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.




Emerging Tensions: Puberty, Autonomy and Safety

Filed Under (Aides and Assistants, Anxiety, Autism and Learning, Behaviours, Communication, Development, Family, Identity, Inclusion, Intelligence, Living, Love, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Safety, school, Sensory Differences, Single Parenthood, Transitions, Travel) by Estee on 13-12-2013

It’s the end of the term…I need a long break and so does Adam. His anxiety went up as soon as the clocks turned back. The darkness brought about a new mood, Adam’s ticking went off the charts and he started a new tick – a screaming tick. He wasn’t happy – he couldn’t stop it as the pressure mounted on him to stop. I felt pressure in trying to help him, because let’s face it, screaming disturbs the peace. It’s alarming. With it, Adam’s flight-fight prompts him to bolt when he sees pathways and stairwells. These are all the signs that Operation Calm Down had to be put into effect. By virtue of naming it so, it’s not the first time we have implemented it.

Dad took Adam on a short vacation and this allowed me to have one too. On my yoga vacay, I met another dad with an Asperger’s son. He too mentioned that his son ticks and these anxiety attacks, let’s call them for now, make it difficult to get back to schoolwork. His son’s grades are going down, he said. So too, autistic autobiography reiterates the length of time it requires to self-regulate…sometimes days. Although I’ve been busy with PhD study, I realize the patterns of Adam’s distress tends to be at regular intervals during the year, and after sickness. Now that his body is changing as well as his needs, I am considering a leave-of-absence to help him, but also to help myself in so doing.

In thinking of Adam’s life and the very complex anxiety he has, his motor-planning difficulties, his frustration so apparent as he tries so hard to talk (the other day he got so frustrated, he picked up a pencil and in his chicken scratch wrote that he wanted to go to “gramma’s house”), we can’t always expect a learner like Adam to spend day-after-day exactly the same. The seasons change, there are new anxieties in life and we all need breaks. This is one of the most fundamental obstacle I can think of in how we teach children in general – in chairs for too long, in small rooms, with little outdoor exercise because of liability issues. It’s not one person’s fault, per se. It’s how we’ve built our society. We live in cars, in buildings and we don’t get out much. If Adam had an outdoor learning environment as a major part of his learning experience, I think he would be able to take in much more (outdoor education is decreasing but can be made accessible to people with disabilities). In the summer with lots of activity, for instance, he can talk more – and this is a feat for someone like Adam.

It is therefore very difficult to be talking grades, assessments, intelligence and so forth without recognizing that, living in the settings that are the way they are, that my autistic son will be delayed in his learning. The focus is far to much on intelligence (or ideas about intelligence) rather than somatic knowledge, difficulty and other ways that we can learn. I know this because when Adam is “on,” and there are adaptations to his learning, he can learn. I am writing in these terms because when looking at sites or articles about autism, the terms and ways of thinking about intelligence and learning are so “matter-of-fact” or normalized that we forget about how other kinds of learning can take place. This makes so many people, the forgotten ones. In essence, I’m trying to move away from a linear model of development and learning which doesn’t work for many people.

When the body has to spend so much time readjusting and becoming comfortable, the rest of the school work (at a desk in a chair…) has to be put aside. It would be wonderful for schools and educators to think about this a little more – to integrate movement into every aspect of the day including field trips and outdoor activities – even in inclement weather (my parents never protected me from it). I fear with our autistic children in Canada, that we are growing more back towards re-institutionalization in a different costume; we segregate and we isolate in order for our kids to be “safe.” In this, I appreciated mother and author of the book Spark, on her autistic son, namely, her “philosophy of muchness.” Never stop exposing (even with ticks, flaps and screaming) autistic children from many things – theatre, music, the outdoors, and accept the difficulties and make room for them.

We need to change the way we look at the length of education – since not all bodies cannot finish high school by the age of 18 (or 21). What other modes of education might we employ? Considering this is not as much an “intelligence” issue (I hesitate because I do not like to promote intellectualism which I find further separates people) as much as a somatic one.

Which leads me to some new revelations for me as a mom: that Adam’s “voice” is a part of his growth. It’s hard on me to watch him in a kind of pain from which he can’t escape (sometimes the ticks are a loop he can’t stop and sometimes they are willful – one “behaviour” can serve many different purposes) but also, I want so badly to give him the tools he needs so he can gain some latitude in his life. His life is so restricted with people always watching his every move – and this is, as I mentioned, for safety reasons. I often wonder, if given a great expanse of land to explore, could he feel better? What will his choices be for how he needs and wants to live his life? How can we support that? How do we stop protecting (or at least let up a little) in a dangerous world? I am certain some of Adam’s stress comes from having very little autonomy, and although he is strong and willful (which I believe will bode him well), if you can’t communicate fluently in our society, or you can’t cross the street by yourself, your autonomy is limited. This, of course, is where the concept of supported-decision making and assistance comes in, but assistants (and parents) really need to understand this and how to be good listeners (for some reading, look to Val Williams’ conversational analyses between caregivers and non-verbal individuals). Think of the life-skills training in addition to the education that our children also deserve. This takes more time than the allotment prescribed during the Industrial Revolution. I mean, it’s time to move on.

Then there is the need to reconsider how we look at behaviour from the outside. This is a problematic approach because we cannot know how Adam feels on the inside, yet we have lots of autistic autobiography to help us. When we tried redirecting Adam with a behavioural approach, this enraged him – he smashed himself into the couch and crumpled the paper from his Zeotrope in his little fists and threw them to the ground. The basis of this was to get Adam to stop screaming, but it did not account for the fact that he perhaps could not stop. This is the same for Tourettes (which I think Adam “has”) in that if you call more attention to the action, it will increase it. Instead, deflecting to relaxing activities seems to help more in addition to the sensory (deep pressure) that Adam needs.

An and calming approach worked much better than a behavioural one – this is what has to be done before we can teach any lessons – social and academic. Social stories and cognitive behavioural training are now a part of Adam’s week in addition to us seeking more adventure for him – rock climbing, circus arts and swimming. For CBT, another boy character is inserted into social stories to take the attention away from Adam. This way, Adam can relate to the character without feeling targeted. I gleaned this from reading Donna Williams’ Exposure Anxiety, which makes a lot of sense where Adam is concerned.

I fully believe after 12 years of being with Adam that seeking cooperation through engagement is our obligation, not his because he is still learning. He is a child who wants to learn, but we can’t do that by mere compliance. He complies when he is respected and engaged and also knows the rules (teaching boundaries respectfully will be our new challenge). I’ve started teaching three key concepts in various formats and in daily life to Adam – cooperation, patience and gratitude. In teaching Adam these concepts and ways to enact them in daily life, I also have to do so towards him. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Puberty will be challenging for Adam and for me. I am protective mother noticing the need and beginnings of separation. On the one hand it seems that Adam needs his structure and certain environments especially when he is feeling uncertain. On the other hand, he is truly becoming a teenager who is showing more signs of frustration and wanting to expand his world (this is different than bolting or escape but could be sometimes related). These may always be competing impulses in him, I don’t know. All I can tell is that they both exist within him. How do I give Adam boundaries and his own need for control over his own life now and ensure his safety? I’ll keep you posted on how this goes too.

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?

Mapping Things Out

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Anxiety, Behaviours, Contributions to Society, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Safety, Sensory Differences, Transitions, Wandering) by Estee on 19-06-2013

london-globe_1839825i Image by: Stephen Wiltshire.

I must admit time heals anxiety. After the darkness comes the light, or is it the other way around? Well, the globe rotates. As Adam seeks knowledge by going through doors, I have always needed to calm my own anxiety through books. As I think more again about Adam’s need for doors, his curiosity for bushes, dark places, paths, and in particular, the doors within buildings, I’ve been thinking about maps and a book I bought for this purpose in considering Adam’s interests – Denis Wood’s, The Power of Maps. As many autistic individuals proclaim a need to map, to visualize, and with an exceptional ability at visual memory (routes, maps), I feel that this is the next frontier for us: to learn how to make maps of our environments, to build a 3-D version of our house, and go from there.

“We are always mapping the invisible or the unattainable or the erasable, the future or the past, the whatever-is-not-here-present-to-our-senses-now and, though the gift that the map gives us, transmuting it into everything it is not, into the real. This month’s Life leaps at me from the checkout counter: ‘Behold the Earth,’ it says. ‘Startling new pictures show our planet as we’ve never seen it before.’ Inside, below the heading ‘This Precious Planet,’ the copy promises ‘Striking new views from near space show us more than we could have guessed about our fragile home…I am overwhelmed by the solidity and apparent indestructibility of everything I see around me. Only the pictures – let us think about them as maps for the moment – convince me of the reality the captions evoke…’New picture'; ‘never seen it before'; ‘new views'; ‘show us more'; each phrase insists on the fact that indeed I never have seen the planet in quite this way” (p. 5).

It reminds me of Dawn Prince when she wrote in Songs of a Gorilla Nation of how she ran to greet every room of the house over and over again. Many other autistic people have superb visual memory (Stephen Wiltshire, Temple Grandin…). Adam once drew pictures that were so “correct” in their perspective despite the fact that he otherwise has weak motor control. This leads to the conditions in which a person with various sensory disabilities can and cannot perform the same task or function. Soma Mukhopadhyay speaks of this in her books on Rapid Method Prompting and I find them true to Adam – the way a keyboard is positioned, his orientation, the differences he experiences with his vision other body movements.Things have to be set up the right way for him, and I need to always pay greater attention because it is easy to fall back on my laurels and adopt my take-it-for-granted view of the world.

Sometimes it seems that I’ve always known that mapping could be Adam’s hobby which might lead to map-making or building. He needs to know what’s behind everything for what we call “obsession” or “stuckness,” automatisms and the like. Lennard Davis discusses how we come to value obsessions, particularly the actions of artists as “obsessive acts,” like Vincent Van Gogh. Instead of invoking a moral value (a trait or characteristic as inherently good or bad, positive or negative), we can come to accept these proclivities as inherent (even if it scared the living day lights out of me). Adam needs to explore and to know as I do by finding information in books. How might I make this something that works for Adam? This is my next frontier.

“The sphericity of the globe is not something that comes to us as seeing-hearing-sniffing-tasting-feeling animals, is not something that comes to us… naturally. It is a residue of cultural activities, of watching ships come to us up out of the sea for eons, of thinking about what that might mean, of observing shadows at different locations, of sailing great distances, of contemplating all this and more at one time. It is hard won knowledge. It is map knowledge. As such it is something that little kids have to learn, not something they can figure out for themselves. ‘Educators are living in a dream world if they assume young children understand that the earth is round'” (p.6).

So why do we prohibit Adam from being free to explore, to know what and how he needs to know? How can we keep him safe while doing so? How can we fuel his interests in ways that are productive for him, and perhaps for many others?

High Anxiety

Filed Under (Anxiety, Safety, Transitions) by Estee on 18-06-2013

Two years ago today, to the day, Adam bolted. He has lots of need to run through doors, especially at my parent’s condo. I remember it well… my dad coming back from an enjoyable walk, his hand sweaty then off Adam went; so fast my dad said. When Adam saw the concierge he was familiar with when he got lost nearby their condo, he ran into his arms. My mom called me …I was not far by this time after I jumped into a cab. By the time I was five minutes away she announced that Adam was found. Adam saw the police and seemed timid in their mighty kevlar presence. Then, strategies in place, Adam felt better. I called it “operation calm down.”

Today…I got a call from Adam’s dad that Adam had bolted in his condo. Police were called. I jumped in my car and started to fly down to them. I received another call. Adam was found in the stairwell. He was okay. I stopped the car.

What are the similarities between then and now, I asked myself? I’ve been trying to keep Adam calm, successfully doing so with his team this time, his school – using weighted knapsacks, keeping his hands busy, and a multitude of other little things that I know work for Adam because I am so close to him; to write them all down would constitute an Adam how-to manual (I think I’ve written it in emails to his school, his dad, and everyone in his life, actually). Well, two and a bit years ago, the house his dad and I shared, and the one Adam stayed in after I moved out, suffered a serious fire. Adam never went back…so he was suddenly extracted from his home. His dad moved in with his parents for a while where Adam became familiar. Then, his dad moved into a condo. This was all happening around the same time his aide worker of seven years moved on, and his school announced they were closing down his class. Ah, the merry month of June.

Two years forward: Adam suffered a very bad viral croup and was in bed for one solid week. Before that Adam suffered bad hay fever with nose bleeds… an all-in-all crappy month-and-a-half. That same week of the croup, his beloved basement flooded from a bad rain storm we had here in Toronto. It’s the room where he is KING – he controls his own videos (he likes the old VHS ones and I save the TV that can play them), his OT swing, toys, mini trampoline. He is a free spirit down there. After his week of sickness and flood repair (we’re still repairing after thousands of dollars worth of serious damage) he went back to school and was having a hard time adjusting. He clenched his body and started biting. This has now abated and he cleverly taught himself to bite into a chewy toy…good on him (it’s better than people or himself). “Operation calm down” requires lots of pressure, a weighted knapsack on outings, structure, visual lists, emotional support, and more effort, planning and attention than is typically required…well I’ve said it above. I’ve learned that there are just some things that Adam needs and some things he just cannot do when certain things are happening in his life, and he communicates this loud and clear. I guess I can’t understand why others don’t understand that some people can’t do everything that expected of them. I’ve been tuned into Adam’s anxiety from the wee hours of the morning when he was born – no exaggeration. Seriously…way to sensitive myself here.

So as I’ve finished my self-help post, my hands have stopped shaking. He is safe. I’ve talked to his dad again and asked if he (dad) is okay…it’s certainly a scary moment. Maybe I’ll remember to take a deep breath after nearly a month now of holding it in. Tomorrow, back to teaching Adam. Back to strategic operations.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Morning After Losing Adam

Filed Under (Acceptance, Parenting, Safety, Wandering) by Estee on 15-05-2011

As you read yesterday, I lost Adam for about 10 minutes. It seemed a lot longer. When I returned home for the day, I was feeling down. I thought, just when things seemed to be going so well…another challenge. Then, my ceiling leaked from the rain.

Ah well, I said to myself as I opened my eyes this morning. At least Adam had the sense to re-enter that church all by himself. At least there was no tragedy. At least my roof isn’t caving in. Someone is coming to look at it hopefully later today.

I think it’s good to let the down go through us — to hibernate after an event like this. But I also reached out. I contacted every team member, my friends. I was so surprised by the deluge of support. I realized, that even as I think I’m alone, a single mother, I am not. I learned this by not keeping yesterday’s event to myself. I realized that I cannot do everything by myself.

I am really grateful to my friends, family and Adam’s support team who are always there for us, and even you readers who take the time to lend your support by commenting here and on Facebook. For me, writing is a way to survive, to think, to overcome my challenges. I cannot let them fester. Other people manage other ways. I manage this way.

I spent many years learning how to build a strong team of support. I realize that network has been carefully woven and I’m in awe of the time it took. I hope to be able to write a piece how I was able to create this web of support, and the trials of putting it together.

When we are building teams for our children, we have to look at good fits. We have to feel good about who is working with our children. For myself, I could not hire people who treated Adam in a way I did not want him to be treated. It was simply an intuitive way of parenting him. Building a team later became supported by what I was reading and hearing about certain therapies and ways people with disabilities have been treated. I never realized it, but I have a distinctive parenting style. I appreciate sensitivity because it suits Adam’s needs. I love kindness. I adore when people realize he is a person full of potential, despite his challenges. As I built a team to support Adam, I realize I also built one to support me in my ability to parent him. I realize my limitations and my need for others to help, and how we work as a unit. I am his mother. I am suited to loving him well. Although I teach him as a parent would, I am not a great teacher. I reach Adam by being gentle, not impatient. His interest in music and art is nurtured by my interest and activity. I’m good at a few thing and not good in others. When I think Adam needs to learn something I cannot teach, I am happy to hand him over to those who can give him those other gifts.

I ended the evening yesterday talking to one of my best girlfriends. She has a typical daughter. She talked about how she lost her daughter at the cottage. So many parents have reached out and told me their tales of losing their children — typical and autistic. When I rethink everything, I realize that exploring is a rite of passage. Adam wants to be independent — the very trait we want our autistic children to learn. He wants to explore, hide, and thinks excitable voices are really funny. I wonder if we target the autistic child for wandering, like so many other challenges, and forget about how the typical child does the same things as our autistic children do. The age ranges may be different, but sooner or later, it happens. Sure, I’m nervous about this and will be on top of it as will his team. Yet there is a side of me that thinks — tragedy averted, of course — that he made his way back into the church. He wants to explore and do his own thing. He tried to make his own popcorn the other day and wrecked my microwave. I mean, how many parents have the same story of their homes being near destroyed by a clever, well-meaning child?

It’s time to support Adam again and make a new plan. We have to avoid danger and we have to support his need to explore and be independent now. I just have to learn to keep up.

The Inferno

Filed Under (Safety) by Estee on 04-03-2011

I haven’t written because I’m having nightmares. Last Sunday, the house I built with Adam’s dad (it took us from start to finish maybe three years and a bit) went ablaze. It’s completely ruined. The outer structure looks fine but the inferno shot flames twelve feet out of the garage. The entire inside is charred and burned.

I was the first to get the call. My neighbour/friend called me in trying to reach my ex, “Es, there’s twelve foot flames coming out of your garage!” she panicked in her othewise cheerful South African accent. I told her to hold on as I frantically tried to contact Adam’s dad who was in the air enroute home. I fumbled with my cell phone calling every number I could think of, and the people who might know where he was — my voice was urgent. Adam quieted as he could see something was wrong.

“You should see it, man! There are firetrucks and police cars everywhere. There’s so much smoke you cannot even see down the street,” said my friend when I called her back. She sounded out of breath and I noticed that my hands began to shake. I learned in the meantime that Adam’s dad would land with devastating messages on his Blackberry.

I could not go to the house right away. I knew it was being looked after. I could not go to the house where I moved my toddler-Adam into, now completely ruined. I went later after I gathered my thoughts and courage.

All I can think of since that time are the what-ifs — that stuff people tell you NOT to think about because thank God no one was in the house and everyone is safe, bit. It’s just a thing, some say. It can be replaced. While all of that is absolutely true, I do know that this new house Adam and I moved into rebuilt me. I know intimately, the value of space — how we shape it and it shapes us. I put every bit of my energy and spirit here to start our new lives…and it’s lovely, I have to admit. Adam feels at home here and we two cheerfully snuggle lots on our comfy couch.

Adam felt at home there, too. Adam’s dad and I have managed to keep his routines and environments as consistent as possible. So, we decided not to tell Adam about the fire or take him near the house. It’s not necessary to expose him to such tragedy when environments are so important to him and when he might fret over a disaster over and over like a bad commercial jingle we can’t get out of our heads. Thankfully, he is used to his dad’s parent’s house where they can stay when they are together. In the meantime, as his dad figures out what comes next, we can prepare Adam for his next move.

That’s the practical side of me. There’s that scared sick side, the what if side that is giving me nightmares, and yes, a grateful side that we are content in our new home, and that everyone is safe. It was a a disaster indeed, but a tragedy averted. It has opened my eyes — yet again — to the fragility of everything.

The Abuse of Autistic People

Filed Under (Activism, Inclusion, Safety) by Estee on 14-10-2010

As Adam begins to get older and the more options that become available to him, like overnight camps and aide workers, I am more attuned to the many stories I hear regarding the abuse of autistic people. There was a time when Adam and this blog were younger, that I had followed a website that tracked nearly every case of murder and abuse. It’s hard to get wrapped up in that for too long. One has to know when to look and when to carry on. There is fear and then there is awareness.

I never bought into the “recovery” model of autism — that the onus was on us and our children to “become normal.” To blame the autistic person or a family for a child not being able to talk is ludicrous and unsupportive. Rather, I believe we have to keep aware of the many cases where vulnerability lies, and provide the finanical support so that families can hire the aides they trust. While nothing is fool-proof and many of our children can be susceptible to abusers, autistic or not, it is helpful when parents have the right to choose a school aide or any type of support worker. A parent or primary caregiver should have the right to turn down someone they do not feel comfortable with. I say this because many children are ascribed workers and Educational Assistants here in Ontario. It might be assumed that if one needs financial support, then one must accept the individual ascribed to them. If it’s an issue for the family, that is if they want to change the worker, there seems to be a lot of red tape. I want to reiterate that the right to a support worker, that both the autistic and the family are comfortable with and trust, is an accommodation and should therefore be a right for autistic individuals.

More and more, I believe that autistic people, including our non verbal children, and parents must be central to the process in building our support teams. As I’m seeking camps and other activities for Adam to grow more independent and enjoy his life, I want to try my best to ensure he is protected. I’m not sure I can at all times, and maybe that is the most frightening part. Yet, Adam can indicate to me when he’s distressed by virtue of his behaviour. Just transitioning to a new home and a new school, he indicated to me that it was very difficult by body-jerking and losing some of his words. He was disorganized and needed more physical stimulation. He also expressed more repetitive behaviours during this time. Of course, Adam is still learning how to communicate in a typical way by typing on his computer and his devices.

These behaviours, however, were such important examples for me to see how Adam can express himself during stressful times. It is something I am tuned into now as he grows older and perhaps will express other distressing things to me where he needs more of my intervention and support.

For more reading material on autistic abuse see

Safety Skills — repeat repeat repeat

Filed Under (Safety) by Estee on 06-09-2010

Safety is a big concern for many autistic people. Sometimes, it’s just not possible to walk across the street by oneself, even though one might be extremely intelligent and capable in other areas. I think of this often so as not to be disappointed if Adam will need assistance in the future. As a parent, I consider it one of my obligations to Adam to ensure his safety. I therefore do everything I can, with the help of others too, to teach Adam safety skills. In the event I cannot, I try to ensure his safety in other ways.

One thing Adam loves to do is go for long walks. On the verge of beginning a new school tomorrow that will teach him safety, social and other life skills in addition to academics, Adam and I took a walk after dinner to his favorite icecream joint. Adam does not run off into the street, so lately I’ve made sure that he walks alongside me without holding my hand. This way I can see how he can walk pretty much on his own. It would be his tendency to flap his hands and look to the ground, and I have no issues with hand-flapping except when he is in an area where he really needs to be paying attention to his surroundings.

“Walk safely,” I repeat. I have chosen this instead of “nicely.” This is not about looking appropriate or “nice.” This is truly about keeping one’s eye on the cars and other hazards. Adam listens. He knows what this means now and he is walking and looking around him.

“What’s coming up?” I ask Adam approaching an intersection and prompt him with “in.” “What do you have to do here?”

“Stop,” he says abruptly.

“Stop and?”

“Look bot ways,” he says, his words staccato, unfinished, and somewhat robotic-sounding.

“Right. And what are you looking for?”

“Cars,” he says loudly.

“Is there a car coming?” I crouch down to his level pointing around us. Adam looks and answers a yes or a no, depending on whether or not there is one.

I am rather pleased this evening. With the constant repetition of this script that I’ve made up after numerous walks up and down the same heavily trafficked streets, I feel that we’ve made some headway.

I’ll be repeating this routine over and over again I am certain, even if I’m not certain if Adam will be able to one day walk the streets of Toronto safely on his own. It’s worth trying. Worth repeating.

The Eight Year Old

Filed Under (Acceptance, autism, Development, Parenting, Safety) by Estee on 18-08-2010

Lately I’ve used this term: “the normal path of autistic development.”  I use it because I do believe that the path of autistic development seems to take on familiar patterns like later acquisition of language, motor planning skills and social skills, to name some. So, although we recognize that while autistic people are similar they are, like all people, also very unique. For the purposes of this post, however, let’s just say, it’s often more elegant to compare apples to apples.

Every once in a while, however, I go check out the oranges. Perhaps it’s because I’m a first-time mother to an eight-year-old boy. I’m quite familiar with that path of autistic development as I find stories in common with other autistic individuals and the parents of them. Yet as a parent of a young boy, I’m curious about the typical eight year old boys. Aside from the speech, the social skills, the sports (among other things),  I notice that Adam is becoming a, for lack of a better word, typical eight-year-old.

Case in point:

He is curious.

I can’t keep up with him in the house.

He wants to be independent and doesn’t want my help.

If I tell him to stop doing something, he gets angry with me.

He climbs and moves and climbs.

I tell him not to.

He does it anyway, even though I know he understands.

He thinks disgusting things are funny.

I don’t like it.

He thinks that’s funny.

I feel out of breath trying to keep up with him.

He thinks that’s funny.

He seeks out attention.

He likes attention.

I find myself sounding like a nagging mother.

I don’t find that at all funny.

He knows things.

He figures people out.

He can manipulate people.

He is becoming more aware.

He is becoming self aware.

That makes me short of breath….my list goes on…..

Are we getting the point? Adam is a boy full of beans. He is growing and maturing and often gets frustrated because he wants to be so independent. That sometimes gets me frustrated as well because I wonder why I feel so ill-prepared.

After climbing upside down into his trundle bed and tearing off the guard rail (I guess he means to say he no longer needs it), I decided to pull out the old Alphasmart Neo keyboard that is so handy to carry around because it is so light weight. Even though we are practising on the Vanguard, a much heavier AAC device, I find the Alphasmart still useful in a pinch. Adam has been practising writing stories on his computer independently. We write them out together, then transpose them, if you will, onto the computer to improve his typing skills. I was quite pleased today to see how his spontaneous communication via typing has also improved. It helped us calm down before bed time this evening and he told me about camp, his counsellors and his day. His body calmed and he was not just the active eight-year-old, but a more empowered one this evening.

Adam wants what he wants when he wants it, sometimes. For the most part, he listens, puts away his things, is now more inclined to get his own things. Then I wonder why I am so out of breath. I mean, it’s what we’ve been working towards for so long. He can put on his own shoes, is beginning to dress himself (okay not perfectly, but I don’t care), and wants to give himself his own shower (I am fearful of the hot water). For certain, I must worry about safety and must always try to stay a step ahead of him. It was this boyish progress that prompted me to check out the oranges. I realized that really, all kids are the same. Just because some can or cannot do certain things, it doesn’t take away the will or desire to do them. Just because Adam can’t talk fluently or initiate play with other kids regularly, does not make him any less of an eight-year-old.

I’ve known that, but to live through our autistic kids’ development just be different for us parents, after all. For so long, we worry about what our kids will not do, and we spend inordinate amounts of time and resources trying to teach them how to do things. There is nothing wrong with this!! Yet when it happens  we sometimes speak about our kids as a series of behaviours instead of noticing that they are growing and maturing as they should — as they should differently, autistically and at the same time, very similarly to any other same-aged child.

I must consider to stop running out of breath and learn to just breathe.

It’s 3:00 a.m.

Filed Under (autism, Safety, Sleep) by Estee on 16-08-2010

I am writing this at 3:00 a.m. I left Adam’s room at approximately ten o’clock hoping he would go go sleep. I know I did, but I suddenly woke up at two. I was hoping to fall back to sleep but decided to heed some sage advice and not fight it. I’ve heard that if you cannot go back to sleep, just get up and do something else. The sleep will come.

Sleep is a huge issue for many of us. I remember three years of complete sleep deprivation after Adam was born: three hours of soothing and rocking him alone in a dark room, creeping out of his room on all fours because the floors were creaky and would wake him, only to have him wake up every hour and a half anyway. I remember feeling tired, frustrated and this certainly had an effect on the way I interacted with Adam in the early years, and I didn’t even get a reprieve by way of a naptime. I tried to “Feberize” him to no avail.  I was always flabbergasted that Adam could keep on going on such little sleep. Later on, we discovered Melatonin  which is the only thing that usually helps him fall asleep when he is particularly wired, except for these monthly anomolies where it has zero effect, and I have not discovered the reason specific to Adam.

As I began to quietly descend the stairs in what is typically called the dark night of the soul, coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald,  I hear Adam mumbling softly to himself — quite a change from the infant and toddler days when he would cry.  In fact, my office is directly underneath his bedroom and I can hear him moving about contentedly right now.

I write this because it’s another feat in our coexistence as two different kinds of people. It used to be that Adam would make much more noise and I would spend hours trying to settle him. Perhpas because of experience, knowing that autistic cicadian rhythms have been reported to be different in autistic individuals, I have decided on an alternate strategy: not to fight it. I am teaching Adam how to stay alone in his room quietly and do other things. It still requires some of my effort, my reminding (and perhaps some dark circles under my eyes in the morning), but I know it will be worth it as he is growing and maturing.  As he grows older, he will be able to use this time to read, study, work on the computer, but right now I would hesitate putting him on the computer because he will gear him up rather than wind him down.

This happens to Adam about once a month, I’ve recorded. He seems to wake at 2:00 a.m. and he goes to camp or school and has, usually a fabulous day while I am otherwise dreary-eyed. Still, I am discovering that I too am developing a remarkable energy that I didn’t think I had before. It’s amazing how things don’t feel as difficult if we try to work with the circumstances. In fact, I planned on reading and writing a bit before I realized that Adam was awake.  I’ve ensured that the house is safe in the event I do doze off and he decides to roam, and this might be in large part why I can relax.  So far, Adam stays in his room.

I suppose the only thing is my sensitivity to Adam. I didn’t think I  heard him at two, although I must have. It would be nice to know thatI can sleep through the night while he does what he has to do….safely. We’re getting there.

I sit here writing sort of amazed at how far I’ve come in this. Another milestone, perhaps, not for Adam, the autistic child, but for Estee, the autism mom. It’s past three a.m. now. The dark night will quickly turn to dawn.

Keeping Autistic Children Safe

Filed Under (Acceptance, Safety, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 21-04-2010

This is the first article published by that I wrote on making safe yet attractive living spaces for autistic children. Thank you, Zeshan, for both caring and for being interested in this topic.

While safety may involve anything from picture symbol reminders to locks, I’ve also paid attention to “safe spaces,” that is, making safe sensory places where Adam can escape and learn to self-regulate. As I mentioned in the article, as I learn about what Adam needs, I like to create fun, aesthetically-pleases places and devices that both Adam and I can live with and enjoy.

Photo credits (and all good photos of Adam are taken by) Mike Klar whose work is linked here.


About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.