Technology & Autism: We Still Need Acceptance

Filed Under (Acceptance, Capital, Communication, Computing/iPad, Parenting, Technology) by Estee on 05-02-2015

Adam is learning to become an independent typist so quickly now. While it makes me proud and happy for him because he wants to be independent (he has written so many times), it is really important to know that independence, for all of us, is an illusion.

First, Adam has been typing since he has been around 4-5 years old. Most teachers and therapists aren’t all familiar with how support can enable a non-speaking person to type (and possibly become independent). While we began early, we didn’t obtain the commitment from teachers who would not learn how to support him, in my view, because they didn’t understand the meaning of support.

When a person has many motor planning issues associated with their movement and speech, it can be very difficult to feel grounded enough to type. The purpose of support is to enable the body and the mind to ground (if you will allow me a metaphor). A support person also offers the emotional security in a task that is so challenging when the body and mind coordinate many different stimuli and tasks. We take for granted how we multitask, and how our bodies coordinate speech and bodily movements effortlessly. For Adam, he has expressed numerous times how he has required help.

The important addition in Adam’s life has been the support we had been looking for all these years; this means daily use of typing in all settings, almost all of the time. Adam now has access and support every day. As such, he has moved so swiftly in his ability and language expression that we are all confident that he is moving to more consistent independence.

However, I want to caution everyone here, for the emotional support of others may be needed, as well as patient and gracious listeners. Just because Adam can often type without physical support does not mean that he might now need another person nearby giving him the confidence he needs. Also, while the level of support may fade, some people may always require some level of support throughout their lifetime. In my own research, I’ve found that a generous and encouraging co-presence – of love and a presumption that Adam is intelligent and curious, has encouraged him. He has been very frustrated for how he has been treated over the years as a boy who hasn’t understood what is being said, and is eager to learn even though his day-to-day life may be challenging.

While the iPad has markedly changed the reception of Adam by others – providing Adam’s voice and enabling friendships and school work through text-to-speech technology (we use Proloquo2go) – technology is not a panacea. Too often, we make the grave mistake of thinking that if we push our children hard enough, they will learn how to speak or type, etc. “Just as long as he can communicate” thinking will not erase the experience of being autistic. Our modern notions of independence are skewed by a market-economy that demands that we, as parents, produce the most efficient workers. This is also proving to be a big issue as our autistic children turn 21.

The ABA movement, when it was nascent here in Canada in the 1990’s-present, presented itself as an early-intervention treatment to recover the autistic child. The idea that earlier (and quicker) is better, fuels parental desperation and fosters an inauspicious environment for learning. These therapies also promised parents that remediation was a passage to full inclusion in our society; that the only way to participate and contribute was to be cured of autism. Many a rights-based/legal argument constellates around the notion that to be remediated is a right; to be cured is a right in order to assure this passage to normality. All of these notions are based on a modern concept of an abstract citizen as it was formed by way of the Social Contract. In this, none of us are citizens precisely because none of us can pull our own way; we are all dependent upon one another for every cycle of the market, and for the function of our daily lives. Every rich man or woman has an army of support that enables him/her to earn that living – or production; as such one can deduce that all participants of production should be “owners.” It’s about who has the power over that capital, of course, that is called into question and is part of the discourse regarding social support.

What would it mean to think of autistic contribution and the desire to be autistic? Adding to this, can we think outside the box of productivity as we currently conceive it in modern economic terms? We have seen autistic contribution proved many times, in speaking and non-speaking ways, and perhaps it is this aspect, as having to prove oneself as normal (as possible), that troubles me. I want to call into question about how we all markate and market autistic contribution.

My interests are on how society expects autistic people to speak in “normal” ways as a passage to citizenship. As displayed in the film, Wretches & Jabberers, for instance, even when autistic people achieve communication, they are not considered full citizens; they are not included into schools or considered for employment. Here too we must acknowledge that in our society, there will be some bodies who have more material needs than others (Erevelles, 2011). How does the notion of achieving one’s “fair” or “equal” share leave out many people with significant disabilities? And what are we doing (positively and negatively) in terms of elimination of those bodies in the name of “equal” distribution?

Our questioning about autism and technology should be not just how it can make autistic people independent, but how we can change our views towards autistic people; and the right to support and education past the age of 21. Education is another system that supports economic output, of course, and needs to be reconsidered. Certainly we also know that for all of us, time-plus-experience enables knowledge. We need to provide education past that hurried (and hallowed) age of 21 and to grapple with the very troubling issues that confront us within our current system. All of these considerations may help us rethink our systems of support.

Just because we have new enabling technology doesn’t necessarily mean we accept autism. There are many contributions we all make to one another that are not counted as capital; that exist (and are valuable) outside the ledger. The ledger, after all, is a mere frame. We know there is always something left outside of it, and in this case, I am referring to a class of marginalized autistic individuals who are not considered equal because of economic potential. We need to think first about accepting autism while we consider how to educate and support autistic people with technology.

Reference:

Nirmala Erevelles, 2011. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. Palgrave MacMillan.

My Son’s Good News Journalism

Filed Under (autism, Communication, Inspiration, Parenting) by Estee on 13-01-2015

Today I received a call from the school (a good call) that Adam was upset. After given the chance to type about why he was upset, he was talking about the news and of justice. He is beginning to learn about Martin Luther King. He wrote at school:

“People keep talking shit about justice…laugh out loud in life there is no happy and free people.” He was asked if he saw this on the news: “Yes at home and on subway…Hang the reporters …on the news my feeling is that it only shows really one sided opinions…great people are ignored and also sad to hear about death…”

My first instinct as Adam’s mom was to help him understand bad news by thinking of how we all cope everyday. We hear of terrorism, killings in our own city, many injustices. It is hard to watch your own child be pained by it all. I told him about how I think we don’t understand joy unless we experience struggle and also that we cope everyday by thinking about the people we love and the things we love to do. It’s all I could come up with as he listened intently while noshing on rice snacks after school today. Then I commented on all that bad news we hear and rhetorically asked why that is. I would ask any other grade seven student the same question, so why not Adam? I commented that some people only watch the news when it’s bad news. Then I grabbed my copy of the Sunday New York Times and we looked for some good news stories. Dismayed that I could not find anything in the front section, I leaped to the arts section and we found a story about inspiration. I thought we could go with that. Adam leaned in and I started talking about how we need good news journalists. This is what he wrote and with his permission, he does want this published on my blog:

IMG_3353

Then Proloquo (the program he uses to type) jammed so we moved to a notes section and he continued:

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It’s hard to read from the screen shot so here it is again:

“It sells because people want to see bad things. I would love to have news that is good. A good news story would be about inspiration. I would write about my noteworthy experiences as my autism is my struggle. My very hard time with speaking is my struggle. I want the world inside my open mind to understand my intelligence and I most happy when I can type. I learned to type by patient mommy and I have an about a boy who has worked hard. I think that I am a good example for parents to know that open minds are required for their kids to learn how to type. I want people to read this.”

Adam, the good news journalist, wants you to read… and to hear.

Beyond Mall Therapy

Filed Under (ABA, Accessibility, Aides and Assistants, Anxiety, Autism Theories, Autistic Self Advocacy, Behaviours, Communication, Community, Inclusion, Intelligence, Language, Living, Obsessions, Parenting, Safety, seizures, Sensory Differences, Transitions, Travel, Wandering) by Estee on 21-03-2014

I think many parents will agree that one of the most challenging things for families with autistic children are outings.  Adam’s anxiety and repetitive activities increase over his perceived threats and fear of change; he will need to check out the bathroom in every restaurant; know where every door leads. This of course makes outings difficult, and it has a lot to do with impulse. At this point in our lives, Adam has been exceptionally tense – and I want to add that this coincides with his development, awareness and abilities too. This is a really important point to make up front in order not to treat behaviors by redirecting them in meaningless ways (such as touching your nose to replace a hair-raising scream…this will just piss Adam off). One of the dangers with partially-verbal of non-verbal people, as we know, is that when behaviors start, there is a propensity to exclude or treat the autistic person as if they are not aware of what they need, or what they are doing.

This is where adaptive communication has become very helpful for us since November. Adam has been typing for many years, but most ABA schools will not support supported typing – this is so problematic for folks with movement issues which Adam expresses – Tourettes tics, seizure-like episodes (and seizures are much more complex than one initially thinks), and “stuckness” which is catatonia. These are some of the reasons for speech impairments in many folks – similar to aphasia. It’s not that they don’t think or understand or even “hear”what we say but rather the word-finding and expressive capabilities through speech are not available. However with typing, Adam becomes more fluent in his speech. With support, he becomes, eventually, a more independent typist. In the meantime, he writes, “my body is like an engine that doesn’t run continually,”and despite that he can type some things independently he has asked for our support. To not give it to him is seen by many as immoral…something to think about in terms of our own learning in how to support people to communicate in order to hopefully become more fluent and independent. (While I have issues with this latter notion as a neo-liberal concept, I acknowledge we are swimming against a tide here and in order to survive, Adam has to work hard to prove himself…something else to think about in terms of how we treat the disabled).

So, to go out when a person has frequent anxious or bolting episodes (the fight/flight response as we know it), now requires perseverance, patience and planning, and a respect for Adam’s ability to participate in his daily planning. It also requires our time in letting him assemble himself if he begins to meltdown. For example, while on our March Break at the beach, Adam needed to go the bathroom. If there is a loud hand-drying in the bathroom, he will become anxious and turn right around. This anxiety lingered after the visit, and he began to flop his body on the beach. I told him to keep walking and tried to distract him, but at this point, it wasn’t working. I asked Adam to sit down until he was ready again to walk. As we did, we began to feed the birds. This made Adam happy and then able, after 20 minutes, to walk again.

Similarly, a week before on the same beach boardwalk, something triggered Adam and he wanted to urgently turn around. I could not understand what Adam wanted or needed so I asked him to sit down and type with me. This was difficult and he wanted to get up and bolt. I said he could not get up until we knew what he wanted. As he began to type, he was able to say what he wanted faster -“hot air balloon.” At that point, I realized that there was a water tower that looked like a hot-air balloon far down the beach, however, I miscalculated just how far. As we began to walk, it was occurring to me that we wouldn’t get there on foot. But Adam was so happy and relieved to be understood, and skipped merrily alongside his grandfather and I. I began to say to Adam that  I didn’t think we would get there on foot, so at this point I was able to negotiate with him that we would go to dinner first and then drive by the “hot-air balloon.” Adam was able to have a nice dinner and also get to see his hot-air balloon on the drive home.

Today, my team are helping Adam on his outings with lots of preparation and photos and are working with me to practice outings with Adam in many places so Adam himself can feel more competent and less anxious. Every day while we were away, I insisted on taking Adam out, with someone with me for safety, because I fear that isolation is deadly.  This is where mall therapy begins but also has to end – so often, we only see autistic kids in places where therapists feels safe, and this sadly restricts the lives of many autistic folks. Some parents might be afraid to be stared at in public. This is when it’s better to have a card to hand out to people indicating that your child is autistic and you are working on outings. Or, if someone is exceptionally helpful, as I’ve experienced lately, send a thank you note if you can to support inclusion. While we may begin with mall therapy, we must move on quickly. As I was preparing Adam to see the animals today in the park, he typed, “seeing animals is getting very tiring,”and he asked to walk and take the subway instead.  This part of negotiation is also key to success for outings as people like Adam have a hard time advocating for themselves (although they do communicate with their behavior, which is largely viewed as maladaptive, sadly). I also have asked Adam how to support him in moments of need or meltdown where he wrote, “please be calm…” and indicated that these moments are also very embarrassing for him.  In addition to a bag of tools he has to help himself and cognitive behavioral therapy (which, by the way, is typically used on people who are verbal and are deemed “high functioning”‘… Adam’s ability to learn the concepts and techniques quickly rules out theories on HFA and verbal ability and the ruling out of such therapy for non-verbal people…I hope a researcher who presents at IMFAR will pick up on this as most of the people used in research study tend to be from the HFA/verbal group due to cost and time constraints…something to think about in terms of who we service, who we value, and how we treat autistic people).

So the question is whether the mall is used to simply used to truly help autistic people be included in the world, a step towards many outings and environments, or if it excludes people from being in the world. Yes, it’s a challenge for folks, and in the end, a person decides for themselves where they want to be. But if Adam doesn’t learn now as well as being able to advocate his choices while learning to negotiate with others, our lives will remain behind closed doors. While I know this is hard for Adam, I also know that he doesn’t want this.

 

 

 

Parent/Teacher

Filed Under (Adam, Anxiety, Behaviours, Communication, Estee, Language, Obsessions, Parenting, school, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 07-01-2014

We begin 2014 anew. I have applied for a leave of absence from my PhD study to focus entirely on Adam’s program. In so doing, I recognize I need time to energize myself and have some free time; this is not possible as a single parent of an autistic child if I don’t cut back. So, at the end of 2013, I made the empowering decision to become a communications specialist and educator of my son. I’m making field notes along the way. I don’t do this alone of course; it takes others to assist us. But in Canada where there is a lack of trained specialists in supported communication, this is up to me now. Thankfully I have other supporters and success stories including our own.

With the ice storm, a sudden move to a hotel due to the massive power outages in Toronto, the holidays and general upset at the end of this year, I may have fallen into one of my darkest places. I hate to see my son so upset, so less able to handle transitions. I realize I hate holidays too – there was too much expectation despite the fact that I know that this a sure way to fail. No way, no how next year. One modest dinner and one present…that’s enough and that’s lovely.

Of course, much of this has to do with my own resilience and preparedness. Sometimes, Adam requires more preparation than usual – more social stories, lists, repetition of what we are going to do next. He can be the kind of kid that seems to be rolling along quite well and then he needs exceptional support. Let’s just say this past December he needed way more than I provided. School had exhausted me as well which didn’t help. Writing about the philosophy of language and disability takes a lot of of one when a child’s scream replaces words; they are more commanding. As soon as I turned my attention to helping Adam, he calmed down. His school assisted with what we call “operation calm down” and his environment, demands and work were all reassessed. For Adam, he requires proactive breaks every twenty minutes to return to his desk. His school has been most accommodating in helping to provide these breaks. Eventually, kids who are accommodated are often able to increase their level and time of focus as they mature. If there’s one thing I never stop learning is that changing expectations means that you always have to reassess them.

Adam then had a long break (albeit the first half was stressful with the storm). When he returned Sunday, we had another cold weather, namely the “polar vortex.” Schools were cancelled so I planned the day: a walk before it got too cold to go outside, art, reading and typing (I made a program for that), sensory swing, and computer. In between such a good day, Adam decided he wanted some pretend play so we went with that (lots of language there). There was only one incident when his grandfather popped by and then Adam thought he was going to “gramma’s house.” Adam will tend to want to do things that are routinized and when he found out he wasn’t going, he screamed. I left the room and asked him to read a book to calm down. He did so in less than five minutes, which I thought was pretty good. When he was quiet, I returned to ask if he was feeling better, ready for another scream. None came, but it might have. I told Adam I’d check on him again in a few minutes.

When I did, Adam went through his lists when he knew “gramma’s house” wasn’t an option: “Brunos”(which is a grocery store), “Hero Burger…Burger King…Shoppers Drug Mart…”

“Adam, mom needs a break. I’m going to have a cup of tea,” I said. I decided that bargaining wasn’t going to get me anywhere and I’m trying hard to build Adam’s “no” muscle. I sat quietly on the couch drinking my tea, expecting the whole while that another scream was possible. None came. Soon, Adam made his way up the stairs from where he was in the rec room, and lay flat in the hallway. I said nothing and kept drinking my tea. Eventually, Adam brought a book to the couch and sat with me. We got to the point where I could ask him what he wanted for dinner. If he would scream, I would have sent him quietly to his room not as a punishment, but so he learns about self-calm and what I expect from him. There, he has more books to read, which I feel is a positive way to self-regulate intense emotions and which seems to work for Adam.

“Teachable moments” like these make me feel like a competent parent and teacher, and I think we all need to feel that way. I had prepared, I have been studying to make Adam’s programs comprehensive, and I’m becoming more prepared and working on the more difficult behaviours such as bolting, opening doors, and the so-called willfulness of puberty while recognizing that Adam might be confused and sometimes fearful – helplessly resorting to routinous behaviour in order to self-regulate or find order. It is my job to help him. This is what makes my days feel gratifying rather than worried about him while I sink my head in Barthes and Derrida. While I’m not going to stop reading and writing, I just am going to use what I’ve learned in theory and turn it into a practice.

Yesterday and this morning, Adam was beaming. He was happy to go back to school this morning. Starting next week, I get to teach Adam more communication, typing and literacy, life and social skills. I have begun my leave to do this work. I hope we both have a wonderful 2014.

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?

Mothers

Filed Under (Parenting) by Estee on 21-06-2013

Adam’s twitching has not fully abated and he was up all night…not something we’ve seen to this level for over three years now. He seems to be happier and I am working on keeping him calm – and there’s people who also help me to do that. I think I’m doing the best I can as a single parent and how it forces me to never give up, call out for support, and stay persistent in asking for help because I realize not everyone knows what kinds of help we all need, or even how to help. I know this is not exclusive to women or single mothers, but to single fathers and married couples too. Yet I speak from where I stand today.

I never realized the extent to which this would be a challenge, not Adam per se, but being a mother alone in the middle of the night without anyone to talk to takes a toll on me; having to ask for help, or the right questions, in so many different ways. You have to stop caring what people think of you and go on for the sake of your child because we need as much information as possible. This takes a lot of time. As I care for Adam, it is often difficult to remember to take care of myself. I am thankful for my parents who help both Adam’s father and I out; they are exceptional grandparents and I can’t emphasize enough how important grandparents are! Adam’s extended family is helpful too and although it is hard to let my child go, I know that people’s intentions are for him and to support him, and I’m thankful for everyone involved. I am so tired today but I don’t want to forget to thank people who extend themselves to support us.

Adam’s basement is being repaired – a major renovation. On top of everything I live with a reno which takes its own toll of drilling while I’m trying to get things done…I also have a sensitive sensory system where noise is concerned…so it feels like a dentist drill to me. Yet I am also grateful for it getting done so quickly. Everyone is concerned for Adam to get everything back in place as quickly as possible.

Being on our own – no matter who we are – makes the generosity of others so apparent. My mother sent over a thermos of special tea just for me. That seemed to me like such a loving gesture that I almost cried. It’s exactly what I needed – a mother needing some mothering. I drink now to get my strength back, to give back to Adam the mother he needs.

Speaking of which…Adam will soon today be Uncle Adam. His half-sister will also soon be a mother, perhaps a sleepless one for a while. Mazel tov, dear mothers (and fathers and grandparents too)!

An Autistic Boy’s Life is Not A Paragraph

Filed Under (Anxiety, Books, Development, Parenting, Transitions) by Estee on 12-06-2013

Adam has progressively better days since the basement flood and croup. When he seems anxious or derailed by life events I quickly engage everyone on Adam’s team – what has worked well for him is more predictability, gentle voices, activity including sports and sensory support that befits him. All I have to do is write things down and Adam reads lists and stories for me. Countdowns work, clocks and the like. It’s important to set the time aside and concentrate on him until he feels better (and this makes me obviously feel better too). And while I’ve been bemoaning the loss of his cherub cheeks for quite some time now, puberty has officially begun. I can see it emerging as cherub cheeks turn in to pimply ones. It just really hit me this evening how much he suddenly changed. It seems as if the last two weeks have presented us with a lot and although I knew this day would come, I’m feeling a little strange about it, like, poof…the childhood is now officially gone. Of course, the transition is longer, but sometimes the way we view things seems so hyper-real. I’ve heard that boys stay close to their mothers, and while I’m really cognizant of him needing to spread his wings and be a boy, a teenager, a man, I still hope he will indulge my affections.

I picked a book up about boy’s development the other day. I scoured a few to read what boys his age go through. Of course, these are supposed to be boys with typical skills, but I still found it so relevant in terms of body development and feelings. I want to support Adam into his teenage will (and whatever else comes with it). When I looked for “autism” in the index, I was surprised, actually, to see a reference. I flipped to the page, situated in the first third of the book, and read the “warning;” that is, the “negative” things that a boy may not develop which might indicate autism. I was disappointed if not bored (while I considered new parents paralyzed with fear). I mean, when will autism be included in the long life development model that I need to read, and not as a blurb or a warning in a paragraph?

Adam’s life is not a paragraph. It doesn’t necessarily belong to the “special” boys category of books, either. It is a long, developmental line (and hopefully life) and he feels and just like other boys feel, and sure, then some. It would be great to acknowledge all boys, not matter what their label, integrated within the context of a full and whole boyhood – to include the ways that all kinds of boys may experience their bodies and feelings. Yet, autistic boys get books on different shelves (if we get any at all outside of Jessica Kingsley). Maybe we should simply ask that our boys getting written in.

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.

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.

Some Thoughts About The Various Ways of Being Excluded

Filed Under (Advocacy, Autism and The Media, Celebrity Advocacy, Communication, Contributions to Society, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Inclusion, Parenting, Politics, Research) by Estee on 10-07-2012

I have a comment on comments, either in comment boxes or full blog posts about other writers and bloggers. Usually I won’t write about it, but I decided to write in my own defence. In so doing, I’ve had other thoughts about the various ways of being excluded, as either autistic people, or as autistic allies.

Recently, I did a self-search on Google. I am sad to say that I get used to disrespetful commenters who seem to create a narrative about me that is unfamiliar to me. I am also delighted, however, by comments that build upon a constructive dialogue about autism and disabiltiy and how we can remove the barriers for autistic individuals. I happen-stanced upon a post from 2008 about my blog — that mostly I “get it right,” but advocate for doing “nothing” for the autistic person.

If you’ve been reading my blog since 2005 I’ve done nothing but critically evaluate everything that Adam and I have come across in terms of therapy, education, autistic/social value, and opportunities, and the lack thereof. While the nature of blogs has changed since 2005, many of which have become syndicated journalism, I’ve kept mine in journal-mode, writing about my own growth and development as an autism parent to my beloved Adam.

Adam has been in “therapy” since he’s been 20 months of age and I have reams of notes and binders I have taken to create his programs, track his progress, develop his plans. I have created his programs along with other professionals that use ABA, RDI, Floortime and other methods. I have a decade of experience of autism education and various therapies, many of them dubious. I’ve witnessed improvements in the field where I continue to have a watchful eye. I predicted that we would be forced into an ABA program, and here we are, in an segregated school for autistic children. Not that it’s a “bad” thing. I am actually grateful not to be in a system that completely disregards him, but is set up more for him. Adam, for now, is happy there and he is learning, but it’s a fact that it’s still exclusion which we mitigate with other inclusive programs.

ABA is something that we’ve had to contribute to improve upon because it’s really hard to change the system. To me it is in part a method and in part a label for a type of education that in some schools, uses other methods in addition to it. Adam and I have to “fit” into a mold and make it the best for him — those are our barriers and limitations for now. We work to fill in the gaps ourselves. I learned and taught Adam how to type…by myself — by reading, studying and consulting others who have other expertise to add. Now his school builds upon what I started. Recently, I was asked to write a book about it, and may do so after this year of finishing my M.A. in Critical Disability Studies. I have now five years of typed dialogues between Adam and myself, methods and back story of how it all began. He would never had had this opportunity had I not taken his education and communication upon myself, and I’m not shy to admit it because I hope it will become more mainstream. I am not alone in this among many autism parents. We make our own roads and other parents will share the work they’ve done.

We still work towards Inclusion, but when I made a recent query within the public system, as predicted, it ended up that Adam would be put in the “lowest functioning class” (their term, not mine). His cognition and “capacity” was determined by his limited verbal ability and results on standardized tests (which we know do not befit the autistic person as much as a dyslexic person cannot read typical text). How many students in these classes, no matter what their label, are not getting the education they deserve? Whose to decide on someone’s functioning level and “capacity” when we give unsuitable tests? Who has the right to decide who is normal and abnormal and how do semantics and labels effect people’s lives? Finally, if we decide to write off a “class” of people from the get-go, where do we end up? We are all effected, autistic or not. How we treat our collective members of society is a reflection of how we think about ourselves.

It seems there is a group of people who don’t understand (or want to set others astray) on the meaning of neurodiversity, which basically acknowledges that different people have different neurologies that make them learn and interact in the world in various ways. Myths are spun because it is assumed that if we “embrace” autistic people (some of us have been labeled “Neurodiversity Advocates” in a negative context) it will not serve their politics. I suppose, in the system we currently have which are so exclusive and politically limiting to us, we can understand the method, but I think it’s ultimately detrimental. An exclusive, “tragic” and medical approach to disability limits community membership and opportunity. Until recently, as autism parents, we have had to feed into the “autism tragedy” model in the belief that this is the only way to garner financial support and services. Despite inroads against the medical and disability-is-tragic models, there are many new parenting studies which seem intent on proving that autism causes families to break apart, which to-date, cannot be proven. This is another way of excluding autistic people and their families — by seeking something to blame, researching etiology and causation instead of spending money on understanding autistic individuals and bettering their quality of life.

If we accept and believe in our children and don’t get tragically depressed, we are written off (as I have been on numerous ocassions) as being in denial. I have been labled a neglectful parent, and a “mental case,” (a revelation of the prejudiced inclination of the autism “advocate” who stated that about me).”Those who stray from the this prescribed script [the tragic or depression 5-staged model from grief to acceptance] — for example, by not being as depressed as predicted — run the risk of being regarded as in a state of denial and in need of further psychological guidance and counselling (Oliver, 1995; Reeve, 2000; S. Wilson, 2003).” I think life is all about struggle and we have to work with it. Nevertheless, when we write publically, we leave ourselves open to criticism of all kinds. I embrace that too, but I will also take it on.

It has been challenging to write this blog for the past few years. I’m not allowed, according to some autism parents, to take joy in my son for who he is as an autistic person. My own ups and downs are disregarded if I do not publically lament in the same fashion as everyone else. I opted not to do this because I always kept my son and his community in mind. If I were an autistic person, I thought, how might I wish to be regarded? I don’t criticize others for their depression because each one of us has to take our own unique journey. I simply believe that I, personally, have to exercise a discipline in my thoughts and feelings, which is not to say I don’t have the same kind as everyone else. I have imposed this upon myself. I have always kept Adam in mind when writing publically because I believe one day he may read this. I also wish to embrace and listen to the autistic community (that is, autistic people). It’s unfortunate when others feel they have to “spin” for political reasons or their own benefit.

The other political debates and controversies lie in semantics and definitions. Words are important as they reflect our thoughts about the way in which we see ourselves. We work against traditional systems that have to-date, been oppressive and exclusive agianst the disabled. Paul Hunt first challenged what we call today ‘abelism’ (a society that favours the able-bodied), in his 1966 book, Stigma: The Experience Of Disability. He said, “We are challenging society to take account of us, to listen to what we have to say, to acknowledge us as an integral part of society itself. We do not want ourselves, or anyone else, treated as second-class citizens, and put away out of sight and mind.” (p. 158).

The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) was formed in 1974. They re-defined the distinction between “impairment’ and “disability” as part of their mandate to “criticize organizations control-led by non-disabled ‘experts’ for their failure to address the social barriers central to disabled people’s exclusion from mainstream economic and social activity and their lack of accountability to the disabled community.” (p.29)

impairment: lacking part of all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organisim or mechanism of the body;

disability: the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities. (UPIAS 1976z, p. 14).

This social model approach breaks the traditional causal link between impairment and disability. The ‘reality’ of impairment is not denied, but it is not necessarily a sufficient condition of disability.(p. 30).

Writing about autism as a joy, my absolute love of my son for who he is, my personal struggles without pandering to the pressure to lament in typical ways while embracing other’s need to make their own unique autism journey, is about inclusion of everyone. It begins with the fundamental acceptance and belief, however, that all autistic individuals are worthy and valuable members of our collective. It’s a necessary premise.

The social model is not about showing that every dysfunction in our bodies can be compensated for by a gadget, or good design, so that everybody can work an 8-hour day and play badminton in the evenings. It’s a way of demonstrating that everyone — even someone who has no movement, no sensory function and who is going to die tomorrow — has the right to a certain standard of living and be treated with respect. (Vasey, 1992a, p.44)

Reference:

Barnes, Colin, Mercer, Geof and Shakespeare, Tom. “Analysing Disability” in Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction, pp. 1-42. 1999 Polity Press.

The Purpose of Parenting Studies?

Filed Under (Family, Inclusion, Joy, Parenting, Research) by Estee on 29-05-2012

At IMFAR and with other researchers I meet, I am confronted with many requests to participate in “parent studies.” The purpose is to study what levels of stress, and how different it is to parent and autistic child. I am reticient to participate. What about parenting are the researchers trying to find? Are we attempting to affirm that life is harder with an autistic child? Of course, we have to ask what the researchers are hoping to find. Is the purpose to support parents, the autistic child, or both? Or is there a more insidious angle to this kind of research, that is to say, that autism itself is the problem? I know, that may sound blunt and provocative, but think about it. To what end are we really getting on with the business of helping autistic people contribute to society as autistic people? How are we really helping autistic people and their families with their quality of life?

Honestly, I don’t see the purpose in trying to affirm that life might be tougher with an autistic child in it, and I’ve written about that with the unconfirmed (by research) assumption that autism is the cause of increasing divorce rates here. All I know is that when Adam is happy and accommodated, I am very happy. If he is excluded, I too feel isolated. What is it that makes the perception of life harder, then? What about society could assist in supporting us all? These are some of the questions I wish the research would tackle.

A few parents and some commenters on other blog posts have stated that some parents, myself included, are in a state of denial by insisting that we find joy in our children. Asserting that your child is a joy is not a denial of the challenges that we all face. The act of assertion is the affirmation that our children’s lives are important and valuable. On all counts, Adam has been my greatest joy. Yes, I get stressed in trying to understand his discomfort. No parent wants to see their child in distress, and we can focus on that in some of our research.

Most of the stress we faced lived in incompatible circumstances. Once I could see that our environment had to be calm, and that there was no time for compromise with people who had no interest in supporting us, life became a little smoother. I’ve had four years to wrap ourselves in the warmth of the people who really care about us. Let’s face it, our plates are full and we don’t have time for everyone. Energy must be spent wisely.

I dont’ like to give advice, but I’ve had a few thoughts over the past few years about parenting an autistic child. If there is parenting stress, perhaps evaluate the other underlying factors that could be relating to the stress instead of just focussing on the autistic person in the family. This would include all of your relationships, including the one with yourself. Think about how you communicate about autism, and consider changing your thought patterns, attitude and language surrounding it. I know that as a mom of Adam, I’ve had to work, and continue to work, daily at my expectations and putting them in check. I look at my own anxiety levels and what I do to add or detract from the stress. Even when I’m at my limit, I accept bad thoughts and let them go through me. I express them in private and then my head is clear again to see Adam for the beautiful boy he is. My attitude is very important. Loving and accepting Adam has also helped me to love and accept myself, which wasn’t (and sometimes still isn’t easy). Yet what’s the point in having a double standard?

When others have accused me of being in denial of other people’s stress or autism itself, I came to learn that my approach was my way, the way I was raised and my survival mechanism. There is absolutely no one who can tell you how you should raise your autistic child, and the assistance out there is on the journey as much as we are as parents. And, by the way, we all have a right to enjoy our children for who and what they are! It is up to us completely to advocate for our children — our right to have and enjoy them, to be included in society, for a good and suitable education, for accommodation, for respect, equality, and excellent opportunities and living environments into our children’s adulthood. There’s no getting around it and no excuses. It sucks some days, but we can’t complain. We have to stick together and stop the urge of research and the typical population to pity us. Pity won’t get is the services we deserve. If we continue on the path, we’ll just get the dusty old van and the group home. Not to knock some of the individuals there who sacrafice and provide for our children on a daily basis. It’s just that I think people with disabilities don’t deserve dusty vans and the poverty line.

I just think we all deserve better. Parents feel stress because of the lack of support, accommodation and acceptance. We feel it because we are stared out in the check-out line, or at the park, or while waiting to get into school. We feel it when someone marks “retard” on the picnic table outside our kid’s school. Can you add ot the list? Yes, our children indeed have challenges. Stigma makes these challenges a whole lot more difficult. Now think of how the autistic person must feel.

On the up side, there are many couples and single parents who have found their niche and who have pulled together with stronger families because of the challenges that an Abelist society brings to us every day. There are friends who really pull for us and who believe in us as a whole, not a fractured, family. There are people rooting for us in every way. Here’s where to put our focus.

I have only one child. Sometimes I think the time I spend on Adam may be like raising a group of children, but he’s worth it. He’s worth doing the IEP, organizing programs, doing advocacy work, managing teams, people because there are so few autism services and programs suited for the autistic person. It’s like inventing the wheel over here. I don’t have to manage the jealousies of same-aged siblings who don’t understand why so much more time is spent with the special-needs child in the house, and even the sudden “adult” responsibilities they may feel. I know of many parents who do. We all have our own package of issues, though.

I hope that researchers doing parent-studies have these points in mind. Society’s view of disability has a great deal to do with how we parent, how we view our lives, how we convey autism and disability to our communities and future generations, and how we are supported. It’s not the fault of autism or the autistic child. We must be so cautious in slanting any research in this direction.

Normally Autistic

Filed Under (Autism and Learning, Computing/iPad, Development, Parenting, Play) by Estee on 24-05-2012

Adam had dental surgery this week and I’ve caught a cold. As we’ve both been recuperating on opposite ends of the couch — me with my copy of Betty , The Fountain of Age, and Adam with his iPad — I’ve been thinking what I saw at IMFAR and what I read on Facebook, and all the articles I read about autism. All that fretting and advice on what to do and what not to do, parents can drown in this stuff.

I offer a small insight to keep us afloat.

One of the sessions at IMFAR was about how the use of computers is bad for autistic children because it takes away from socialization. We seem to really fret about keeping our children engaged all of the time, and we particularly target the autistic ones. This post is about just letting things be some of the time. As I tell everyone these days, we are “normally autistic” around here.

During our last two days on the couch, Adam keeps checking in on me. He smiles, he tells me his ears and mouth hurt (his words). In between watching meaningless movies to eat up the hours, and when I have the energy to re-read Betty’s take on the media’s representation of the ageing population as a “burden” (ugh), I’m watching Adam and how he uses all this free time.

He’s cuddly, he has watched a few meaningless videos, tutorials on YouTube on the game Mindcraft, and he has been making up his own words on his iPad — “hotgod,” and “iceswim,” among others. He’s checked out his math programs, and tries hard, without my prodding, to draw shapes on it (he is particularly challenged with fine motor here unless he uses a weighted pencil). My child who required supported communication and who was once “a sight reader,” now spells phonetically and types independently. My child who has limited verbal ability can navigate Mindcraft and the Web. My child who “needs to be engaged all the time,” has used his time, well, pretty much the way I have.

I wish I could remember my own words and thoughts when the world beats in and makes me fret that I’m never doing enough for him, just because he’s autistic.

Unlocking My Self

Filed Under (Acceptance, Parenting) by Estee on 02-04-2012

For Autism “Awareness” Day (in addition to my post below), my article Unlocking My Self is now up at Holland Blooview and for BLOOM.

The Long Corridor Ahead

Filed Under (Acceptance, Anxiety, autism, Parenting, Transitions, Travel) by Estee on 11-03-2012

Adam jumped up and down in the airport waiting area, furiously flapping his hands over his head and humming loudly.

“Go ahead, Adam,” I said with people looking but trying not to stare. You know what I mean. People are generally pretty good about it. Human beings are wired to pay attention to the distressed, and we take it on when others are not feeling well.

“Jump now because on the plane we will have to sit,” I muttered out loud. There is part of me that needs to justify his actions. I want to “give permission,” to validate it. I feel if I responded aversely for the sake of sparing everyone else, I would increase the anxiety in the room for everyone, and I’d stigmatize my own son. I’m always trying to do right by Adam. I’m not sure if this was right, though. I wonder if I should just let it be and not say anything, which I then did for the rest of the delay. I felt the pressure of the eyes upon us.

Watching my son’s anxiety ratchet up isn’t easy. I like to solve all of his problems for him, I’ll admit. Yet here in public, I had to let him be, and guide him when I could. There was little I could say or do to appease this anxiety — this need for him to just arrive and walk right on the plane. I turned on the Timer on his iPad. That worked for a bit. A walk, the bathroom, a treat at the store. Our bag of tricks and distractions wasn’t working in the usual way. Trying to explain the reasons for the flight delay didn’t seem to help. It just made Adam angrier. He understood what I was saying. He just didn’t like it.

For a brief moment, I absorbed the negative part of anxiety. I stopped myself from getting angry and firmly asked, “Adam do you want to get on the plane, or go home?” I don’t usually give up, but I was about to this time. He stopped jumping with his square Buzz Light Year lunch box flapping in his right hand while his left was in the air.

“Get on the plane!” He looked at me assertively. He was certain.

“That’s clear,” I said. So we moved to the front of the line. The attendants were understanding and scanned our tickets.

“We’re not quite ready for you to board. It may be another ten minutes,” said the male attendant. He smiled empathetically.

Adam stood squarely facing the long walkway that leads to the airplane door. He could have bolted down but he didn’t, and I was not about to hold him back. I simply coached him in a very soft voice that no one else could hear: “We can go soon Adam, when the man tells us we can go. We have to wait here until the man tells us we can go.” I repeated like a soft Buddhist chant.

As I stood behind Adam, his lunchbox looking like a little briefcase, I had a flash vision of him as a young man. I began thinking of the times he will face delays, and not getting what he wants when he needs it. Likely, an expression of seriousness passed over me. I was thinking of how now is the time I really have to focus on helping Adam with patience and the many inevitable delays and disappointments of life. As I wondered if I was up for the task, I was looking at all the other faces in the waiting area; all the impatient ones. Adam manifested the frustration of everyone in that room. Maybe we say he hasn’t learned to “emotionally regulate,” but we all have to continue to practice patience.

“Okay you can go,” said the attendant, finally. Adam walked calmly down the corridor and once to his seat, he was all smiles.

Torontonians: The New Snow Wusses

Filed Under (Media, Parenting, school) by Estee on 24-02-2012

This will date me. When I went to school, I used to trudge through deep snow. No, I didn’t walk three miles like my grandmother did, but there was lots of snow and we weren’t afraid of it. During recess, we’d slide down any hill we could find and even forget our snow pants. The teachers didn’t make a fuss if we came back into class soaking wet. After school, I walked back home; back through the deep snow, even blowing snow, beating like needles against my face. There were no nannies to wait for me and walk me back like there are in the city now. Parents didn’t worry about us being out there in the blowing snow. In their minds, it was good for us to outside almost all day long.

Adam has been home from school all week because of the flu. Finally this morning he woke up jumping. “I’m fine!” he declared as I entered his room. I’m so glad. One problem though: Last night, before any snow fell, I received an email from his school that it might close in case of snow. I was worried this would happen; that he’d be raring to go and get back to school and his friends, and not be able to.

When I was growing up, we never got notices like that. There would have to be five feet of snow outside our door and some severe wind for us to turn on the radio to try and hear if the school was closed. Like all children, I’d wait in anticipation to find out, and if it was, I couldn’t wait to get outside and play in it. Now we get an email suggesting the school may be closed if there is snow. The news gets more ratings with impending weather. They scare people like there’s a hurricane coming and we all better prepare. “Snowmageddon,” it’s now called — just a tad alarmist, I think, as I see a single snow flake float by my window.

The street is clear and the snow looks like it is just beginning to fall fairly gently. I’m emailing and calling, trying to get in touch with anyone who might be checking at Adam’s school. “Is the school open today? There is no snow,” I write.

I know, there’s more traffic. When the roads become icy, the roads aren’t fun to drive on. Perhaps calling in the army nearly a decade ago in Toronto after a big snow storm made everyone a little more cautious. But still. It’s just snow, and we seem afraid to let our children out in it.

Children don’t walk to school anymore. They are nannied, day-cared, and car-pooled to school. Let’s face it, we don’t let our children grow up until they’re thirty-five. Granted, I know when we are talking about autistic children, we all know they require more attention for their safety. Autistic adults may also need assistants when they are older. It still doesn’t mean we have to baby them, nor do they want to be babied. I think our over-protective parenting and super-cautiousness have negative effects on all of society. Now back to the snow…

The school is even located near the subway, you know those things that Mayor Rob Ford wants more of. That means we can even travel under the snow! So doesn’t that mean that there is a way to get around after all? They are calling for five, yes five (wow) centimeters of snow in Toronto today. That’s a far cry from the five feet outside our doorway when I was Adam’s age.

I just don’t know what has happened to us. Could it be that this is the first real snow of our Toronto winter that we’ve wimped out? Are we so excited that we have to declare it a city holiday? What happened to us fearless Canadians and the Canadian winter? More importantly, what is all of this doing to our children?

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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.