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.

After June…

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Behaviours, Joy, Obsessions, Parenting) by Estee on 22-07-2011

“Ma…. M. Ma… M. ” That’s what Adam said to me last night before bed, before he woke with a fever this morning, no doubt having caught the summer cold. It also happens to be Toronto’s record-breaking heat wave. As I wandered in his room with my early morning “gotta wake up” voice, Adam seemed woozy. I sat on the side of his bed and felt his forehead and body. He felt like an oven. There is not a day when he’s ill that I don’t want to take away all his aches and pains.

Last June was a difficult month of transitions — heck the last three years have been full of them. I find it difficult to write when we are going through something because I have to process a lot of my own emotions and ways of looking at life. My convictions are tested. I’ve learned that I’m glad I have some.

Losing an aide worker of seven years, another change in school, a new camp…Adam demonstrated his distress with an obsession with looking behind every door which lead to bolting. When Adam is anxious, his body twitches and he started to lightly nibble at his arm, and sometimes mine. If I had to describe it in my own words and perspective, it was like Adam had to explore everything as if it was a flight response. I would say that this was all about fear and uncertainty. He will able to tell be better when he is able. He is getting more able as he types more to me.

At first, I did what any other parent would do and asked him to stop. Drawing attention to it made it worse. When Adam goes through a state of anxiety, it is hard for me not to as well…like his illness, I wish I could take it away — all his pain. I wish it would stop. As a single parent, I take on the brunt of it too. My parents are a wonderful support system for me as are the people closest to me, but I take so much on emotionally where Adam is concerned. It is sometimes so overwhelming, and I find myself strewn across my bed when he is asleep wondering how I can go on. I find myself in that futile trap of worrying about the future.

Then something clicks. I think of Adam as a person, as I think of myself as a child — all of my fears and needs. I needed my parents, my mother especially, when I was scared or sick. My dad embraced me the times I least expected, like the break up from my very first boyfriend. My mother took good care of me while my dad taught me some lessons about brushing myself off again after life would offer its hits over and over again. I’ve learned that happiness is not a given. It is a gift. Life is about the struggle so it might as also be about how we handle it. I need to show Adam that I am as strong as he will be. He needs me to be.

There are times when I think it so unfair to bring children into a harsh world. I wonder, as Adam will have to struggle through life the way we all do, why I did this to him. Yet nature was stronger than this logic. I wanted Adam as much as I needed air. I cannot imagine life without Adam and without having this level of love and responsibility in my life. Sure, I’m not unlike everyone else that I also imagine freedom. Yet, now that Adam is here, it’s not as important. This is what I made, and what came my way, and I want to make the very best of it.

When I woke up that morning and everything clicked together again, I remembered that we’ve gotten through a lot of phases. I remembered Adam’s smile, even though he wasn’t smiling that much in June. I remembered how much he loves and needs me and how I am fit for the calling. I may have to lie exhausted, strewn across my bed some days, but I know as long as I’m alive, I’ll get right back up again.

Since his new camp began in early July, the twitching abated as did the nibbles on his arm. I learned not to call attention to it, and to provide him with more soothing activities, while teaching him how to soothe himself. Adam uses a steamroller — purchased through Southpaw Enterprises — as a “squeeze machine” which provides him with the deep pressure he seeks. As several weeks have passed, he is more verbal again and the smile is back, even in his latest group camp photo. I try to rub his back and tell him that I understand when he’s frustrated, and he appreciates it.

Adam’s ways of communicating are so diverse. He has motor planning issues, apraxia and catatonia-like initiation issues. These are not motivational in the least. These are real impairments which need understanding and creativity in order to help Adam become enabled.

When people also think that Adam doesn’t understand, I want to show what he can do on his iPad or computer. He is able to demonstrate his ability to answer, usually one hundred per cent on comprehension exercises, with a multiple choice format. I asked his school to do that last year and he was able to answer questions better this way because it is a visual prompt — he has to choose from one out of three of four possibilities. Another way to see this is through his iPad. There are programs (you can start with “Playwords”) that ask children to pick the right word to match the picture or the verbal prompt — some of the words are getting sophisticated. Adam can zip through that exercise like it is nothing. Yet, give him another format, like fill in the missing letter of a word he knows very well, he has some difficulty. He needs me to model several times, the correct way to complete the exercise. Then he’s flying again.

After a couple of weeks of camp, a video of the end of the day “Flagpole” was sent to me by email. I always wonder why Adam points to his favorite activity being “Flagpole,” everyday. It is an end of day camp activity where the entire camp gathers together. In this video, counselors were demonstrating a dance and all the kids had to follow. It was boring at first to watch the counselors on a roof dancing to warbling electronic music. Then, the camera panned out. Suddenly, a small figure to the bottom right looked familiar from the back. I recognized the beige floppy hat and the lean body. It was my Adam following the dance moves and I could tell he was intently watching. It looked like he was having….fun. I was so happy, I forwarded it to all my friends and family. It was indeed the gift I have learned never to take for granted.

Today Adam sleeps in my bed and he needs me around to take care of him. I’m stuck in the house, but I know he needs me, and he loves me. He has just woken as I get up from the other side of the bed. “Stay here,” he says. Don’t worry, Adam. I’m not going anywhere.

Autistic Wandering and the DSM

Filed Under (Activism, autism, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Discrimination) by Estee on 04-04-2011

Recently, the CDC proposed a separate criteria for wandering in autism. You can find the PDF here. I have received permission from the Autism National Committee (AUTCOM) to make this letter available to readers in response to the proposal:

Dear Ms. Pickett:

We are writing as a coalition of organizations representing a wide variety of different constituents in the disabilities field. We include organizations run by people with disabilities as well as those run by parents, other family members, professionals, providers and many others. Our coalition also includes groups representing a wide array of different kinds of disability categories, including developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities. We are writing to express our profound concern about the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering discussed at the last meeting of the ICD Coordination and Maintenance Committee on March 9th-10th.

While wandering behavior leading to injury and death represents an important and legitimate safety issue for the disability community, we are concerned that the proposal put forward by CDC’s National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) is not rooted in high quality research and has significant potential unintended consequences for people with disabilities and family members. We encourage the National Center for Health Statistics to reject an ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior as ill-advised and inappropriate.

First, a code for wandering behavior could limit the self-determination rights of adults with disabilities. The wandering coding has no clear operational definition and thus no limits to its application. The proposal makes no distinction between wandering behavior that would qualify for the coding and a rational and willful effort by an individual with a disability to remove oneself from a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. For individuals with significant communication challenges, attempting to leave a situation may be one of the only ways of communicating abuse, a sensorily overwhelming situation or simple boredom. We are concerned that if this coding enters the ICD-9-CM such attempts at communication will be disregarded as medical symptoms.

Second, a code for wandering behavior could lead to serious unintended consequences in professional practice for schools and residential service-provision settings for adults with disabilities. Restraint and seclusion in schools and in residential service-provision settings is already a persistent problem. The application of this coding may result in increased restraint and seclusion as a way of preventing wandering behavior, supplanting required active support, person-centered planning and appropriate supervision. In addition, we are concerned that this coding may enable other forms of overly restrictive interventions and settings. For example, individuals with disabilities who are labeled with a wandering coding may be less likely to be included in the general education classroom, more likely to be placed in large group homes or institutions and more likely to experience chemical restraint. Each of these issues already represents a critical problem for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that this coding may exacerbate. For example, while only 18% of adults on the autism spectrum receiving developmental disability services have a diagnosis of mental illness, 41% of such individuals are receiving psychotropic medications, suggesting a high incidence of chemical restraint.

Third, the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering behavior lacks research support and is not based on evidence or a controlled examination of the issues involved. No research exists to look at wandering as a medical rather than behavioral issue. The research which CDC relies on to make the case for this coding is weak. For example, one of the statistics that CDC cites (that 92% of families of children on the autism spectrum report at least one or more incidents of wandering) comes not from a high quality research study, but instead from an online poll on the website of an advocacy organization. This is not in line with the high standards for research and evidence that CDC’s bases its other decision-making on.

While we respect the good intentions behind the creation of this coding, we firmly believe that there are other ways of accomplishing the positive objectives of this coding without placing people with disabilities and our families at risk of the same unintended consequences. Other methods of data collection around wandering can and are being pursued by both public and private funders. In addition, a wide variety of human services and educational approaches hold significant promise in addressing the issue of dangerous wandering behavior outside of a medical context. As a result, we strongly urge you to reconsider and reject the proposed ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services (NASDDDS)

If you wish to respond, please contact AUTCOM or circulate this letter.

For The Love of Letters, Lists and Other Things

Filed Under (Art, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Development, Obsessions) by Estee on 10-03-2011

I love letters. I’ve loved typeface since I was a child, remembering picking up my mother’s collection of old brown volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I admired the letters, words and sentences before I could read them. Around the age of four, I tried to write letters of the alphabet by sounding them out. I was proud as I showed my mother warbled symbols drawn with red crayon. I don’t know if I wrote all the letters correctly, but I yearned to read… and write. 

These days I’m still attracted to typeface and letters, am a big fan of Cy Twombly and the artist, Agata Ostrowska (a printmaker whose work I’ve posted at the beginning here), and others who incorporate text into their work. It’s an “obsessive interest,” I guess you could say. I love the way one word can have one meaning when it stands alone, but when placed beside another, can connote something different.

Long after my “obsession” was contently embedded, I gave birth to an autistic child who also loves letters and read them by 11 months of age. I revelled in his ability while many others told me to be on alert — that Adam, with “hyperlexia,” meant that he would be able to decode words and letters, but his reading skills would still suffer later on — when he had to read phonetically and comprehend.

Yet, the other day, while sitting on his bedroom floor in the twilight,  I pulled out some pictures and words that I thought were completely unfamiliar. It seemed no-brainer to him. He just knew what all these pictures were. He picked up the information somewhere and organized it. I think kids like Adam are like sponges, picking everything up and making sense of it in their own way, despite the fact that we don’t always think so.

Language and comprehension is like art. We don’t necessarily acquire it the way Penelope Leach and Dr. Spock insist young children do, and we cannot be certain of how it is experienced and acquired, except that it does seem to be experienced on many sensory levels. We can make assumptions by how a person communicates, through different forms of expression. Like art, language acquisition, although widely studied, is largely ineffable; so vast that we will never know enough.

Lists, and obsessive interests like purported autistic collectors and artists like Joseph Cornell and Gregory Blackstock added fuel to my existing interest in not just letters, but the lists they can become. These are the way we organize information and make sense of them — the child who lines up the trains, the objects, perhaps,the artist who draws cities in perfect detail from memory, or the child who builds their knowledge like intricate networks of scaffolded knowledge. These are the ways we make sense and order of things.

Umberto Eco, art historian and novelist, by virtue of his profession, is interested in form, structure and order. As a curator of art, I too understand the art of catalogue. I enjoyed working in a library for part of my university career for this very reason. I loved the smell and feel of card catalogues in and of themselves. I understand the way curators and librarians collect things and how important it is — these libraries of human thought. In his book, The Infinity of Lists, Eco made me think about how I think Adam acquires language — like the curator — filing and cataloguing and even enjoying every sensory aspect like the musty smell of the card catalogue. How we take for granted the sheer art form of it.


To finish this post, I’ll leave the idea hanging for now. Just enjoy this. It’s something Adam found, actually:

But since we have digressed abundantly,
Turn back thine eyes forthwith to the right path,
So that the way be shortened with time.

This nature doth so multiply itself
In numbers, that there never yet was speech
Nor mortal fancy that can go so far.

And if thou notest that which is revealed
By Daniel, thou wilt see that in his thousands
Number determinate is kept concealed.

This primal light, that all irradiates it,
By modes as many is received therein,
As are the splendours wherewith it is mated.

Hence, inasmuch as on the act of the conceptive
The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
Therein diversely fervid is or tepid.

The height behold now and the amplitude
Or the eternal power, since it hath made
Itself so many mirrors, where ’tis broken

One in itself remaining as before.

— Excerpt from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, from Paradise, Canto XXIX, VV, 126-45.

Adam, The Autistic Self-Advocate

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Autistic Self Advocacy, Communication) by Estee on 18-10-2010

“Turn it off!” I had been watching some old videos of Adam before he was even two years old. Adam, now eight-years-old, stood in front of the television and watched for two minutes intensely before he told me what to do.

There are two therapists in that video, in front of him talking fast and loud. He is sitting in a chair and they insist that he stay there — he small enough that every time he tries to escape they physically replace him onto the chair. The video begins with Adam crying, squirming and trying to get away. He is so small, such a baby. He is saying many things, although they are hard to hear because the therapists are talking so loudly compared to his forming, warbled articulation. As one of the therapists replaces his tiny body in the chair, she tickles his stomach.

“Don’t,” I hear him say in a super tiny voice. I hear him say it now re-watching these, but I may not have heard it back then. I may have not heard it in the frantic effort to get Adam to do and say what the therapists wanted him to say. I would have not heard it over their loud voices.

I am watching these videos six years later, as Adam has developed and changed so much. I feel we have very much entered a new phase of life together, a new phase of understanding our lives as an autistic family.

Adam then went to his Vanguard device after telling me to shut off the TV. “I am uncomfortable,” he pressed. I suppose I can say, said. We call it his talk box. The Vanguard device, which is a series of pictures and words can be programmed to make sentences. Things like verbs, feelings, activities are all categorized on it so Adam can tell us many things. Sometimes Adam can type sentences on his computer, sometimes he uses the Vanguard and sometimes, especially this past weekend, Adam can talk. Adam talked more this past weekend than I can remember in his lifetime.

I have set out to watch those videos on my own without Adam present. As I watch them now, I am highly disturbed. We made him sit so young, and forced him to watch the therapists. Although this was NOT a strict ABA program, we did attempt to “programme” Adam in an ABA format. The therapists talked, they wanted him to answer, they dangled coloured circles over his head so he would repeat the colours, blew in his face, repositioned him on the chair — all at a roaring rate. I cannot imagine how completely overwhelming that experience was for Adam.

All I had in the beginning was ABA therapy. Then came along RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). I thought I kept helping Adam better each time I learned about something new because no one offered us any other solution. While I tried to follow my instinct, what was available to us wasn’t keeping pace with the values I was forming about Adam as an autistic person. Still, Adam was forced to “conform” no matter how much we said it was to “engage” him. Later, we became more adept at involving ourselves in his games. Later, we became quieter with him.

As Adam’s mother, I sometimes want to cry when I watch these videos. He was bombarded. In no way was he respected as an autistic person from the get-go. A couple years after that I definitely learned more and tried harder. Yet I wonder, since we are still talking about finding genes in autism and intervening earlier, what kind of life experience our autistic children will have and remember, when they are programmed to be typical.

I find it so ironic that Adam talked the most he had in his lifetime this weekend, and he told me to turn off one of those “early intervention” videos. I suspect he does not feel good about it at all. What makes me feel so guilty, because I love Adam so much, is that even though I searched for ways of assisting him while trying to respect him, he may have not been in those earlier years when he was so vulnerable. He couldn’t really communicate in words then. He has severe difficulties, even now, to do so consistently. As Adam becomes his own self-advocate, I just found it so striking to have this juxtaposition between the old videos against the Adam of today. Even back then, just because he wasn’t talking, he was still a person. I suppose I could say he was ignored like the moment when he said in a voice so quiet, “don’t.”

I think if someone had shown me this when we received the diagnosis, if autistic people could recount their stories and be available to all “new” autism parents, my life may have been calmer and Adam may have had better supports that accepted him as autistic. I write this with forboding, wondering what kinds of early interventions are being concocted for infant autistics. Certainly, I changed the approaches after those first two years, and he became happier for it. He has had many challenges, but he is also now talking. As he does so, while it is nice to know what our children are thinking, I can tell you it is not a solution. It is not the Holy Grail. We will have many years ahead of dealing with Adam’s unique way of functioning in the world, and I don’t always expect it to be easy. Communication is important. Acceptance is vital.

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:

Wretches and Jabberers

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Inclusion, Travel) by Estee on 19-08-2010


I was very excited when Pascal Cheng told me that Larry Bissonnette and he, both of whom I brought to Toronto several years ago, and Tracy Thresher were traveling the world to change views about autism. They travel to Finland, Japan and Sri Lanka to change minds, attitudes and debunk myths which was documented in the film Wretches and Jabberers. We have learned from anthropologists like Roy Grinker in Unstrange Minds, among others, that the views about autism around the world can be less forgiving because of cultural differences.

 Adam was diagnosed at 19 months of age as a hyperlexic, “high-functioning” autistic boy. Over the years, however, he shows ability, is very bright and intelligent, but Adam has real communication difficulties and more “classic” aspects of autism…so dx is always precarious in the early years. I think of the very different experiences between Adam and Larry — how the world has changed so for autistic people and I am grateful for the generousity of autistic adults. 

As a parent in this for just over six years now, I have to say thank you to everyone who put forth this effort. I often dream of Adam traveling the world, talking to other people, helping other people. That’s my dream, I suppose, and not necessarily his, but that’s what parents tend to do. So even if Adam chooses another path,  I am thrilled that Larry and Tracy are forging a path for all the “Adams” who will grow up very soon.

“We are more like you than not,” says Larry in the following trailer.

That’s for certain.

Is Having A Disorder The New Normal?

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, autism, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Book Reviews, Critical Disability Studies, Inclusion) by Estee on 28-07-2010

Using the title from Kat Kelland’s article in today’s Globe and Mail, she suggests that experts are worried that, with the extended array of defined disorders in the soon-to-be-released DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), no normal person will continue to exist.

“Citing examples of new additions like ‘mild anxiety depression, ‘psychosis risk syndrome,’ and ‘temper dysregulation disorder’…many people previously seen as perfectly healthy could in future be told they are ill….’It’s leaking into normality. It is shrinking the pool of what is normal to a puddle…

Dr. Wykes and colleagues, Felicity Callard, also of Kings Institute of Psychiatry, and Nick Craddock of Cardiff University’s department of psychological medicine and neurology said many in the psychiatric community are worried that the further guidelines are expanded, the more likely it will become that nobody be classed as normal anymore.”

Well, it’s about time. Perhaps ironically, I’m not one for self-help aisles and a belief that we all suffer from some made-up ailment that can be remedied with expensive quackery. At the same time, I also understand that there is a widespread concern that if we simply dilute human differences and challenges we do not address serious  medical and practical needs. In other words, some people fear that a complete distillation of humankind will take away much needed work towards attaining the services, medical attention, and accommodations that we continue to need in order to replace the treacherous world of asylums. This article in The New York Times, cites some of the other concerns specific to the autism diagnostics proposed for the new manual.

What the Globe and Mail article assumes quite simply, however, is that there are only two kinds of people: normal and abnormal. We know that in history that it is this whitewash, this binary, that is the most dangerous because it has  subjugated individuals with differing needs, thinking ability and functioning levels to not only the margins of society, but to maltreatment and exclusion of all kinds.

Until  recently, disabled people have had no rights. Still today, seen as non-persons despite legislation and the ADA, disabled and autistic individuals continue to struggle for their right to have a voice at policy-making tables, and to be accepted and accommodated for their needs while contributing as autistic and disabled people. Not a day goes by that the notion of cures and getting “better” (that is “more normal”), underlies the purpose of teaching autistic people at all, as opposed to teaching them to their strengths and abilities as well as with a regard to the value of autistic contribution.

As a committe works to redefine the characteristics of autism, the questions that the committee ask in the panels are well worth reading.  I cannot help but wonder how getting an autism diagnosis may change for parents and autistic people, and consider that the future could be brighter. In my view, we seem to be asking some of the right questions with regard to the spectrum of autism and the fallacy of the association between intelligence and functioning levels. So I guess I’m saying that as I read the Globe article this morning, I was sort of nodding my head. Yes, there is no normal….that’s right. Why fear that? What is it that we must do and how must we think differently in order to finally obliterate that binary?

It is here that  I have to refer to Wendy Lawson’s book Concepts of Normality: The Autistic And Typical Spectrum (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008). In it she states,

“Currently the debate about ‘what is normal’ is causing some heated exchange; this is not new. In particular the debate concerning autism, disability, neuro-diversity and typicality poses some ongoing challenges. Disability presents itself in a variety of ways, and for most of us living with disability, who we are is normal for us. For many people on the autism spectrum, which is certainly very disability in a world that does not accept, value or accomodate ‘difference,’ being handicapped is an everyday reality…Having a respectful understanding of one another should include accessibility to appropriate resources, support, safe places and sincere appreciation of difference. Anything less is not acceptable.” (Introduction)

Recently, Thomas Armstrong released his book, Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Other Brain Differences, (De Capo Press, Cambridge, 2010). In his first chapter “Neurodiversity: A Concept Whose Time Has Come,” he has cleverly quoted Margaret Mead:

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so eave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each human gift will fall into place.” (from Sex and Temperment in Three Primitive Societies).

Thomas goes on: “In 1952 the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association listed one hundred categories of psychiatric illness. By 2000 this number has tripled. We’ve become accustomed as a culture to the idea that significant segments of the population are afflicted with neurologically based disorders such as ‘learning disabilities,’ ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,’ and ‘Aspergers syndrome,’ conditions that were unheard of sixty years ago. Now, even newer disabilities are being considered for the next DSM in 2010, including relational disorder, sexual behaviour disorders, and video game addiction.”

“How did we get here?” Thomas asks. He cites things like a greater knowledge of the human brain and research into the area, a growth of advocacy movements that push for “awareness,” (alas, is it no wonder why most of us shudder at “Autism Awareness Month?). Mostly, the need for the advocacy marketing plan is the way to raise money for things like remedies and therapies. No family wishes to envision their children in asylums and mental hospitals (another topic because they were set up with all of the good intentions we have today for many of our “centres,” but ended up so overpopulated that the patients within them were neglected and abused). While there has been a valid reason for advocacy movements, perhaps an acknowledgement that all humans are interdependent and need different supports (no matter the severity of their handicaps), may be a very welcome change.

While we keep tripping over the question of what is normal, I wonder if we need a supplementary manual that cites abilities, suggestions for inclusion, education, and the like.  Perhpas we need not define handicaps as disorders, but very real challenges and acknowledge them against the social stigma of having any kind of disability. I have to question that if the stigma didn’t exist, would we also be a society that tends towards over-medicalization? For I do acknowledge that heading into a doctor’s office these days one wonders why so many meds are offered so readily for what I feel to be the way in which we respond to life — anti-depressants and meds like Ritalin come to mind.

To me, this need not be a question of what is the right or the wrong way to be human, but how to support all ways in which to be human. A DSM can only do so much. It is up to us to ensure that we cultivate the society that treats and regards each person individually, for although we are united in our lack of normality, we are also unique. It’s a complicated matter indeed, but in the end, all we wish is to be seen and loved…blemishes and all.

Autistic Development and Those So-Called “Issues”

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Development, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 01-07-2010

One of the most talked about issues in autism is the issue of verbal communication or “functional” speech. That is, speech that is reciprocal, social, conversational. For Adam, there have been major challenges in this area and he has had to use augmentative forms in order to communicate many things, yet for the person who understands his communication, he is communicating all the time. I do not find it too difficult to understand and the one shortcoming I may have is the tendency to feel frustrated when he is — when he cannot get a more complex message across.

Adam turned eight this year and much of this is beginning to change. Adam began to talk in sentences, began to show me things and started to become “the teacher,” in the sense that he would test me on the things he wanted to talk about in books. He learned certain concepts such as what something was NOT as opposed to what it was, among other concepts.

There are a couple of things I want to write with respect to progress in communication ability, quite unscientifically, in this post, for I have not yet found some good citations to support my theories about autism and development. So take it for what it’s worth and perhaps you may see some more of my posts deal with this — with citations.

I’ve been reading how to teach philosophy to children through children’s books: Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature, by Thomas E. Wartenberg. When we refer to teaching “critical thinking” to autistic children, it usually has to deal with teaching the more functional types like putting puzzles together or teaching Feature, Function and Class — for those familiar you know what I mean. These are the basic skills we believe are absent in autistic children because their very expression is difficult to manifest — be it for attentional reasons or motor planning issues, or both.

We do not address for the “profoundly autistic,” “severely autistic” or any autistic child, for that matter, often enough, how to read books, how to question and how to think abstractly because we have decided that autistic people learn literally. While this may be in part true, we miss an opportunity to help along the critical aspects to being human — the ability to question. I’ve read many a time how we wish to teach some flexibility in thinking in autism. To me, teaching through books and by taking a lead in creative ways to view things from different angles is not only an exercise for Adam, but also for myself. We would all stand to gain from working to think in ways that may not be familiar to us.

We are more often concerned with our children knowing how to read the words (certainly this is the first step to reading at all). We do not learn how to talk to an autistic child who has difficulty with that reciprocity, how to really push forward, even though their manifestation of understanding is not what we expect. In my view, I feel it is dangerous to assume that Adam does not understand as much as it is to take for granted that he can just learn the way a typical child does. Yet all those years of puzzles, functional skills and communication issues makes me worried that Adam is missing the most important component of life learning, that is, to ask questions about everything. I’m quite sure I will be writing more about my in-house experiments here.

That said, I have a short story to tell. With some severe weather hovering around Toronto, there was a downburst, or a tornado. Both Adam and I enjoy watching the weather reports. With bad weather, we are glued to the TV. I was talking about funnel clouds and how they are dangerous.

“Why?” Adam asked.

“Because they can rip down houses and trees,” I said.

“Why?” he asked again. I am thinking about a three-year-old I once knew when I was an older kid and how every answer to a question he had ended up with yet another “why?” Like that, the conversation went on a bit between Adam and I. He kept asking me “why?” until I ran out of answers!

For a typical child, asking “why?” is expected. For an eight-year-old developing autistic child, it was another one of our milestones.

With that “why?” also came a series of sentences and conversations this week. With those conversations came difficulty falling asleep and some body jerks. Also interesting that along with an increased in verbal expression came an improvement on his fine-motor skills at the dining table as well as gross motor skills I noticed while watching him outside climbing structures I’ve never seen him climb before. Could this be a reason for the sleeping issues? Could his body be a-buzz?

Again, I am making a possible correlation that needs to be tested because dad let him sleep in over the weekend (school was out) and this is reason enough for not being able to go to sleep the following day and, perhaps lack of sleep and other frustrations lead to more body jerks. Yet I also wonder, only because I’ve seen it before, if sleep issues and body jerks have to do with an increased output of communication and other “manifestions,” — overall “progress.” So often we view “issues” as a result of “delay” and “behaviours” and we label it as if it is something we have to get rid of or something that worries us. Yet, with this example, Adam is trying so hard to express himself and his body may be following him as it attempts to process the steps we have taken for granted. If we take a view that such preservations, behaviours, sleep problems might have to do with processing, progress and development, how might we address and teach autistic children differently?

It’s something to think about when we study autism and when we rethink the, perhaps, very “normal” path of autistic development.

The Age-Old Idea of Multiple Intelligences

Filed Under (autism, Autism and Intelligence) by Estee on 26-05-2010

“The story people tell about you (and the one you tell about yourself in the way you act) may be broadcasting one of your weaknesses louder than you deserve. We often fail to hire or trust or work with someone merely because one of their attributes stands out as below par. That’s our loss,” says Seth Godin on Seth’s blog where he commemorates it being twenty-five years since Howard Gardner presented the idea of “multiple intelligences.” We now take this idea for granted and it’s an idea that is segues us to the manner we approach autism and intelligence.

What caught my attention was the marketing of various intelligences today as attributes, not as deficiencies. In autism, however, we definitely have difficulty reconciling the differences. We sometimes understand and acknowledge autism as a different way of thinking and perceiving on the one hand, while on the other view the manifestation of the very same thought and perception process as impaired, deficient and in need of many therapies to correct. No doubt, autistic people face challenges and those that seem painful (indeed the perspectives on this vary greatly depending to whom we are talking) to many of us are the ones that get targeted for treatment. I wonder, however, if the very idea of thinking in proverbial opposites is the source of our problem — the one that categorizes individuals as “dumb” to “gifted.”

We are definitely conflicted in many ways regarding the way we think about autistic thought and contribution and Seth’s post helped me consider further how we might work to making autistic thought and perception process another one of the age-old multiple intelligences we don’t need to glorify, but take for granted in the best of ways.

Miraculous or Naive?

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Art, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism and The Media, Communication, Development, Joy, Parenting, Politics, Writing) by Estee on 24-05-2010

It is said that one should write something that they would like to read. In those early autism years, as I was in that period of coalescing my arguments and thoughts about autism, I have enjoyed writing about Adam, motherhood, and our “journey.” There is a sense of therapy to writing and that can be beneficial for many people undergoing a similar situation. Writing can help us transcend the feeling that we are “all alone.” Yet I have the feeling after being a few years in this, that filtering autism down to miracles and gifts as well as horrors and tragedies has just become naïve. It’s time for all of us to up the ante (I am turning the finger towards myself here).

There is no new take these days on writing an autism and this in and of itself seems to me that either I’ve become over-saturated with the type of material, or I’ve simply reached a new parenting stage and where it takes me with writing here, I am not yet sure. I have tried to post a few interesting presentations on the blog the past couple of weeks. There are so many performances and exhibitions, and art is a segue to complex ideas often then used and analysed also by science as much as science can influence art. Of autistic performance and exhibition, please don’t label them as “miracles.”

I’m fatigued by references to miracles. Autistic achievement, as is discussed so often here on the blogs, is so often referenced as gifted or miraculous. There are no miracles. There is only what we wish to believe.

We’ve noted what a detriment to the autistic community such stereotyping can be. Even if it’s true that autistic thinking is different, and of benefit to our society in many ways, this is no reason to call it gifted or a “miracle.” When it comes to a play, or an autistic child typing, or a group of autistic children performing for an audience, I’m really taken aback at references to the achievements being “miracles.” However, if we are referring to all of us as being “miracles,” I sort of get that — I get that embrace of the miraculous state we call human. Miracles are a short-cut answer and resolution to that which is unresolvable. Try to tie it up with a convenient conclusion, and we will all fail.

Acceptance is as acceptance does, and in all likelihood, the name is too simple while embracing everything. “Simplicity embraces exactly the right details, the right difficulties, the right complexity,” but it also requires am effort in learning, observing, studying and yes, striving to argue well here in this contentious autism community. Acceptance is not simple. Autistic achievement is not a miracle, although it has been so unrecognized in human history that it is not surprising that we have labeled it as such. This is humanity we’re talking about. It’s messy, difficult, wonderful, full of frustration, anguish and yes, joyful.

And this may be the only miracle.


Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Development) by Estee on 16-05-2010

The nice thing about art is that it is a language without words. It’s why I believe strongly that it is an important (not nice and trite, isn’t-the-Autie-a-genius) approach to appreciating not only how autistic people may see and develop, but of course of understanding humanity — a very broad statement, I know, but art is a way to bridge the barriers of looking at people with neurological differences as “abnormal,” “retarded” and the like.

It is also highly ironic that I write about art and that the art world seeks so many words to critique and analyze it. Yet, at the end of the day, we have a gut response to art before we have an intellectual one.

I was thinking about this as Adam has turned to art. This is not just peripheral observation…it goes deeper. Adam studies all the elements of things with ferocity and concentration. He will hold any object in his hand — even a part of an object, turn it around and study it, tap it and consider all of it’s physical properties. He may or may not label it, as he has done since he was eleven months of age (labeling, that is), but I consider that his sharing in this manner is simply his way of sharing with me because he has trouble with words. Yet, his understanding goes far beyond the label.

W.J.T. Mitchell, in his essay Visual Literacy or Literary Visualcy? (excerpted from Visual Literacy edited by James Elkins) asks how seeing is different from reading. “Even more interesting, what would happen if we reversed the positions of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor, and treated reading as ‘tenor’ — the thing to be explained — and vision as the vehicle that might help explain it? What would happen, in other words, if we thought of our task as one of research and teaching in reading, based in models drawn from seeing and the visual system?” (p.11).

It is in this vein that I believe we can begin to explain our words about autism and challenge our very basic assumptions. For instance, consider the two drawings below. Adam, at the age of 8 has fine motor planning difficulties. It is very hard for him to hold a pencil or crayon, but in the first drawing one can see it’s coming and that he is trying extremely hard to express himself.

The drawing beside it, also a Lion, was executed by a same-aged “typical” peer. By contrast, one can see the marks in this drawing made with strength and certainty whereby Adam’s drawing seems a little tentative and soft by virtue of his motor planning difficulty. Take another look. Adam took great care and time rendering that drawing. So much so, he even walked away, came back to reconsider it and lightly put the finishing touches carefully on the tail several minutes after it seemed finished. It was so lightly drawn that it was difficult to photograph. Look at the perspective and how he tries to implement it. It is not a flat drawing. He can see how the body has several dimensions. Compare it to the “same-aged typical peer” drawing — wonderful in its own rite but by contrast, there is, as of yet, no conception of perspective. In one drawing the earth is round, in the other, flat.

Adam's "Lion King"

A drawing of a lion from a same-aged "typical" peer

It is interesting to me to watch Adam’s “visualcy” manifest. It is interesting because he does not fit into any developmental mold. While his hand his light, he is ahead of the curve by way of his perception. One might mistake motor-planning difficulty with Adam’s “retardation,” as it was formerly labeled. Now how dangerous is this when we consider how to teach an autistic person? What assumptions about his intelligence are we making? When I think of schools I get extremely nervous about moving him too slow or too fast. One simply has to SEE.



James Eklins, Visual Literacy, New York: Routledge, 2008.

It’s Just That Simple

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Contributions to Society) by Estee on 02-03-2010

I love this video. It’s just that simple. “You get rid of the autism gene and you get rid of Mozart, Einstein, Silicon Valley…” I love how Temple advocates and it’s this kind of advocacy that assists us in putting ourselves, as neurotypical parents and teachers and therapists, with outrageous expectations, under a much needed spotlight. Beyond listening to her story about “gifts” is an opportunity to consider the disconnect we create when we try to “fix the problem.”

Is autism really a “problem?”

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication) by Estee on 20-02-2010

-1 We’ve had some encouraging messages lately, haven’t we? The HBO production of Temple Grandin played by Claire Danes shows that while (and many of us have read Temple’s books already) the world caused her anxiety, she could “see details other people are blind to,” she says. “I have a gift.”

Certainly the idea of giftedness, which happens in non autistic and autistic persons, can be yet another stereotype in assessing autistic people. Perception, on the other hand, is something to think about deeply.

When Adam was very young, we had these water blocks that were dyed different colours. Adam was mesmerized by these blocks watching the water swish and swoosh. Then all of a sudden, my wobbly toddler took them up to the window and peered through them. Ah, I thought. If only we could all stare at the world through coloured water blocks. How beautiful it would be. I know was also in part a cooing mother of a young autistic boy, so anything he did like this made me hyper-aware. But still.

When he got his “legs” and we began walking around the neighbourhood, Adam memorized his routes. To this day, if we take him to his old house and walk from there or the park nearby, he will remember how to get to that park or get back through the old “secret pathway” to the old house — which has even since been torn down and rebuilt! Remember, that was his two-three year old brain. In April, he will be eight-years-old.

Coming out soon will be a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton. Many people suspect that Carrol was himself autistic with his different perceptual abilities. He is often cited as a person who “suffered” from micropsia and macropsia, which is a neurological condition that changes the way the brain perceives the size of objects. When Alice falls down that rabbit hole, we get a look into Carroll’s mind.

Scientific American Mind published Extraordinary Perception by Wray Herbert this month. It discusses how psychologists at University College London “think that it might be a mistake to consider [autistic] distractability as simply a deficit. To the contrary, Anna Remington and John Swettenham and their colleagues speculate that people with ASD might have greater than normal capacity for perception, so that what appears as irrelevant distraction is really a cognitive bonus.” I added autistic to distractability as many therapies for autism as well as medications are geared at lessening it.


The test, the article shows, was for subjects to “rapidly determine if the letters N or X were present in the ring” on a computer screen. Participants had to then “hit the corresponding key on the keyboard. Some of the circles — those with more letters — were more difficult to process than others. There were also other letters floating outside the circle, but the subjects were specifically instructed to ignore those letters. Those floating letters were the laboratory equivalent of an irrelevant distraction in the real world.” In measuring perceptual capacity, researchers saw that “everyone was slower at the task when the ring contained more letters. The researchers were also measuring distractibility. When a letter outside the ring was one of the target letters (N or X), the subjects often took a longer time finding the N or X in the ring — indicating they were distracted by the presence of a target letter in the location that they were supposed to ignore.”

The researchers reasoned “that as long as the subjects’ total perceptual capacity was not exhausted, they would also process the irrelevant, distracting letters within their visual field. Once they had surpassed their perceptual capacity — once the ring of letters was sufficiently complex — irrelevant processing would stop [bold mine]. So if ASD subjects in fact have greater processing capacity, then they should process more distracting information even as the main task becomes increasingly complex.”

In conclusion, “although there was no difference among subjects in either reaction time or accuracy on the main task, those with ASD processed the irrelevant letters while solving much more complex problems...Put another way, they weren’t ignoring the main task, nor were they distracted away from it. Instead they were completing their work and moving on, using their untapped capacity” [bold mine].

This article also concludes that while this is a benefit, it also does have “real-life consequences.” They begin and end the article citing Tim Page, an author with Aspergers from his book, Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s. Page recounts his time in school who failed an essay about his field trip which was quite detailed in terms of his way of perceiving it, and how he was scolded for writing in that particular way. “I had noticed the wrong things,” he writes.

As a parent of an autistic child who has difficulties with verbal communication, I have to ask the question: “whose problem is this anyway?” Certainly I have been dealing with issues, at least issues for me as Adam cannot comment here yet, so I am fully aware that I need to be fair. He has very real sensory and perceptual differences, so I set up a basement full of equipment for him to self-soothe. He has even learned to “self-regulate” by going to read his own books, and I never had to teach him that. His body will completely quiet as he flips through pages of encyclopedias, dictionaries, cookbooks, among many other subjects. He may even appear to layperson as not really paying attention and just flipping pages, but I know it’s more than that. His body-jerking almost always stops, which is how I conclude that he is soothed by his books. I am imagining him looking at those books over and over again, and what he may be gleaning from them. Still, when it comes to getting the responses WE need, he using a “special” reading program at school. Indeed it is really helping with his expressive reading ability, and maybe even with his vocabulary. So I need to let him do both. He needs to learn to respond in a world that doesn’t yet understand the way he learns. He also needs to flip through pages and pages on his own. I can sit beside him sometimes also and talk about the books he is reading. We can type about what he is reading, we can draw stories and make more conclusions or assumptions about what he is reading. When we do things together calmly, we are having lots of fun.

When we teach him a new communication device, it may appear to the person who is teaching that Adam is not focused enough — indeed he appears to be “highly distracted.” On an AAC device (we are still awaiting one from a service-provider here in Toronto) his finger will go to the right picture, letter, or answer, and then he will quickly go to another one to check out what it will do. A keyguard helps him direct his finger more quickly to the correct response. He may have trouble finishing sentences (when he types) and then be reminded to “stay on task.” This is in large part what Facilitated Communication attempts to assist with if done correctly — to remind and assist with the focus. To a person who cannot detect that Adam was about to give the “right” answer (or rather the answer that was requested of him), he would receive a failing grade. Adam is very young and I believe he is not given the benefit of the doubt enough, although his team members are good with this.

It is only fair to say that we do not KNOW everything he knows. We do not fully understand how he takes all this knowledge in and we are the ones that deem his versions of knowledge as irrelevant. We have not developed sufficient ways to measure his responses or his way of learning and seeing, except for the ways we measure responses and knowledge from people who are not autistic. This brings me back to the old ABA adage, “if we can measure it, we can deal with it.” Unfortunately, the way we have historically dealt with autism is by eliminating the behaviours and learning patterns that are essential to an autistic person’s existence. Perhaps continuing to fund this research more heavily is important because as we understand how autistic people learn, we can not only develop better learning tools, but come to better appreciate our children.

Trying to understand this is a first step. As Adam’s parent, I see many of the so-called “issues” being mine, and yes, I become just as frustrated as many other parents out there. It’s really hard to see Adam in distress and it’s even harder to always be guessing what may be causing anxiety or body-jerking (Lack of calcium? Trouble at school? New self-awareness of difference? Trouble with transitioning from task to task? Lack of sleep? Seizures? A very long winter? Lack of exercise? Another neurological issue?…The guess work list is too long). Since Adam appears to be in discomfort since late last fall, I am really working hard at figuring this out (wait-lists are long here in Toronto). Sleep issues, anxiety issues — I know when I have a level head, there is more that I can do for him to ease the situation. We need science now to figure out many of our questions.

Sometimes it feels that makeshift solutions only lead to more issues. Sure, we all want things to be a little easier, but Adam requires more consideration in order to achieve that balance between helping him through discomfort as well as accommodating his needs. As I have been through a difficult year, like many of you out there, I completely understand the reasoning, but I have to keep a level head and look at what Adam has also gone through with a “broken” family. I have needed my sleep, but if Adam cannot, I have to find safe ways of letting him stay up until his body will sleep naturally. I know what I’m saying isn’t easy and there are still days I will resort to the Melatonin, even though, because of the guesswork involved, it pains me to do so. Yet I also know it’s important to stop and slow down and think about how Adam feels and perceives. When I do, everything seems a little easier. As a parent, I can even become proud of myself (it’s important) that I’ve not only managed well, but have helped Adam out too. We are still on that path to finding out if we can help Adam, but I am always wondering excessively about how I perceive the “problem.”

I’m interested in what people in science think about this Perception study. I think we have to spend a lot more time imagining what it feels like to be in Wonderland.


Excerpts from:

“Extraordinary Perception” by Wray Herbert in March/April 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, pp. 68-69.

Further Reading:

Selective Attention and Perceptual Load in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anna Remington, John Swettenham, Ruth Campbell and Mike Coleman in Psychological Science (in press). Published online October 14, 2009.


About Me


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 (, 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.