A Better Autism Awareness Month?

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, in Davis’ words:

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

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

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

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

Autistic Freedom

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

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

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

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

Felix: Imaginary City Map, Age 11

Here’s how the artist responded about the work:

What was the inspiration for this piece?

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

Who are some artists that you like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, how can we respond?

The Autism “Campus” and the Ableist Potential of “Potential”

Filed Under (Ableism, Activism, Institutions) by Estee on 17-06-2013

Part of writing a blog and writing at all is the responsibility I tend to feel for supporting myself and others. Yet I have to tell you, since Adam was diagnosed with this ambiguous “autism” nearly 11 years ago now, anger and frustration and my love for him fuels writing and work – as it does for so many. Let me start here: we have a deeply engrained prejudice towards non-verbal people in our society, and towards those whose bodies don’t conform.

The reality is, this is not a black and white issue so if one says one thing, it gets reified (e.g. autism is x or he does this because of autism). The complexity of human BEING is ignored, especially for autistic people. As I watch Adam’s body tense and react to even the slightest pain (yesterday he hurt himself in a rose bush), these days with a bite, I am caught between feeling grateful for support but also upset that I have to be careful in how I question this support (for fear of losing it entirely… a crappy position many of us are forced into). Alas, we have to question it and everything that happens in an autistic person’s life to fill out the picture and to support and autistic person well. We need to do this all together – to look at the whole person and not the label and not all behaviours as the result of autism or as, well, just a behaviour. Adam’s body is intensely aroused and as this is happening at the beginning of puberty, I’m very worried about how long kids are asked to sit and comply. We must reconsider physical and behavioural compliance in the name of boys needing to be boys. This is recently called the “feminization of boys” and although gender-blame is problematic, it does point to an issue in how we approach education overall. Autistic boys should be considered in this respect as well. You can’t remediate before you respect. You’ve got to respect and include autistic kids from the beginning. Differential treatment also can lead to equality and respect. Differential treatment need not be remediation; it is the form of accommodation, acceptance and respecting sensory and other differences and needs.

This leads to another concern I have – so-called “autism campuses” being created. How does that serve the rights of autistic people to be included in society? Back in the day, an asylum was considered a wonderful refuge where disabled people could learn life skills, do work in “sheltered workshops,” be “educated” to their potential. It was a hopeful place where people would be treated “with respect.” Does this sound familiar? I don’t know about how you feel about it, but it reminds me of just how close we are again to re-institutionalization and the issue we have with notions of “potential” and “remediation.” There comes a point when educating to potential can turn into another form of ableism because it asks that a person become a normate. Potential doesn’t necessarily mean “as close to normalcy as possible.” Now that Adam is experiencing this intense arousal (and he has been already redirecting himself to an object to bite, without my telling him to do it), how will “the system” view him as a (non) person? Will our only choice be an autism campus? A thorny issue.

How I Deal

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Anxiety, autism, Estee, Joy, NEugenics, Parenting, The Joy Of Autism) by Estee on 10-06-2013

So I’ve just put Adam to bed. We’ve had another challenging month – a major basement flood ruined his space where he jumps on a trampoline and has his OT equipment. It’s his space where he is king. It’s our second flood, but this one was much worse…expensive damage and more importantly, it had to be totally ripped apart. The same week, Adam suffered the viral croup that’s been going around up here. Unable to move for a week, he hardly ate and broke out into frequent sweats. Unable to explain the way he feels in detail, or to have the energy to “type it out” as I say, I panicked and took him to the doctor three times to make sure he was going to be okay. In the middle of it all, my walls were being ripped out and fans and humidifiers hummed so loudly that it was difficult to feel at home let alone relax.

Then, Adam returned to school on Monday and started biting his wrists and arms. It hasn’t abated yet – he’s frustrated when his preferred activities are ending, he’s starting puberty and my great little guy is on the anxious side to begin with. He has all the difficulties with transition and arousal as expressed by other autistic adults. It’s very difficult to write about Adam in this way, but these challenges are inevitable in life. My mother confided in me that she used to bite her friends (she won’t mind me writing about it now) because she was frustrated and angry. I expect Adam is a bit frustrated and angry too – his ripped up space, his sickness that has kept him immobile and now having to return to demands not to mention the need to express the free will of becoming an older boy. The way I deal (despite my own stress) is to bring back routine, use visual supports, gestures, counting, less words, gentle affect. In the midst of chaos, this is one thing I know to do. I also have a routine, it seems, when I’m overloaded. I get stressed out and then realize its time to shut everything down, off and focus on calm and Adam. Then, as I do, continue to support Adam’s development and learning to cope with new experiences and on patience with the things that don’t work out as planned.

I had two other thoughts this evening when I considered writing about challenges, which I am wary of doing for all the twists and turns I see stories take for some people’s own self-interest. First, I recommend everyone to read Val William’s book, Disability and Discourse: Analysing Inclusive Conversation with People with Intellectual Disabilities. Using a conversational analysis between disabled and non-disabled support workers, she analyses the subtleties of our conversations, intonations and expectations against our desire to support autonomy and how we may in fact silence and disable it, as well as examples of how it can be enabled in people with severe communication disabilities, which is my area of special interest. I was considering how I might disempower Adam’s free will and autonomy by analysing my own behaviour as his parent in how I talk to him, what my expectations are, how I may garner an answer from him. I asked myself if I praise him because he has answered in a way I expected, or made a choice I preferred. Then I asked myself (and am more aware of this now he is entering puberty) how often do I praise the choices he makes that I might dislike or are inconvenient for me? How can I encourage and support his autonomy if I only praise what I think is acceptable? These are the reflexive questions and sometimes, fine lines.

Then, I came across two recent books that mention my name and work. The first is by Michael Prince and Bruce Doern, Three Bio Realms: Biotechnology and the Governance of Food, Health and Life in Canada. I have quoted Prince especially from his book Absent Citizens: Disability Politics and Policy in Canada. In Three Bio Realms he states:

“Bio-life technologies are especially susceptible to both the ‘wow’ and the ‘woah’ reactions and instincts. In this case, the ‘wow’ factor came in the announcement itself and press coverage of it. An immediate letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail newspaper expressed the ‘woah’ reaction in intensely human ways. The letter came from Estee Klar, who signed her letter as the founder of the Autism Acceptance Project (Klar, 2010). Her letter expressed the views of the mother of an autistic child reacting to the announcement about genetics and autism. She wrote ‘the lack of public awareness about autistic pride and the many autistic adults who have helped our understanding of what it means to be ‘different.’ She expressed deep concern about language that might cast persons with autism as having fouled-up genes. Klar concluded by stating that autistic people ‘are more than their genes’ and that like non-autistic people, are shaped by [their] environment, supportive families, good education and so forth. (Klar, 2010 in Doern and Prince, 2013, 198).”

I was surprised to see this disability scholar refer to autism as a “disease” because the reality is, there is no known etiology of autism. While there are other issues that confront many different individuals with the label, the term itself is too broad and deterministic regarding autistic being and identity. I also think it prudent to cite the woah factor in a society that searches for a panacea – from pills to technology to gene-causation – in the pursuit of a (perfect) ability that I think will still experience or may create new disabilities. The way we parse humans as (dis)abled repeats self-evident ableism.

And then I came across this book Bad Animals by Joel Yanofsky who says,

“I’m recounting the highlights of a telelphone interview I just had with Estee Klar. She’s a Toronto writer and curator I learned about when I read her heartfelt essay ‘The Perfect Child.’ It’s about her son Adam whose on the spectrum. Not long after Adam was diagnosed, she started TAAP or The Autism Acceptance Project. TAAP’s mission is ‘to bring about a different and positive view about autism to the public in order to raise tolerance and acceptance in the community.’ She also started blogging about her life and about autism, which she says on her website, is not about illness but a way of being. Even so, Klar is hardly starry-eyed. She knows first hand how tough dealing with autism is. She also knows that if she were to accept all the doom and gloom heaped on her over the years she’d be incapable of doing anything, including what she believes is best for her son. Currently, Klar’s blog reaches some two hundred and fifty thousand readers.”

I do think that many of us need to write-it-out, visit meet-up groups, talk it out, type-it-out despite some days I think I should just delete everything and walk away. For myself, I’m not a great writer but I just keep doing it. I have a compulsion and I guess it is a way I can deal, and if it helps you too to read it, then I’m glad for that. I am grateful that Yanofsky in that at least he highlighted that I am hardly “starry-eyed.” I guess despite the fact I can get very down just like anyone else, I am also determined to see that sun rise and know there are always many delightful days, and I don’t believe in simple answers and a final cure. I don’t believe in easy paths and the “pursuit of happiness” – when we think it is something to obtain and possess, it simply makes us more miserable. It’s like expectation – when we hold on to it, we will be disappointed. We can’t hang on to anything (obviously not a soothing statement for people who need regularity and routine). So why am I thinking about these two quotes about the way I think about autism and my life tonight? Well, if anything is final, my concern is the finality of the existence of people we deem not worthy to live because they do not fit an economic paradigm and who are considered burdens on society. The thrust of my work today deals with this and how we can support autistic people, and to reconsider how we view autonomy and independence as yet another path to normality (and oppression). Normal doesn’t exist and it never will for many of us, and for most, it is a mere delusion. Hmmm…delusion. A way to survive the ultimate reality? Think about it.

Non-Verbal Autism, Identity and Power

Filed Under (Ableism, Communication, Uncategorized) by Estee on 14-05-2013

The Autism Acceptance Project (TAAP) will post a new announcement on its website about its forthcoming work and formation of a new board of directors. TAAP is an organization that is directed by autistic people, and facilitated by non-autistic supporters in order to reflect the concept of inclusion. As a mother to a child who has communication challenges, I am personally invested in autistic rights for the non-verbal populations. TAAP will encourage research and activities to enable the question of who is missing from autistic organizations and how might we reconsider the manner in which we organize in order to equalize power imbalances. For the aphasic community for instance, this is addressed. Yet the manner in which we have constructed (and essentialized) autistic identity remains problematic if we do not consider the broad scope of individual experience. For example, while some people (autistic or not) prefer to be on their own, other people do not wish to be. In autism, we tend to apply broad strokes to describe how an autistic person lives and thinks through labels. There are dangers in suggesting that all autistic people “prefer to be alone” as much as we assume autistic children need to be yanked into a neurotypical social world in order to be valued and included in society. The truth is in there somewhere, but usually between the two extremes. The point is, not every person is the same and we need to account for this in autism as we would for any person.

As part of my doctoral research, which will begin this fall, I will be studying emancipatory research and social organization for our community. With autistic folks, we hope to assist clinicians, therapists, educators, parents, caregivers to support autistic rights as one of our projects.

Allow me to share some extensive quotes from Carole Pound and Alan Hewitt’s Communication Barriers: Building Access and Identity for your consideration. I do hope that many others will engage and invest in research for our non-verbal/ communication-challenged populations:

“…an interesting additional challenge is that if language is the core of what makes us human, and the primary means of exploring new narratives of illness and disability, how do individuals negotiate personhood or the development of changed identities following sudden loss of speech, understanding, reading and writing? How does your own and others’ difficulty with understanding and using words impact on your ability to talk about and question fragile new forming identities with others who are also grappling with a concept at the edge of words? Given these difficulties, how much greater is the risk, as a language-impaired person, that your personal disability narrative will be hijacked by outsider stories constructed by families, professionals, researchers and the media?” p. 165

“Many people explore concepts of disability and identity by being exposed to and engaging with discussion of alternative representations of disability. New stories of disability can challenge internalised stereotypes offering a precious escape route away from the set of ‘tragic stroke victim’ or ‘courageous little fighter’ paths purveyed by mainstream media and disability charities. The means of accessing new narratives is not obvious when academic texts, articles, and website stories are hidden behind a veil of language.” p. 165.

“Meeting, supporting and just ‘being’ together are powerful experiences which, in many respects, transcend words. Meetings between people who share a common communication disability, but who each individually require different levels and types of communication support, are not without challenge. Negotiating communication support from non-language-impaired people, such as relatives, volunteers or health professionals, is an option but one which runs the risk of meetings being dominated and controlled by those who can speak and write. Notwithstanding these challenges, self-help groups remain a rare bastion of power and identity for many people with aphasia.” p. 165.

“Access to a sense of personal and social confidence, to a more certain identity, is for many people a pre-requisite to asserting one’s voice, to feeling you have a possibility and a starting point to interact with power. So language, identity and power become crucially interwoven. Without language, it is very hard to grasp the core of identity, and without language and identity it is virtually impossible to hold and interact with power. How, then, can those who possess intact language and power develop skills, environments and structural supports which acknowledge this imbalance and model more equal power relations?” p. 165

“Those charged with implementing communication access need to think creatively about ways of engaging people, processes, environments and infrastructuers with new communication practices, practices that attend, non-tokenistically, to the diversity of communication.” p. 166.

Some of the ways the authors suggest for assisting and organizing for those with communication disabilities are:

-training for those without communication disability;
– including ‘interpreting’ skills enabling non-communication disabled people to adapt their spoken and written language to make it accessible, and training in monitoring language for clarity and flexibility;
-supporters who offer one-to-one interface between people with and without language impairment. (p.166)

“At Connect, for example, trained communication supporters facilitate inclusion in meetings by going through papers at pre-meetings, supporting the person with aphasia to follow conversational exchange and ask questions, by taking notes on line and by spending time after the meeting to review ideas, concepts and decisions. Communication access training focusing on written documents is a further aspect of developing communication skills, supporting everyone in an organization to reword complex, abstract documents and information into clear and concrete language. Training also supports people to consider format, layout and use of pictures that most readily support communication access. The situation where everyone in the organization, from therapist to receptionist to researchers to finance director, takes responsibility for monitoring and changing their use and presentation of language is a healthy first step towards inclusive communication.” p. 166.

In the autism community, it’s just as important to look to other community’s that share similar challenges, and to read what they have to say. Often in our community, we tend to get locked into autism labels which confine us to consider that autistic people, with “different” behaviour, cannot be capable of understanding language, although we have enough research and personal accounts to seriously challenge that assumption. As researchers engage in ways to “enable” autistic people to communicate, which is important, we also have to consider the ableist dimensions of technology and language training. We have to consider that power comes from those who can communicate, and to rethink our organizations and the way we do and do not provide access. As suggested, communication seems to assure identity and power. In its absence, does it mean that an communication-impaired person is not a person? How accessible is current technology to autistic people? What are the barriers to access which include financial issues, attituidinal issues in AAC provision? What about the way we enable or disable a different way – perhaps we can coin it an autistic way – of information gathering and language construction (or any other kind of construction such as art, the way information is gathered, learned and expressed)? We tend to assume so much about how people should be and it may behoove us to think that neuro-normative ways could very well have its own limitations. Perhaps its time to cross borders.

Reference:

Pound, Carole, Hewitt, Alan. (2004). Communication Barriers: Building Access and Identity in Disabling Barriers – Enabling Environments. (John Swain, Sally French, Colin Barnes, Carol Thomas, eds). Sage Publications.

A New Kind of Autism Lobby: A Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarrett further states that,

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

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

Reference:

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

Who is Safe; Who is “At Risk?” Some More Considerations Before April

Filed Under (Ableism, Activism, Advocacy, Charity, Disability History, Government Services, Inclusion, NEugenics, Newgenics, Pity, Research, school, The Autism Genome Project) by Estee on 25-03-2013

As we head into April, I thought I’d post Protest on the Plinth which states that the value system from the Nazi era hasn’t changed much today. If people make out disabled people’s lives to be “intolerable,” then how can we make safe legislation?” asks the disabled woman in the video. It is not egregious to point to what happened to the disabled during the Nazi era and unpack the value systems that linger today – that lead to the belief that disabled lives are an intolerable economic burden on society. Posters of the “costs” of the disabled to the German “folk” were commonplace.

Systemic mechanisms (government programs, schools, corporate bodies) that tell us what kinds of bodies (and minds) we are supposed to normalize, regulate, or get rid of, or what are “acceptable” minds and bodies. Charity campaigns don’t typically tell donors that they need to be patient as corporations or as individuals; that they to collaborate with disabled people, work alongside people with disabilities, or that it is a disabled person’s right to be educated (instead of remediated as a “ramp” to normative education -see Moore v. British Columbia, 2012). They don’t talk about autistic and disability rights. Charities are busy raising money, mainly, for cures.

When scientific and representational linguistics point to children “at risk,” we might instead ask, just who are we trying to “keep safe” and why is society so dreadfully afraid of people with disabilities? Remember to consider language and how it both reflects, and shapes, the way we consider people with the autism label. From where I’m standing, however, we are definitely at risk, not from autism, but from an intolerable society.

And don’t forget to check about the counter campaign to “Light It Up Blue” by checking out the Autism Acceptance Day Blog Postings.

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.

Barriers to Information and Communication Technology

Filed Under (Ableism, Activism, Autism and Learning, Communication, Discrimination, Inclusion) by Estee on 21-08-2012

Tagged Under : , , , ,

ICT = Information and Communication Technology

School is fast approaching and some autistic children get access to inclusive schools and others do not. One of the barriers to inclusion is access to technology and other supports that can enable and autistic person to participate and become successful. Many camps and schools have boycotted the use of iPads for fear it detracts from a student’s attention. Some schools prefer “traditional” methods, and argue that technology takes away from that experience.

In the case for inclusion and access, these are some of the antiquated attitudinal barriers we must work to deconstruct. Many non verbal autistic individuals, and other autistic individuals who learn better with computers for visual reasons as well as reasons to do with less distractive stimuli that can impede learning, need technology (and other accommodations) not just for school, but for vital communication and everyday functioning.

In an effort to break down barriers to access, “The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), a national organization working for an accessible and inclusive Canada, recently consulted people with disabilities about ICT use and recommendations on barrier removal and prevention.” Although there is a duty to accommodate, most schools and camps will not do so, especially for the autistic person. Here’s some more examples:

Stumbling Blocks

Although accessible ICT is available in the marketplace, it can take an incredible amount of self-advocacy and persistence for an individual to obtain it. Doreen Demas, who has vision impairment, discovered this when seeking an accessible cellphone from the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS). For customers without a disability, acquiring a cellphone that meets their needs is a relatively straightforward consumer activity. MTS’s original offer to Doreen was an inaccessible BlackBerry. Over a period of several years, it took numerous frustrating sessions with MTS representatives and a complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for her to obtain a contract, with reasonable terms and conditions, for an accessible iPhone. The CRTC has a policy requiring that Canadian cellphone service providers include an accessible product in their catalogue of devices on offer to the public.

Some post-secondary students with disabilities encounter barriers related to ICT. While a student intern, who requires large print, may be most comfortable using a particular program to enlarge text, the intern’s field placement agency may think it is reasonable to expect that person to use whatever programs are available on the in-house system. Although educational institutions and employers have a duty to accommodate disability-related needs, individuals continue to struggle to have such accommodations provided.

The other barrier is poverty. Most of our disabled population, due to so many barriers to employment and educational institutions, end up living beneath the poverty line. This also make access to essential communication and technologies expensive:

Like everything in the marketplace, ICT comes with a price tag. People with disabilities experience a disproportionate level of poverty. People with disabilities of working age are about twice as likely to live on a low income as their counterparts without disabilities. “There is the assumption that everybody can afford a computer. That’s an assumption. It is not a fact,” says Marie White, Chairperson of CCD’s Social Policy Committee. “Our most challenging issue is poverty.” Some people with disabilities face additional costs because they have to buy ICT, and they also must purchase adaptive technology to make inaccessible technology usable. In some provinces, provincial programs provide people with disabilities access to technology.

While some autism organizations endeavour to provide some grants to autistic people for access to iPads and the government subsidizes other communication devices, there are wait lists and rental fees can still be expensive (you can seek some assistance through the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care).

For Adam’s sake and like many other parent advocates, I’ve had to learn a lot about AAC (Assistive Augmentative Communication) and how to use it by myself through courses and “old-fashioned” book-learnng. In turn, I train many of Adam’s teachers and support workers in his use of the iPad and with typing. Finding SLP’s trained well in the field is difficult but necessary, and there are a precious few who do it exceptionally well. While SLP’s are typically trained in “speech” functioning, there is tremendous value in their teaching to the ways and means of autistic communication, literacy and the use of devices for advancing skills. The device is often referred to as the individual’s own “voice” or “talk box,” and should be treated with the same care and respect.

It’s tough to still get people on board at the school level, to see devices as a necessity for many autistic people, and to include them with the same value and respect as we would the voice of any other child.

I hope you have some success in using this information when you approach the school boards and other support workers.

References:

Integrated Access: The Right to Universally Designed Information and Communication Technology Evolution of Access—Building in Access to Information and Communication Technology, Abilities Magazine.

Source: “Personally Speaking: Poverty and Disability in Canada,” Council of Canadians With Disabilities.

Video on The National Action Plan from the CDC:

A Mother’s Notes From The Ghetto

Filed Under (Ableism, Abuse, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Book Reviews, Critical Disability Studies, Disability History, Discrimination, Inclusion, Media, Parenting, Politics) by Estee on 13-08-2012

Like many of you, I watched the closing of the Olympic ceremonies. Today’s notes from the ghetto weave some thoughts about the Olympics, a book, a documentary, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a waiting room this past week, Sports Illustrated lay limp and wrinkled on the table in front of me. An title about how the games were more inclusive this year caught my eye and I read it with disappointment. There was no mention of people with mental disabilities. I didn’t take the copy of the article because it wasn’t mine, and now I can’t find it to cite. You’ll just have to take my word for it unless you can find it for me.

I wanted to write a post remarking again how people with cognitive disabilities weren’t visible or participating in the games. As much as I watch the Olympics, I can’t help but see it as a symbol of our admiration of the able-bodied. Including some disabled people in the opening ceremonies and a Para-Olympian is supposed to change that view. The “main” Olympics gets the bulk of the media attention. In talking about the Olympics, then, the media coverage is a reflection of what the consumer wants to see. I’m not blaming the athletes for being able-bodied and I congratulate everyone for their remarkable achievements. I am, however, spotlighting the acceptance of exclusion.

Today I also finished Melanie Panitch’s Disability, Mothers and Organization : Accidental Activists and read about the three mothers who worked tediously to get their children out of insitutions in Canada and close them all down: Jo Dicky, Audrey Cole and Paulette Berthiaume. I read how these women lived in a time of not only gender inequality — “busy men” on boards versus women knocking door-to-door as volunteers — but also in a trail of institutions born from the eugenics movement. The first institution in Canada was the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, pictured above, which opened in 1876.

Ironically, as I finished reading the final chapter this morning, I tuned into the CBC documentary The Gristle in The Stew and listened to the stories of horrific abuse of the people who were labeled mentally “retarded” by professionals. These professionals told parents to just “forget about [their] children and move on.” The government film “One On Every Street” told parents that 1 in 33 children had mental retardation and described insitutions as happy places where children would be educated and rehabilitated in the name of getting them back into their communities. Not so for Paulette’s son and others like him. Her son Louis lived in an institution for thirty years before she could get him out.

Audrey, Paulette and Jo were made to feel guilty for not only having disabled children, but were also pressured to put their children into institutions and be “good mothers” for doing so. Many families lived in fear of not placing their children in institutions because they did not have access to other services so they turned a blind eye to the abuse. There was no “unity” in their struggle, for these fearful parents criticized activists against the campaign to close institutions in Canada.

While these three mothers fought (and won) to get all people out of insitutions in the name of their children, they were excluded and marginalized as “emotional” and “trouble-makers” along the way, often excluded from participating on major boards and committees. But they did not desist. These three women managed to close all institutions down in Canada, and worked arduously for over twenty years to do so. They worked in 1981 to include the disabled who were then omitted from Section 15, which dealt with equality, and secured human rights for the disabled in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They won an unprecedented $1,400,000 in personal dmages for 88 former residents of Saint-Theophile in Quebec in 1990 (pardon the omission of accents that I can’t access on this blog), among many of their accomplishments. They did so as volunteers. One reviewer, Susan DeLaurier says of the book, “Disability is often viewed as a narrow field of social policy, programs and services that leads to a set of parallel social arrangements that have isolated disabled people in segregated systems. By looking at the mothers of children with disabilities and their insights and researching their activism, it is hoped that disability will be viewed as a broad-based inquiry commanding social and political analysis.”

A class action law suit of $3 billion for the plaintiffs incarcerated and abused in Institutions in Canada, simply for having a mental disability, will happen in September 2013. Listening to Patricia Seth and Maria Slark, two of the plaintiffs in the documentary, made me shudder. As a mother, I already know of gender discrimination — domestic and public as a mother of an autistic child and an activist — and there are challenges with this in helping Adam. To imagine how the “accidental activists” had to wait for so long to see their children free again, reminds me why I feel anxious so often. I feel I am always looking over my shoulder and can never rest where Adam is concerned. We have to respond when advocates for any “treatment” or “therapy” which uses the same language and logic that incarcerated innocent people just a short time ago. In the ABA movement which started in Canada in the early 1990’s many of the campaign phrases and threads of logic echo like the halls of institutions. The ABA movement was founded on the premise that autistic children would recover by age six with the treatment (and now the argument extends to older ages) and would therefore no longer require “state” funding. At the time, the estimated costs of funding an individual in an institution was $85,000 a year. In 2012, I relate to the same feelings as these mothers and share their experiences even after feminism has evolved. The challenges and the way to help Adam become increasingly complex, there is resistence and fear of progress, old arguments persist and the “busy men” still exist.

Our situation remains fragile. Despite statutes, we have not achieved Inclusion for people with autism. Society does not see autistic or other mentally handicapped persons as truly valuable to our communities where definitions of “capacity” and “productivity” seem exclusive and informed by implacable economic theory. We see it at the most basic level as in extraordinary red tape in our education system and, after all, I’m “just a mother.” Despite detailed notes and expertise about our children, the public system will hardly pay attention to it. They prefer a report from a professional using standardized tests which is an exclusive and unjust method of testing an autistic person. I talked about some of this in another post about the many ways we experience exclusion. “The briefing notes by the Community Association for Community Living in 1993 noted the same: “despite the protection afforded to people with disabilities in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, many barriers to participation still exist in employment, immigration, education and the criminal justice system.” (Panitch, p. 145).

There is another group who tell us to “never forget,” and this same standard must be advocated for the disabled who have experienced formidable abuse in their lifetimes. When Pierre Berton reported about the abuses at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia (pictured above) in The Toronto Star, Berton noted that after Hitler fell, “many Germans excused themselves because they said they did not know what went on behind those walls. No one had told them. Well, you have been told about Orillia.” Now I, along with others, am telling you about echoes; of the history that could repeat itself.

The Olympics is just one more timely, everyday example of using people as footnotes and keeping them in the ghetto. It is time to include all the Olympic events — special, para and everything else, under one umbrella. I work for the day when I can witness Adam attaining his full citizenship rights. Audrey Cole wrote a Manifesto with her two lawyers called A Manifesto of the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded in 1982:

“The Manifesto equated how the renewed constitution established the full autonomy of Canada within the community of nations with how the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms introduced a new history for people with disabilities as valued, participating members of the community. It concluded cautiously: ‘The Charter of Rights and Freedoms obviously has very important implications for Canadians who live with a mental handicap. It is not possible to determine fully what those implications might be until the provisions of the Charter are considered by the courts in the contest [sic] of real life situations.” (Panitch, p. 133).

Audrey Cole said in her interviews with author Melanie Panitch:

“Our struggle is long-standing. It will not only continue but will gain strength with every denial of a fundamental right to any person of any age with or without disabilities in this country…Outrage, as you know, can be a unifying force for the achievement of social justice.” (ibid, p. 69).

We’re living the relay race and our work is not yet done.

Reference:

Melanie Panitch, Disability, Mothers and Organization: Accidental Activists. New York, Routledge, 2008.

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?

Happy OM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy OM…happy OM….happy OMMMM.

After The Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

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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.