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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.

Autistic Freedom

Filed Under (ABA, Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Anxiety, Art, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Behaviours, Communication, Computing/iPad, Contributions to Society, Development, Language, Law, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Parenting, Politics, Safety, school, Sensory Differences, Transitions, Wandering) by Estee on 26-06-2013

I’ve been thinking and planning with Adam’s team the next stages of his learning and doing our map project. Every once in a while, I got down the dark whole of blog comments and blogs that consistently regard autism, even its many complications and struggles, as inherently “bad.” The issue we have with thinking in these terms, although safety is an ongoing concern for many parents including myself, is that we think we can shape behaviour without truly understanding it, and that what we are talking about is bad behaviour. Behaviour is something that we can control, impulse and many disabilities are not constituted by the will of a person. So when we talk about shaping behaviour and “positive” behavioural support, we always have to question our subjectivity and how we’ve come to make sense of autism.

Given many of our children are not provided access to alternative communication support, and cannot tell us otherwise, and that it takes time and care for many autistic people to learn how to communicate (if they can), the Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence (ABC) mode of tracking behaviour will remain problematic, and the very recognition of that can be helpful. There are often too many conflating factors that precede a behaviour so, while we do our best to interpret it, it is always difficult to claim one cause. Here I find that I’m needing to ask many different players in Adam’s life for information so that I can cobble together the best interpretation I can, bearing in mind that this is merely an interpretation.

So with recent events and noticing Adam’s propensity for visual memory, needing to know his environments, I continue to study maps and autistic art and will experiment how this might be useful for Adam. This is another example of the visual map I found by an autistic artist found at Drawing Autism: 50 WAtts. It’s part of my interest in helping Adam draw his own maps as a way of understanding his own environment. This means, I have to be careful how I enable and support him, and be in a continuous reflexive state of mind in terms of enabling versus prompting him which would therefore NOT be his own communication.

Felix: Imaginary City Map, Age 11

Here’s how the artist responded about the work:

What was the inspiration for this piece?

Generally I start drawing one street on different spots on the edge of my paper. I make the streets grow toward one another.

Who are some artists that you like?

None. I study road maps and atlases in detail and generally I scroll the full track of our trips on Google Earth.

I turn now to education in hopes to keep honing in and improving it when I think of Adam’s needs. Under the rubric of the Medicaid system in the US – a system that is already in existence – advocates seek more, or varied, habilitative services for autistic individuals. This is an important beginning within an existing system and we have to keep discussing the medical model and its effects on the way autistics are included and regarded as full citizens, or not, in society. In Canada, we also require more choices that fit with parental values and wishes for their autistic children, and this was addressed by Doug Reynolds in his paper for Autism Ontario: Looking Forward: Has Intensive Early Intervention Hijacked the ASD Agenda? The work of autistic people in this is valuable in how I think about Adam and his education and the extra supports and help he needs. Bear in mind, I write here a blog post, not an essay. Here are some of the ideas that I think about that I have not yet formatted into a paper.

To go on, if a parent wants an education for their autistic child, they should be able to work with a school to attain it using some key principles:

1) Respect for autistic identity and personhood;
2) Understanding learning at one’s own pace and an acceptance of it (as opposed to a linear model for learning and development);
3) Understanding and completion of complicated sensory profiles and the time it takes for accommodations to be put in place and,
4) recognition that accommodations frequently change and must remain flexible;
5) Recognition and acceptance of family-hired (which could fall under a direct-funding model from government support) support workers as reasonable accommodation in classroom – for transitions, programs, to help with accommodations and if needed, supported communication and whatever accommodation an individual and family might need to enable success;
6) Transparency by schools – to allow parents in for observation, to review class binders, etc. Considering many of our children are non-verbal, it would be good to not only communicate in binders, but to allow drop-in visits (even if a bit of arrangement is needed to respect others). This enables open-hearted communication and better accommodations.
7) Communication aides and technology and access to supported communication and devices as legal right to communicate as autistic people. As an example, an ABA therapist will often say “use your words,” thereby implying that an autistic child is stubbornly with-holding them. Considering the levels of frustration an autistic person has when they cannot communicate, do we not think they would use their words if they could?);
8) Recognition that most autistic people we name as “inconsistent” and “discontinuous” or “having regressed” is often a result of sensory issues and transitions, and that learning happens at unexpected rates. Sometimes, the teaching agenda must be put aside when an autistic person may seem “disregulated” and build back tolerance. An autistic person can often jump several grade levels in reading, for instance, and then appear to have regressed. This is not necessarily indicative of a regression so much as a need for a body to regroup. Therefore,
9) testing autistic people academically so they can advance grades must happen with re-presented formats, over many sessions, and then, the best result should be taken as an achievement of grade or pass so that the autistic person is not held back until they “recover” from autism to normalcy and thus never allowed to advance, or potentially restrict their pace and ability. To understand the seriousness of withholding education as a right, see Moore vs. British Columbia and the note that remediation may result in adverse effect discrimination because it assumes a person has to reach a certain level of normal performance before granted the right to be educated. Of course we want children to generalize skills and be as independent as possible or to achieve an 80% mastery, but often this concept of discontinuity is missed or misunderstood and education is held-back.

These have been my considerations of late and, and I support a variety of methods that befit a child and the combination of many may suit for different people and different situations, so long as they do not harm or torture an autistic person.

ABA is pretty much the only method which is used in Canada to remediate autistic people before granted access to education (particularly people labeled with Low Functioning Autism, who are non-verbal, or who have complex sensory systems). It can be a useful strategy also within a curriculum but it needs to keep examining itself from within and by studying autistic autobiography and potential effects of behaviourism on self-identity. I am suggesting that autism schools also need trained teachers in regular and special education and need to:

1) Be inspected by the Ministry of Education for meeting curriculum requirements (the adapatation and accommodation piece is an extended discussion);
2) Adopt other methods that we know help an autistic person learn through re-presentation of materials (see Judy Endow);
3) Be reflexive about the psychological effects of shaping behaviour and compliance may have on autistic individuals self-esteem and identity;
4) Learn creative methods and enable an autistic person to go on outings to educate not only life-skills, but other interests by using other methods and creative strategies. I remember one professor of an autistic child stating that when her son was interested (or people tend to label “obsessed” with asphalt), she took him to an asphalt factory.

Do schools undergo this kind of creative exercise for autistic children who, for instance, may bolt and may be so enamoured with routes and maps so as to learn something as opposed to controlling behaviour? Sure, we have to attend to immediate safety concerns, sensory regulation and building tolerance – these are important steps to an autistic person’s success. Yet my question persists – what can we do that teaches an autistic child to creatively channel their passions and proclivities? What are we telling an autistic child day-in and day-out about them when we ask them to “comply” to our agenda without enabling some of theirs? What is freedom if not mobility? Is an autistic person a slave to the performance of normalcy if they are not allowed to freely move their bodies in order to feel safe and secure? (See Judy Endow and Tito Mukhopadyhay). For instance, there is so much autistic autobiography about how autistic people need to protect themselves from over-stimulation – reverting to their iPad in order to be part of a group, squinting their eyes, or if they do not feel their bodies, they feel frightened and must flap their hands or lie on the ground in order to feel safe! If we are talking about “safety” how are we helping? To what extent to researchers and teachers use and take autistic autobiography seriously?

The other issue I need to bring up today is one of freedom of choice. What I find concerning about models of teaching for autistic people specifically is the judgement of some parents against other parents for choosing what they feel is right for their families and their children. It is not right to state that an autistic person has to undergo a certain drug or therapy or blame a parent or an autistic person. The freedom of families as well as autistic people is at stake, and while I wish to trouble this, I realize this has many angles and complexities within such a discussion. Some autistic people feel a parent agenda, if it is one of just becoming normal without critical regard, can result in problems when autism is seen as a disease that requires potentially harmful remedies. So by no means is this discussion an easy one, but there is no freedom if Canada only presents and makes available one kind of service. In short, Canada, with an autism agenda led mostly by parents, needs to consider what it’s building and its long-term effects. There needs to be choice for families, a respect for values and an invocation of substantive equality in our systems.

Here I wish to close with an opening – with the words of Melanie Yergeau, autistic, from her essay, Socializing Through Silence:

“My silence is in fact a compliment. It means that I am being my natural self. It means that I am comfortable around you, that I trust you enough to engage my way of knowing, my way of speaking and interacting.

When I dilute my silences with words – your words, the out-of-the-mouth and off-the-cuff kind – I often do so out of fear. Fear that my rhetorical commonplaces – the commonplaces that lie on my hands, sprint in my eyes, or sit nestled in empty sounds – will bring you shame. Fear that my ways of communicating will be branded as pathology, as aberrant, as not being communication at all…This isn’t to say that my use of your language is always a product of fear. There are times when I genuinely want to use it, understand it, and learn about and from it. I understand that speaking is how you prefer communication. I understand that speaking is how you best learn and interact…

But the burden can’t always rest on me. I have a language too, one that I take joy in, one that I want to share. And when you deny me that – when you identify my silence as a personality flaw, a detriment, a symptom, a form of selfishness, a matter in need of behavioral therapy or ‘scripting’ lessons – when you do these things, you hurt me. You hurt me deeply. You deny me that which I need in order to find my way through this confusing, oppressive, neurotypical world.”

— From: Loud Hands: autistic people speaking, pp. 303-4, The Autistic Press.

Now, how can we respond?

Personal Interest and Academic Reserach

Filed Under (Activism, Adam, Advocacy, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Community, Computing/iPad, Critical Disability Studies, Living, Politics, Writing) by Estee on 28-05-2013

The end of the day of Adam healing from the croup and us both watching repeats of Wretches & Jabberers for my thesis. Adam can’t help laughing at the scenes of Naoki jumping up and down to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee – flapping his hands, moving the window blind from side-to-side, opening and closing doors, and running up and down the stairs to then, finally settling at his computer utterly focused and well, communicative. I can tell Adam’s feeling better as he giggles and then afterwards decided to do some puckered-lip kissing practice on my cheek.

Watching these clips from YouTube are also very important for anyone wanting to discuss it. I would imagine we’re all concerned about Tracy’s living situation and want that to change. As I write an academic paper about a subject that I am personally invested in, I also feel a responsibility to my son’s community. I am also selfish and grateful at the same time – selfish in not wanting Adam or anyone like him to have to be in Tracy’s position as well as inordinately grateful to both Tracy and Larry and their supporters for going out into the world to do this work. We are all motivated by personal circumstances which enables our emapthy. I am hoping to articulate my personal interests and vulnerabilities in my own academic writing, where one is otherwise supposed to be, in a traditional empiricist sense, emotionally removed and (supposedly) objective. Others have discussed this as well – Behar in The Vulnerable Observer, and Douglas Biklen in Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone and recently this new paper by Andrew Bennet in this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly discusses the possibilities of our mutual vulnerabilities – as researcher and research participants.

I really appreciate this clip that comes in addition to the film, as I wanted to know more about Mr. Thresher’s situation. I don’t live in Vermont, but I do think that the issue should be a politically active one here in Ontario as our autism societies take up adult autism issues. How can we enable autistic people to advocate on their own behalf for their own needs? How can we support them? This film should be shown at every chance in discussing positive living situations outside of institutions and segregated shelters.

I also work hard to get Adam to type and use AAC and seek people to support Adam. It is frighteningly slow for people to believe that Adam can understand, read, and have the ability to type and both of us need more support that is difficult to find here in Ontario. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 and been telling people he could read words, numbers and book spines since he was 11 months old. I find it really frustrating if some verbal behaviourists teach him the word “cat” over and over again so he can say it correctly when he’s been reading it since before he could walk. The autism curriculum must change to include education and academics in its programs to be truly supportive of the autistic person’s right to education.

In terms of typing, his school will support him visually, and I think because of the time I’ve spent typing with Adam with support, that he is able to type to some extent at school without it. Yet I think with better support he could do better there and I’m trying to teach people myself. If you are a parent, you know this is a labour. However, I can’t understand any longer, as Adam and I have also been informally tested (yes, that’s the doubt people have about autistic people) that Adam’s communication is his own, and that with the right kinds of supports and teaching, he could communicate better by typing. This is seen in the same way deaf sign language was once denied to deaf people in favour of lip reading and speaking. Yet, communication is also a right. To deny a person with a communication disability such support and access will become an issue for law and policy, but our important work for now as activists and educators is to keep showing the work of autistic self-advocates, such as Larry and Tracy, as well as autistic people who are prolific bloggers and writers, and to keep breaking down barriers within our own homes, communities and schools, one person at a time.

My last thoughts for the evening: Isn’t it better to support an autistic person in their autonomy rather than to fret about what level of dependence they are going to have on their families or in group homes? In other words, isn’t the support of autonomy and our mutual interdependence a much more empowering prospect for us all? (I have to add, I am not intentionally favouring those who are able or have the desire to type or use AAC. There are those who are not able to use it and we have to consider the people missing from this dialogue).

Part of my work wonders why such doubt exists regarding Adam and why we’ve had to struggle with so much resistance with educators and clinicians. I do think that Adam, like other autistic people, will dispel the doubts. But I also wonder if we have to ask ourselves what or why we doubt, exactly? What do we fear if people with communication disabilities can communicate via other means? Is this the right question?

A New Kind of Autism Lobby: A Proposal

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Charity, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Language, Organizations/Events, Politics, The Autism Acceptance Project) by Estee on 09-05-2013

I’m writing my thesis and am hankering to blog – so many things on my mind with the recent Ontario budget proposal, the ever-so teensy weensy allowance for an individual on ODSP to take home a couple hundred bucks a month and the way we may have to reconsider how we advocate for support as autistic families. Can I say at least it wasn’t cut altogether as was the original threat? Also in the budget is a brief mention of autism services and a reduction of wait-list times for those in urgent need. I’d like here to write a post for all of us to reconsider what all autistic people and families need, and how we have to lobby.

I’m writing my thesis on autism advocacy, in particular, among non-verbal populations. There are wonderful contributions to this already out there to be cited. Also, The Autism Acceptance Project (TAAP) is in meetings, where the autistic population is setting the agenda and I am a facilitator/organizer (also we hope to announce an upcoming event soon). I’ve thought long and hard about the work of autistic folks and re-evaluate my role as a partner and ally to Adam and others. The most fundamental concern I have that will effect all autistic people and their families is autistic rights – to be viewed as valuable citizens; this means that the “spectrum” concept of functioning does not preclude rights and that all people are equal and valuable. This is addressed in substantive equality, where differential treatment must be sought for many to achieve equality (Rioux, 1999). In other words, many disabled people require support and accommodation to participate in their chosen ways in society. What is particularly worrisome to me as a parent of an autistic child, is the lack of access and lack of education. Yet, I also see our traditional education system crumbling, which to me, provides a new opportunity to finally give access to education for everyone. This post proposes not only services to alleviate families, but many opportunities for autistic people of all ages.

Here, I see potential for those who are also ABA lobbyists (I will specifically mention this group since ABA is cited in all government literature now and as I predicted in 2005, it would be the only service available to autistics) to change their drumbeat from tragedy to substantive rights. I’ve cited recently the Jefferey Moore case in British Columbia (2012) wherein it was stated that the notion of remediation risked adverse effect discrimination. I would argue the same – that when we believe we have to remediate an autistic individual, or any individual with a learning disability, before allowing them access to school, or to an education, then this is a fundamental oppression and devaluation. ABA schools can consider integrating academics into their methods as well as any other therapies out there, thus supporting, enabling, respecting (instead of normalizing) autistic being. That Augmentative Assistive Communication (AAC) and other supported communication techniques is not considered a right to communication should be an outrage to us all. At one time, the Deaf community was not allowed to sign! Now, the same thing is happening to the non-verbal autism community. The most fundamental right is the right to access communication. Yet, teachers also have to learn how to support an autistic person to use them, while also considering the autistic learning style (there is research out there you can find easily on this). There are enough autistic independent typists as well as teaching methods available. I could go on — video monitors, white boards, computers – these are fundamental for autistic learning and we all have a wonderful opportunity to learn to support autistic individuals! My question to educators and supporters, how can we change the way we do things to support autistic rights?

Back to the the right to education – music, art, math, science, geography – all of these are fundamental to an individual’s quality of life. Adam is autistic and has a curious mind. When he is introduced to new topics, they may be hard at first if they are taught in traditional ways, but as he learns he becomes more interested, proud and excited; doors open and he wants to learn more! Should an autistic person in a Verbal Behaviour or ABA program be denied access to academic material when they have read the same word since they were a toddler? Or, can this new material be integrated within a program? How creative can we be?How can autistic children be allowed access to their own interests and material and how can teachers facilitate their continued learning of what interests them? These are also fundamental rights – the right to choose and to follow one’s own path. While it has been cited numerous times that everyone – disabled and not – can benefit from an individualized approach to education – it as also been deemed difficult in the traditional system where teachers have been the gatekeepers of knowledge.

I was turned on recently to Sal Kahn, who has created a series of educational videos on YouTube which are utilized by some classrooms. Some teachers are reconsidering their role as facilitators instead of lecturers at the front of the classroom, monitoring a child’s work on the computer using Kahn’s lessons, and then stepping in to help when needed. Online learning can be very effective for autistic individuals and must be considered if we are to enable a future of autistic participation and contribution. This provides fantastic opportunities where video learning and technology – such as Mindcraft – are enablers – autistic people can build in this program, make art and new worlds, and this can be a monitored learning program (and many do which attests to innate autistic intelligence and ability). Online friendships and self-advocacy, as reported by many non-verbal autistic individuals, have also enabled better socialization skills in virtual and real time. How can rethink such spaces that are already at our disposal? How can we allow for autistic work to take place also on autistic terms?

We have to reconsider these spaces from traditional ones to creative ones where all people can participate. At the moment, I can say that while I work to have Adam included, he is mostly segregated – goes to school, goes to a few programs with an aide worker which thankfully enables him to participate. Within the system at our disposal, we work with Adam’s team to provide him the best we can and we are all learning. But this is what I ask of all Canadian society – at least give Adam, and others, the opportunity to participate. To-date, he is not allowed. Even trying to get Adam into certain schools is fraught with traditional testing – not allowing him frequent pre-visits or adapting work in formats that he can best respond to. All I can say is, the world is losing out too for Adam can give back so much.

As I consider my daily life as Adam’s mother, and how my heart wrenches for him – I at least want him to have choices. This drives my work towards a more inclusive future (which may require specialized education in the real sense of education for his future – not sequestering, normalizing and presuming incompetence) for our children and for families to support this, this also traverses to the arena of advocacy with such questions as: What of my role as his parent and an “autism rights activist?” How can I, as a non-autistic person who is used to traditional hierarchical boards, committees and organization, become familiar with an alternative way of organization and allowing a new space, or room, for autistic self-advocates? How can autistic people enable us when some of us are listening? What about virtual spaces and how might they be maximized? How can we allow for dissent and debate that reflects true democracy and recognize that not all autistic people feel the same way, not all people require the same supports, and not everyone will agree? What must we recognize in ourselves as neurotypical teachers, parents, therapists, caregivers and charity organizers in stepping aside and lending a hand to create this space? In speaking of charity and it’s historical role of “handing out,” how can we build communities that support self-advocate needs? In one sense, I truly understand the need for autistic people to have this space, and predominant “voices,” if you will, but we also all have to recognize the important role of allies and parent supporters and educate families about the history of the autistic self-advocacy, and its fragility. We cannot afford to lose the ground gained by autistic-self advocates! Autistic people also have to allow for us to become political facilitators alongside autistic people without us more verbally loquacious dominating the agenda or “speaking over” autistics. Autistic people can teach us patience and learning to listen without speaking over. Let me ramble here by making another comment – research teams and funders have to recognize this urgent need for emancipatory research that requires much patience and time, and make allowances for it.

Here, I acknowledge the independence via interdependence model that I write a lot about – that we tend to advocate for complete autonomy and independence that drives our therapies and expectations for autistic people before giving them full value and citizenship. Yet when we truly look at how interdependent we all are – on our families, on technology, on a service system, none of us are independent. This is the area in which we need to discuss when we talk about autism services – not a cradle to grave service where we put autistic people away, but a collective economy of support where autistic people can also contribute and where we do not view responsibility as something tragic. I can only think that in North America this notion is strongest – when I lived in Europe, families often stayed in the same home all of their lives and supported one another. Part of me can’t help but think that this notion of supporting our children into adulthood is a construction of the industrial revolution – where children were sent into factories to work. As we see those structures crumbling, I hope we can reconsider that supporting one another should be something to be grateful for, not a tragedy. Will our quality of life not improve when we know that all of us who need more support at various points in our lifetimes, will also be respected, supported and not be made to feel guilty or less than for it?

Finally, I can think of all the “job creation,” for autistic people and support workers alike when I think of Ontario’s new proposed budget. Yet as long as we are wedded to this false notion of “independence,” we might continue to build cities which isolate everyone. For certain, this is the ultimate paradox – I think we all feel isolated in many concrete jungles, and we need a call to building collectives and communities which utilize and respect the varying contributions of all citizens. To respect human variation and possibility for re-building, I draw on Jennifer Sarrett’s Autistic Human Rights: A Proposal:

“[H]uman rights are to be enjoyed based on fundamental frailty and vulnerability inherent within the state of being human. By focusing on vulnerability, a state that all people experience at various points in life, disability and difference becomes an experience that can tie all humans together.” (2012, Disability Studies Quarterly, unpaginated)

Also, quoting Eva Kittay, Sarrett includes that while not all people are equally vulnerable, that is, some people are more vulnerable than others, it does not mean that the more vulnerable are less worthy or entitled to justice, equality and human rights:

This principle, in contrast to the others, would not be based on our equal vulnerability, nor on our possession of rationality, a sense of justice, and a vision of our own good. Instead, it would be based on our unequal vulnerability in dependency, on our moral power to respond to others in need, on on the primacy of human relations to happiness and well-being.” (Kittay in Sarrett, 2012)

Sarrett further states that,

“human rights do not have to rely on a single doctrine – dependence or fragility or oppression or humanness or capability. The autism-based model described here is built on a foundation of dependence, individuality, and valuing human diversity, allowing for the inclusion of the entire sphere [note: she uses 'sphere' instead of 'spectrum' which she considers ableist] of cognitive, intellectual, physical and psychiatric traits within the human condition. Accounting for and respecting variations in the human state are central to the ongoing and dynamic process of developing human rights models most effective for any time and place. Any model of human rights should be in constant conversation with contemporary issues of diversity, medicine, law, and advocacy. Thus, all models…should be subject to alterations and updates to ensure the most acute and powerful application in every community and for every person.”

She notes that while some positive rights have been granted for education and health care, that the autistic rights model, fashioned after civil rights, has difficulty with the promotion of negative rights which includes the right to assemble. Sarrett says that negative rights are integral to this inclusive model of human rights, but self-representation and advocacy can be difficult for many non-verbal advocates who have assembled more easily online, and find real-time meetings and interactions very difficult. This asks us to reconsider how accessible our boards, committees and systems and how they enact as barriers to many autistic people. How might we re-organize our organizations? I, for one, believe that the Internet provides the future possibilities for the democratic process.

Reference:

Sarrett, Jennifer (2012). Autistic Human Rights: A Proposal. Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol. 32. No. 4.

The Adam Family

Filed Under (Ableism, Autism and Employment, Autism and Learning, Communication, Critical Disability Studies, Family, Inclusion, Inspiration, Joy) by Estee on 10-09-2012

We are The Adam Family. As we grow into our lives with autism, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the “normal” world as the actual opposite of what it purports to be by that label. The more on the margins of society we seem sit, the more absurd “the rules” seem to be. In thinking more about Inclusion and The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I realized that the idea of Adam having his own family, therefore, is not a sight-out-of-reach. It is a possibility, his choice, and right which must be enabled and protected. How, on earth, if you are a new parent to an autistic child, particularly one like mine who has limited verbal ability, could this be possible? Well, it may seem a bit quirky, and some would be up-in-arms against us citing us as a future social welfare burden, but first let share this take on The Addam’s Family series:

Much of the humor derives from their culture clash with the rest of the world. They invariably treat normal visitors with great warmth and courtesy, even though their guests often have evil intentions. They are puzzled by the horrified reactions to their (to them) good-natured and normal behavior since they are under the impression that their tastes are shared by most of society. Accordingly they view “conventional” tastes with generally tolerant suspicion. For example, Fester once cites a neighboring family’s meticulously maintained petunia patches as evidence that they are “nothing but riff-raff.” A recurring theme in the epilogue of many episodes was the Addamses getting an update on the most recent visitor to their home, either via something in the newspaper or a phone call. Invariably, as a result of their visit to the Addamses, the visitor would be institutionalized, change professions, move out of the country, or have some other negative life-changing event. The Addamses would always misinterpret the update and see it as good news for that most recent visitor.

(Wikipedia)

I wish we could all live with the same conviction. When parents get frightened about autism, it’s usually because of fear for the future – will my child get married, go to school, have friends? The pressure to conform the unconformable is immense. For many years I quietly shared the same worries, although I feel my worries were more rooted in society’s acceptance of Adam. My viewpoint is shared with the more widespread social model of disability — that our modern definition of disabled is a term to describe the social barriers that make a life living with an impairment exclusive/segregated. There are naturally going to be times in the beginning of having an autism diagnosis, most-likely if we’ve never experienced disability before, that we will be thinking in terms of our own lives, how we grew up, went to school, made friends, had our first boy/girlfriends and later, maybe even got married and had families of our own. When we don’t see our children doing the same things in typical ways, we worry for them and maybe even for ourselves. The life trajectory is one that our society uses to plan every stage of our lives from how we go to school, to what we are supposed to become, to building our retirement nest-egg.

We expect to be on a path that is economically driven. We are raised to comply, to be a part of society. About a century ago, the formation of “school” was intended to prepare children for later entrance to the military. Today, we plan for our babies at the get-go with pre-school and envision them at Harvard – the ultimate preparation for a new kind of regime. We prepare our little ones for the economic march into consumerist culture. Our frame of reference for understanding is capitalist. Erich Fromm believed that we tend to categorize individuals “according to various types of status, to glorify superiors, and to look down on those who are regarded as of lower rank (e.g. persons belonging to other ‘races’) – must be understood in light of an authoritarian upbringing, which in turn is associated with other general authoritarian tendencies in the workplace and society in general.” (Alvesson and Sköldberg). That “authority” well, to coin James Carville, is “the economy, stupid.” (I’m using Carville’s words and am not implying anyone is stupid. I want to acknowledge the sensitivity I actually have when people use words that can be used violently). While resources are an issue for supporting autistic individuals, others site Libreralism as a issue as it put great stake in “liberty, automony and choice… Given the reality that some persons with disabilities will necessarily be in situations of intense dependency and reliance, can liberty and autonomy — with their emphasis on freedom from — really be the lodestars liberalism has assumed?” (Devlin and Pothier).

When we bring an autistic child into the world, we don’t fit the model pretty much from day one and especially after our children receive their first official diagnosis. We try to squeeze into charitable models for definitions of our existence, but they feel uncomfortable, placing us in (again) subordinate positions yielding to the “power” of the do-gooder/philanthropist and the “experts” in receipt of their research funds – an unequal relationship. Our families collide with ideologies that we are forced to question. Not “fitting in” is another way of describing how we are placed on the margins of society, or discriminated against. Relatively recent disability laws are made to protect us from exclusion, giving our children full citizenship rights.

Still, we struggle find such justice for them within their daily lives. We first look to school systems and are met with the red-tape of the process of getting IEP’s and special accommodations and quickly realize it’s a legal issue and process. I often wonder which “side” that law protects. We parents (I am writing as a mother so I have to assume that if you are disabled/autistic reading this, you will understand that I recognize this also as your issue) don’t count on having to fill in reams of paper applications, spending hours in meetings, navigating government support systems and administration when we are swaddling our new bundles-of-joy. The navigation to be special – not that it’s our choice – indicates from the start that we’re not supposed to be this way. Our children aren’t supposed to be autistic and public schools protect themselves from us with the red-tape, and we have to fight for our children to be included, not marginally integrated or tokenized. Most of us don’t “fight,” we become diplomatic contortionists and try to get our kids “in” to the extent we can. While it’s a worthy fight, it’s still one that we’d rather not spend our time on. We look forward to the day when autism – about twenty to thirty years behind our recongition of other disabilities, including intellectual disabilities – is widely accepted and welcomed in society. With that welcoming is also a recognition of the intersections between race, culture, gender among other interlocking connections, that make up experience.

As I let Adam go into the world, with the support he needs in order to be an equal citizen, I am always working on my visions for him as a parent. The other day, I thought long and hard about a photo I collected from Toronto’s Abilities Arts Festival a few years ago. It is a photo where two intellectually disabled parents sit on the couch with their three typical children — a “normal” family photo called “Lucky Strike.” The subjects also wrote a paragraph about how they got married and had a family with the help of their support workers. It dawned on me about Adam and his family: there is no reason why Adam may not have a family of his own, by accident or by choice as is the cycle of life for many a typical person. There is no reason why he cannot attend higher-education as an adult. There is no reason why he cannot participate in whatever he wants. It is, after all, the law, granted, subject to enforcement as well as interpretation and dominant social attitudes that are still weighted against the disabled person. We also know that not all our rights are enacted and there is a hesitancy by many families and individuals to go through the legal process. Not all universities understand the need and function of the aide worker. Although York University accommodates people with disabilities, it found itself in a legal dispute with Ashif Jaffer, a student with Down syndrome, because he claimed the university did not accommodate his needs. For these reasons, we have to keep on working hard, and likely take a few risks, for the rights of our beloved family members to be included with the accommodations that they require. This means also the help of aide workers and various technologies, among many other individualized needs.

People can have families and also be supported by others. Our children, even our non-verbal ones, can have a say in their plans and lives with guided decision-making practices. Non-verbal people may be able to type or write visual essays and participate in research about autism, and all autistic people have a right to both participate in research and have results disseminated to them in ways they can use and understand. Check out websites on emancipatory research and visual essay formats. No it’s not easy to do, but we’re starting to do it and we are inevitably going to learn by doing.

An “emancipatory” life requires support and that support requires a vision of possibility, enablement, democracy and a plan. As a paraplegic requires a wheelchair, many an autistic person requires people in their lives to support them getting to and from destinations, to having families, to making decisions, to managing the many details of life. Some of this right now is a privilege for the families that can afford them. It is, however, everyone’s right and I for one want to hear more stories about how families and autistic people are helping to let autistic people live their lives as autistic people. For the families who are able to provide the supports we seek from society and governments, we need to hear your stories in order to provide more buidling blocks of enablement.

What is independence? I can’t work on the technology of my computer on my own. I need tons of help with it. I need extra hands to help me around the house and in managing a schedule as a single mother. I need teachers, handy-men and someone to help me when I’m ill. I build my human network as a result of necessity. Others also need me and I am able to lend my hand or my special skill set. For reasons revolving around Adam, I am sensitive to our capitalist notions of independence and how that seems to relate to the family and school. Are we creating communities of people who are interdependent on each other, or human silos? How “happy” does that latter future look like sitting there all alone in them?

Here’s a future that I can see unraveling before my eyes, despite the struggles, tensions and issues we presently encounter and grapple with: I see more people employed in these areas to assist and guide, but further than this, to balance the power that can be offset by the “abled versus the disabled.” Ergo the terms “assistants and aide-workers,” not therapists. I see more effort towards emancipatory lives for the autistic, of all “functioning” levels. I see our growing ability to understand and respect one another, to honour the visual way and other modes of learning and communicating, presenting and even reading the materials by individuals with autism. It is a reciprocal human economy with autistic people in it.

For the first time since I’ve had Adam, I imagine that it might be possible, as Adam is my only-child, that I could one day be a grandmother after-all. It was actually one thing that made me a little sad when Adam was diagnosed — the world seemed to be locking its doors to us so soon. Of course, all of this is Adam’s choice, hopefully. It’s the choice that matters. The principles upon which I now imagine and locate our lives, in practice as well as principle, is one of possibility and of how our lives can be enriched, even made better, by including autistic people in them.

Adam’s life should be one of his own making, and I am here to support him down his many paths. The questions I now ask more often, are not only about how much work does Adam must do (as the onus has, to-date, largely be on the autistic person to become more normal before s/he can participate in society), but how can I help him obtain for himself not just a “quality of life,” but a vibrancy, of life — the excitement of possibility and choice — that many of us took for granted while we were growing up? This also belongs to him.

This can be our future — for our children and even for us as parents of autistic children. This is our Adam Family.

References:

Mats Alvesson & Kaj Skoldberg, Reflexive Methodolgoy: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, 2nd Ed.

Pothier, Dianne and Devlin, Richard.”Introduction” in Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law, edited by Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, pp. 1-24, 2006.

Towards a New Autism Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Whole Better World
Autreat, May 2000,
Clay Adams

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

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

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.

The Adam “Rating Scale”

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Behaviours, Communication, Development) by Estee on 16-04-2012

I’m in the process of completing forms. Adam was diagnosed with autism at eighteen months of age. Now that he’s ten, I’ve been re-reading files and reports from clinicians and teachers over the years. We’ve never had a formal IEP because he’s not in public school. Instead, I’m creating a comprehensive history of Adam. I’m also making it current, adding samples of his work along with new reports. I’m calling it Adam’s Ability Binder. It not only will list Adam’s challenges, but will focus more on his abilities as a means to serving him well. Ideally, it will address his ability and disparity of skills — where he is advanced and where his disability makes life more challenging. When it is done, I’m going to find a way to ask Adam what he likes the most and add that to the binder. Right now, I’m combing through years of typed conversations to include and add to this list.

My intention is that it becomes Adam’s living document that goes with him, and to which he can contribute as he grows older. We have no system which understands autism comprehensively, let alone the nuance of every autistic individual. I am trying to create that for Adam and I’m trying to work within the system we have.

I’ve been going through these “Autism Rating Scales” again. They took me three hours to complete. In some of the line I couldn’t stop myself from writing “that is a silly question.” Or “this is a biased question,” when refering to whether my child does “strange things.” I don’t think the things Adam does are “strange.” I know him to be a normal autistic person, for lack of better terminology.

Here were but some of my pet peeves about the questions:

How can we tell if a child is “laughing inappropriately” if they cannot tell us why they are laughing? Laughing and giggling can also be a sign of stress. What if a child’s autism doesn’t let them respond consistently? Adam can sometimes draw with great focus and other times he can barely seem to hold a crayon. Sometimes he speaks full sentences and other times he can’t utter a word. Talking about “shared interests” comes with great patience from a skilled communication partner, and Adam may reveal it verbally or typing, but not yet all of the time.

When completing the Vineland-II, BASC-2, GARS-2, ARS, or Conners 3, it’s so easy for me to notice what’s missing from these “scales.” I sigh and mumble through them, and realize I’ve got my own summaries to add. Many of the questions are also about friends. Adam seems aware of his difference, and I’ve learned this when he has typed about it. I also know Adam to avoid situations where he is aware of his difference or think he might fail. I’ve seen Adam approach a group of children to join in, then stops and waits on the sidelines because he doesn’t know how to “get in.” Recently when another child expressed pity towards him because he is autistic, Adam stopped jumping and smiling. After standing on the periphery of children, not sure of how to join them, he gives up and goes back to playing on his own. Sometimes he doesn’t know the rules of the game and can’t play when he is invited. Is this “not interested in other children?” Of course it isn’t. His inability to communicate like others, however, and in keeping up with the rapid rhythm of activity and conversation makes having friends challenging. Still, Adam has made leaps this year — wanting to join in with other children, and his increase in spoken language.

Thankfully the person evaluating Adam has recognized the limitations of these scales and the complexity of him. It is important to have your assessors understand this and urge them to observe in every setting possible. It’s important to know what lens we are assessing the autistic child through. Some of them can distort the image.

Now my back hurts from sitting at my desk too long. I’ll be back at it tomorrow, hoping to tip the scales in a fair direction.

Catacombs

Filed Under (Anxiety, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Behaviours, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Safety, Transitions, Wandering) by Estee on 07-04-2012

Yesterday Adam and I had a jog, a long walk and a trip to his favorite playground apparatus, a spiderweb made out of rope which he can climb through.

He’s particularly enamoured with this piece of equipment as he can climb and nudge his way through the holes in the rope that make it a “web.” As I watch him, he’s polite to the other kids, waiting for them to move aside, or trying not to get in their way. There’s an eager route happening that I can see he needs to complete. I watch his face and imagine the cogs churning and the patterns he might be making as he moves so quickly and gracefully, if not earnestly. I imagine math going on in his head as he figures out his route. He doesn’t need to hesitate, like the other children, to think of where his foot should go lest he fall a few feet down to the ground. Funny because Adam will sometimes hesitate just walking down a hall. He has mastered this web.

After that, we went on our long walk. As we passed an impressive Catholic school in the area, Adam spotted a path. I began to feel his body tensing as he pulled me towards it. I let go of his hand so he didn’t have to feel that I might say no. With the couple of times he bolted and his need to explore every door — “door is a question” he once typed — he seems to be afraid that someone will tell him that we can’t go through every door, so he pulls at our hands. This led to some tantrums and bolting last summer when we said he couldn’t go through many of those doors. He just couldn’t stop himself.

I felt the tension again and I wanted to see what would happen if I let go. His brow furrowed; he was serious, but he walked with me and I knew full well he didn’t want to be without me. He didn’t want to become lost. I took deep breaths and spoke softly, because he “absorbs” my feelings, but still, I was at the ready in case he got that eager look in his eye and wanted to run.

As we walked side by side he began to say “catacombs…. catacombs.” Adam is not being taught those words. Let’s just say, he’s got a lot more ability than most people can see, and leave that for now. The point is, like much “autistic language” I’ve seen and heard, he appropriated a word he learned on his own, somewhere, to the paths he was exploring.

I was sort of glad that the forested path came full circle. I didn’t want to stop him and I considered where-ever we ended up, we could take a cab home. Or at some point, I would be able to tell Adam that we had to turn around, and see how that went. This is going much much better now. Adam is less stressed when I explain it’s time to turn around when my voice is soft and I give him warning.

Exploring Adam’s “catacombs” with him can be fun, although I’ll admit that I often have my own agenda and I urge him to follow me. I know very well that I must explore his, with him. We may not be able to explore every door, and I know that his environments are very important to him. Yesterday, he gave me yet another insight into the confusing world, which he is so eager to see… and master.

Running As Fast As I Can

Filed Under (Acceptance, Anxiety, Autism and Intelligence, Movement Disturbance, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 25-03-2012

I’ve got days when I worry about Adam and how his distress is for him. The one thing that’s the most difficult for me to cope with as a parent is watching my son go through distress. Any parent wants to take a cold or the “thing” that’s distressing unto themselves instead of on their child. As I try to experience the journey with Adam, I’m going out for a jog for him (he’s with his dad this weekend). It’s part of my new regime of not just being with him, but helping him cope with his buzzing, moving body. I’m running as fast I can so I can be with him.

I was really upset with myself on Thursday. Typically, we go to a grocery store after school and we try to do a different errand every day. When we went to the store, Adam reached for the candy. I let him put in in the basket. When he wasn’t looking, I put the candy back on the shelf. I’ve done it before and he hadn’t noticed. Did I think that he just misses things? Had I devolved to that? We continued our shopping for healthy food and went to our usual check out lady, Leda, who always has time for Adam. Leda is like my island of calm and acceptance at the checkout as more people stare at us lately. We chit chat and she talks to Adam in between his jumping and hand-flapping. I’m not going to stop Adam from hand-flapping (although there’s enough pressure from those glaring eyes that I often think about it) and there’s no reason to explain him in a check-out line, so people will just have to deal with it, okay? Sometimes if Adam’s hands are occupied, he won’t flap, but there’s something in me that hates doing that for the sake of not being stared at! This is but one aspect of Abelism we live with every day.

When we got home, Adam helped me carry the grocery bags into the house. He’s good with hauling weight now and I think it must be good for his active, buzzing body. “Groceries!” he implored and the crinkling of plastic bags sounded urgent. Adam looked through every bag over and over again. “Grocery bag!” he said, looking at me, then quickly moving on in his search. I realized he was looking for the bird-egg blue gummies he found on the shelf. When he couldn’t find them, he began rummaging through all my kitchen cupboards, since I tend to hide food in odd places so he won’t keep eating the junk.

“Oh Adam, I didn’t buy the gummies. I put them back,” I said. He wasn’t satisfied, and kept looking. “No Adam, mummy didn’t buy the candy,” as I tried to stop his frenzied body from moving fast from cupboard to cupboard. Adam’s face looked desperate, his anxiety mounted quickly and I was worried. “Here Adam, we have lots of candy. Have a gummy bear.” I pulled them from the top shelf, hoping this would satisfy him and I could sit him down to dinner, because when he’s hungry, he becomes more anxious. He pushed them away. “No….groceries!” he insisted. He tailspinned.

I felt horrible. How could I have been so sneaky and put something back on the shelf without telling him either no, or showing him I was putting it back? I know I have to always work on myself as autism mom, no matter how much I think I accept my son. I have to respect him more. During the flatspin, though, I found the parachute. It was music. When I could coax his writhing, lanky body onto my knee, I held him and sang. I got a smile. Then, we ate dinner.

Movement Disturbance — not so easy

Filed Under (Anxiety, Autism and Intelligence, Movement Disturbance, Single Parenthood, Transitions) by Estee on 19-03-2012

Adam is going through another phase and it’s time for me to be very hands-on again — new routines that may help his body and anxiety. He’s entering the pre-teen phase, and discovering things that can get him into trouble. I’ve started a running routine with Adam which helps his body calm down. Adam likes to jog (see photo). Yet like the time when we moved homes and Adam started severe spasming, he is now getting physically stuck — his body won’t let him get beyond a repeated movement. I can hear Adam start to whimper and I’m right there. Last night, it quickly became a loud cry. His face looked distressed and it took me a while to get him out of his chair.

“Are you stuck?” I asked

“Yes!” he yelled. Adam is not always able to respond when he’s experiencing this. He looked into my eyes, his body all sweaty, cheeks reddening. He let me hug him one moment, and pushed me away the next. I wanted to cry with him.

“One, two, three, four…walking out the door we go.” I sang my usual Feist tune which helps Adam move. Sometimes I hear him using it himself, which is a good sign that he can somedays. We make it to the shower where he has a “help me” look in his eye. He cried hard and I held him close. My heart breaks when he’s like this. Sometimes I get scared and I have to leave the room. I have to collect myself so I can comfort him, which I managed to do last night. Many times Adam will need to take a toy from on room in order to move on to the next thing. This he will do when he’s calmer but I realized it was a way for him to manage transitions, so I encourage it.

The distress, though — is it the new teeth punching through his gums? The lack of routine from vacation (he usually loves his vacation)? Growing pains? Another issue he cannot yet tell me about? These are some of the things we must guess as parents when communication falls apart. Sometimes he can speak in full sentences. Other days he can barely say a word. Some days he can type independently, while other days, or even moments, he will do anything to avoid typing. Adam is a neurological roller coaster ride and I’m on it with him. We can see what he is able to do and how intelligent he is, when his body permits him. When it doesn’t, Adam will become upset and frustrated. He is not in control of it. This is not behavioural.

On the weekened when he was drumming, he showed another flash of brillance — jamming in rhythm. It lasted a few seconds. Then his body took off in another direction and I had to help him focus again. Martha Leary and David Hill wrote about autism and movement disturbance and I am going to revisit it. Lorna Wing wrote about autism and catatonia. Catatonia is usally later onset — late teens, so I’m not sure if what I’m seeing with Adam is catatonia right now. In thinking about autism and movement, I remembered Amanda Bagg’s video How to Boil Water the Easy Way (and she’s wearing the Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability and Quality of Life event T-shirt). I remembered this video in order to remind myself what Adam is going through and in trying hard to relate to his experience. This is meant to be respectfully comedic. Please be patient with it and watch the entire video to really understand:

Of course, I’ve made the usual calls to investigate ways to assist Adam, and I am always in doubt. Medications are another roller coaster ride — perhaps the monster coaster that I’ve been avoiding, but I also know that I need to find ways to assist Adam with this type of pain. As for me, I often think that while I’ve assisted other people in their journey as an activist and advocate, it is in part to also help myself. I learn so much from others. I’m doing this alone in my home. Being a single parent, at night especially, has taught me that for all the times I think I can’t do it, I manage to. For all the times I think I may want to give up, I don’t. The thought of not being with Adam hurts me more. Talking it out or writing about it is helpful and for all the dark days, a good sleep and a new dawn sheds a new perspective. Adam woke up this morning with a smile on his face again, asking for bread and mustard for breakfast. There is still joy in autism and my son. He’s a fabulous human being! Yet like any parent, I have heartache when I see him in distress.

Other References:

Tony Attwood: Autism and Movement Disturbance
Martha Leary and David Hill: Moving On: Autism and Movement Disturbance
Lorna Wing: Catatonia in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Are You My Mother?

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Family, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 23-02-2012

“Mommy!” Adam looks into my eyes and says my name as if he’s reassuring himself. It’s as if he’s saying you’re my mommy, and that is that.

“Yes, Adam, I’m Mommy.” I say. He’s eyes are glued to mine until I answer him. After I do, he looks relieved and goes back to his business. The look reminds me of that P.D. Eastman story I used to read Adam over and over again when he was a baby, “Are You My Mother?”

I hear “Mommy” after he’s visited his dad’s house. What could he be thinking, I wonder? Is he confused, as many children are, of the other women in their father’s life? If Adam were a more verbal child, what would be the many questions he’d have of the divorce, and his dad returning to his first ex-wife with whom Adam shares half-siblings? I have experienced such younger “typical” children with many questions. I’ve often wondered if people just carry on as if it’s not confusing for Adam at all because they don’t believe that he understands, or at least has many questions that he can’t articulate? No matter how nice people are to Adam over the years, he will always have questions, and he has the right to have them answered. It’s always better to answer children with the facts rather than emotion or pretense, in ways appropriate to their age. I’m taking the inquisitive “are you my mother?” look he frequently gives me now as something much deeper. I’ve read him children’s books about divorce but I think Adam is beginning to have more questions.

The past few days, Adam has also had the flu. It’s all my fault. I caught a bad one and he got it from me. We’ve been down and out for a week now. I know Adam is really ill when he doesn’t move around much and when he’s not eating, of course. Yesterday, he spent the whole day with me sitting on the couch, and today will be the second day. We watched tv, he played with his iPad and rested. He’s body was close to mine — his way of comfort and reassurance. If I got up to do something, he would grab my arm to stay with him.

As a single mom, I don’t have anyone else to delegate all my responsibilities. Yet the feel of Adam’s overly warm body needing mine for comfort and security is more important to me than any bill or piece of paper sitting on my desk. Those things will have to wait. I could complain, but then I realize that I am the most important person in the world to him right now. I have been his rock, his “constant person.”

That’s right, Adam. I am! I am your mother!

The New Technology and Autism Awareness

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Development, Uncategorized) by Estee on 15-02-2012

This article on technology and autism appeared in The Globe and Mail today.

I’m worried that some people will view it as another autism miracle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ecstatic about the iPad and other technologies and the awareness this brings about autistic intelligence. I have cited the research about the EEG’s and FMRI’s in previous blog posts where it shows the brains of non verbal individuals with various severe disabilities lighting up like typical brains. In other words, we have evidence that many non verbal individuals can understand what is said to them and have complex thoughts. What was presumed as “functioning at a level of an infant” can no longer be assumed.

I feel compelled to remind readers and hopefuls of a couple of things. The first being that non verbal individuals with various “severe” disabilities (I use quotes because of the way that’s been so misunderstood in terms of intelligence), have been using devices for years. Typewriters, computers, Vantage Lites, Lightwriters and more. With Adam, I chose to use the Alphasmart Neo because it was cheap and portable and I could download our conversations onto the computer. Yet all it offered was the chance to practice typing. It did not have the windows and picture symbols of other programs found in expensive devices. Now the iPad provides this.

Many of these devices are so expensive that it is not feasible for many families to obtain them, costing upwards of sixteen thousand Canadian dollars. Repairs can also cost thousands. The advent of devices like the iPad makes communication so much more accessible, although many adults and families can still not afford them. They may, however, be easier to get into their hands through schools and subsidies.

My point is that we’ve known for a long time that technology is important, and that autistic individuals can communicate with them. It’s not a sudden miracle or epiphany, I hope, to realize that autistic people are intelligent, and the community is as diverse as any other, meaning, that levels of ability and intelligence are variable in every group that we are trying to define.

Now to my next point. We can’t expect to plunk an iPad into the laps of our children and expect them to know how to communicate with it.

Just over five years ago, I began typing with Adam. I found I had to facilitate him by supporting his lower forearm. If I had not, he would have typed the letters over and over or typed a word he loved. It continues to be a challenge to get him to focus because open-ended communication is very difficult for him. Supporting him did not mean I directed him. I learned by people at the University of Syracuse, and through my own studies, how to support him and apply, in his case, a backward resistance pressure. By actually holding his hand back from the keyboard, he had to type with more force and intention and this seemed to help him complete a sentence. I neutralized his hand in the centre of the keyboard and he went from there.

I received a whole lot of criticism because of the FC controversies back then. I still did not give up. I knew, because Adam could read since eleven months of age, that he was a candidate to become an independent typist and communicator.

Fast forward five years later and we’re still at it. I’ve been observed by many Centres and professionals and I’ve not known a lot of what Adam types in order to prove that his communication is reliable. I do this by asking him questions or talking about things he did that I would not know. I have to keep my skills in check.

Today, he types somewhat independently. He sends me a short email everyday from school, primarily because they have not been trained in supporting him. If I need to support open-ended communication, my hand is further back on his arm. He will usually say the word or letter now before he types it and he types fast that if I don’t slow him down, he may lose sight of what he is trying to write. For communicating wants and needs, Adam can verbalize or type on his own. Give him YouTube, and he’ll type whatever he wants — from “water slides,” “Walt Disney,” and “Psychedelic Cartoons.” We recently visited an AAC expert (Augmentative Assistive Communication) and her response to my support was that my method was not very “facilitated,” just some marginal support. Not only that, all the nuanced support I give him all the way down to my patience and energy is difficult to document, but so important in teaching how to use a device for “functional” or “social” communication.

Adam also uses picture symbols on devices. For this, he can communicate mostly on his own, unless he gets distracted or is very anxious. When an autistic person is anxious, communication tends to fall apart. Text to speech functions have enabled him to speak in full sentences.

We are still learning. My point is that I am always learning to be an effective and patient communication partner. Reciprocal, social, open-ended, unpredictable communication is not so easy for him, and many other autistic people like him. While technology is a doorway, we can’t just open it without excellent guides, or without the commitment to keep at it for many years, even perhaps when it seems as if we are making little progress. When someone says to me that “Adam doesn’t type with me,” I immediately know that there is a lack of training or understanding what being a communication partner really means. It is an affirmation that the expectation and onus falls upon the autistic child — not the parent, therapist or teacher.

My hope is that, in addition to providing much needed resources like communication apps and iPads, we have better understanding and training to engage with autistic people as they are. Adam mostly communicates in metaphor. His language acquisition is unique and different than that of his typical peers. He could read and count by eleven months of age, but he couldn’t “talk” to people. Certainly he didn’t stop acquiring language or learning after that! As I’ve watched him over the years, I try to see the way he scaffolds his language and knowledge. His language and way of seeing the world seems mostly associative, symbolic and visual.

The iPad and other accessible technologies are encouraging in so many ways. I hope that the EEGs, FMRI’s and the other “proofs” we seem to require from autistic people in order to validate them, also lead to an enthusiastic desire to understand autistic people — their value, humanity, and of course, how they learn.

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.

Why Every Minute Is Not Therapy (or a short case for why it shouldn’t be)

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Contributions to Society, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Inclusion, Research) by Estee on 08-09-2011

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

I heard this term used by someone today. It is often used in ABA-speak — that every minute of every day must be a form of “therapy” for the autistic child. Some believe this is necessary because there is a belief that autistic children are not learning unless they are doing it in a way that that we can understand…measurable. This made me think of Sisyphus and the futile attempts we make in trying to normalize an autistic person.

The truth is, we take comfort in measures. Yet as I wrote in my essay/presentation The Mismeasure of Autism, we cannot hold autistic people up against the same measures as we do of people with typical people. Not all brains are wired in the same way.

For example, women have quickly discovered that when we compare ourselves to men in the workplace, or try to behave like men, we fail. In pretending to be like men, we can undergo a great deal of stress because we are working against our nature. When we are valued for the manner in which we can accomplish the same tasks as men, but in our own way, we discover that our differences can be beneficial to the workplace. Women to men are as autistic people to neurotypical ones: different and equal.

I was reminded of the contributions of those who are different from the film titled Journey Into Dyslexia, which profiles accomplished people with dyslexia. The trailer can be seen by clicking here.

During the film, dyslexic individuals describe their trauma with the education system — how no one appreciated the unique wiring of their brain and tried to make the dyslexic students learn like typical ones. I was so saddened by the life-long adverse effects this had on them.

In another segment, a researcher discusses how dyslexic individuals have unique abilities and pattern recognition and explain that our world would not be the same without such thinkers. This reminded me of the research being done which shows advanced perceptual ability in autistic individuals of all functioning levels.

It should be said that in the film about dyslexia, individuals do not appear disabled. In autism, this isn’t always the case. While some individuals do not physically appear different, others are distiguishable by their various eye-gaze, facial expression, gait and idiosyncratic body movements (which serve most often to regulate or feel the body in space), referred to as self-stimulatory behaviour. I thought to myself that in our (still) disabled-adverse society, it is easier to accept dyslexic people, that is, sadly easier to accept people who do not have any obvious appearance of disability. Yet, dyslexics did not always have the same recognition and status. Dyslexic students were labeled and marginalized — called stupid — and not much was expected from them in the future.

Time changed that. Studies of the brain and achievements and activism by dyslexic individuals changed it too. So I had to wonder, as I always do when I watch such movies, why it is taking so long for the autistic community to receive such recognition and access? There are scientific studies that demonstrate advanced perceptual abilities, patterning skills in autistic individuals despite the labels of “functioning levels.” There is anecdotal evidence that autistic individuals are exceptional employees — reliable, honest, able to do detailed and repetitive work, and perhaps even able to design world-renowned facilities (think Temple Grandin).

Still, we as an autistic community (meaning parents, researchers and autistic people) tend to discount the mounting evidence. While I don’t wish to go into yet another lengthy about high and low functioning labels, but I will reiterate that they are unreliable in determining intelligence levels. Not all intelligences can be measured the same way, as demonstrated by many of the neurological differences which now have labels out there. This is also explained brilliantly in the film.

We can learn from our fellow disability communities. We can turn to ones, like the dyslexic community, in learning how to advocate for autistic individuals. We can definitely acknowledge that it is natural for the human speicies to have differently-wired brains and that these “different” brains are integral to the survival of our speicies (watch the movie for an advanced argument on that point).

That is the reason why the idea that “every minute should be therapy” for the autistic person is a form of discrimination. Underneath the premise is the idea that autistic people need to learn and act like those who are different from them. I cannot imagine the anguish of that experience, and every day I try to feel what Adam must have to go through and what he may come to say of it when he grows older.

Before the hyper-programmed generation (that is, my generation), we had many bored moments when our parents let us figure out what to do on our own. We stared at clouds, talked to ourselves and created laboratories out of our mother’s cosmetic bottles and the contents therein. When I look back, I remember creating many imaginary worlds. Adam’s chatter is considered abnormal to many behaviourists, although I’ve never stopped him. I’ve now learned how valuable that self-chatter is to autistic children for language acquisition.

Compare the way we let typical children play to the existence of the autistic child today. It is said that autistic children can’t learn on their own, let alone imagine, without our intervention. Autistic free time is not valued. Autistic nature is not valued. Autistic learning is not valued and the autistic person is more often than not, underestimated.

I tend to use the story of how Adam taught himself how to read and count in an argument such as this. A more recent example I would use is how he has taught himself how to search for what he wants on the computer. You see, those are the things we see and measure, but I wouldn’t be able to determine how he came to do it. I can’t measure the exact process he went through. I can wait until he is able to explain some of it to me, unscientifically maybe, and I am certain now that he will as his verbal and typing skills catapulted again this summer along with his long days in the fresh air.

If I had turned each and every one of Adam’s minutes — nay existence — into “therapy,” not only would I become completely exhausted and dismayed, but I’m quite certain that Adam would not be has happy and as well adjusted as any young autistic individual can wish to be. He will have his complaints, I am certain. He is up against so much more than I have ever been.

I am thankful for my attitude of late and for the balanced approach that time and experience has given us. It is not always easy to maintain this attitude consistently in our community where autistic children are not taught to their needs or potential, let alone accepted into many schools and taught well. For many autism parents, it is the fear of the future that is the driving force behind the idea that every moment needs to be a therapeutic one. I completely understand that fear.

It is in these very moments when we need to turn to autistic adults and call upon all of our autism societies to spotlight the achievements of autistic individuals of all functioning levels, and their contributions to society. In autism we have Temple Grandin, Vernon Smith (Nobel Prize Winner), Stephen Wiltshire, Daniel Tammet, Donna Williams, Michelle Dawson, Matt Savage, Amanda Baggs, Larry Bissonnette, and so many more autistic contributors. In so many of their stories, we have heard how they have learned and achieved by virtue of their autistic brains and societal accommodation, not from minute-by-minute therapy.

We should do everything to celebrate the achievements of our comrades, as this will enable better services and accommodations for the next generation of autistic people to contribute. If we do not stand up for our own community, what chances will our children have to prove themselves? What chances for acceptance?

Everyone has something to contribute.

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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.