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.

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?

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.

The “Continuum,” The “Spectrum,” and Another Assumption That Needs Debunking

Filed Under (Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 30-08-2010

I really like what Temple Grandin is doing in many ways. I like that she supports different minds and describes very simply and concretely what autistic people need and might be able to do as work.

There is one thing I’d like to point out to Ms. Grandin, if I may. It’s the assumption about the autism spectrum or “continuum” as she puts it. It is tricky because it has been an easy way to describe and try to understand autism. Yet like most things easy, they are not fully descriptive.

It is the point at which she, perhaps inadvertently in order to simplify the description, lowers the intelligence level of non verbal autistic people to the bottom of the “spectrum,” to the “verbal” autistics who are “brilliant.” For all the non verbal or partially verbal autistic people out there, many of who comment here and/or write their own blogs and even do their own presentations, I’d like to add that non verbal people can also be of “normal,” “bright,” or of “gifted” intelligence. Of course verbal and non verbal people can also be more cognitively challenged. There is no way we can use the “continuum,” really, to effectively describe autism and intelligence and I think we need to talk about this more.

Temple Grandin talks a lot about thinking in pictures and she can verbalize this well. For many autistic folks who cannot, like my son Adam among others, I can say that verbal ability does not equal intelligence. I hope that Temple Grandin can speak a little bit more on that in the future so as not to cast another stereotype that she perhaps does not intentionally mean to cast.

In this blog, I speak a lot about the visual — visual data and the potential for many autistic people to translate so much data into the visual so that we can better understand it. There could be many opportunities for our children if we look at this seriously and nuture the skills. As for her segment on visual perception, I once posted a drawing by Adam, who has motor planning issues, but clearly had an advanced perspective, demonstrated in some of his artwork, over his same-aged peers. I have always noted and recognized Adam’s visual abilities. It’s still incredibly difficult to find teachers who recognize and are able to nuture this ability. It’s incredibly frustrating, in fact.

I do thank Temple Grandin for being out there to discuss the need for mentors and the contributions our children can make to society, if given the chance and opportunities.

In keeping with this post, Tyler Cowen, author of Create Your Own Ecomony also writes another piece on autism, ability and autism diversity.

Watch her now on TED:

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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.