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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.

 

 

 

Moving along…

Filed Under (Adam, Advocacy, Anxiety, Communication, Community, Inclusion, Intelligence, Living, Movement Disturbance, Obsessions, Sensory Differences, Transitions, Wandering) by Estee on 17-03-2014

There are times when you have to just stop everything. Adam has required it…his school has required it. A focus on Adam’s typing and adaptations in school have alas been paying him dividends. Despite his want for escape, screaming and bolting, Adam has been in cognitive behavioural therapy and we’ve been working on his accommodations in school so much so, he is literally whipping through his academics – I know this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Sensory breaks every 20 minutes enable Adam to focus and he has an array of self-help tools he can now choose for himself to calm – from stretchy therabands (his fave), to signals that he can verbalize “the body needs to move.” His penchant for routine and doors is akin to panic attacks. It is important to give Adam concrete options to move from one thing to the next. His will is strong as is his intelligence and everyone who knows Adam must try to help him by staying two steps ahead of him at all times in order to respond. Or, as I do now, I also ask him what he needs:

Me: Adam, what I can do to help you around when you have the impulse to go through doors?
Adam: You can help by staying calm.
Me: What do you need?
Adam: Hard to move forward. Really hard to tell.

So we will work on it and Adam is beginning to communicate his more complex needs. Here in Florida (for Adam’s March Break), the building security guard came by and noted when he saw Adam in a moment going through doors with his “help,” he could recognize it as a panic attack right away because as a young person he too had panic attacks. This is what is like for Adam when it’s happening. For now, I ask him to sit down and try hard to get him to focus by typing. When he is able to think and redirect his thoughts to communicate, we can better negotiate our next steps. It takes time, so when we have an agenda, it just won’t work. We need to be prepared to spend an extra 20 or 30 minutes helping Adam to the next step because he could be literally “stuck” in his loop/OCD and tics, or needs that long to get his words out. But when he does, it’s so glorious to see him gleam with pride. It’s so wonderful to be able to negotiate now with my son! Our days are more rigid than they used to be; Adam needs his routine. And I am finding the balance, and keep asking him for knowledge on how to help him. It’s a team effort.

And as for that building security guard? Well, not everything has stopped…I began the thank you-note project – a new form of advocacy for Adam and autism. Every time someone helps in a positive way – by standing back and letting us be, to a nice gesture or comment, and letting us be a part of the community despite challenges, they receive a thank you note from Adam and I. People need to know they are doing the right thing by letting us be a part of our communities and advocating for what we need. It may not be a big glitzy campaign, but it’s something that we feel good about… reaching one person at a time.

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.

What Adam Said This Morning

Filed Under (ABA, Acceptance, Adam, Communication, Movement Disturbance, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 11-07-2013

Adam and I sat on the stoop as usual this morning for his bus to camp. Yesterday, Adam was content and happy and then his assistants reported another sudden biting incident, to which Adam didn’t seem to remember. It lasted but a few moments, then he happily moved along. Of course, I’m in a newer territory now with his, new concerns and am back to re-reading.

When I asked Adam about remembering it, he said “no” in several formats, including pointing to his chart, typing it out, and also saying it (which came first). He was happy and contented last night, jumping on his mini trampoline in the basement, which is now partially repaired after the flood. After I gave him his ten minute warning that it was nearing time for bed, Adam came upstairs.

This morning, though, my heart broke a bit, but I am also determined to do my best that Adam has a positive self-esteem. Let me preface this by stating that when a person like my son doesn’t speak very much, people don’t tend to listen as they refer to speech as “psychotic” and nonsensical. I never take Adam’s words as such.

“I don’t know anything,” he mumbled.

“You know lots of things and you will learn lots of things. You are really smart,” I replied.

“Teeeea-cher,” he sang melodically. Then again, “Teacher, teacher.” He climbed into my lap to be cradled.

I’ve asked his ABA school of late to teach him to his age-level and invoke the Ontario Curriculum, to which Adam is entitled, and they have agreed. I am devoted to making sure that education is Adam’s right. I am working this out with Adam’s team which may include part integration, part home-school, getting out more into the art gallery, the museum (he enjoys such places) and the programs he has loved so much and integrating this into his own writing. In Canada, there’s little option but to make our own path at the moment, and families have a right to choose what suits their children best. In Adam’s case, he requires support, and this is also his right in order to participate in his community in the manner that he wants, needs and is able. It is great when teachers understand these complexities, and I encourage everyone to continue to learn outside of the behaviour paradigm, and to listen to autistic people. (I think you can sense how concerned I am about what is reflected back at Adam in terms of his person-hood and self-esteem as an autistic person – a complete and whole person).

Post-Blog Comment:

Thanks to an email that pointed out something important to me which I must write here – in it, the person mentioned that the Ontario Curriculum is “useless.” I want to extend how I appreciated the comment as important and hope more comments will come. My comment to extend on that one would be that I feel that education is a right, but the manner in which that education is delivered to Adam must be customized. He still has a right to it, and the reality is that’s what he needs to fulfill to move on to higher ed if he desires it. There are many tensions at play here – my own personal experiences as a normate which must always be questioned; the changing needs and nature of education overall; the normative linear developmental model that represents the mutually supportive notions of social and neo-liberalism; and this quest for a specifically autistic education that fits Adam’s learning style and abilities while also providing him with opportunities to contribute to society as an autistic person – and this is the ultimate challenge when society doesn’t value people with severe disabilities.

The never-ending labyrinth

Filed Under (Anxiety, Behaviours, Medications, Movement Disturbance, seizures, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 28-06-2013

Adam’s jerking has increased as it was a few years ago… when we did the EEG and they said he had no seizure activity. My own anxiety feels seismic, and I wonder when all of this can explode, get worse, or if all my calming strategies for Adam are working. I’ve spoken with his doctor almost every-day this week, his school, his OT – doing what I feel I must to get all the information. It may be information I’ve learned along the way, sometimes we see things differently or new things at different points in our lives. We’ve generally avoided many medications but over time, things can change. Although we will visit the neurologist, it’s not time to act yet…

I hope that camp again abates Adam’s jerking and the stress he must feel he’s under. His basement flood, the end of school, a new baby on his dad’s side of the family. Sometimes I think that Adam is the strongest, most “controlled” person I know! When I think of his body and how hard he works to get through his day, I just can’t believe his strength!

Every day I ask Adam how he’s feeling. He usually says “I’m fine” with the same tone. Sometimes I get a “good.” Since his allergies, turned viral croup turned jerking and biting (conflated with the other changes in his life) this has changed – “I’m feeling sick,” he says. At least he’s loving his chewy tubes! He knows I love him too…that’s a good place to start. I know he needs my counts to five, my voice to help him move more days than others. A weighted vest seems to help and holding things in his hands. And although everyone is working as fast as they can for him, his space in our basement is not yet complete. It’s the space where he can engage in a lot of sensory activity.

I’m feeling sick – I don’t take Adam’s words as gibberish. His words may be few, but they are powerful to me. So I am trying to help him knowing the labyrinth we must travel through yet again, knowing that for every medication that is recommended, we would be treating a symptom, and where my real anxiety begins. It is here where the term autism, and perhaps its reified status, falls short in helping medical conditions for autistic people. I guess I don’t believe in rushing in. There’s just too much complexity about Adam and how he feels about things that this needs lots of time. Autism is too broad a term and Adam can appear as if he has Tourettes or seizures or movement disturbance like Parkinsons or at times, catatonia… Gah! He would fit just about every profile, my little guy. Anxiety and heightened arousal (either positive or negative) may trigger Adam’s twitching or biting. Some days, just working on calming and ordering his body is work enough for him.

As I try to help Adam, and want to abate his pain as opposed to sedating my worry, I also try to finish a major research paper and am thinking of Larry’s quote from Wretches and Jabberers: “autism is not abnormality of brain but abnormality of experience.” Here, I question autism as a co-production of that experience, the way must describe it with language that is always half-formed, where normative views and experience may alter Larry’s meaning in the way we perceive it, and where real pain of such a different experience may be missed or ignored because of the label, and perhaps where Adam may not feel supported, accommodated or maybe, even respected. All of these things I have to write down and run through my head over and over again; and this needs good communication from everyone involved. In any event, it can feel like an isolating experience because I must deal with all of this mostly on my own – I take the responsibility and the worry on, perhaps as the stereotype goes, like mother’s do. But I realize that I have the the loving support of my parents and my partner, Adam’s aide worker, and the other team members in our lives that he really needs in order to live a good life. Parents and autistic people require lots of love, support, inclusion. This includes general acceptance of the way things are, as well as acceptance that some people, like my son,sometimes cannot participate in normate ways. Instead, he can always participate given our patience, accommodation, consideration and respect. As I think about how I felt about rabbit-holes today – of medicines and men, and to use Adam’s word, “catacombs” of our journey – I have talked myself out of feeling anxious and will continue plot along… just like Alice.

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?

Towards a New Autism Research

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism and The Media, Autistic Self Advocacy, Book Reviews, Communication, Computing/iPad, Critical Disability Studies, Development, Discrimination, Family, Movement Disturbance, Research, school, Sensory Differences, Transitions) by Estee on 06-07-2012

It doesn’t matter who you are, or how high you rise. One day you will get the call. The question is, how will you respond?” – African American U, Senior Administrator

Adam left for camp this morning. Last week, he did well at his piano recital. His lessons have been adapted for him — colour coding left and right hands, bass and treble clef lines, to give a sense of the many adaptations we’ve learned. Not only have we adapted lessons for him so that he may learn in “typical” ways, but I also asked the teacher to let him explore the piano on his own, as well as have her play for him. I became a musician when I was very young, and a neighbour let me bang away at the keys doing whatever I wanted.

I was proud that Adam was able to attend and play well at his recital. I asked that he make his little bow, and sure, everyone thought that was sweet. Afterwards, as there was another special needs person as part of the concert, I was noticing faces as he sang — his articulation was challenged. I didn’t see gleaming “ain’t that sweet” smiles. I saw strained faces. Not until the children who were fluent with well-pitched voices were singing did the “ain’t that adorable” look beam as high as the church rafters. That effected me a lot, and I pay attention to these subtleties every day. I don’t think people realize the subversive effects of a mere countenance. I, at least, read faces well. Adam seems to pick up on vibes, but that’s my assumption after knowing him for so long.

Last week, Adam was more verbal — asking me “what are you doing?” when I was at work at my desk and he wanted to play. In addition to a successful recital and these questions, we had a “good” week. Having Adam ask me a rare question is exciting. I am happy when he gets more verbal, types on his iPad, and now, starts to ask me questions. When the camp bus came for a visit last week and Adam got upset afterwards, he typed (independently), “why is bus going?” It shows that his world is expanding by his growing ability to communicate. I find myself relieved because I think it will make his life more fulfilling, if not easier in a world that favours the able-bodied and the fluently verbal.

Two days after his verbal “spike,” however, something that comes and goes but improves steadily all the time (akin to a graph with a steady climb overall, but with monthly plateaus and slight dips), and also possibly correlating to the end of school, the transition to camp, a possible cold or allergies (get the picture?), Adam began to twitch more and he lost his ability to talk for a couple of days. He is better at being able to type a few words when he is under stress. He couldn’t do that at all before.

While I still worry, mostly if I see him uncomfortable when it happens, I’m getting better at waiting him out. Whatever is effecting him needs to be processed by him in his own way. Within a couple of days, although the twitching slowly abated. He started to smile and become more verbal after a couple of days of the most intense part of it. I really do not understand what is happening to him neurologically and neither does anyone else. Only some autistic people can give me a sense of it. There is no guru or expert or scientist who has truly “discovered” what causes Adam to tic and twitch the way he does. We know of similarities in other disabilities. Adam was tested for seizures and at least on the day he was tested, it showed negative. These are but some of the things we don’t fully understand about Adam and what we refer to as his autism.

As his mother, I’m well aware of my bias, in spite of my enduring “acceptance” of him. Bias and ideas are so deep-rooted in us that acceptance is something we have to work on every day. (Boy, would I love to read that caveat in someone’s research paper on autism). As Adam’s mother, I realize that although I love him dearly and accept him as he is, it is still difficult to resist the temptation to praise Adam’s “normal” feats and accomplishments only, and not recognize his autistic ones. Like all of us, we are under such a strong ableist or “normalist” influence that we don’t praise, cite, recognize autistic-ness as often as we need to.

We need so much more of a new kind of autism research — one that captures autistic accomplishment without sensationalizing autism. Too often any achievement by an autistic individual gets refered to as “genius.” While in some cases in may be extraordinary, we do this because we are still not looking at autism as a whole in the way we should look at all of humanity. We fracture autism into little bits and pieces as much as we end up doing people.

When I attended Autreat too long ago now (I am due for a revisit), I purchased fifteen years of workshop notes and presentations. I remember when I attended being giddy that there were workshops for autistic kids on how to make their own stim toys. Autreat, founded by Jim Sinclair, who is also autistic, is run by and for autistic people.

For months now since he started in an autism school especiallly, despite my praise of Adam for his feats, I still wonder how I can nurture his autistic-self. So I went downstairs and dug the old material up. Here’s a clue of what I wish to study more about:

How to Play With Dolls: For Kids and Adults Jim Sinclair, disability educator and consultant, coordinator of Autism Network International

For purposes of this workshop, a “doll” may be any inanimate object that we play with by imagining it to have aspects of personhood. This includes the traditional toy-human type of doll, as well as toy animals, and any other toys or objects that our imaginations transform into living entities. In this intergenerational workshop, we will share and explore different ways that autistic people can use doll play for fun and for learning, and ways that parents, educators, and therapists can use doll play to help autistic people in developing skills and understanding…”

Music: What Is It, What Does It Mean To Us, and How Can We Use It?
Katja Gottschewski, musician and music therapist, Bodo, Norway

In this workshop, we will explore different aspects of music. We will look at differences and similarities in how we as individuals or as AC’s and NT’s [autistics and neurotypicals] define and experience music. It will be discussed how we can communicate through music. How is music different than language? Can music be a bridge between AC’s and NT’s?

Understanding How Plants Can Facilitate Connection in Autistic Children and Adults
George Salamunec, HTR, COTA/L, Certified Master Gardener, Susan Golubock, M.Ed., OTR/L
Autreat 2004

Working with, and understanding about, plants can be an effective tool for developing the senses, reducing stress, and learning to make new connections in autistic children and adults. Matching plants to one’s personality and needs is an important first step. Plants provide opportunities for autistic children to explore life, nurturing, modulation, non aggressive options and choices for dealing with natural adversities, and why learning about other life (and people) outside of ourselves is so important…

Making Employment Fit: Accommodations and Other Dirty Words
Joel Smith, Autreat 2004

Employment is difficult for many autistic people. We are square pegs who dont fit nicely into round holes. Rather than forcing the autistic into a job, would it be possible to change the job to better fit the autistic? In this presentation, ideas and real-life examples are presented of how jobs can be modified to best accommodate autistic sensitivities. We will also discuss how to modify your job without alientating your boss and co-workers.

That was from Autreat 2000 and 2004. Twelve years later, I am concerned (especially after attending IMFAR), how we hardly research autistic ways of being. We usually do it framed in a bias — comparative research against the “normal,” population.

We really don’t value what makes up the true and different, “not less,” accomplishments of the autistic person. I’ve read blogs where “experts” bluntly claim that there is “no value” in lining objects up. I’m not going to target the scientist specifically here, but I wonder how many readers of this may have at one time or another thought the same thing? Other than people like Temple Grandin, how can we all study the value of object-organization and how that is transferable into learning at school and later, in the workplace? I don’t think this is a trivial skill that needs to be solely relegated to the OCD side of the human column.

Just because we don’t see the value doesn’t mean it ain’t there. We don’t understand. We are viewing under a comparative, normal versus abnormal one, and that’s so limiting. While I try to make the “least dangerous assumption,” a term first coined by Dr. Anne Donnellan, I realize that I must work to continue to see Adam for who he is in all contexts. It’s a absolute daily task and obligation of mine as his parent. I wake up every morning thinking about this, more than I pander to alarmism. In fact, next time an autism commercial brings you to tears, please ask what buttons are being pressed and why, and if there’s a better way to achieve a quality of life for us all?

I’m also reading Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary’s newly released book Autism: Sensory-Movement Difference and Diversity and I would highly recommend it. I liked especially this example:

According to Oliver Sack’s book, Seeing Voices, in learning sign in infancy he will develop brain patterns remarkably different from his ‘normal’ peers. And he will continue to develop in different ways, but we can in no way call those differences ‘deficiencies.’ He will develop different social and cultural skills. If given the most standardized IQ tests, even with a signing interpreter, he will perform differently, and possibly less well, than his speaking/hearing peers. On tests that tap the developmental experiences of deaf people he would probably score far higher than his hearing friends. Yet it is no surprise but nonetheless sad to learn that for decades deaf children were routinely diagnosed as mentally retarded. Still today, they are often considered to have diminished capacity relative to their hearing peers, even when we clearly know that they can flourish if given the appropriate education and experiences. (p. 33).

Consider that, for the deaf which we think we’ve come, arguably, to understand and accept, of how far behind we are in autism to apply this level of consideration. Think how far behind! Thankfully, a small pool (and I hope a growing one) of researchers are taking up this call. In Steven Kapp’s (et al) paper Deficit, Difference of Both? Autism and Neurodiversity, there is also a call to discover the state of autism acceptance and “potential areas of common ground in research and practice regarding [how] autism [is] discussed.”

Scientists, working with the community, can help stakeholders with competing agendas make informed choices between rights, responsibilities, and needs at personal, social, and political levels by affirming that diverse societies respect multiple perspectives.

I’d like to see us all work towards the question of how to nurture autistic strengths and learning and balancing the real need to cope in this world as a minority, as well as continuing to value autistic contribution and being in society.

A Whole Better World
Autreat, May 2000,
Clay Adams

I can imagine a whole better world,
Where people don’t laugh at each other’s pain
A world where the sun shines on every one
And one’s well-being is everyone’s gain

Must we, in fact, feed off each other?
Fool the unwary, to sell our wares?

After The Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

~

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

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

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

Running As Fast As I Can

Filed Under (Acceptance, Anxiety, Autism and Intelligence, Movement Disturbance, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 25-03-2012

I’ve got days when I worry about Adam and how his distress is for him. The one thing that’s the most difficult for me to cope with as a parent is watching my son go through distress. Any parent wants to take a cold or the “thing” that’s distressing unto themselves instead of on their child. As I try to experience the journey with Adam, I’m going out for a jog for him (he’s with his dad this weekend). It’s part of my new regime of not just being with him, but helping him cope with his buzzing, moving body. I’m running as fast I can so I can be with him.

I was really upset with myself on Thursday. Typically, we go to a grocery store after school and we try to do a different errand every day. When we went to the store, Adam reached for the candy. I let him put in in the basket. When he wasn’t looking, I put the candy back on the shelf. I’ve done it before and he hadn’t noticed. Did I think that he just misses things? Had I devolved to that? We continued our shopping for healthy food and went to our usual check out lady, Leda, who always has time for Adam. Leda is like my island of calm and acceptance at the checkout as more people stare at us lately. We chit chat and she talks to Adam in between his jumping and hand-flapping. I’m not going to stop Adam from hand-flapping (although there’s enough pressure from those glaring eyes that I often think about it) and there’s no reason to explain him in a check-out line, so people will just have to deal with it, okay? Sometimes if Adam’s hands are occupied, he won’t flap, but there’s something in me that hates doing that for the sake of not being stared at! This is but one aspect of Abelism we live with every day.

When we got home, Adam helped me carry the grocery bags into the house. He’s good with hauling weight now and I think it must be good for his active, buzzing body. “Groceries!” he implored and the crinkling of plastic bags sounded urgent. Adam looked through every bag over and over again. “Grocery bag!” he said, looking at me, then quickly moving on in his search. I realized he was looking for the bird-egg blue gummies he found on the shelf. When he couldn’t find them, he began rummaging through all my kitchen cupboards, since I tend to hide food in odd places so he won’t keep eating the junk.

“Oh Adam, I didn’t buy the gummies. I put them back,” I said. He wasn’t satisfied, and kept looking. “No Adam, mummy didn’t buy the candy,” as I tried to stop his frenzied body from moving fast from cupboard to cupboard. Adam’s face looked desperate, his anxiety mounted quickly and I was worried. “Here Adam, we have lots of candy. Have a gummy bear.” I pulled them from the top shelf, hoping this would satisfy him and I could sit him down to dinner, because when he’s hungry, he becomes more anxious. He pushed them away. “No….groceries!” he insisted. He tailspinned.

I felt horrible. How could I have been so sneaky and put something back on the shelf without telling him either no, or showing him I was putting it back? I know I have to always work on myself as autism mom, no matter how much I think I accept my son. I have to respect him more. During the flatspin, though, I found the parachute. It was music. When I could coax his writhing, lanky body onto my knee, I held him and sang. I got a smile. Then, we ate dinner.

New Behaviour

Filed Under (Adam, Autism and Learning, Behaviours, Inclusion, Sensory Differences, Sleep, Transitions) by Estee on 04-02-2011

We talk often in autism about a dissonance of skills and “uneven learning.” It’s an easy thing to notice or say, but it doesn’t seem that easy to accommodate. Not easy, because we still have the expectation that an autisitic person must respond typically.

Adam has had quite the transitional year. He has gone through parental separation, moved to a new home with me and started a new school where the expectation is that he sits at a desk. His sleep has worsened, and his avoidant behaviour in doing certain “tasks” has begun. And yet, my Adam is talking in full sentences more often, is telling me how he feels, and can play a mean “reciprocal” game of I Spy with me. He can draw well (if given the chance) with perspective that is more sophisticated than his same aged-peers, even if his motor planning, that is line, is not as sure and resolute.

I have to say that when someone talks to me about Adam’s “behaviour” I do think in the old-fashioned sense that he is not behaving “well,” as opposed to looking at what’s causing the behaviour. It still pops up from time to time, and I am concerned that implicating behaviour is a way to not only blame Adam, but put an expectation and onus on him that is not fair. That is but one legacy that ABA left behind, although I’m not commenting on some of the methods used by the practice as part of an overall pedagogy. I bribe him a lot to get things done.

Adam needs physicality, lots of movement, interesting content, and a chance to respond more by typing. He needs more preparation, I believe, to start his day, and a different kind of structure in it. What I mean is, by 2 p.m., the boy is tired. I am still trying to figure out what that structure should look like as I orchestrate new programs and activity in his life. Because, Adam is no longer a baby. He will be turning nine this April.

It seems to me that we are learning about how autistic children learn, or at least I’m learning everyday. My process of learning about Adam and trying to work with his team of teachers and supporters never ends. Sometimes, I sit and stare at the wall, I admit, and wonder why we still haven’t figured this out. Maybe I was secretly hoping we would have by now.

I’ve hit the books again. I’m watching Adam closely as he has trouble falling asleep at night. I watch my own responses to him when I feel tired and frustrated. And one thing that surprises me is that I still am not giving up. I don’t want to blame Adam for being autistic. I want so badly to support him and to have support. I am still trying to articulate what accommodation really means for him. I am constantly evolving my attitude, and behaviour, towards him.

Soon Adam will have an aide who will take him into the community, to help him be a part of it, make friends, take theatre classes and go skiing (he starts next week!). I hope to get him into Special Olympics and keep working with those who have helped us along the way. It is clear we don’t have all the answers yet. But if you have some success stories to share, we’d sure appreciate them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch her now on TED:

Autistic Development and Those So-Called “Issues”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meaning of Sound

Filed Under (Sensory Differences) by Estee on 05-05-2010

We naturally wish to describe and understand a perception that seems foreign to many of us. As a parent to an autistic person this means a lot to me — attempting to understand Adam’s perception. Autism “experts” write prolifically on describing what autistic behaviours “mean” and these behaviours, observed by non autistic people, get interpreted and become at best, anemic descriptions of a kind of human experience. Autistic people do better at such descriptions, for obvious reasons. Yet so often, words fail.

I thought I’d post this video by musician John Cage as it provokes some thought on trying to describe the meaning of sound, that which is sensory and pleasurable, and for some autistic people, painful. As we know that so much of autistic experience is sensory, it got me thinking about the sensory experience — how life (that is, our “sensory life” ) is experienced differently by some and how others who do not understand human difference might attempt to explain inadequately.

Cage goes on to say that sound has no meaning — it just is. I thought this video was not only interesting for the purposes of thinking about perception, but also how we experience and attempt to describe autistic people. For me anyway, I felt some intersections when watching this and it in many ways reminded me of the In My Language video made several years ago by Amanda Baggs (which for convenience in case new readers have not viewed it, I have placed after the John Cage video):

An Exceptional Path: An Ethnographic Narrative Reflecting on Autistic Parenthood from Evolutionary, Cultural, and Spiritual Perspectives

Filed Under (Acceptance, autism, Autistic Self Advocacy, Parenting, Sensory Differences) by Estee on 04-05-2010

Thanks to a friend who passed along this paper (titled above) by Dawn Eddings Prince (formerly known as Dawn Prince Hughes) published in ETHOS. It is an endearing story of a mother with Aspergers to her autistic son.

Unlike Dawn, I am not a woman with Aspergers nor a primate anthropologist who has garnered much of what she has learned about humanity through primates. If you have not read her book, Songs of A Gorilla Nation it is a must-read. It has left its imprint upon me for years now. No, I am a mother of an autistic child, similar but not just like, her child, relating to my son in unexpected ways, finding my points of context from art and my own awkward experiences growing up — trying to overlay those in helping me understand Adam’s path. My stress has mainly come from outsiders who have put the pressure on us to change and be something other than what we are. I am glad to understand this stress and pressure in order to better help Adam chart his course.

From the time I began The Joy of Autism blog — and been downright attacked for it when it first started in 2005 (see right margin for the archive) — I was incapable of viewing Adam as that “blight” and “burden” that autistics were named. Everything Adam did was a downright miracle to me. Today, Adam — a kind, affable, giggly boy, has developed a curiousity and way of learning that never ceases to expand my own world and way of seeing things. Like Dawn’s son, however, Adam is changing, developing tics. He is growing into a world that he is beginning to understand in ways that I knew (and feared) he would. One could say it happens to all parents. Yet Dawn’s essay, however, cites a few exceptionalities to the growth.

People fear each other. The flavor of distance seems to me to be how a community organizes itself. The codes of distance constitute the law—for the living and the dead, so people close the lid on the toilet when they sit down to talk to someone else in the bathroom, signaling that they don’t intend to dominantly mark their territory in the midst of the other; and men can’t pick up and hold a crying child who is a stranger. This is why people always smile and say hello more often when they are on a trail in the forest, far from help, than when they are on a city street.

Unfortunately, the chief danger and distance he was learning is that people can tell you that what you are isn’t what you should be. I knew that the children at school were teasing him for talking to plants and bugs and rocks. His teacher told us he had a learning disability and had some attention deficit problems. He was starting to not be able to sleep at night and had anxiety attacks. Where he had always been an easy child he started to throw himself to the floor and scream over the smallest challenges. He started to be unable to go to restaurants because the lights hurt his eyes and the normal noise of conversation hurt his ears—he would cover them with his hands and rock, trying to get under the table. He developed strict routines and would fall apart if something unexpected happened. He started to develop tics. He was becoming contextually autistic.

This essay is beautifully written. Remembering Teryk, her son, playing in the prototype sensory room set up at The Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, where I introduced myself to Dawn and received such a warm hug from her, I feel we share a bond beyond that introduction by way of this piece on the special privilege of raising an autistic child. It is the bond of easing ourselves into the world as both autistic people and as their parents amidst the deluge of questions, quandaries and challenges that continue to face our children all the while loving them and getting them for who they are. And who better than Dawn?

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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.