A New Beginning

Filed Under (Adam, Estee, Family, Friendship, Love, Single Parenthood, Transitions) by Estee on 15-09-2014

Adam on the move Adam on the move[/caption]

And so we moved again. It has been lots of hard work to prepare Adam for another (and final) move to our now permanent home in downtown Toronto. I decided to put everything aside to prepare him (and our new home) for the transition. This involved many social stories, visitations to the renovation site, weekly pictures and a reassurance that this was going to be a happy move. Our last move was a consequence of divorce and took its toll on both of us.

Adam had lots of positive support and a smooth summer at camp. I prepared calendars, reviewed them, we typed (talked) about moving all the time. I also made a calendar countdown to prepare with a symbolic punctuation to indicate our last day at our house; this involved letting go of four red balloons into the sky. On them I wrote: Mommy and Adam, Hope and Dreams, Bye Bye (address), and New Home.

photo (7)

Before the bus came to pick up Adam early on August 14th, we stood on the driveway on the sunny morning and discussed each balloon then let them go one by one. We watched them float high in the sky – the sun in our eyes – until they disappeared. Adam’s grin was wide and he jumped up and down a few times; my heart was heavy as it was giddy to see how well this was going. Adam seemed to be coping so well… not tearful or anxious as I expected him to be. In fact, I was floored when he typed about the move, “you are home to me.” Now that’s putting things into perspective!

Soon I would let Adam get on the bus and say goodbye for two weeks. Later that day he would go to his dad’s house while I prepared our new home for his arrival. The movers would be there on the heels of his camp bus, gutting our memories – of becoming a new kind of family from the new pictures on our mantel to Adam’s art that would make it our home. I wonder if I had made such earnest preparations to avoid the severe spasms Adam encountered during the divorce move; to avoid the heartbreak we worked so hard to overcome…and succeeded.

I recalled when we made another happy move – when Adam’s father and I built a new house and Adam participated in his weekly construction with frequent visitation to the site. There was one object I had left back in our, what I will call, “Rosemary House” (to do with the location) that I had to return to obtain. I was pregnant with Adam in that house. We had found out Adam was autistic in that house and endured hours of “therapy.” I was becoming the mother I was meant to be. It was old and rickety but it had cradled precious memories that are heritage to me (sadly the house was not and has since been torn down). The object I returned for was Adam’s bassinet which was mine as an infant. My mother worked hard to refurbish it for Adam and it was hand-made by my grandmother. Heritage was at least maintained in this. A light summer storm was brewing in the late afternoon as I pulled into the driveway and Adam, only a toddler, was asleep in the back seat. I left him in the car to quickly run in and grab the bassinet to put in the back of my van. But it was hard to leave the warm inside. There is a compulsion to stay in an old empty house full of memories even when it is stripped bare except for the dust bunnies that appeared like tumbleweeds in the desert. I remember standing in our bedroom, where Adam spent most nights with us, trying to review all the memories in fast-forward. I had to pull myself away to return to Adam, still unaware and fast asleep.

Perhaps we’ve now had too many of those moments ever since. As Adam’s bus turned the corner, the movers pulled in. They worked quickly removing boxes and our house was empty again. I vacuumed and cleaned it for the new owners but also because of gratitude and the love we built in that house. I felt the pull again to linger and remember how Adam and I learned to become our own family unit; how friends became our family there and how my parents Adam and I have become closer than ever. Adam and I did it – we pulled it together in that house. As I felt the tears begin, I abruptly left. It is time to move on…go, I said aloud. Time to move to our happy house, close to public transit and bustling life on the streets… and down the hall from my parents. It was part of my plan for Adam and his future being in the heart of transit and the city for his quality of life. It was fortuitous that it all worked out. So instead of preaching, I decided to lead by example: to leave quickly and look forward while paying respect to our past. Remember the red balloon that read: Adam and MommyHopes and Dreams.

A month later I can write about it. There is more to follow.

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.

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.

An Autistic Boy’s Life is Not A Paragraph

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

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

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

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

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.

Catacombs

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.

Movement Disturbance — not so easy

Filed Under (Anxiety, Autism and Intelligence, Movement Disturbance, Single Parenthood, Transitions) by Estee on 19-03-2012

Adam is going through another phase and it’s time for me to be very hands-on again — new routines that may help his body and anxiety. He’s entering the pre-teen phase, and discovering things that can get him into trouble. I’ve started a running routine with Adam which helps his body calm down. Adam likes to jog (see photo). Yet like the time when we moved homes and Adam started severe spasming, he is now getting physically stuck — his body won’t let him get beyond a repeated movement. I can hear Adam start to whimper and I’m right there. Last night, it quickly became a loud cry. His face looked distressed and it took me a while to get him out of his chair.

“Are you stuck?” I asked

“Yes!” he yelled. Adam is not always able to respond when he’s experiencing this. He looked into my eyes, his body all sweaty, cheeks reddening. He let me hug him one moment, and pushed me away the next. I wanted to cry with him.

“One, two, three, four…walking out the door we go.” I sang my usual Feist tune which helps Adam move. Sometimes I hear him using it himself, which is a good sign that he can somedays. We make it to the shower where he has a “help me” look in his eye. He cried hard and I held him close. My heart breaks when he’s like this. Sometimes I get scared and I have to leave the room. I have to collect myself so I can comfort him, which I managed to do last night. Many times Adam will need to take a toy from on room in order to move on to the next thing. This he will do when he’s calmer but I realized it was a way for him to manage transitions, so I encourage it.

The distress, though — is it the new teeth punching through his gums? The lack of routine from vacation (he usually loves his vacation)? Growing pains? Another issue he cannot yet tell me about? These are some of the things we must guess as parents when communication falls apart. Sometimes he can speak in full sentences. Other days he can barely say a word. Some days he can type independently, while other days, or even moments, he will do anything to avoid typing. Adam is a neurological roller coaster ride and I’m on it with him. We can see what he is able to do and how intelligent he is, when his body permits him. When it doesn’t, Adam will become upset and frustrated. He is not in control of it. This is not behavioural.

On the weekened when he was drumming, he showed another flash of brillance — jamming in rhythm. It lasted a few seconds. Then his body took off in another direction and I had to help him focus again. Martha Leary and David Hill wrote about autism and movement disturbance and I am going to revisit it. Lorna Wing wrote about autism and catatonia. Catatonia is usally later onset — late teens, so I’m not sure if what I’m seeing with Adam is catatonia right now. In thinking about autism and movement, I remembered Amanda Bagg’s video How to Boil Water the Easy Way (and she’s wearing the Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability and Quality of Life event T-shirt). I remembered this video in order to remind myself what Adam is going through and in trying hard to relate to his experience. This is meant to be respectfully comedic. Please be patient with it and watch the entire video to really understand:

Of course, I’ve made the usual calls to investigate ways to assist Adam, and I am always in doubt. Medications are another roller coaster ride — perhaps the monster coaster that I’ve been avoiding, but I also know that I need to find ways to assist Adam with this type of pain. As for me, I often think that while I’ve assisted other people in their journey as an activist and advocate, it is in part to also help myself. I learn so much from others. I’m doing this alone in my home. Being a single parent, at night especially, has taught me that for all the times I think I can’t do it, I manage to. For all the times I think I may want to give up, I don’t. The thought of not being with Adam hurts me more. Talking it out or writing about it is helpful and for all the dark days, a good sleep and a new dawn sheds a new perspective. Adam woke up this morning with a smile on his face again, asking for bread and mustard for breakfast. There is still joy in autism and my son. He’s a fabulous human being! Yet like any parent, I have heartache when I see him in distress.

Other References:

Tony Attwood: Autism and Movement Disturbance
Martha Leary and David Hill: Moving On: Autism and Movement Disturbance
Lorna Wing: Catatonia in Autism Spectrum Disorders

The Long Corridor Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling

Filed Under (Parenting, Transitions, Travel) by Estee on 29-03-2011

I went to Bequia for March Break. It was my turn to take a vacation as Adam’s dad had him over the holiday. The island is in St. Vincent in the Grenadines and is really remote. I enjoyed every second of it.

As a single mom, I have a life with Adam and a life without. We are building a new life over the crumbled mortar of the last one, and often, that makes for beautiful design.

One realization I had after so much stress is that it is more important to be a happy parent of our children. Not only do I have to run Adam’s programs and team, but I think he’ll remember most the times when I was quiet with him on his bed reading books together, or we made jokes and laughed together. When I’m relaxed and fulfilled in my life, I find I have much more to give to Adam.

So I travel when Adam is with his dad, almost guilt-free. I sure do miss Adam when I’m away, but I also love being on my own again too. I also want to travel with Adam as part of my plan for writing and for building our family life. I need to travel to get new ideas and see life differently, and I believe children benefit too. I know that many parents hesitate traveling afar with their autistic children, and you can count me in. I’m worried about the flight, delays. A good plan is in the making.

Changing environments seems at odds for the autistic child who seems to need routine. Yet, Adam has also enjoys changes in environment. He tends to talk more when there is a change. So it’s a bit of a paradox. It’s the accommodations that bother him for the first few days which I have to think about in advance. I am trying to figure out how to make him feel more at ease when he’s in other people’s houses or when we are in hotels.

My idea? I’m thinking of renting a place in Europe that we can treat as our home base, invite friends, and take day trips. This is what I imagine:

I rent that villa in Italy I always dreamed of and bring Adam with me. We walk the Palazzo in Firenze, eating fast-melting gelato on a hot Italian day as hundreds of pigeons scatter, the quick flutter of their wings providing a light breeze against our glistening skin. Adam gleefully watches their flapping wings in unison.

We find a cafe off the main square at noon, the cathedral bells asking us to rest. He loves the spicy salami sweating in the yellow ochre sunlight and gathers whole pieces in his hands to take a bite. The ripe plum tomatoes burst in our mouths. As we lean back in our chairs content, the sound of footsteps and voices swell and dim as stylish men and women pass by easily on uneven cobblestones. I order a cappuccino and Adam eagerly spoons off the foam. Then, we walk across the square to the Uffizi and oogle the Birth of Venus and her flowing blonde hair. The long corridor leads to the next room, our feet echoing along. Children’s voices whine to go home or to the bathroom in foreign languages and parents say shoosh. I tilt my head sweetly at Fra Fillipo Lippi’s Madonna with Child and Angels. Then, I crouch down, and give my own growing angel a kiss.

Every reality begins with a dream. I have many and they all, even when I’m on my own, include Adam.

In Praise of Support Workers

Filed Under (Transitions) by Estee on 15-02-2011

I am very sad this evening. It is the sadness of knowing that someone who was part of your daily life has meant so much to you — who has been the centre of our lives.

This person is Adam’s aide. She has never wanted to be named but is in the background of all my posts since 2005, obscured. She is called Adam’s “support worker” in an upcoming issue in Today’s Parent called The Joy of Autism. The March issue hits the stands February 21st.Today, Adam’s aide has given us notice that she will be ending her support of Adam in order to move on to something else — time to grow, move on, as does everything in life. Who knows if she’ll continue her work in this field — she thinks about doing other things now, and it’s all natural, all good.

Yet I sit here alone this Tuesday night. Adam is skiing this evening and knows not that his life is about to change… again. “He’s a duck in water,” says my mom on the telephone as I’m in the middle of writing this. “Wow…wait…wow…look at him go!” I hear others in the background. It’s only his second ski lesson.

He probably can’t remember being without his aide worker. She entered when Adam was 20 months old — just over a month after he was first diagnosed with autism. She has been with us on all the ups and downs of our journey. We have made decisions together, and she has implemented them on a daily basis. She helped me when I was going through cancer and divorce in order to provide extra support to keep Adam strong, while I was not.

It has been a hectic day, but not just for this reason. Another urgent matter helped me shove the news I received early this morning into the background of my day. Yet, when I returned home and all was quiet, and I read that article, the black and white print jumped out at me. She is all over those four pages; the “joy of autism,” the ride — me, Adam and his “support worker.” I am still crying, mascara channels down my cheeks.

Does it take this kind moment to realize how much you can love someone? It’s been eight years — I’d say that’s a good chunk of relationship. I’ve always appreciated her, but parting is such sweet sorrow.

To all you aides, shadows, support workers and therapists out there (there are so many names to call you) please know how much you are, and have been so utterly appreciated. How lucky we are to have such relationships.

ads
ads
ads
ads

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.