Beyond Mall Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Emerging Tensions: Puberty, Autonomy and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can Our Autistic Children Participate?

Filed Under (Acceptance, Autism and Learning, Books, Inclusion, school, Travel, Uncategorized) by Estee on 20-08-2012

“Our job isn’t to figure out if a student should be participapting. Our job is to figure out how a student should be participating.”

This is a line from Paula Kluth’s DVD, author of You’re Going to Love This Kidon inclusion in the schools.
We are on the brink of another school year. Many parents struggle with finding not only a placement for their autistic child, but the right placement. In Canada, as is for many places in the world where children are more likely than ever to be included, children and parents with autism are still some of the most excluded in our society. I often find it shocking the lack of support in my country where we seem to have otherwise great social supports. Despite there being many great and willing teachers, the school system is still one of the most unjust insitutions for autistic students.

While many of us work to change attitudes and policy in Canada and the US, I want to reiterate what an important step integration and inclusion is for all of us. Watching Adam at camp and even younger people with disabilities, the younger generation already has much more exposure to kids with disabilities than my generation ever did. Many a parent I’ve met will register their child into an integrated school in order for their children to respect and value everyone. After kindergarten, however, the segregation typically begins. While we may have seen more effort towards inclusion, we are still teetering between the two extremes.

Watching Adam with other children and their patience and acceptance shouldn’t just happen once in a while or at summer camp. Adam has developed so much this summer, as he does every year, and his peers do too. They are much more tolerant and accepting than I can remember of my generation. It is an indication of how important it is to start inclusion young and from the get go. I believe it is the older generations like mine who simply let old habits get in the way. Watching how easy it is for children to accept human difference is proof to me that inclusion is good for everyone.

This post is dedicated a couple of submissions I received this summer for review: Paula Kluth’s website, DVD and book I’ve mentioned before, You’re Going to Love This Kid; Eileen Riley Hall’s Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum.

The key for teachers is to learn how to include. This involved adaptations in the presentation of lessons, to how a child can respond to lessons. Adam, for example, responds to multiple modalities, but the main way of teaching him and transferring his learning is through the visual — computers, iPads, manipulatives and actual experience in the field. Accommodations also include sensory breaks, exercise, and other adaptations to a classroom. For instance, Adam can focus better on a ball chair. Otherwise, he needs to move his entire body so this provides the feedback he needs right now in order to attend to his lessons.

While the pressure to “be normal” in its elusive forms and definitions was more difficult when Adam was younger, we have grown into another comfort level with our lives and ourselves. Adaptation is simply a wonderful way to make learning accessible to Adam and it’s a joy to watch him grow and learn. Paula has many tips on adapting lessons and changing attitudes so that teachers and schools can adopt full inclusion. She makes it sensible and inspiring. I suggest you check out Paula’s YouTube channel for more information.


Eileen Riley-Hall is the mother of two autistic teenage girls and the author of Parenting Girls on the Autistic Spectrum: Overcoming Challenges and Celebrating Gifts (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). As the mother of a boy, I was wondering what I’d learn from Eileen, but knowing so many parents with young autistic girls, I had to recommend her book. Sometimes we just want to refer to another book by another parent for that down-to-earth advice. I would also recommend along with a how-to book such as this, all the books by autistic women including Donna Williams, Lucy Blackman, Dawn Prince, Temple Grandin, Jasmin O’Neill (among others) — some of the first autistic women to write from their own unique perspectives. I like to pair my parent-memoirs with those also written by other autistic people.

What I found most refreshing in Riley-Hall’s book was Chapter 8 on “The World Wide Web.” Most books written by moms of autistic children usually contain lists of therapies and websites that can seem overly-diplomatic, noting down every therapy out there for the parent to sift through without any critical analysis of the therapy, the way it came to be in the vast array of (and history) autism “treatments,” and the controversies and potential dangers surrounding them. In contrast, Riley-Hall offers some warnings and states the pros and cons of the many websites that parents must navigate when entering the autism community. “There are very distinct divisions within the autism community. So you have to know that whatever you read is fueled by an underlying position or philosophy about autism: what it is, what causes it, and how best to treat it..unfortunately there is very little middle ground in between.” (p.131). When I first started reading books about autism by parents ten years ago, I wish someone had provided me with that caveat.

In reviewing her list, it is apparent that Riley-Hall is recommending sites that support and accommodate the autistic as “complete,” an encourages society to value the autistic person. This book is part “how to” book and part memoir that makes Riley-Hall’s book accessible for the parent of an autistic girl. Best of all, it’s all about acceptance.

Best of luck everyone in prepping for another school year!

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.

Guilty Or Not Guilty? Is That The Question?

Filed Under (Travel) by Estee on 02-02-2012

As I begin to come out of my jet-lagged delirium from my thirty hour flight from Sri Lanka, I can talk more about my trip. I realized that yesterday when I was answering a friend’s questions about it. As I talk, the thoughts crystallize. It is only now that I’m beginning to realize that I was on the other half of the world; only now that I realize how much I miss it and want to see more.

“You can do it again,” said my friend, shifting her briefcase from one hand to the other at the doorway. I am sitting waiting for Adam to finish his O.T. session. She is also an occupational therapist who worked with Adam for several years, but I regard her as a friend since I’ve known her for so long. I suddenly felt a quiver inside my belly, a sick feeling. I realized, as I heard Adam laughing in the next room, that I longed to go back as much as I long to hear that laughter. When I travel, I long to be back with Adam. Later at home, I found myself googling “mother’s guilt over taking vacations.”

I’m pretty good at dealing with mother-guilt, that is, I can put things in perspective. Adam’s father and I discussed Adam going to Disney with him to break up the time I was going to be away. On the one hand, I was a bit sad that I wasn’t able to see Adam’s reactions to his first visit, yet on the other, I did not want to deprive Adam of the opportunity. I have to be honest — it, in part, appeased my guilt and anxiety over leaving him. While I was away, I was so happy to see beaming pictures of Adam there. Apparently Adam had some difficulty adjusting to the hotel room, but he loved the rides. It is but one of the issues arising from moving houses especially since the divorce — Adam’s issues with his environments really started at this time.

While at a place called Ulpotha in Sri Lanka, there were two European children running around. They had arrived after a visit to Israel, where their mother was from. Ulpotha is a yoga retreat in the jungle run by the villagers. The parents were hired to manage the guests for six weeks (Ulpotha is only open to the public for a small part of the year). I watched the children play freely, despite the poisonous snakes and other creatures. They were having a ball and socialized with the guests. I had wished and wondered about whether Adam could make the trip. What would living with monkeys and villagers who take care of this self-sustaining village be able to provide for him, I thought?

I can’t say that I wasn’t having some “the rice patty is greener on the other side” moments. What would getting away from the pressures and superficialities of Western life teach Adam? What would cultivating food and housing and belonging to a community provide for us? I kept thinking of the isolated box we live in back home, and how neighbours rarely talk to each other, and felt dismayed. What kind of community do we really have, I ask myself as an adult who in part continues to perpetuate the kind of city I live in. While we have our conveniences, I believe all of us feel this lack. I kept wondering about my own ability to live in such circumstances and felt in awe of Rupert Isaccson, the author of Horseboy, who traveled all the way to Mongolia with his autistic son, Rowan.

I did have moments of longing for Adam more when I saw the children, as much as I knew that I deserved and needed my time away. When one of the parent’s asked why I didn’t bring Adam, I didn’t want to get into a lengthy explanation about parent schedules or how such a short trip would make it difficult to travel with him as an autistic person. Traveling across the globe with him would require more practice on longer flights, breaking up the journey and longer stays in each location. The diet is different too, so it would take a lot of preparation.

So I guess there a are a couple of issues here: imagining some future travel with Adam in order to expand our experience, and feeling guilty or even guilty for not feeling guilty. Perhaps there are so many lessons for me to learn for myself and the way I live, and in my efforts to create a meaninful life with Adam.

Return Home From Sri Lanka

Filed Under (Adam, Estee, Travel) by Estee on 31-01-2012

I have serious jet lag. I returned on Saturday, after supper time. It was a journey of thirty hours. The route home was Colombo-Bankok-Beijing-Toronto. On the last day, I realized I caught my first Sri Lankan cold and I suffered all the way home, making the thirty hours feel like sixty. Seriously, you can’t tell the difference after the first twenty-four.

I returned home to my cherub. Adam was waiting for me and the transition from his father back to my home was a happy one. I was worried the little guy would be pissed with me for being gone twelve days. The opposite was true. I tried to avoid making face-to-face contact with Adam, since I had come down with a serious sniffle, muted by a continuous in-flight feed of Contact C. He would have none of that. Adam grabbed my face, our round fleshy cheeks squished together, and he continued to kiss mine all over. Ah well.

We are happily reunited and I am on the mend. I woke at midnight tonight and forced myself to say in bed until three this morning. There is a wisp of white snow on the ground and I gather today will be another gray one. I am recalling all the sights and sounds of my trip, especially the warm light and emerald colour of rice patty fields.

I will send my cherub off to school in a bit. Later, I will hopefully find some words and sentences that do justice to my first trip to Asia. In twelve whril-wind days, major flight time, and time zone changes, I still feel silenced by overwhelming differences. My experience is still blend of flickering images and sensory recollections. As I blend back into my daily life here, I realize it will take me a few more days to articulate what I’ve experienced. I know full well that I’ve only taken a small sip of the land of Serendib.


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.

Wretches and Jabberers

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Inclusion, Travel) by Estee on 19-08-2010


I was very excited when Pascal Cheng told me that Larry Bissonnette and he, both of whom I brought to Toronto several years ago, and Tracy Thresher were traveling the world to change views about autism. They travel to Finland, Japan and Sri Lanka to change minds, attitudes and debunk myths which was documented in the film Wretches and Jabberers. We have learned from anthropologists like Roy Grinker in Unstrange Minds, among others, that the views about autism around the world can be less forgiving because of cultural differences.

 Adam was diagnosed at 19 months of age as a hyperlexic, “high-functioning” autistic boy. Over the years, however, he shows ability, is very bright and intelligent, but Adam has real communication difficulties and more “classic” aspects of autism…so dx is always precarious in the early years. I think of the very different experiences between Adam and Larry — how the world has changed so for autistic people and I am grateful for the generousity of autistic adults. 

As a parent in this for just over six years now, I have to say thank you to everyone who put forth this effort. I often dream of Adam traveling the world, talking to other people, helping other people. That’s my dream, I suppose, and not necessarily his, but that’s what parents tend to do. So even if Adam chooses another path,  I am thrilled that Larry and Tracy are forging a path for all the “Adams” who will grow up very soon.

“We are more like you than not,” says Larry in the following trailer.

That’s for certain.

Neurological Nirvana

Filed Under (Adam, Communication, Sensory Differences, Single Parenthood, Transitions, Travel) by Estee on 05-04-2010

A continuance of my last post “My Very Important Job,” I want to talk about how Adam becomes very relaxed by the ocean. The sound of the waves, of course and that beautiful sunshine — everyone was out on the beach yesterday on Easter Sunday, digging in the sand and laying around like beached whales. Adam I spend our days together and I take him to restaurants and new places to explore. I take Adam many places in order for him to become accustomed to them. He also enjoys new places especially when he’s relaxed. It is my goal as Adam is able to travel — although we have had difficult moments in our eight years. Yet I’d have to say that the difficult ones are rather rare, which might be why I tend to spotlight them when they occur. It’s funny, really, because as I talk to other parents, it seems to me that other “typical” children have had heart-wrenching tantrums. When Adam is distressed, what is heart-wrenching for me is not the “behaviour” but rather the fact that he can’t tell me with words what he needs. As his mother, I’ve had to learn to never take Adam’s movements, gestures, even types of cries for granted. They are all important pieces of information to me.

The kind of transitions that have been happening such as moving into a new home during a divorced situation is not fun for any child. Adam had his moments of extreme anxiety. In fact, it went on from the late fall until late February. A long stretch like that made me wonder if I’d ever see him smile again. Even though I knew it deep down in my heart, I did experience those moments of absolute panic.

Being in the south with Adam reminds me how anchored he is to me; how much he needs and wants me, not to mention how much he wants to see his mother smile. Watching how much he reciprocates, plays with me, wants to go everywhere with me, and talks (yes talks — he is very verbal down here this trip), is testament to the need for quality time spent with mom doing easy things. It’s also proof to me that I have to work on my own happiness and spend time doing the things I need to do to nurture it because I am not just doing it for myself. It has taken me two years to begin to realize this.

During that transition from fall to late February, there were days when he was so stressed that Adam didn’t even seem like Adam anymore. If I were a parent who would use this kind of lingo (which of course many of you know I am not), it may have seemed like “he wasn’t even in the room,” (which we know that of course autistic people are aware despite what others think of their behaviour, but this seemed like the appearance of a what Kristina Chew has coined the “neurological storm,” and I like that expression very much in terms of describing what these moments are like). For others who distill autism into that robot-type of cold person, Adam may have appeared “distant” — that we were “losing” him. He had lost all of his words, even. For Adam in particular, who is very affable and connected to people he knows well, this was a stark contrast. Yet, maybe mom was similar. Maybe it seemed like mom wasn’t really in the room anymore as I was trying to find the ground beneath my feet again after separation. I wonder how I may have appeared to my son.

Here, happy, relaxed and spending all of our time together, Adam has spoken the following:

Scenario 1: Browsing through a Payless Shoe Store looking straight at us: “Are you done yet?” Now for a parent with a more verbal child, this might seem like a nagging comment. For a parent with a child with few phrases, we were so happy, laughing hysterically!

Scenario 2: Getting ready to go but mom is trying to find her keys: “Let’s go, let’s go! Time to go, mom!!!”

Scenario 3: As he is doing something contentedly and I am trying to rush him out the front door: “Be patient with me.”

Scenario 4: After swimming and tugging on a wet bathing suit: “It hurts me.”

There are many more phrases coming out of his mouth down here in South Florida. He is not speaking in paragraphs, but such sentences are really nice surprises that this mom obviously doesn’t take for granted. Of course, Adam also has lots of physical activity down here. For a child like Adam who always needs to move around, a full day of swimming, running on the beach, climbing and swinging at the park, and going for long walks all seem to be another key to organizing that precious neurological system of his. Mind you, I’m not sure how to replicate the extent of this — the sheer quantity of exercise back in Toronto. Yet it’s another clue into how Adam needs to organize his neurology and attests to the things that make him feel happy and calm.

Travel and The Autistic Child

Filed Under (Single Parenthood, To Get To The Other Side, Travel) by Estee on 06-01-2010

Curiousity is a wonderful human trait. Adam is autistic and while he needs some regularity and structure and familiar environments, he also needs to explore new ones. He is curious. He likes to explore — in his own time — new foods, new things, new places. I pride myself on having traveled with Adam even when it wasn’t easy to travel with him. I do it with him as a single parent now, and his dad and I did it together when we were married. While I was tentative in Adam’s early years of flying him as far as Africa, I do not rule it out as he grows older. Just because Adam is autistic does not mean that he should not see the world. It’s how we orchestrate the process and itinerary that’s important. As a parent, I know I also have to be prepared for anything. Too many expectations can foil the best of plans.

We’ve had great flights and not-so-great-flights. I can never predict or prepare enough. I have learned from Adam to give ourselves plenty of time, to pack his bag with his favorite toys, foods, and DVD’s. I generally know that early morning flights seem to be easier than mid-to-late afternoon flights, although like everything, there are exceptions to that rule. Adam can be happy and calm as I “work” the flight with him. As a parent of an autistic child, I have learned to stay on top of Adam’s needs before any anxiety is triggered, for once triggered, it can be difficult to calm down. So as a parent, I don’t get to read the paper or a good book when I’m on a flight with Adam, but I still believe the effort is worth it. Travel, like autism and life, is a journey we cannot perfect. We cannot always predict how bumpy the flight may be. We can’t predict delays that are a normal part of travel. We can’t predict the mood our child might be in as much as we cannot predict our own. We can, however, try to prepare ourselves and do our best to keep calm in challenging circumstances.

I’m talking about travel because not only do I thrive on it myself, but as a single mom I look forward to exploring the world with my autistic son. We’ve been to Alaska, we’ve been to the U.S. and the Caribbean. I am looking forward to taking Adam to Italy where I have a feeling he will love it for the sights, the gentle sounds of a murmuring town square, the Gelato, tomatoes and salami — not to to mention the flocks of pigeons he can chase and the magnificent art. It’s my dream to take Adam abroad. But it’s not my dream to endure a difficult flight. It’s my problem, I know. I don’t like to see Adam suffer. I think I have to just get things organized (like rent one place and make it our “home base” for several weeks). I am admittedly tentative about the overnight flight to Europe. Everyone tells me that this should be the easiest because children “can sleep on an overnight flight.” They don’t know my Adam. I remember that twelve-hour day from Alaska back to Toronto where Adam was beside himself. We learned that Gravol didn’t put him to sleep as it sometimes does for other children. I’ve learned that Chlorohydrate doesn’t settle Adam before an EEG. I’ve learned that Melatonin won’t relax him on a flight, either. Adam, my Adam, is my prize-fighter. If Adam is anxious and does not want to sleep, giving him sedatives may have the opposite effect. He may metabolize medication differently. Or, he just too anxious, period.

I will eventually book that trip to Italy at some point, deal with my fears and see what happens. I think I’m a well-prepared mom and it’s the times when I’m most prepared that I find easiest for both Adam and I. I’ve found some good suggestions on traveling with the autistic child (see below) that others may find useful and I’ve employed about all of these strategies. But I’ve not yet traveled afar with the little one and I notice that no one else has written a thing on the Transatlantic flight and the autistic child. I assume (hope, really) that some autistic adults may have some suggestions on helping a prize sleep-fighter enjoy his mid-air travels. Like so much information we seek as parents of autistic children, there simply isn’t enough to support us on our travels in life and abroad.

Travel Tip Sites:
Autism Family Travel
Coping With Autism (on Vacation)
How To Prepare For Traveling With A Child With Autism
Caring for Kids — Air Travel


About Me


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