious environment for learning. These therapies also promised parents that remediation was a passage to full inclusion in our society; that the only way to participate and contribute was to be cured of autism. Many a rights-based/legal argument constellates around the notion that to be remediated is a right; to be cured is a right in order to assure this passage to normality. All of these notions are based on a modern concept of an abstract citizen as it was formed by way of the Social Contract. In this, none of us are citizens precisely because none of us can pull our own way; we are all dependent upon one another for every cycle of the market, and for the function of our daily lives. Every rich man or woman has an army of support that enables him/her to earn that living – or production; as such one can deduce that all participants of production should be “owners.” It’s about who has the power over that capital, of course, that is called into question and is part of the discourse regarding social support.

What would it mean to think of autistic contribution and the desire to be autistic? Adding to this, can we think outside the box of productivity as we currently conceive it in modern economic terms? We have seen autistic contribution proved many times, in speaking and non-speaking ways, and perhaps it is this aspect, as having to prove oneself as normal (as possible), that troubles me. I want to call into question about how we all markate and market autistic contribution.

My interests are on how society expects autistic people to speak in “normal” ways as a passage to citizenship. As displayed in the film, Wretches & Jabberers, for instance, even when autistic people achieve communication, they are not considered full citizens; they are not included into schools or considered for employment. Here too we must acknowledge that in our society, there will be some bodies who have more material needs than others (Erevelles, 2011). How does the notion of achieving one’s “fair” or “equal” share leave out many people with significant disabilities? And what are we doing (positively and negatively) in terms of elimination of those bodies in the name of “equal” distribution?

Our questioning about autism and technology should be not just how it can make autistic people independent, but how we can change our views towards autistic people; and the right to support and education past the age of 21. Education is another system that supports economic output, of course, and needs to be reconsidered. Certainly we also know that for all of us, time-plus-experience enables knowledge. We need to provide education past that hurried (and hallowed) age of 21 and to grapple with the very troubling issues that confront us within our current system. All of these considerations may help us rethink our systems of support.

Just because we have new enabling technology doesn’t necessarily mean we accept autism. There are many contributions we all make to one another that are not counted as capital; that exist (and are valuable) outside the ledger. The ledger, after all, is a mere frame. We know there is always something left outside of it, and in this case, I am referring to a class of marginalized autistic individuals who are not considered equal because of economic potential. We need to think first about accepting autism while we consider how to educate and support autistic people with technology.

Reference:

Nirmala Erevelles, 2011. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. Palgrave MacMillan.

The Art of Autism

Filed Under (Acceptance, Art, Inspiration) by Estee on 20-01-2015

This video by Alison Ludkin, among other pieces of artwork and writings, can be found on Art of Autism – a site bringing the work of artists labeled with autism online. I suppose I chose it for my blog as Adam takes the train everyday to school and I try to take in all the sounds and stimuli with him. I try to imagine. As for this site, I recommend supporting the artists.

The Autism Acceptance Project brought art by autistic artists in an online gallery back in 2005-2007, with exhibitions in Toronto and online participatory space. As our mandate always has been to ask autistic people first what kinds of supports they want and need, the organization has (and continues) to seek autistic-person guidance and governance. When the site was maliciously hacked about two years ago, we lost much data and records, some of which is now stored at Brock University Library Archives. I must admit that I really enjoyed those days of curating artwork and today, Adam’s poetry and other endeavours, and nourishing them as best I can, is keeping me busy.

I am so grateful for the work by autistic people. My background as a curator of art (my first profession prior to my disability studies work) started my journey in looking at disability differently and began the whole blogging process back in 2005. I suppose when looking at shiny new sites – much better constructed than our budget or ability could muster back in the old-internet-age of 2005 – I am thrilled to have the opportunity to view work by autistic people. This site has such a wide array. This is work we saw much too little of prior to the Internet so it would be an interesting topic for many of us to explore (and a paper about online spaces I am writing at the moment).

May we also spread encouragement and support directly to the artists when we think about creating websites. I believe that the artists, if they are not directly reimbursed because of budget constraints, should at least be directly credited for their work with a link back to their galleries or websites may enable a generation of income and accolades. Also, it would be wonderful to promote not an “awareness” of autism – we certainly have that awareness out there. However, it’s the kind of awareness that can be problematic. As Kassiane S. states: “Awareness is easy. Acceptance requires actual work.” Perhaps a site dedicated to autism acceptance is critical now.

My Son’s Good News Journalism

Filed Under (autism, Communication, Inspiration, Parenting) by Estee on 13-01-2015

Today I received a call from the school (a good call) that Adam was upset. After given the chance to type about why he was upset, he was talking about the news and of justice. He is beginning to learn about Martin Luther King. He wrote at school:

“People keep talking shit about justice…laugh out loud in life there is no happy and free people.” He was asked if he saw this on the news: “Yes at home and on subway…Hang the reporters …on the news my feeling is that it only shows really one sided opinions…great people are ignored and also sad to hear about death…”

My first instinct as Adam’s mom was to help him understand bad news by thinking of how we all cope everyday. We hear of terrorism, killings in our own city, many injustices. It is hard to watch your own child be pained by it all. I told him about how I think we don’t understand joy unless we experience struggle and also that we cope everyday by thinking about the people we love and the things we love to do. It’s all I could come up with as he listened intently while noshing on rice snacks after school today. Then I commented on all that bad news we hear and rhetorically asked why that is. I would ask any other grade seven student the same question, so why not Adam? I commented that some people only watch the news when it’s bad news. Then I grabbed my copy of the Sunday New York Times and we looked for some good news stories. Dismayed that I could not find anything in the front section, I leaped to the arts section and we found a story about inspiration. I thought we could go with that. Adam leaned in and I started talking about how we need good news journalists. This is what he wrote and with his permission, he does want this published on my blog:

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Then Proloquo (the program he uses to type) jammed so we moved to a notes section and he continued:

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It’s hard to read from the screen shot so here it is again:

“It sells because people want to see bad things. I would love to have news that is good. A good news story would be about inspiration. I would write about my noteworthy experiences as my autism is my struggle. My very hard time with speaking is my struggle. I want the world inside my open mind to understand my intelligence and I most happy when I can type. I learned to type by patient mommy and I have an about a boy who has worked hard. I think that I am a good example for parents to know that open minds are required for their kids to learn how to type. I want people to read this.”

Adam, the good news journalist, wants you to read… and to hear.

With Tidings of Struggles and Joy

Filed Under (ABA, Acceptance, Activism, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Human Rights, Inclusion, Joy) by Estee on 29-12-2014

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This is a short post to wish all of you a happy holiday and New Year. Adam and I have had such a wonderful year – his wish now to write a book and all that progress with his typing. Finally out of the clutches of autism schools that haven’t realized Adam’s abilities, Adam is now doing his grade seven curriculum. Thanks to everyone who has supported us this year! It has been a joy for all of Adam’s family and closest support staff to witness Adam’s happiness and self-esteem that is noticeably changed since he talks more with friends and family by typing.

That said, despite proof, I am dismayed with “autism programs” here in Canada and the lack of activism we engage in as families. Compliance and normality still propel autism programs here, and rape a family’s emotional and financial well-being with the empty promise of recovery, cure and a semblance of “normality.” I ache for families and more so for autistic children – many forced behind closed doors for hours a day in “therapy.” This is no quality of life, no joy. This is child-abuse and unless we begin to identify the violence of these programs, little will change. When I think of a New Year, I spend most of my time thinking about the work that needs to get done. I think about what my obligation is as Adam’s parent and it’s not about therapy.

It is our obligation as parents to understand the autistic community that is comprised of other autistic people. We are much more obliged to read and try to understand the experiences of autistic people for the positive development and growth of our children. The autism agenda (that is research and policy) is set by non-autistic people who are telling parents that is their obligation to do everything and anything to cure their autistic child – this spans from starving them from certain foods so they appear less autistic to forcing normalizing therapies. Even if in a situation (because true inclusion and acceptance is far from achieved in our country) where there seems to be little choice at but to put a child in an autism school (typically with ABA therapy), a parent must do everything to find a learning and social situation that supports difference (and I realize that using that term risks totalizing) without the propensity and impulse to normalize. Sure, these are loaded sentences that I’ve spent since 2004 working through (you can read them in the blog), but they need to be because the situation is not as black and white as most media outlets (I need to write that letter to the CBC!) and research outfits will have you believe.

As a parent, I also have to pick my battles because there are so many to be had every single day. It is the reason why we can’t write about every injustice everyday here on this blog (although I think about it). Instead, I am working with Adam and his team on delightful things – his words, his thoughts, and yes, his pain that he cites within a society that doesn’t accept him. Even though that incites me, Adam is so full of love and acceptance for that very world in which he wants to belong. I’d like to think that maybe I’ve had a bit to do with that. Exposing Adam to autism conferences where most autistic people go (as opposed to the ones where researchers and parents go), has changed Adam in profound ways. I consider these to be in part, my parental obligation to him.

But speaking of battles, at the moment, I’m challenging a ski program here in Ontario that seems to be practicing a qualified inclusion. Qualified inclusion means that an autistic person needs to be independent before the right to participate. I’m trying to explain to these folks the meaning of what I call for now, “enabled participation.” This suggests that many folks require their own chosen support staff (chosen and employed by the autistic person) in order to participate in ways also chosen by them. This process takes time. Consent and choice is a multi-faceted process – not necessarily a yes or no answer. When someone is challenged with verbal communication, they require many opportunities to respond to how they want to live their lives. They require people who believe in them and who know how to support their movements and communication.

When I mentioned to this ski program that excluding autistic people from autism programs is discrimination because it is qualified on the concept of normality, I received an email that Adam would be accepted on the ski hill. Since then, however, I’ve received an email that Adam will “be assessed.” At the moment, those criteria for assessment remain invisible to me; they have not disclosed their terms and I may only assume that independence is top of their list, even though they have accepted him with his assistant on the hill. Such assessments need to be fully transparent. When they are, we have the right to critique them (because we know that all assessments are based on discrimination and bias – that only verbal, normalized ways of participation and response are acceptable). I am not only a parent, but a scholar in this field being talked down to and to some extent, manipulated. One would think that many-a-program, to avoid human rights complaints in the future, would tap my knowledge of policy and law and how to better “the autism program.” Autistic folks and some folks working in Critical Disability Studies are able to provide this input for policy-making and this needs to be harnessed. But…

This is the struggle that we all face as parents and we have to understand that the rules are set by non-autistic people that want to make systems that befit them, not the autistic person. Remediation, cure, recovery, normality, independence – these are NOT criteria for inclusion. This is not substantive equality in the legal sense. Substantive equality enables the disabled person in their disability to participate as they are. So, I’ve targeted a battle, a struggle. It is a frustrating process to trouble such organizational policies, but this is are real job as parents. Don’t buy into the rubbish that autistic people are trouble and the “problem” of autism must be eradicated. That’s a backwards way to look at the issue. Instead, as parents who have long-supported damaging policies and educational/therapeutic models that autistic people have long been critiquing (as they have been hurt by them), it is time we turn our minds and our hearts to supporting our children, no matter what age, to change the rules that have long excluded them.

To that, I want to end by reiterating Adam’s Christmas wish that he typed on Christmas eve: “I wish for love and open hearts.”

One must also believe that open hearts may open doors too. Wishing EVERYONE some joy admist these continued struggles.

The Creative Potential of Tourettes and Tics

Filed Under (Acceptance, Accessibility, Autism and Intelligence, Behaviours, Inspiration, Intelligence, Language, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, seizures, Tics) by Estee on 11-11-2014

Adam’s body tics and his vocal tics now include an exceptionally loud OW! The vocal component began about a year and a half ago with grunting – I wrote a piece to be published about my perception and response to it for a peer-reviewed journal. As it was accepted with an editing requirement, Adam’s grunting turned to full-on screams and my attention turned to that as my role became to help him emotionally, but also amp up his accommodations and preserve his spot in school. This accompanied an angst at school which was swiftly resolved thanks to a number of people committed to him. As Adam’s communication by typing has concurrently advanced, it is an important conflation – between an expressive burst and the body’s struggle to produce it not only verbally, but also to coordinate every aspect of the body to produce it by typing. Part of Adam’s tics are evidently language and emotion related – charged and urgent expressions and also impulsive and involuntary. Both can occur. This is how I understand it so far and how Adam has expressed his experience to me.

You can imagine that struggling to verbally communicate, involuntary body movement, motor issues are challenging for him – a fellow who is bright, eager and intelligent. It is equally frustrating for him to be called on it or deemed behaviorally inappropriate or asked to be quiet; he was more often assumed to be not listening, learning or paying attention as he soaked up knowledge. Instead, he was discussed in terms of what others could see and understand – and a calling of attention to his tics seem to escalate them.

I welcome the following Ted Talk by Jess Thorn on the creative potential of Tourettes and tics, often experienced by people with other disability labels such as autism. If given agency over creative expression with them, how might persons often stigmatized contribute to our understanding of humanity? What kinds of knowledge that many of us who do not share these experiences might be shared?

This is Our Halloween

Filed Under (Acceptance, Accessibility, Adam, Autistic Self Advocacy, Communication, Development, Family, Holidays, Joy, The Joy Of Autism) by Estee on 31-10-2014

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We got up a little earlier today to rush to get Adam’s makeup on for Halloween here in Toronto. Adam decided to be a happy bear, so we came up with Happy Panda – it’s also a story about mindfulness that we sometimes read. It just feels right to show a happy little autistic guy, a preteen no less, who types to talk and gets excited like every other kid about Halloween. Adam is part of the whole process in deciding what he wants to be. Since Adam started typing at the age of 4, and is now 12, he has become more able to self-advocate and tell us a lot of what it is like to be Adam.

Here he is (below) inspecting my make up job… I must admit I wasn’t sure if he liked it when it was all done… and I didn’t have time to discuss it with him as we were rushing out the door. But he seems to be thinking about it here:

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Alas, in this next shot, Adam is a Happy Panda posing for the camera. Today at his (inclusive) school he will go trick and treating around to each classroom. It’s raining in Toronto, so it is unlikely he will go out tonight with his dad… I’ll miss Halloween with Adam this year. It’s the first year ever I’ll miss it with him.

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I hope all autistic families will enjoy their Halloweens if they want to. I never believe in forcing our kids to do things that are expected, but at the same time, I also believe in inclusion and participation in ways that the kids can and want to participate. I always tried not to expect too much when Adam was little. We stayed in one Halloween when he preferred to hand out candies rather than going door-to-door. That remains a really fond memory because Adam chose to do this and he enjoyed it so much. Before he could self-advocate with words, I gave Adam an array of choices, making costumes that reflected his interests. Since Adam was deemed hyperlexic and loved numbers and letters, I stitched letters and numbers to his clothes and named him “Alphabet Boy” – indeed my kind of superhero. This year, it helps a lot in all activities to make up our own social stories so that Adam knows what is expected, and I have him participate in writing them by making choices before decisions are made. This can involve all the steps that are made from ringing a door bell to what to say, to how many doors Adam can knock on so he feels a little more secure about how the evening is constructed. It’s also part of why I like the process of making Halloween costumes (although I’m not that talented at it, I still enjoy it) because it gets him involved and a chance to anticipate and be a part of any given event.

Two years ago, he wanted to be a ghost, and we managed to make together a Tim Burtonesque version… he loved that one; in fact I think he’s channeling Tim Burton again this year! Here’s a photo of that costume:

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And another year, he fell in love with a cowboy costume from the store – he wore that one two years in a row:

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It’s been a joy to watch Adam grow and develop over the years. Having an autistic child is wonderful to me, the challenges included as they have encouraged me to think outside of the box. Let’s all make our Halloweens what we want or need them to be, and find our contentment with that!

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Off to the Disability Pride March today…

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism) by Estee on 04-10-2014

Adam’s family (and Adam) are off the the Disability Pride March today at Queen’s Park at 1 p.m. Look for us there. Our placard will read:

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We’re a PROUD AUTISTIC FAMILY.

WE ACCEPT AUTISM.

SO CAN YOU!

…and here we are an hour later… Adam’s first Disability Pride March!! Adam is pictured here with his Grandma and Marg Spoelstra from Autism Ontario. Adam and I were interviewed by CTV News which should be on later:

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A Better Autism Awareness Month?

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Accessibility, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and The Media, Behaviours, Contributions to Society, Critical Disability Studies, Diversity, Inclusion, Institutions, Uncategorized) by Estee on 08-04-2014

I’ve been sitting back and watching. While not all things are perfect, I have to recall what it was like in Ontario 12 years ago when I was first introduced to this social phenomenon called autism. CNN had numerous reports on the “epidemic” of autism; the MMR vaccine was blamed; there were numerous reports of questionable remedies that put autistic children in harms way; there were hate blogs written about autistic people and parents who wanted to love and support their children.  The blogesphere was not yet syndicated and contained burgeoning home-made blogs by people labeled with autism and we learned a lot from autistics who wrote them – about activism, identity, the right to be who we are in every neurological way. Indeed, neurology is a term of the times which has redefined difference (neurodiversity). Although this is critiqued by many of those belonging to the disabled community as the new normalizing term (Lennard Davis, The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era, 2013) thereby losing its utility,  I suppose I belong to a group who believes that we might not have gotten to this place of questioning, and beyond an institutional disabled identity (i.e. segregated and isolated), without this renaming and reconceptualization. To further highlight Davis’ important question:

“If we are now living in an identity-culture eshatron in which people are asking whether we are ‘beyond identity,’ then could this development be related in some significant way to the demise of the concept of ‘normality? Is it possible that normal, in its largest sense, which has done such heavy lifting in the area of eugenics, scientific racism, ableism, gender bias, homophobia, and so on, is playing itself out and losing its utility as a driving force in culture in general and academic culture in particular? And if normal is being decommissioned as a discursive organizer, what replaces it?'” (Davis, 1).

Davis argues that diversity has become the new normal.He also makes an important point that there are some people who do not have a choice of identity, which, in my words, may dampen the concept of diversity for our community. In particular, disabled identities are not chosen. Perhaps we now have to think beyond identity and challenge the concepts of acceptance and community in a world where these lines are always expanding and contracting.

That said, I remember what my introduction was to autism. Mothers and fathers before me remember institutionalization. Parents advocate for a world where autistic children are accepted, even if in a neoliberal paradigm (in other words, while we can see its shortcomings, we still do many unpleasant things to survive). It seems the “strengths” of autism at least are earning a place at the employment line, which then perhaps allows our children to get an education and better services. Perhaps our kids will be understood for their sensory, communication and social issues and not be reprimanded or judged for them. All these seem like good things. I would like to imagine a world where we never forget – where many of the younger generation of ABA therapists and teachers have no recollection of “different” kids in their neighborhood suddenly disappearing. There is work to be done to educate people working in the field on the history of disability and institutionalization and how close we always seem to be to doing that again. Must we continue to ask why this is happening despite the advocacy for autism acceptance?

And finally, in Davis’ words:

“There is a built-in contradiction to the idea of diversity in neoliberal ideology, which holds first and foremost each person to be a unique individual. Individualism does no meld easily into the idea of group identity. And yet for neoliberalism it is a must. In a diverse world, one must be part of a ‘different’ group – ethnic, gendered, raced, sexual. It is considered boring if not limiting, under the diversity aegis, to be part of the nondiverse (usually dominant) group. So diversity demands difference so it can claim sameness. In effect, the paradoxical logic is: we are all different; therefore we are all the same.

The problem with diversity is that it really needs two things in order to survive as a concept. It needs to imagine a utopia in which difference will disappear, while living in a present that is obsessed with difference. And it needs to suppress everything that confounds that vision. What is suppressed from the imaginary of diversity, a suppression that actually puts neoliberal diversity into play, are various forms of inequality, notably economic inequality, as the question of power. The power and wealth difference is nowhere to be found in this neoliberal view of diversity….Ultimately what I am arguing is that disability is an identity that is unlike all the others in that it resists change and cure…disability is the ultimate modifier of identity, holding identity to its original meaning of being one with oneself. Which after all is the foundation of difference.” (Davis, 13-14).

While I acknowledge Davis, I find myself thrust into an acceptance paradigm that allows Adam to be in a classroom and in the community, however imperfect (requiring time, exhaustive and emotional effort, Adam’s emotional effort and his ‘trooper’ ability among it all) – and all of this based on proof of competence and ability as he counts money so fast that the adults in the room have to check to see if he’s right (he is). I think it is great if we can enable others to see autism as a way of being in the world – sensory difference as not behavioral belligerence; non-verbal disability as not an unwillingness to speak or non-intelligence. To go on: not looking at someone when they are speaking doesn’t mean that the autistic person doesn’t understand what is being said; not wanting or able to be social should not be isolating or a reason to segregate nor a reason to push one to be social just like everyone else. (So what I’m saying is that as activists and/or advocates, we are still at this place). There are still so many misunderstandings in a moment with an autistic person, and one hopes that this marketing will help. I mean, we all have to survive, right? Adam’s survival is no different than mine except that he is at a clear disadvantage despite “neurodiversity.”

While recent autism advocacy is far better than I can remember 12 years ago, it remains services and employment based (and I am not at all suggesting we don’t need to do this important work to discuss services and accommodations past the age of 21…but we need to discuss this also in a much larger context). A discussion of the inequalities about which Davis and others speak must also be a topic to discuss the bigger picture of what we mean when we talk about inequality. Another part of this discussion might be to discuss all the the proofs that an autistic person has to demonstrate before earning a place at the school desk and in the boardroom – and a discussion why these suggest human value. These may not acquire the immediate services that people need but they are important to our evolution. We can do this while continuing to mine the various meanings of purpose.

2014

Filed Under (Academia, Acceptance, Anxiety, Behaviours, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Inclusion, Inspiration, Intelligence, Joy, Language, school) by Estee on 18-12-2013

There are days when I feel so grateful for the support Adam and I receive from the team, friends and family. My university is so supportive of our needs as well, allowing me a leave so I can lesson-plan for Adam and train him more in language and typing. With support since he was around five years old, Adam is now somewhat independent when conversations are not that open-ended and unclear. I can hand him a keyboard anytime and he can type his feelings or what he needs sometimes faster than he can speak the words. I also learned that animating words makes them meaningful and is better than rote vocabulary instruction.

Adam, as a hyperlexic individual since we could hear him speak at 11 months of age, loves letters and words. I am going to work with my son’s strengths. In so doing, I am training others in the process. Others watch how I do this with Adam and also learn to do it with him. I have no formal training other than personal study and my PhD work which focuses on semiotics and language and disability. This is my passion because of my son.

Adam is heading into puberty and has issues with anxiety, but seems most frustrated at not being able to say what he wants to say. When he gets the words out, he says them forcefully, looking into my eyes and saying the phrases again and again until I say it back. He knows I’ve understood him. I think it’s the way he’s been treated all of his life by us jabberers (dominant ordinary language users) in that we tend to repeat ourselves to autistic people who have trouble with ordinary language because we think they don’t understand us. Adam is doing what we have been doing to him. When I say the words back, echo him, he is satisfied that his message is understood. Phrases like, “I can’t wait anymore!” can be met by me with an acknowledgement and a timer which settles his need to know how much longer he must wait for his desired activity or item.

Also, operation calm down has worked. Adam is happier, the screaming tics abated. Following the stress and episode, Adam always emerges with more sentences (communication). I’ve yet to hear anything from the neurologists on it, but we keep trying just in case. This is not to “cure” the autism as much as it is to ensure that Adam’s health is attended to well; that we are not missing something. The health of the autistic person must be attended to as much as the non-disabled person. (Another topic about how to regard the autistic person might be better sought from autistic people themselves).

It was as if Adam was saying “please listen to me!” and we have. Some of it was because he didn’t enjoy a transition and the team and I will be working on this all year. That said, Adam is fairly flexible all things considered. We haul him on our travels, and I plan on taking him on many no matter what. I believe in respecting his difference and limitations while also helping him through without pushing too hard some days and knowing when to push because those days are so apparent. He loves to be with other people and to see new things. He loves being out in the world and engaged. It’s in the manner we engage him that is important to expand his horizons. I want to thank my university for supporting us in making this the best year for Adam and I. Without the understanding of schools and universities, we might never be able to do this important work that does effect so many people with disabilities in that not every year can be a consistent, machine-like operation. Sometimes we need to step back and focus on our children, or our own disabilities. I am overwhelmed by my school’s support. Thank you York University! I look forward to sharing my copious notes and experiences from the journey this year.

As for Adam this year, my mantra has nothing to do with compliance. It is about cooperation, engagement, respect, “muchness,” connection and yes, joy. Adam’s learning can’t happen without these principles.

Thesis, Birds and Naoki Higashida

Filed Under (Acceptance, Book Reviews, Inspiration) by Estee on 07-09-2013

I successfully defended my thesis on the film Wretches & Jabberers this week, a day before a bird-deluge on Adam. (I’ll post this thesis to my website later this week). It is my hope that we can all promote this self-advocacy film to be the new film people talk about autism (rather than Rain Main). The day before my defense, Adam got bird-pooped on by a rather big bird. He was not happy about it, but I kept explaining that despite it being messy and a damper on his recess time, it meant he was going to have lots of good luck! It seemed to work; Adam smiled in the car all the way home as I heralded my enthusiasm about bird-poop-fortune.

But today I really want to point to something I am very happy about: a review of Naoki Higashida’s book (he is the film subject in Wretches & Jabberers who lives in Japan) in our very own Globe & Mail today – arts section, page R.4. It would be wonderful to keep talking about this and the film and the contributions that non-verbal autistic self-advocates make to our understanding about autism. I hope this review will also lead people to watch the film.

Back to School 2013

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Communication, Identity, Joy, Love, school) by Estee on 03-09-2013

It was back-to-school day. Adam started his new inclusive school today. It was not unfamiliar; he had been there two years ago. He had a great day and was typing very well. Adam was happy when I picked him up and was apparently glad to be back with the big kids at lunch and recess. In the meantime, I’m up to planning the rest of his programs, and my own. I am due to defend my thesis this Thursday and if all goes well, will start my doctorate and teaching assignment next week.

As I opened Adam’s bag this evening I got a new kind of homework that I was most delighted to find – I was asked to tell the teacher about Adam. I was asked to write in a circle about what Adam likes to do as well as answer questions such as: Who is he? What does he mean to you? What are the things about him that I should know? I was just thinking again the other day how, just because are kids have this label we name autism, that our children inherit an identity that does not belong to them. I mean, how often are we asked to talk about our children in positive ways (for lack of a better word)? Aren’t we typically asked by therapists what our kids like for the sake of using them as reinforcement as opposed to knowing who our children are? And what about knowing our children as people first? In thinking about the year ahead, I’ve spent much time over the summer pondering all the things that Adam is, what he loves, what he is good at, and what he brings to his family and to the world. Then surprise! I got this “homework” in his backpack today. Needless to say, all that thinking about what Adam is, as opposed to what he isn’t, helped me to fill the circle quickly. I’m so glad someone else sees the value of this too.

I Am In Here by Mark Utter

Filed Under (Acceptance, Communication, Community, Computing/iPad) by Estee on 08-08-2013

We met Mark this year; he was so sweet to Adam. Mark also wrote the script for this movie I Am In Here. Mark answered many questions after the filming of this, and Adam listened. Thank you everyone for your hard work. I believe we are getting to know how difficult it can be to learn how to type, to translate an experience into a language. Thanks to many autistic typists, so many kids are accessing AAC or learning how to type, and support workers are learning what support means in terms of autonomy. Thanks to typing, Adam is becoming a two-handed typist on some days. Some people will become fully independent and others will always need some form of support, and I certainly hope with a greater understanding of interdependent relationships, that support becomes better understood and accepted. I suppose the main message I would have for people would be: do we support people and enable autistic people by mitigating our proclivity to normalize (and over-value independence)? I think many of our practices are the taken-for-granted normate methods and attitudes that erase many autistic contributions. Are we supporting autistic people in order not to be frustrated, to self-advocate? I won’t go into the “system” which lays out how we value people and for what (such as productivity, independence) – in fact, I think these mechanisms are universal, except they are more difficult standards for disabled people to achieve, especially when they are not accommodated. I suppose any method could be used for normalization, and this is what we always have to be troubling; by thinking about autistic self-advocacy and autobiography as valid and primary information about autistic experience, and thinking of how our treatments, attitudes and supports can even affect these experiences. By thinking and talking about such topics, perhaps we can better support the community instead of rushing in to say how autistic people ought to be in society.

To Order the Film, Visit VSA Vermont By CLICKING HERE. Thank you, Mark!!!

Bring a Friend to Camp Day

Filed Under (Acceptance, Friendship, Inclusion) by Estee on 07-08-2013

photo

Here’s Adam with his buddy again. Inclusion and acceptance, not social or community isolation, please.

“We Are A Critical Mass of Wretches” – Larry Bissonnette

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Communication, Computing/iPad, Development, Inspiration, Joy, Uncategorized, Writing) by Estee on 16-07-2013

I am blissfully tired after our second day at the Communication Institute in Syracuse. This is Adam’s first autism conference and all that stuff that was happening beforehand has abated. He is happy here and spending time in a workshop in the mornings learning more skills, and sitting in talks for the rest of the day, and taking small excursions for his breaks. He has watched other typists here intensively and this always inspires him to do it. I’ve learned that he needs less support than I had been giving him, given the right tools, keyguards, anti-glare screens… I’m learning about iPad apps that will change his life and change the way we “do” school…not that most schools (most using ABA/IBI for autistic kids) in Canada understand or provide as of yet. Adam can’t be normalized but he is a very bright, very autistic, very wonderful and intelligent person.

One thing that really gets my goat, however, is the notion that there is no real purpose in teaching autistic people how to type, use AAC, or engage in an academic curriculum. It blows my mind that these things are under threat for autistic people – that communication tools risk being taken away in favor of verbal behavior, which, of course, harkens back to Oralism – when the deaf culture were denied sign language and were forced to speak and act in normative ways. We can look at Victor of Aveyron (1788-1828) for this under the tutelage of early behaviorist Dr. Itard who later abandoned Victor (although Victor could read and use text). Alexander Graham Bell also favored Oralism and it existed well into the 20th century. Today autistics face a kind-of Oralism in Verbal Behavior programs. It’s not that we don’t want our kids to speak if they can, but most autistic folks can’t speak for a full day or not at all and need other reliable sources of communication. These tools for autistic people are a right as sign language is for the deaf, and considering we are asking autistic people to communicate normatively, and autistic people say that they need this means to articulate their thoughts, it’s a complete mistake to even think of taking this away from people.

Society, in the general sense, doesn’t find that many autistic folks are economically productive enough to invest in them, so instead they are called the burdens on society. I’d like to invert that notion of what a burden it is for all of us to be underestimated and only be taught for the purposes of being the cog in a corporate wheel. May I suggest that we all be creative in thinking about the various kinds of purpose and contribution that humans can make, and rethink “productivity.” Then, I’d like to suggest that parents of autistic children who want their children to be accommodated, educated and literate as autistic people to adopt the mantra of those who doubt our children, “so what?” In other words, I think we need to develop a sense of entitlement when it comes to supporting autistic rights to communication tools, access and accommodations. We have to say “so what?” to being autistic, or our children being autistic. It’s a material reality that normative culture is a majority culture to which autistic people work so hard to adapt, and I think of the terrible injustice it is that autistic people have to prove their value and competence every single day of their lives (and often get held back because of it). I think the mantra “So what?” helps me to keep going against ignorance when people ask me why bother educating Adam as opposed to remediating him (before the right to participate or inclusion) or just teaching him functional skills. We are here, literally, among the “wretches,” and there are quite a few here, folks. The critical mass is growing and we ain’t no epidemic. I don’t care what you think of Adam and his going to school or later, university. Just don’t take away his right to it. As for the wretches, they are doing a magnificent job in advocating for this right, and we have an obligation to support them.

Now I will turn my post back to Adam. He was proud of this little story he wrote today which was read aloud to the class – I can’t remember when a teacher presented Adam’s work to the class for such a long time now:

“One day two leaves fell early in the morning. They weren’t happy because they wanted to stay up on the beautiful branch. A nice boy called Adam found them and stuck them up for the rest of the day.”

A few minutes later he typed to me: “Real useful ideas.” Then, “The joy love you mom.”

Thank you my little one. I am your devoted wretch-in-arms.

What Adam Said This Morning

Filed Under (ABA, Acceptance, Adam, Communication, Movement Disturbance, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 11-07-2013

Adam and I sat on the stoop as usual this morning for his bus to camp. Yesterday, Adam was content and happy and then his assistants reported another sudden biting incident, to which Adam didn’t seem to remember. It lasted but a few moments, then he happily moved along. Of course, I’m in a newer territory now with his, new concerns and am back to re-reading.

When I asked Adam about remembering it, he said “no” in several formats, including pointing to his chart, typing it out, and also saying it (which came first). He was happy and contented last night, jumping on his mini trampoline in the basement, which is now partially repaired after the flood. After I gave him his ten minute warning that it was nearing time for bed, Adam came upstairs.

This morning, though, my heart broke a bit, but I am also determined to do my best that Adam has a positive self-esteem. Let me preface this by stating that when a person like my son doesn’t speak very much, people don’t tend to listen as they refer to speech as “psychotic” and nonsensical. I never take Adam’s words as such.

“I don’t know anything,” he mumbled.

“You know lots of things and you will learn lots of things. You are really smart,” I replied.

“Teeeea-cher,” he sang melodically. Then again, “Teacher, teacher.” He climbed into my lap to be cradled.

I’ve asked his ABA school of late to teach him to his age-level and invoke the Ontario Curriculum, to which Adam is entitled, and they have agreed. I am devoted to making sure that education is Adam’s right. I am working this out with Adam’s team which may include part integration, part home-school, getting out more into the art gallery, the museum (he enjoys such places) and the programs he has loved so much and integrating this into his own writing. In Canada, there’s little option but to make our own path at the moment, and families have a right to choose what suits their children best. In Adam’s case, he requires support, and this is also his right in order to participate in his community in the manner that he wants, needs and is able. It is great when teachers understand these complexities, and I encourage everyone to continue to learn outside of the behaviour paradigm, and to listen to autistic people. (I think you can sense how concerned I am about what is reflected back at Adam in terms of his person-hood and self-esteem as an autistic person – a complete and whole person).

Post-Blog Comment:

Thanks to an email that pointed out something important to me which I must write here – in it, the person mentioned that the Ontario Curriculum is “useless.” I want to extend how I appreciated the comment as important and hope more comments will come. My comment to extend on that one would be that I feel that education is a right, but the manner in which that education is delivered to Adam must be customized. He still has a right to it, and the reality is that’s what he needs to fulfill to move on to higher ed if he desires it. There are many tensions at play here – my own personal experiences as a normate which must always be questioned; the changing needs and nature of education overall; the normative linear developmental model that represents the mutually supportive notions of social and neo-liberalism; and this quest for a specifically autistic education that fits Adam’s learning style and abilities while also providing him with opportunities to contribute to society as an autistic person – and this is the ultimate challenge when society doesn’t value people with severe disabilities.

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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.