The Autism “Spectrum,” Assessed Identity, and Supporting Access…some thoughts

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Autism and Learning, Communication, Computing/iPad, Identity, Spectrumism) by Estee on 16-05-2013

This photo is of Adam with his Grandma.

I know I don’t write about Adam that much these days. I’m always caught in ethical considerations about his right to privacy and protection versus the benefits of sharing stories. I work a lot with autistic adults theses days as well (am always grateful to have them in our lives and realize how sharing of information and differences of viewpoints benefit us all), and I also work and play every day with Adam. I juggle between my studies, re-growing work with TAAP and as his mom – teaching him after school when I can. Single motherhood brings it’s own worries – am I giving him enough? What would happen if I get ill?, among many questions. I do the best I can and I have to accept my situation. As usual, I digress…

Adam is typing on his own now, is becoming a trampoline champion with an excellent coach, and has a friend. The challenge and sorrow, when I feel any, is the isolation by comparison to other children, or quite frankly, the concern I feel when people ask me questions that are proliferated by the media about how “functioning” Adam is. When people ask me about Adam’s functioning level, I get to ask in return why that matters to them – I think it’s important to ask others in order for them to think about it deeply. I then usually respond that I love Adam as he is, and go on about what great person he is. Functioning levels are arbitrary assessments made by subjective observation – by an individual who thinks they know something about autism, but in fact, just follow a set list of criteria that continues to change. Frankly, the most valued professional advice I would receive is the answer “I don’t know” and someone who considers Adam’s unique needs and strengths. Also, permit me to meander, it should never be an assumption that autistic people prefer to be alone. This is not fair – all autistic people are different and most express a profound loneliness. As for spectrums and functioning levels, this discursive dialogue must end if we truly value all autistic people.

In other words, there are no prognostications that are accurate. Ask any autistic adult and read through their psychometric assessments and old IEP’s and they’ll have plenty of comments – none of them positive. In fact, I am very concerned about the material reality these stacks of binders (recording bowel movements and the like) get absorbed by an autistic child regarding their identity and later, their self-narrative. I often think of taking all the binders I’ve kept over the years, papers, assessments and do something with them – no not burn them – but make an installation regarding this question: Shouldn’t we as parents be concerned about a forthcoming identity crisis as our children are told what they are by a mere label that describes virtually nothing about person-hood and individuality? If I could turn the clock back eleven years, what would I change?

I support Adam’s development and person-hood – his right to access and individuality. Further, and I have to keep saying this, it disappoints me when autistic children are not allowed to go to various programs with an aide worker. An aide worker enables many to contribute, work, participate, and feel a more a part of our community. While I cannot predict what level of assistance Adam might need when he gets older, for instance, this is besides the point – the issue is the right to access. Our autism committees and charities and governments must start considering these rights as opposed to simply believing that autism can be cured and kids can become normal with enough therapy. Instead, when we consider the value of people, we have more chances of seeking education after the age of 21, opportunities for vocational training, college, and university. More creative strategies for living situations can be considered such as co-living, assisted independent living (therefore interdependent living), micro-boards and aide workers and educators can also be treated with more respect as valuable assistants to autistic individuality and right to choose. Strategies for the latter entail visual supports, AAC, extended time, patience, teamwork.

Back to Adam…he is partially verbal and this is growing every day now as I watch him also grow taller. He is enabled more as he types a first word which seems to prompt the rest of his sentence. Some days he’s more chatty than others, which seems to be common for many partially verbal autistics. Through patience and repetition, Adam has begun to take care of himself. Adam can talk on the phone a little longer, dial his grandparents, get dressed, brush his teeth, and ask me where and what questions verbally, that is, on the more verbose days. I guess I’m saying this for all the years of misunderstandings by parents that autism acceptance means just letting a child sit around all day and do nothing. This to me is also an ableist concept which presumes that autistic people can’t do anything at all when the truth of the matter is that everyone has a different situation and we address each child uniquely and with respect.

I think many teachers and coaches have enjoyed their own teaching successes with him. I also think parents must work harder to readjust their expectations to support education and inclusion. Teachers cannot succeed if we have unreasonable expectations of normalcy and, as parents, we should be startled at this word as it discriminates our families. As we accept this we should also not accept the unfair exclusion and segregation of autistic children and the lack or regard for their education! In this, education will also have to adjust and I expect it will as computerized learning is becoming more popular – where children can be taught online and monitored and facilitated when needed. The potentials of the Internet and computers have not yet been fully tapped and could change the face of individualized education as well as citizenship. As commerce takes place online, we are also looking to the Internet for online voting – the last bastion, arguably, of citizenship. It was Singer (1999) who said “[t]he impact of the Internet on autistics may one day be compared to the spread of sign language among the deaf (1999:67). Alas, however, let’s not segregate autistic children into a room full of computers. We all need human interaction. Also we need to consider this by Alison Sheldon (2004):

“There is a small but growing body of work within disability studies that emphasizes technology’s ‘double-edged nature’ (Oliver, 1990) and stresses that it can be ‘both oppressive and emancipatory, depending on the social uses to which it is put’ (Gleeson, 1999:104).” (Sheldon, 2004: 157).

Sheldon suggests that some of the barriers to access include its cost. “We must not be distracted…into denying the socio-structural origins of the problem. Access to technology is not simply a technical issue with technical solutions. The inaccessibility of technology is just one more symptom of disabled people’s continuing oppression.” (157).

Also, to balance this drive towards access to technology, Sheldon states:

“…in the current political climate, the increased use of Internet technology as a means of disseminating information may have adverse effect on other means of information provision. The unconnected majority of disabled people may find that accessing information (and indeed other consumer goods) in traditional ways becomes even more problematic as these facilities become available online. Thus, the Internet is not a panacea that many suggest. There is still a need for appropriate and accessible information to be disseminated to disabled people in other ways, or the disabled community may simply become yet more polarized.” ( 157).

As I suggested when the iPad became popular for autistic children in schools, we cannot expect it to replace teachers, parents, the knowledge to teach autistic people how to communicate by AAC and/or supported typing. Technology should not become another means to segregate.

Finally, to end today’s ramble, it’s time for us to reconsider the spectrum concept. It’s based on a hierarchical system of who is better functioning which is discriminatory in so far as it implies whose life may be more valuable than others. It effects the way we educate, include or exclude, and keeps autistic people from obtaining fair treatment and equality of well-being. And, after all, none of us can predict the future and autistic people do not “fit” neatly into the high and low functioning paradigms.

References:

Sheldon, Alison.(2004). Changing Technology. Disability Barriers – Enabling Environments. (John Swain, Sally French, Colin Barnes, Carol Thomas, eds). Sage Publishing.

Singer, J. (2003). Foreward: Travels in Parallel Space: an invitation, in Miller, J.K. (ed.) Women from Another Planet: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism. IN: Dancing Minds, pp. xi-xiii.

Verbose Adam

Filed Under (Adam, Communication, Computing/iPad) by Estee on 25-04-2013

I have to write so much for school that I don’t often get to write about daily life in a few rambling sentences. Spring is here, the pool is open and Adam, after his 11th birthday has had another burst of verbosity – forced out single words, a phrase, but lots of telling me about things at school or how he’s feeling. It’s particularly enjoyable when he says words I would have never imagined were in there. But like Anti says in Wretches & Jabberers, I think Adam is made of words, at least I think it’s neat to think of it this way; despite the difficulty of expression, he’s got thousands swimming in his head; it only makes sense since he was reading them, sometimes out loud, while hanging on the side of his playpen, reading the titles of the book spines on the shelf.

We’ve been typing every day – from stories, play and he types a lot at school on his own, and I want to keep showing others how to integrate this into most aspects of his day. My dad keeps a running video log when he sees us working, Adam’s Speech Language Therapist (SLP) keeps photographing us at work. I keep thinking I’ve got to put this together so that other people can also see it – and show how when Adam just begins typing a sentence, he can then get it out verbally just by typing the first letter. I’ll pull out my single-mom card now – my plate is so full and I’ve got so many projects on the go; this is one of them. Focussed, goal-oriented typing seems to have had an effect on his ability to focus and planning to say the sentence, and this is becoming like his own “prompt.”

I’ve just finished a long lit review for my thesis on Wretches & Jabberers and I’m reviewing a few articles for the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. I hope to spend more time coalescing the past few years on the topic of language, affect and typing and how I’ve played a part in Adam’s as well as how his autism school has cooperated when this method is not specifically integrated into their program.

The Party

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam) by Estee on 22-04-2013

Adam had his 11th birthday party this past weekend. He has grown so much the past year, like a bamboo shoot – thin and taller. I always throw a party for Adam…it is our normal, perhaps your “quirk-fest.” No matter, it’s our world; somehow we make a space for ourselves.

This year, I booked his favorite place where he learns trampoline. He is getting quite good at it (with a dedicated coach). I thought he’d like to show off his new skills, and indeed he did. Every year as well, I invite autistic children with one or two typical children. There’s always someone new we get to meet – school never seems to be a stable place over the years so we end up meeting new people all the time.

One year, I had a company bring in snakes and animals – the kids loved to be able to touch them and watch them move. Another year I did an art party. This year, a place where children could partake in circus arts. And every year, I will always hear from a parent that this is their autistic child’s first birthday party – that their “typical” children will get invitations all the time, but not the autistic kids. I suppose this makes me feel more resolute to keep having “autistic parties” – in fact, I prefer autistic children. I find them easier to get along with and grateful, even if this is not demonstrated with verbose thank yous. I love inviting children to play in the yard and I’ve become quite familiar with “difference” that I don’t expect children to behave in a particular way. One can feel contentment.

It’s as if we are living on an island and people come to visit, but never enough. Adam loves when I invited my friends over. Most days he’ll play and giggle and then he has the option of taking his own time outs when he needs them. I think a lot, however, of how we can’t get through a day without having to explain ourselves out there “in the world,” without being evaluated and observed, but this doesn’t happen with our friends. Friendship is when you don’t have to explain any more. I try to imagine how autistic people and others with intellectual disabilities feel with having to try to explain themselves, or try to be understood, day in and day out. As a typical person, this is hard enough.

I got an email this morning from one of the mom’s. She said that her guy smiled all the way home after the party. That’s all I want, and I imagine, all that Adam wants too – an opportunity to show off, be able to do something well, and most of all, to be invited to the party. We all want to be happy that we made the effort, and ultimately accepted without question.

Adam’s Piano Recital 2012

Filed Under (Adam) by Estee on 25-06-2012

Adam did really well at his piano recital yesterday and I’m so proud of him. I don’t take video because I want to be there in the moment with him, not ‘virtually there’ by making sure I got great photos. Grandfather is better at that anyway. When his teacher called him up to play (she’s standing behind him in the photo) The Muffin Man he walked up to the Grand Piano and played. Save for a few glances towards swirling fans high above in the church’s ceiling, he got through it just fine. Two years ago he was completely distracted by a piano painted with butterflies, a “hey this is cool… nope wait… hey look at that one” distraction that derailed his performance. I never took him to the site ahead of time to get used to it. Live and learn.

Adam can read his notes now and play with both hands. We started by colour coding his hands and the keyboard and notes with numbers and moved on from there. Now he’s learning his half notes and on we go, thanks also to his patient teacher and her assistant, Adam’s grandmother, who does exceptional preparation for Adam’s lessons.

Just before the concert, I kept Adam quiet and well fed. I wrote a quick schedule by hand listing the things we were going to do to prepare for the afternoon and we re-read it together. Then we practiced ahead of time — the walk, the playing, the bow. We arrived thirty minutes before the concert to walk inside and outside the building. He pulled at me when we arrived, wanting to explore. I purposefully stopped many times in hallways with lots of doors, which has caused Adam him lots of anxiety in the past — a compulsion to run off and open them. I then asked him to wait and talked him through it all quietly. I checked my phone, dug around his bag and I didn’t hold on to Adam’s hand. He waited with me even though I could feel he wanted to move on. When Adam calmly explored, and knew that he was going to get the chance with me, he was cool. He also accepted change of direction and areas that were off limits.

By the time it was time to sit down in his row for the performance, Adam was just fine. The sanctuary was hushed. He sat for the entire performance, bored sometimes and clapped others. When one of the boys got a little talkative, Adam laughed and wanted to talk back by repeating the last word he heard, “again.” He’s a giddy rule-breaker at heart.

We will definitely go back again next year.

Happy OM

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Adam, Autism and Learning, Development, Joy, school) by Estee on 21-06-2012

Should I be looking over my shoulder? As autism mom and son are confronted with many obstacles, feeling settled seems like something that will be stolen from us at any moment. Nevertheless, I’m going to write about how happy I feel today because I recollect the difficult June we had last year when Adam’s former school shut down his class. They tried to place him elsewhere after we were given notice, but it didn’t work out. We scrambled to find Adam a new school, and that school is an ABA school. I fretted, of course. While we’ve always done some ABA alongside play-based and other programs that were very effective in Adam’s early years, we had good and not-so-good experiences. I learned that no matter what form of “therapy,” you decide to use for your child, it can all go south if people believe autism can be cured, or that autism is something that is an unfortunate act of nature (or whatever). Adam is a person-first and there is a fine line between nurturing the person — their strengths and challenges — versus viewing autism as just a “problem” that should be fixed at any cost.

I realized during a camp meeting today that it is a year later since the difficulties of the last one. After working with the head of Adam’s school, I feel we’ve got a pretty good thing going. We’ve worked together and with Adam’s excellent team which has been quilted together over the past decade. I am able to provide a lot of input, and Adam’s team go into the school to contribute to his typed communication, and other needs. Along with the structure that his type of school can provide, this is what makes it work for us because we can bring in the academic programs that Adam also needs and they are customized. We cobble our program together.

Adam seems more relaxed, cooperative, happier, and it feels like he’s getting ready to spread his wings a bit farther. Every day, Adam takes his own iPad pictures and sends me an indepedently written recount of his day. I get this by email. I sometimes send pictures to the school of things they don’t know anything about, and Adam recounts his weekend activities, for instance, on his own. They are still short sentences, and some days they are more detailed than others, but they are his. He has moved beyond sight-reading to phonetic reading and spelling, and this is pretty huge. He approaches his peers and wants to play with them in the way he never has before. He doesn’t know how yet to ask “play with me,” but it’s the first time he consistently wants to be with other kids, and not just the adults. We have our mini-conversations on our way home from school in the car, and on some days, he sustains his eye contact and talks to me with such engagement and intention that he commands mine. He still struggles with spoken language, but he speaks a lot more now and it always improves, although he is inconsistent. I know this sounds confusing, but Adam is complex. He says some pretty neat and funny stuff too, attesting to his sense of humour. It’s amazing what the man of few words is able to communicate and make us understand.

Today at the camp meeting — an inclusive camp — it was pure pleasure seeing everyone so excited to see Adam again. This is a camp that really cares about accommodating him and communicates well with us. I thanked my lucky stars to have such a wonderful group of people helping us out every single day as I sat around the table. For all the mountains I feel we climb, I just want to savour this. I want to thank all the fabulous people who make this happen for Adam which seems like a stark contrast to what the public system will offer us. In such good moments, I feel I must remind myself of how important it is to change the way we approach public education for autistic children. It is so disappointing how the system wants to cut back Educational Assistants here in Toronto, and Special Ed, and inclusion seems a priviledge for the verbal and “well-behaved.” The system is sick, not autistic children. I keep wondering why the cut-backs here, and have to assume (lest I use a less polite word) it’s because of the “cost,” and the doubt that autistic people can contribute or be of any value to society– a ratio that tips the economic scales against us. It seems to boil down to that.

To close, I end with a more optimistic tone — how the camp head revealed that many counsellors asked to work with Adam this year. Apparently, so many people at camp always want to come over and say hello to Adam that they have to ask them to hold off in order that Adam can get on with what he’s doing. He’s like a “camp celebrity” (their words, not mine). Here’s a kid who can’t speak fluently and who has many challenges; a child for whom standardized tests do not serve, and the public system underestimates.

This morning, Adam was chanting “Happy OM,” before he left for school, and I for the camp meeting. I didn’t know it was prophetic about the day so far. I hope for other positive signs.

Happy OM…happy OM….happy OMMMM.

After The Wedding

Filed Under (Ableism, Adam, Advocacy, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Development, Research, school, Sensory Differences, Transitions) by Estee on 12-06-2012

Adam happily skipped down the aisle at his sister’s wedding. He didn’t sleep the night before, mind you, so I had to go with the flow. The question I asked myself was what was really important in this affair? First Adam, of course. If he were to have fallen apart that day, I would have aborted the mission. That didn’t happen so my goal for him was to be calm and walk down that aisle. I was going to forget the photographs but he seemed happy enough to leave for the wedding on schedule. I made sure we arrived at the tail-end of the photographs to avoid long waits. I prepared his bag of tricks — food, fidget toys –and a schedule on his iPad using the First Then app. I used the photographs from our visit to the facility earlier in the week, and wrote sentences from the time we entered to the end of his wedding duty. I recorded my voice with the pictures, and he loved that. He reviewed it many times before we left the house.

Arriving to the photography session, there was excitement and fuss — tightening his bow tie, buttoning his jacket, and he didn’t like that much. He wasn’t given any processing time. Then, Adam was lugged by the hand from this photo to that. He wasn’t happy with that either, but maybe there’ll be a couple of decent photos. Dad walked him down the aisle for practice and I asked if he could be excused from the formal rehearsal thereafter so he could have a quiet room and a break. This was successful. He ate some food, sat on the couch and seemed very happy. I think this was his chance to process where he was and that he was finally at Serena’s wedding, for he indeed said “Serena, Serena…” followed by a giggle.

Then we were asked to vacate the groomsmen’s room. We walked about the facility slowly, saying hello to people coming in. We were to wait around near the room where the wedding party would gather prior to walking down the aisle. Dad came when it was time to collect Adam and I took my seat.

Finally, what felt like a mile-long aisle, Adam walked down in the hands of his two older brothers and I fought back my tears. He started to skip a bit…Adam likes skipping more than walking. His brothers brought him to me and he sat down for the rest of the ceremony until the end, noshing on lollipops and a bag of grapes. He was picked up and driven home after the ceremony as I knew he would be exhausted from a sleepless night. Otherwise, he might have stayed at the party a little longer.

Later that evening, I looked at my phone and read “ambulance.” I quickly rose from my seat and called home. My parents, who took Adam after the ceremony, were with him at my home. They heard a sudden crash and went to check on Adam. He seemed okay so my father looked out the window. Their car was totaled in my driveway from an elderly man who lost control of his car (and tried to get away). I was so relieved to hear that no one was hurt, but I felt sick to my stomach that they had helped Adam out to make it possible for all the intricate wedding scheduling to happen, only to have their car wrecked. I know, it could have happened anywhere, but still.

~

The wedding is now over and after decompressing, Adam is back in school. I’m going through reports as I prepare for this summer and his next school year, as I will be returning to grad school in September in Critical Disability Studies, hopefully to help Adam, and to answer the many questions and issues I raise on this blog. There are so many that I would like to make a contribution to the body of work on what kinds of help autistic people need in order to contribute to society as autistic people. I thank many autistic people for helping me with that question when I first created The Autism Acceptance Project. These conversations happened years ago when I was seeking input from autistic adults in creating an autism organization. Many parents want to get involved and for good reason. Yet, I thought that the charity models weren’t supporting autistic individuals well, and wanted to discuss this. I feel it’s now time for me to go back to the drawing board and contribute to the science.

~

Adam recently had a series of standardized academic tests. The testers acknowledged in the report that these standardized tests do not accurately reflect Adam’s “true potential,” and they have ordered the Ravens for him. Still, the report puts him in well-below average ranges. I don’t think there is any typical parent, who came home with a report card without at least a B, who hasn’t inherited the same feelings of what it means to be “successful.” My little guy who stims a lot, who can’t sit still, was placed in a little room for three days and expected to work for two hours at a table — while some painful teeth were coming in. While the testers acknowledge the many limitations for testing autistic folk like Adam, changes have not yet been made in terms of how we evaluate the autistic population. The testers stated that there should be computerized tests and I would add, there should be a sensory room and tools such as seating pads, and even a trampoline if necessary.

It was suggested that Adam have lots of breaks in school, use the iPad and computers for learning, yet the tests to determine autistic ability, intelligence, as well as areas that need to be further supported, don’t yet accommodate this learning style. They noted that in some areas Adam functions at a 13-year-old level and in others (like Math) at a grade one level. When I was in the testing room with him, I also realized that the many items they were asking Adam about, have NEVER BEEN TAUGHT to him. How, I thought, could he answer so many questions accurately when no one has even taught him these very specific things? I realize that no matter how much I talk about this, my comments seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, this is an important link and a reflection of how Adam can teach himself. In this alone, we have to acknowledge an autistic learning pattern and ability to learn overall. In particular, Adam had excellent pattern recognition, and he knew sophisticated words that I know he has never been taught in school. Since he’s been very little one can always catch him reading a book, although I think most people don’t believe he was actually reading.

When I hear on the news of an autistic person having disappeared with a description of their functioning level, it frightens and disturbs me. I cringe when I hear that the person “functions at a five-year-old level” when they are 16. True, there is real disability here. But if I know Adam well, and I do, watch him type what he wants for a YouTube video, or something on the Internet. Listen to the teachers who also see Adam “perform” with 100 per cent accuracy one moment, only to unravel to “a four-year-old level” the next. That to me is the nature of Adam’s autism. Having people understand the variances is so difficult and it’s tempting to want to give up. Making sure Adam is not placed in a class where he puts the same puzzle together seems to take enormous fortitude. We have to continue to serve, to address disability not as something to be ashamed of, but respected and accommodated, while ensuring autistic people receive the education that they rightfully deserve. This has to start at understanding not only the impairments but in the pathways and methods that are successful to learning. In addition, our charities and scientists have to work harder in promoting the value of the autistic population. Without this premise, we won’t be able to accomplish our important goals. Going from theory to practice takes a long time. We also have to also start in the testing room with the tools we have now.

My Pre Teen Is Born

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Development, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 27-04-2012

It’s happening. Adam is growing and with it, a new attitude. Puberty is peeking through his ten-year-old countenance.

I realized this pre-pubescence more accutely yesterday when he emerged from school. Usually full of smiles at seeing me, he looked cross. “Daddy’s house!” he exclaimed. His dad and the nanny tell me that Adam often asks for mommy when I’m not around. On occasion, Adam will check to see where I am, and he seems reassured. It was new for me to hear this declaration. When he looked disappointed to see me, I felt a mix of rejection and giddiness at the same time. After all, Adam is a boy and I hoped there would come a time when he would want to be with the boys. A boy is supposed to want to identify with the males in his life. But what of me?

“Hi honey,” I laughed, bending down to kiss his cheek. Adam’s eyes were still serious and he didn’t lean in to my lips as he usually does. “Daddy’s house!” he said again.

“You don’t want mommy?” I asked, forcing myself to appear a confident mother. Adam was silent as the teacher and I chit-chatted as usual.

“I couldn’t believe it today,” she said, her eyes wide and proud. “It was like watching an adult Adam. He did everything that was asked of him.” She put his hand on Adam’s shoulder while he was listening and looking at my car. “At one point my sentences were so long, I thought he wouldn’t understand me, but he could follow everything.” I took in a long breath and half-smiled, grateful for her positive report and enthusiasm. I grabbed the handle of Adam’s small red rollaway suitcase he takes to school and handed it to him as he began walking away.

“Thanks so much,” I said to the teacher turning and waving, and then tuned in on Adam who was walking ahead of me to the car. “Hey Adam, do you want to call Daddy?”

“Yes,” he replied firmly.

We got in the car and I called his dad on the Bluetooth. “Adam said ‘daddy’s house’ when he got out of school,” I said, “so we’re calling you.” Adam listened to his father’s cheery ‘hey buddy’ voice, and Adam talked a little — phone conversations are difficult for Adam to respond to. Afterwards, he seemed content.

We arrived home and Adam washed his own hands and headed for the kitchen for his snack, all without my reminding. He had a piano lesson, and Grandma and Grandpa came for a visit. Every time I went downstairs to see how he was doing, though, he pointed to the door. “Go away!”

“Okay, okay!” I said, trying to be jolly but it was a put on. My kid doesn’t want me. What an ingrate…that little schnood! (a word of affection that was developed in my family years ago). My feathers were a little ruffled and I mumbled briefly. What did I do to him today? Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Is this what is to come? My thoughts were skipping all over. Never you mind, Adam. I’ve been here for you all along and no matter what you think, I’m always going to love you. Then I started Googling in search of what age boys start really wanting their fathers.

As much as we want our kids to want us in a divorced situation, I welcome Adam’s need for his dad and other members of his family. It’s a new kind of separation like watching a child graduate or leave the house for the first time. While I am celebrating Adam’s growing independence and associations, I feel that this breaking away is just the beginning, and I’m a little sad too.

Everyone always said to me while Adam grows up, “consider yourself lucky that your kid doesn’t talk back to you.” That was always difficult for me to reason, as I longed to hear Adam’s voice and more complex thoughts, or his yelling at me that he was going to visit his friends. Thanks to his typing and his growing verbal ability, this is slowly changing, but having him grow up is surprisingly challenging in a way I’ve neither experienced nor expected. Is it perhaps more challenging when we have to let more dependent children “go?” You’d think I’d be jumping for joy, and while I sort of am, I missed his need of me. All sorts of “separations” were running through my head — all good, natural and still, emotional.

I want Adam to feel safe to feel and express whatever he needs. To help Adam, I started talking about his dad at the dinner table, and he was very attentive.”Daddy is funny isn’t he, Adam,” I said. He looked me straight in the eye and smiled. “Yes both mom and dad really love you.” I kept talking about love while drawing raindrops and animals with Adam at the table after dinner.

At the end of the evening when everyone was gone, Adam looked in my face; his eyes regained their sparkle for me. Then, he leaned in to give me a kiss. We went through our usual wind-down routine in our quiet house — a shower, teeth-brushing, and I’ve helped Adam become more independent doing these basic things. He climbed into bed merrily in his p.j’s with the dogs on them, carrying a book on How To Draw Insects.

“Mockingbird,” he asked as he burrowed himself under the duvet. It’s a song I’ve been singing to him since he was a toddler. I turned off the lights, snuggled alongside him and started to sing softly.

He didn’t tell me to go away.

The First Ten Years

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam) by Estee on 11-04-2012

It was like yesterday. I went into labour and Adam arrived nine hours later. After he was born, he cried a lot and his eyes darted around the room. My narrative of Adam’s life in part goes like this: He was born and he was uncomfortable in this world. It was as if he already understood the painstaking road ahead.

I want to commend him and all that he has managed on his own — from the stares, to the people who have talked in front of him (all of us tend to do that until it dawns on us that we shouldn’t; we can be parents of typical kids and do it too). Despite his differences and challenges — he is neurologically complex unlike some other autistic kids — Adam has made friends in his own way. He will run up to someone and want his “squish” or “spin me higher.” He has a way of charming us to provide what he wants and needs. That look crosses over his face when he meets denial; his eyes begin to smile and glimmer like Marilyn Monroe on the silver screen. We succumb and receive our thank yous in many forms.

He has worked hard. He has struggled with motor planning and still finds it hard to hold a pencil, even a weighted one, among many of his challenges. For those moments he has been able to focus in the way we like to see, he has shown us what he can do — from typing, research projects, to his love of music, dance and YouTube. He is becoming a master of computer games, climbing, and of course, the trampoline. Aside from the times he needs some space from our demands, Adam has engaged us all.

I hope I can convey his beauty and loving nature on this blog. It is in honour of him as well as my message that he, as an autistic person, has been able to enamour us. It hasn’t been the other way around. Sure, many of us thought we had to engage him. We’ve taunted him with goodies and rewards to “respond” in a typical way as “proof” that he understands. Still, he’s in control. He has been all along. He has had to manage many of us “Typicals” in the way we speak, treat and regard him. Most of us don’t even notice how he’s able to do that.

As I create a plan for Adam which he will contribute to as he gets older, I think of everything Adam is, not what he should be. For ten years, I’ve heard more about his deficits and inconsitencies from teachers and professionals, and I’ve struggled with this like swimming against a strong tide. In all fairness to the wonderful people who have helped us on our journey, we all tend to focus on the gaps. Every parent wants their child to achieve. Every teacher strives to help a child become independent. It is our way of protecting and preparing them from and for a harsh world. I always need to come back to Adam and what he can do, or else I fear what may become of us. What of his autistic-ness has been consistent and is the message of how he needs to learn and be in the world? Once I view Adam as a consistent, whole being, I can see him.

Since he was eleven months old, Adam could decode or read words. He has been in love with books. The world, to use Adam’s own reference during a walk last week, may just be a series of “catacombs” that he is compelled to explore. It also causes him much anxiety. Be it his environments or knowledge itself, (see picture of Adam reading the dictionary), Adam is scaffolding and accumulating his knowledge, perhaps furiously, in neat boxes, in his very own and unique way. It may be one of his many contributions to us. There is value to how he learns, sees and thinks, and also in how he needs to navigate. I for one want to keep learning all about it. I want to keep “seeing” and supporting him despite all the veils that flutter in front of my eyes now and again, and that threaten to impede my view — many of my own making.

I look forward to the next ten years; our bumpy journey, joys and all.

Carly’s Voice, Adam’s Voice & Augmentative Assistive Communication

Filed Under (Adam, Autistic Self Advocacy, Books, Communication) by Estee on 29-03-2012

Adam is talking a little more again. It’s the inconsistency in autism that people really have a difficult understanding. This is part of the disability that others need to learn. I’ve heard some people describe the spasms and twitches as the “neurological storm.” I take to that description not because Adam shows aggression, but because he’s all over the map with with body — his excessive need to climb, jump, move all the time, flap, jump again, spin, walk up and down the stairs, jump again…the little lad as a hard time staying still, and it’s not all behavioural. This is why he has a rigorous exercise program.

He’s also so “on” the past few days, though, and I thought it was important to write about it in light of the recent release of Carly’s Voice. Adam also has to move and twitch. When he has a cold, his system seems suppresed enough to turn down the volume of his bodily movements that he can focus a lot better. It’s the jumbled Alphabet Soup of autism that we need to discuss here, and not every autistic person possesses the same level of tics & movement disturbance (read a couple of posts down from this one), which Carly and Adam seem to share to some extent.

Adam is not able to talk all of the time. It’s in part motor planning, “apraxia” and his neurology that effects his consistency. These “neurological inconsistencies” or “inconcistency in performance” are, for many autistic people, a real struggle. I am often told that Adam is a “complex” child because of it — that he’s “intelligent but inconisistent because he cannot always focus and always needs to move.” Teachers generally want to put him on meds. I am for medications if they assist the person in their own pain or distress. I’m concerned about using them only for “compliance.” Educators largely focus on an autistic student’s inability to sit still rather than what captures the ability — what engages the autistic child.

Sometimes Adam can say a perfectly clear sentence and make perfect sense, other times he mumbles like we all tend to do when we don’t know the words to a song. I can tell he’s trying very hard to form the words and it overjoys me. Other times he babbles and I can’t make out what he is saying. I’m frustrated with myself when he’s intentionally asking me for something because I can’t quite understand him and he’s looking right at me! I still try to acknowledge his utterances no matter what.

Some parents get really frustrated with the “babbling,” but I’ve learned it’s an important part of language aquisition — talking to oneself, self-babble. I would say don’t ever try to stop it. Even “shaping” it all the time can get very discouraging for the autistic person. While we can model, we don’t always want to be correcting a person. Sometimes I’ll just acknowledge like “oh” or “yes” or “I know what you mean.” I like to always remember that Adam is on a different trajectory than other kids. As I recollect our first decade now together, I relish in the fact that we have little chats, although idiosyncratic, in the car. Some people might view this still as extremely “impaired” communication between us. Yet, when Adam was a toddler, I had wondered if we’d ever have a chat in the car on the way home from school. There was always silence, and I wondered if all I would ever hear was my own voice.

This morning, he was reading to me! “Clink” he read from his book Spoon He can some days and not on others. The past couple of nights, he’s been picking up “age-appropriate” books, although he’ll also need his “baby books” for security and comfort. His recent favorite is Geronimo Stilton’s The Kingdom of Fantasy. I bought it because the chapters are short and the illustrations are great. He read the words effortlessly last night, while other days he struggles to get the words out of his mouth. He will stare at the word and utter nothing, or go to, what I call his “default word”; one which looks similar but is not the same, often triggered by the first two or three letters. I figure he’s trying to access it and because he can’t get it out quickly enough to appease me, he will say what first word comes to his mind. Often, it may take up to minutes for an autstic person to process what is being asked of them and then they will answer. Inconsistent.

These inconsistencies are really important to remember with some of the non verbal autistic children, many who have motor planning difficulty. It is one of the points also which many families do not understand about Facilitated Communication, or what is now called “Supported Typing” — what it is and why it exists. There was so much controversey about this effective and important way of teaching children with motor planning difficulties and low muscle tone that the term had to be changed. It had been abused by some therapists, but we’ve learned ways in which to avoid this abuse.

When we’re talking about getting devices into the hands of autistic children, I’m delighted. I’ve been advocating for that for nearly a decade now. The recently released book, Carly’s Voice will put more of these devices into the hands of autistic children. Carly has a strong voice and she can add to the other autistic individuals like her who use typing as their main form of communication — Amanda Baggs, Larry Bissonnette, Tito Mukhopadhyay to name only three of many. Every time another autistic person “comes out” I continue to have hope that our understanding of autistic people, and the education and the services they require, will be more available to them. I believe that the more educators are interested in teaching the autistic, the better education autistic people we will have. Educators have to believe in autistic people first, and I think Carly can help with this.

The one point I wish to extend about typing and using devices that wasn’t addressed in Carly’s Voice, is the critical role of the communication partner — particularly in the difficult beginning of learning how to use devices or in learning to type, which not all people with motor planning difficulties may be able to achieve. In the book, her dad, Arthur Fleischmann states that Carly could not initally type with her parents. When Carly was nestled in between her therapists Howard and Barb, she could type some of the time. Her father admits that he thought it “incredulous” when her therapists claim of her typing ability and intelligence.

Having close proximity to a communication partner is “Supported Typing.” It’s a form of prompt, security and trust, and it must be used in order to get many autistic people started. I know from Adam that typing open-ended conversations can be really hard for him. He may require reinforcers or some sort of assistance to keep going. He can type independently for things, now even some phrases, but when we have an open-ended conversation, he still needs me to sit closely. Learning how and when to push an autistic child to type is dependent on many factors that need to be carefully evaluated.

He is independent, some of the time, when motivated and when he knows what to do. He would not have started typing independently had I not began supported typing when he was four years old. When alone with YouTube, Adam can search for very sophisticated videos he wants like “psychedelic cartoons.” I don’t need to be there — his fingers can move as fast as lightening. He also spells on his own on his iPad spelling programs that he likes to play around with. Put him in an ABA program where he’s asked to type the same word that he’s known since he’s been 11 months of age, however, (he was also diagnosed hyperlexic), he may not type the “correct response” one hundred per cent of the time because, I imagine, he’s so bored and he can’t always do what is commanded of him. Or for the reasons cited above, he’s inconsistent. He’s consistent, however, in many other things, like his need for movement, deep pressure, his way of learning, and, well, being autistic, which is generally undervalued.

This is what I don’t like about ABA programs and why I think it holds the autistic child back in the area of academics, especially. I keep telling his school they need to move on — if he’s interested in YouTube or the computer, let him search and build his research and typing skills from there. ABA supervisors and therapists desperately need to learn the value of other methodologies such as supported typing and following an autistic person’s interests, not to mention truly understanding the need of certain physical movements in order to achieve comfort and to learn. Learning happens all the time, even for autistic people whom we tend to believe are not learning unless they are responding typically and “attending.” I struggle with the marrying of “learning how to respond typically,” and Adam’s innate ability, I’ll admit.

One strategy also that ABA’ers need to learn is not only to see what an autistic person is doing on their own “consistently,” even if it appears “atypical” but also to let them respond by giving them visual multiple choice since most autistic people are visual learners. Adam will usually score 90-100 percent on this method of testing knowledge. If asked to respond without the visual prompt, he’d be in a low percentile. Still, he’s judged on a typical scale instead of an autistic one most of the time. Visual support is critical to autistic learning and responding and should be used in any communication program.

When looking at Carly as a young child, because of her motor-planning difficulty, it is clear that she learns to press the buttons on her Cheap Talk machine (this is a machine loaded with PECS with a voice recording so the box is an early ‘talk box’ for very young children). Her index finger is held by the therapist and formed into a point. Her dad writes about her low muscle tone, so Carly would have needed this level of support. She is also lead to the box, which is an example of how many autistic children need to learn the purpose of these communication devices. We must not simply hand an autstic child a device and expect them to type miraculously. Watch for it in the shots where she is a little girl:

Some people don’t have the full motor capability and others are effected by movement disturbance — a form of catatonia in autism, or spasmodic-like movement — where they need a reminder to keep moving. This can be as subtle as a command to “keep going,” or a light touch on the shoulder. For more assistance, a backward pressure, or resistance, can be applied on the arm. It can servce as a physical reminder to keep moving the hand forward. If done correctly, the supporter will neutralize the users hand in the centre of the keyboard to ensure that there is no influence over the communication itself.

It is important not to acknowledge the hard work of many of autistic non verbal individuals, and their therapists, who learned to type and communicate this way. So many are independent now because of it, but just because some people cannot be fully independent is not to assume, as Carly says so well, that there is no intelligence. Carly also tells us that she worked very hard. It’s not easy for an autistic person to learn how to type, nor is it for parents and therapists. I know it’s not easy for Adam.

As a visual learner, Adam uses the program Pictello on his iPad for him to practice open-ended communication. What this means is communication without a specific ending that he would come easy for us, like conversation. Adam is able to take his own pictures, or we can of him, on his own device, he can load them into Pictello, and he can write independently about each picture, and we can have a conversation about his pictures. Due to his inconsistent capability of speech, we ask him to read the sentences he writes so we can record his own voice with the program. Afterwards, he’s created a story of his day and he can listen to himself narrate. His so delighted with it that he’s eager to use it everyday. He loves to hear his own voice and I can hear how he’s trying so hard!

Before the iPad we used the Alphasmart Neo because it was portable, but it didn’t have the text to speech output that has helped Adam also learn to talk. Now with the iPad, we have so many inexpensive options to communicate. I know the iPad isn’t accessible to all autistic families, and Autcom is also working in the US to get subsidy for families for the iPad. I hope Carly’s Voice and the many other autistic voices will continue to raise this awareness so that educators will be also eager to learn how autistic people can learn and communicate. Sometimes it takes such highly publicized success stories to get our educators even interested in our autistic kids. I am grateful that Arthur talks honestly about his own struggles as a parent, and still never giving up on Carly.

Let us all be patient and believe. The onus is not solely on the autistic person. We cannot expect them to know what to do with the device — it’s not easy to learn. It may take years. From my experience, and judging from Carly’s Voice, it’s well worth it.

Some References for Assistive Augmentative Communication and Supported Typing:

Pat Mirenda and Teresa Iacono, Autism Spectrum Disorders and AAC

Martha Leary, David Hill and Dr. Anne Donnellan, Movement Disturbance in Autism

Rosemary Crossley, Speechless, Facilitating Communication for People Without Voices

Syracuse University School of Education

Dr. Pat Mirenda on AAC

Dr. Douglas Biklen: Contested Words, Contested Science

Ralph James Savarese: Reasonable People: A Memoir Of Autism And Adoption (reviewed in Disability Studies Quarterly)

Conferences & Orgs for and by Autistic People And Where You Can Learn More About Autistic Learning Communication:

Autcom

Autreat

ASAN — Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Films to Watch on AAC and Supported Communication:

Sue Rubin: Autism is A World

Wretches and Jabberers

Tito Mukhopadhyay on 60 Minutes

Back Seat Driver

Filed Under (Adam, Autistic Self Advocacy) by Estee on 11-02-2012

“This way!” Adam says firmly from the backseat of our car. He points to the direction he wants me to turn as he declares it. It’s not always safe for me to see where he’s pointing while I’m driving. I am asking him to tell me whether to go left, right or straight.

He’s usually directing me to the local grocery store he prefers. He likes to go almost every day after school. I’ve turned my grocery shopping into a daily routine, and generally buy only what we need for dinner that evening. It is not only turning into an exercise in frugality — buying only what we need — but one where Adam now shops for himself.

Adam was getting a little fixed on the one grocery store, so I mixed it up — Loblaws, Brunos, the “big store,” the “little store,” and the “dollar store.” I decided to shake it up a bit when Adam got fixed on Ginger Bread cookies at Brunos. Adam would need to buy a ginger-bread cookie, preferring to look at it rather than eat it. Once our cupboard was getting full of Gingerbread Snowmen, Christmas Trees and Stars of David, I had to ask myself what I was going to do with them all — make a house out of them or just say no. I ended up doing both. He soon tired of the cookies, thank goodness, and moved to the deli section, picking tender pieces of steak, big lean hamburgers and veal schnitzels. From there, he’s moved to different stores.

We don’t always need something from the grocery store, of course, so I’m finding other things to do. I realize that Adam, while he seems to be a little foodie, also just likes doing something after school before he goes home. We can go out to dinner, he goes skiing once a week — he loves that. He needs the outside world. He’s so anxious to take a bite, and his explorations seem to begin with a routine.

“That way,” he points. He’s leading me toward the little store. No matter where I am on the road, he knows the direction. Sometimes he even just wants to drive around. Sometimes I don’t feel like it.

“We’re going home now,” I say. He whines in protest.

“That way!” he insists.

“It’s time to go home,” I say with a melodic voice laced with an I’m-not-flinching tone. I hear his red, goose-down-filled arm shuffle, pointing. He looks like the 1960’s kid who can’t move in the snowsuit.

“This way,” he says pointing to the left. I turn my head and our eyes mirror defiance.

“Home time,” I say, keeping it clear. I’m holding my breath hoping that my simplicity will help avoid crying or whining. Sometimes Adam gets upset, although his protests are generally abating as he I notice he’s beginning to learn how to negotiate with me. If I say it’s dinner time, he may tell me what he wants to eat instead of being fixed on going to a store. “We’re going home now.”

“Pizza!” he demands.

“Okay, Adam, tonight you can have pizza.” Well, he can if it’s only once a week.

He’ll accept more, but I do often give Adam a lot of choice, especially if he has decided to “dance” with me and negotiates for what he wants (in fact, I’m thrilled about it). I do want Adam to take a bite out of the world and savour it. I do want him to learn how to negotiate, and he seems to be learning it all on his own.

I suppose I don’t mind having him as my bossy little back seat driver right now. In fact, I remember the days when I longed for him to boss me around — to talk to me. I’m even at the stage when I’m demanding a please and thank-you from him. Metaphorically he’s no longer in the back seat. He’s pushing his way, as he should, right up to the front.

Return Home From Sri Lanka

Filed Under (Adam, Estee, Travel) by Estee on 31-01-2012

I have serious jet lag. I returned on Saturday, after supper time. It was a journey of thirty hours. The route home was Colombo-Bankok-Beijing-Toronto. On the last day, I realized I caught my first Sri Lankan cold and I suffered all the way home, making the thirty hours feel like sixty. Seriously, you can’t tell the difference after the first twenty-four.

I returned home to my cherub. Adam was waiting for me and the transition from his father back to my home was a happy one. I was worried the little guy would be pissed with me for being gone twelve days. The opposite was true. I tried to avoid making face-to-face contact with Adam, since I had come down with a serious sniffle, muted by a continuous in-flight feed of Contact C. He would have none of that. Adam grabbed my face, our round fleshy cheeks squished together, and he continued to kiss mine all over. Ah well.

We are happily reunited and I am on the mend. I woke at midnight tonight and forced myself to say in bed until three this morning. There is a wisp of white snow on the ground and I gather today will be another gray one. I am recalling all the sights and sounds of my trip, especially the warm light and emerald colour of rice patty fields.

I will send my cherub off to school in a bit. Later, I will hopefully find some words and sentences that do justice to my first trip to Asia. In twelve whril-wind days, major flight time, and time zone changes, I still feel silenced by overwhelming differences. My experience is still blend of flickering images and sensory recollections. As I blend back into my daily life here, I realize it will take me a few more days to articulate what I’ve experienced. I know full well that I’ve only taken a small sip of the land of Serendib.

Reflections On Our First Decade

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Advocacy, autism, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism Theories, Autistic Self Advocacy, Discrimination, Estee, Ethics, Family, Joy, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 11-01-2012

Tonight Adam asked to be carried to his bed. “Carry!” he implores. He has a determined look in his eye. Usually, he climbs into my lap and expects me to carry him to his bed. So I let him again, and cradled him in my arms, trying not to hit his extremities in the doorway.

“Adam, you are getting too big for this now,” I say, my neck and back feeling strained. I carry him into his bedroom and plunk his heavy body on the soft bed.

“I’m not a caterpillar anymore!” he says melodically, and smiles.

“That’s right Adam!”I am pleasantly surprised. It is a rare lucid statement. With all his movements and chants, for the unexperienced, it is difficult to believe Adam is understanding, or paying attention to, many things. Yet I’ve always known he does, even on the days I get frustrated when he can’t respond.

There is a story that Adam The Caterpillar and the Polliwog by Jack Kent. He is using the line from that story and I know he has associated my discussions about him becoming a big boy to the story. “You are not a caterpillar anymore. You are a butterfly!” Adam lifts his head from his pillow. With a big smile, he plants a kiss on my lips and lies back down, contented. I turn out the lights and say goodnight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam and his growth over the past year. Over the New Year, I’ve been thinking how this will be Adam’s first complete decade, and my first decade as a mom. I simply cannot believe that it’s been that long as I remember our journey with autism and with each other.

Adam was diagnosed with autism at 19 months of age and I began writing privately in coffee shops about our experiences when Adam spent a couple of hours in pre-school. I started The Joy of Autism blog and running the events of The Autism Acceptance Project when Adam was three years old. Reaction to my blog and title of the events (The Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability of Quality of Life) were met with both applause and contempt. Today, we read about the joy of autism and parenting an autistic child much more often. Then, parents who were struggling with challenging behaviours and expectations of a cure, challenged me. What did I know?! questioned many parents of slightly older autistic children who were being phased out of services. Wait until your autistic child grows up, then you’ll be in big trouble; you’ll see what we are going through. He won’t be cute forever! I suppose we’ve now reached that same stage. While Adam can still be cute, he is quickly becoming a pre-teen.

In the past decade, we have struggled with acceptance, understanding from others, and in finding a great education. We deal with stigma, and having to justify why we behave as we do. As parents, we are sometimes pitied or called heroes. It’s hard to be a normal parent in the “outside world,” even though autism is our normal. Having to justify our children, and their right, need, and desire to be included can be exhausting if not downright heart-breaking. We keep going out there every day as we brush disappointment off our weary selves. I suppose this is brave.

I also realize, that as bloggers, writers, and advocates, everyone has an opinion. When there is no one cause for autism that science can find, the speculation gets polemic. The nexus of contention seems to be the nature of autistic being and intelligence; is autism a natural, “alternative” way to be human, or is it a defect of the human condition? Of course, I believe it is what it is, although throughout the years I’ve always questioned my own thinking. I still come back to the value of human diversity. Whatever the reason or the cause, I value Adam for who and what he is, how he thinks. I also recognize and try to assist his challenges. I cannot call him a defect. He is whole, loving, able, with his disability. I can’t think of my life without him in it. He requires the extra effort of all to understand his differences in order to enable him. Being constantly challenged for my beliefs has been exhausting and emotional at times. The blessing of this first decade has been the deeper recognition and understanding of the values I held instinctively, and early on.

In the past decade of writing and talking about Adam and autism, I’ve been torn between sharing parts of our experience and our privacy. In the hopes of helping Adam’s future, I’ve seriously thought about whether or not to close the blog, especially since Adam’s first decade also included a divorce — a challenge for any child, and an extra challenge for Adam. I decided that not only does writing about experience help me as his mother, but that sharing is a gift we both give and receive. I was helped by the writing and sharing of other autistic people and parents. I don’t want to fear the sharing, although I’m continually challenged by this. Of course, it is my duty to protect Adam and his privacy, so I believe that every parent must choose our stories carefully. I’ve decided to continue writing.

I also can’t help thinking about the parents who had autistic children ten years before us. Many were the parents in Canada who argued for ABA to be covered as medically necessary treatment (the political argument still exists). Some parents found out about Dr. Lovaas in L.A. and even moved down with their children for treatment, and I may have done the same thing if Adam had been born earlier — maybe not. Adam was born in 2002. In 1992, ABA was turned to as the hope for the education and life skills training for autistic children. It was believed that ABA would be the way to shape the child’s behaviour and normalize them, in time for school. It seemed much more humane and reasonable than “holding therapy.”

The window in which to do this, they were told (and we were too) was five to six years of age. If a child could not talk or learn normally by then, the window of opportunity would close. The “early diagnosis is key,” notice, is also used for cancer, and I know from personal experience that yes, better to get a cancer early (another part of our past decade). Science, parents, autistic people, however, have proven that there is no such thing as lost opportunity. Autistic people need continued life-long learning. I like to think of that all of us require continued training throughout our lives to put this in perspective.

New methods and teaching approaches have been explored and integrated into many classrooms. ABA therapy has, to some extent, integrated different therapies into their own practice. By “operationalizing” these other methods and taking “data” it seems to have been rebranded as “Positive Behavioural Therapy” or “Support. While there is still controversy there because the therapy still doesn’t fully address the abilities and the nature of autistic perception and intelligence, one could view it as a step forward.

It is also difficult to let go of labels. Political policies are built on them. They are made for autistic people largely by non autistic people. Definitions and systems must be defined in policy, and this has been difficult for autistic people because their issues have not fully been acknowledged. So we must be cautious not to lose sight of the progress have made in the science regarding autistic ability, perception and intelligence. We must continue to work to answer the question on how we can best educate and address an autistic person’s needs, and how an autistic person can participate in society as they are. The dyslexic community had to learn and now so must we.

Ten years before ABA took hold in Canada, in 1982, Lorna Wing wrote her pivotal paper reviving the work of Hans Asperger and spotlighting Aspergers sydrome in her paper, Aspergers Syndrome: A Clinical Account. It was ten years after that paper that Autism Spectrum Disorder label and definition of the “triad of impairments” made it into the DSM IV. In thinking about decades, I thought back to 1972 when Ontario’s last mental institution was shut down. It freaks me out to think that Adam’s life could have been so very different thirty or more decades ago. He would have been even more segregated than he is today.

As I measure the decades against autism treatment, and treatment of autistic people, I see that in 2012, we’re learning more every day. We do so even in a perilous time when “designer babies” arguably threaten the continued existence of people with disabilities. Many communities like ours and the Down syndrome community grieve the loss of others “like” them as a loss of community. We’ve launched autism acceptance movement, akin to other civil rights movements, for the equal and fair regard of autistic people in our society. It is still a nascent movement of which most people are unaware. We have not accomplished full inclusion and accommodation. We still have not raised enough awareness.

As I think to 2022, when Adam will be twenty years old, I hope for the ability for Adam to continue his education and the welcoming of his assistants not because he is unable, but because he can be enabled with them. I want for his participation in his own life planning, pre-college/university prep, and vocational training that will be unique to the needs of him and others like him. I think of his life, like mine, as a continual learning curve — certainly not ending at the age of twenty one. I watch and read the other parents and autistic individuals ten years ahead of us, and wish to thank them for the paths they are forging.

I look ahead to the next couple of decades. There was a time I fretted about it until I realized that time is relative and all people develop as they should. I worried about Adam’s future and where he would live. Yet, I intend to hang in there with him, come what may. I had some very difficult moments after my divorce and raising Adam here alone and this is when my worries were at an all-time high. On one very low day, a calm and quiet thought suddenly entered my head, and it was filled with love. While autism may have brought me some of my greatest challenges, it has also bestowed my greatest gift.

I love Adam more than words. He has always been my pride and joy. I know that it is my duty to assist him, and to find others to assist him along the way who will help him become the man he is meant to be.

Maybe I just can’t believe he’s going to be ten years old this year. I turned on an old video when he was first diagnosed. He is twenty months and has the same smile, the same boundless energy. He is the same boy in a growing, lanky body. He is a butterfly.

Patience With That Egg

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, autism, Autism and Learning, Communication) by Estee on 05-12-2011

Adam and I went to see Seussical at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. Adam likes the theatre more than he does movies.

I’ve always refused to stay isolated and Adam doesn’t like to be, either. He likes people and outings and even though we’ve been through ups and downs of anxiety, we tend to overcome our obstacles — our own and the ones that seem outside of us. But as usual, I digress.

Adam was his usual attentive self to the play. There were a series of questions afterwards and the theatre writes them out in the program for parents to work on at home. I also sent the questions to school today. I always wonder why there are not more field trips and plays for autistic children. Thankfully, Adam is going to the library a couple of times a week.

Many people don’t think autistic people understand or “get it,” and that taking them to a play or an outing would be a useless endeavour– one that would require too much effort, or parental fortitude and heartbreak to withstand stares. I’ve never been to Young People’s Theatre when a young person doesn’t make a whoop or two. Adam’s not yet a whooper, he’s more of a giggler. Perhaps because I see some parents of typical children sternly turn their disturbed heads (yes, my perception and interpretation…my bias), I refuse to look around. It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m actually thinking to myself hey, who’s the cool kid having the really great time!

Adam’s eyes were glued. His grin was wide, his eyes beaming. It feels so good to watch him enjoying himself. Since he’s been young, even though he has real challenges with expressive communication, he’s given me fantastic glimpses into his perception and understanding. His very attention to the play was proof- positive. Today he wrote me an email (the school lets him email me). One of his teachers asked him what he did on the weekend, not knowing the play at all. Adam replied by typing “elephant sat egg.” Horton was the guardian of the egg. He would not leave the egg or abandon the Whos on that little speck of dust in this mix of Dr. Seuss stories, no matter how awful and skeptcial the Wickersham brothers and other townspeople are to him. He endures the abuse, the naysayers, the people who call him a chump.

I know I have to keep working with others to show how to get more typed communication out of Adam and not give up. At the same time, I’m also thrilled that people are trying and doing. I know I need more patience. I worry and wonder how many hours in the day autistic kids are working on labels, mands and putting together Mr. Potato Head. Even though practice is always essential, and the goals are about attention and things other than the label or putting together a head, the work it takes to collect the expressive communication is big and we need to focus more on exposing autistic kids to interesting material, even when we don’t get immediate reward of a child’s recognition. I think our kids should be asked more complicated questions and working on really interesting age appropriate material. Of course, there’s also the fact that the stuff autistic kids are interested in can seem boring or useless to the rest of us. We need to learn how to nurture these interests. Also beware of objects that autistic children become attached to. Clinginess to baby books doesn’t mean an autistic child doesn’t want to read chapter books. I am reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Adam (he giggles), and have no idea yet what he’s getting from it. Although I do know, as but one example, that when we get wild weather, he’ll reach and start reading a book for teens on weather systems. The baby books are a form of familiar for Adam. He uses them to comfort himself and to create order in a world that can often be overwhelming. They don’t indicate what he’s also interested in, or what he’s capable of.

Readiness is essential but there can also be many opinions on what makes an autistic person “ready.” Is it the ability to sit still, act normal, attend for long periods of time? If so, an autistic person may never be deemed totally “ready.” If these are some of the prerequisites to “readiness,” how far held back is the autistic person who’s otherwise sopping up so much in the environment? Adam got his musical notation, to his music teacher’s surprise, very quickly. Learning to “attend” is a social “norm” imposed to people who find that really challenging. It’s not that I don’t think Adam shouldn’t learn that, but it’s not the only thing he needs to learn. Adam needs to learn things that interest him, and like other children, we don’t know what interests our children unless they get exposed to things. His movement and activity is likely the way he learns best, and despite my repetition in life and here on the blog, he is often treated like that round peg being squeezed into a square hole, no matter what my beliefs.

Help, hello. Is anyone there? I’m trying to write with the greatest of care. As I convey ideas about Adam over and over, we need to settle him down safe, on a soft bed of clover.

I guess you can say I’m holding on to this egg.

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.

A Breeze of Good Feelings

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Art, Joy) by Estee on 14-06-2011


I’m going to ramble about good feelings. Following the shock of last week — hearing that Adam’s class was going to be dismantled — I felt like I was in another hurricane. That short story ended quickly, though, as the school came through to accommodate Adam for next year. They too understood the tumult he has been through. For me, it was a wake up call to our future. It’s not that we don’t know something’s coming, right? It’s interesting how something has to happen to get us to the next level. The occurrence reminded me that it’s time to leave the past behind, and get back to learning the next phase of advocating for Adam’s needs. It’s also time for him to learn that he’s autistic and what’s involved in that so he can begin advocating for himself. It’s not that I don’t think that he knows he’s different. What he needs is a toolbox of self confidence and skills to be able to stand up to the people I stand up to now as a neurotypical person.

It’s another reason why I love Autistic Pride Day which is on June 18th. I imagine what positive messages we can give to our children while they are growing up (for there are otherwise too few) — that difference is neither good nor bad, it just is. We are all unique individuals with differing needs and strengths. It’s important to be proud of ourselves, even if we have our challenges. We are proud to be autistic, or family members of autistic people. I would like to help empower and enable Adam in this way. A walk next year (as there is little time to prepare this year), would be a wonderful, peaceful way to walk proud.

Change has blown in in so many ways. It is because of times like the school news that I need to celebrate Adam, myself and the people we love. We are losing his aide of seven years and are welcoming a new one into our lives. We’ve hired a new male aide worker on weekends who I hope will become a part of Adam’s life. His team is shape-shifting and I see Adam soon sitting around the table for part of our meetings and later, for all of them as he tells us what he wants to do with his life and how we can best support him. Sometimes all of these changes literally knock me off my feet they are so exhausting, which is why I take as much time as I can to beam. There is love all around and I don’t take it for granted. There is a person in our lives and lots of music and good feelings all around. I no longer feel I’m swimming way off in the deep ocean. I believe I am arriving at shore — or the ship I’ve been building is at least sturdy enough to lead us there.

The really simple things make me extremely happy. The pummels and disappointments — whether they be from our past or about school — make these moments even more special. I can tell we are settling as I can’t wait for Adam to come home from school. I used to be so tired and worried about Adam’s distress. Just last year he was spasming so much he needed an EEG. Now, he saunters into the house with his lunch bag, flicks off his shoes and runs down the hall to the kitchen where his snack awaits. After reminding him to wash his hands, he perches himself at the counter and noshes at red peppers or fruit. If that’s not enough, he’ll ask (lately) for popcorn with vinegar (yes, that’s right). He’ll get the popcorn himself and after learning that pressing too many buttons on the microwave actually locks it, he turns to me and asks, “Popcorn, puweeze.” He is not quite satisfied until I open the package and turn on the microwave. Then, he’ll go into the pantry and grap the large plastic jug of white vinegar. “Vinegar, puwezze.” He hands over the heavy jug so I can pour it on top (yep) on top. He moves back to the counter stool and gets the popcorn from the bottom of the bowl first so it’s soaked, and chews on one piece at a time

I can also tell we are settling by our routines. Adam nestles into my arm at the end of each day while I watch Peter Mansbridge on The National. Sorry, Peter, but you put my son nicely to sleep. Adam his happy to watch with me quietly for a while. Then his eyes begin fall shut slowly and when he’s breathing deeply, I carry him to his bed, even though he keeps getting heavier. As I pull the baby blue blanket right up to his chin, he is grinning with his eyes tightly closed. “Goodnight my sweetheart,” I say. I kiss him and leave the room, remembering myself at his age, just as happy when my mother or father did the same.

I feel like Jodie Foster in Little Man Tate. Sure, we are not as verbally articulate, but we are no less expressive. We understand each other. We have our many ways. Like them, Adam and I lie around and watch the clouds together; and I hold him tight when the lights are low and the house is quiet except for the whir of traffic outside.

Without disturbing too much privacy, I think there are only a few things I can share as Adam’s ally — simply because I need to express these good times — like his love of music, for one. Adam also has some cool dance moves. This is a combination of raising his arms up in the air to swaying them with the rest of his body side to side, to a full on rock on jump and hand flap — and let’s not forget his electric smile. Adam is increasingly adept at piano and tries his hand at guitar (I think he prefers guitar — no lessons involved). There is no question that he has artistic ability (see photo).

This could just be becoming the happiest time in our lives. That’s why the news of last week was so upsetting because it takes so long to find balance and when there are additional challenges with a child, the last thing one wants is more. I know there are more challenges ahead, but today I decide to take in the light breeze.

I was once told when Adam was first diagnosed that this was going to be a “marathon, not a sprint.” Well, after a few years now, I don’t just think it’s a marathon…it’s Ironman. All of the work is really important, especially in a world that still does not fully understand and accept autism, but it’s not everything. It’s not what Adam will remember or what will necessarily trigger his heart. He’s going to remember when I carried him to bed and pulled the blanket under his chin. He’s going to remember lounging out in the yard and watching and naming the clouds with me when I’m gone. I think the work that we do goes without saying, but it’s also important to stop and listen to the music, to experience love. It’s everything.

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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.