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.

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?

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.

Autistic Girl Taken By Province

Filed Under (Activism, Discrimination, Wandering) by Estee on 08-07-2011

Please read Kristina’s and help return Ayn, an autistic girl to her father. They live in British Columbia. Ayn has been taken because of wandering.

Like Ayn, Adam is nine years old and has bolted. We work so hard to take care of and nuture our children and Foster Care is a devastating option. Ayn’s father Derek fears that Ayn is being drugged to sedate her. It may take up to a year to get Ayn back, states Derek’s laywer. Let me describe why I believe this is discrimination against autistics and their families.

As a parent of an autistic child who clearly is anxious about the world about him, which lends to wandering and other behaviours as I’ve observed, I can think of no other person on this planet more equipped to protect my son than myself and his immediate family. We live in a world that wants to make Adam “normal.” He must go to school, and when he goes, he has to exert more energy than other children just to cope. Because Adam is barely verbal, but otherwise very bright, he cannot speak out. Instead, he reacts.

Our schools, while they attempt to accommodate, simply have not been making the grade. As I’ve researched school options and program options in Ontario, our options are few and far between. Every program seeks to normalize Adam. Precious few wish to spend the time it takes to see his abilities and build upon them.

This requires systemic change and a real listening to and understanding of autistic people. May I ask what schools hire autistic adults to work with autistic children in the classroom or consult on school boards for autism programs? Please, write if you know of one here in Ontario. Instead, non autistic educators believe they know better — they believe they know how to teach autistic people. Even we parents sometimes think we know better. It takes us out of our comfort zone to be patient with an autistic nature. Think about the patience and effort that people like Ayn and Adam have to produce in dealing with ours? Sure the toolbox of methods work here and there, but what is happening to our children, to Derek and Ayn, is not an accommodation. This is what we seek. Understanding, accommodation — not separating us from the people we love.

Every single day, Adam and I face these challenges together. We fight for better services, be they ABA or AAC and for all kinds of acccommodations that help autistic people contribute to society as autistic people. I know we are not always listened to. We are not heard. No one believes it’s a good thing, perhaps, to be autistic. Few want to bother because autism is seen as our contemporary problem. If we can’t fix the problem, we have failed. I say we are failing autistic people.

Must we also live in fear, like Derek, of our children being taken away? As parents, we cannot control everything that our children do, or what happens to them. This is true of all children, not just autistic children. Being autistic seems to be a reason to discriminate against us.

As Adam himself goes through many changes in his life (we’ve been checking off the list of “life’s top stressors”), I’ve been re-reading Temple Grandin’s book Emergence: Labeled Autistic. She describes similar behaviours to Adam like fixations with doors, difficulty with communication or inconsistent communication. She describes her twitches (like Adam’s) as “panic attacks” or anxiety.

While I’m processing a lot of this lately because we are in the midst of this ourselves, I see an urgent need for others to understand us. I see a need to reduce some of the expecations, and for calm environments. I see a need to simplify our lives and let things be sometimes. We are so busy dealing with what our kids must or should do, that I truly believe that this only brings on more stress. Every morning when I wake, I wonder how we can simplify our lives, and wonder why it seems to be ever more complicated. This is the commitment many of us parents of autistic children make every day: to stand by our children and fight for their rights to be included in our society, not taken away or segregated.

Every autistic adult who has written a book discusses their panic at this over-stimulated world we live in. Donna Williams, Temple Grandin are really accessible reads.

Let me take some quotes from Temple’s book that may help describe what I call now the “flight response” of Adam, and perhaps children like Ayn. I know there is no scientific evidence to support my theory yet, but I really suspect that wandering and fleeing in many cases has a lot to do with this anxiety:

“The real world became more unpredictable. I longed for relief, but I was trapped in physical distress. Stress showed in my speech, my actions, my relationship with others.”

Adam’s bolting is associated with doors recently. He is fixated on them and has to check what’s behind each. This has calmed a bit since the end of school, but when he’s anxious it can start up again and this is how he can suddenly disappear, even if we hold his hand — he can slip out so fast. Yes, our house has locks from the inside, like Derek’s. I’ve bought I.D. for him, even a harness (which we have not yet used, but it’s here just in case), and we are looking into a GPS. We have programs and social stories and are trying to help Adam in every way we can with his stress. Re-reading Temple’s own accounts, seems to have re-affirmed my suspicions about Adam, and helps me to consider various options for him to grow and develop as a fulfilled autistic individual:

Then, in chapel one Sunday, I sat on the folding chair, imprisoned by the school’s rules of attendance and bored…bored…bored. When the minister began preaching, I escaped into my inner world of non-stimulation. A world pastel and peaceful. Suddenly, a loud knock intruded upon my inner world. Startled, I looked up and saw the minister rap on the lecturn. “Knock,” he said, “and He will answer.”

Who, I wondered. I sat up straighter.

“I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shalle be saved (John 10:7.9). The minister stepped out from behind the lecturn and stood in front of the congregation. He said, “Before each of you there is a door opening into heaven. Open it and be saved.” He turned and walked back to the lecturn. “Hymn 306, ‘Bless This House.'”

I barely heard the hymn number. Like many autistic children, everything was literal to me. My mind centered on one thing. Door. A door opening to heaven. A door through which I could pass and be saved! The voices sang out and when I heard the words, “Bless this door that it may prove/Ever open to joy and love,” I knew I had to find that door.

For the next few days I viewed each door as a possible opening to love and joy. The closet door, the bathroom door, the front door, the stable door — all were scrutinized and rejected as the door. Then one day walking back to my room from dinner, I noticed that an addition to our dorm was being constructed…I climbed to the fourth floor….And there was the door! It was a little open door that opened out onto the roof….A feeling of relief flooded over me.

Ayn wandered to a yard with a trampoline. Adam returned to the church from where he escaped…through doors and then back inside them again. While wandering is a very serious issue, are our children seeking their escape? Are they seeking relief? Joy? We must keep our children safe, and I can attest that we are doing everything in our power to do so, like Ayn’s father, Derek, who loves his daughter so very much. But because Ayn is autistic, and perhaps because Derek is on social assistance, she has been taken away from him. Is this some sort of sick cost-saving measure instead of providing the services that Derek and Ayn might need? I can imagine the pain he and Ayn must be feeling right now.

Our society must work so much harder to understand what we as parents face and what autistic people face. We must be able to share our challenges in order to survive them, without fear that our children will be taken from us. I want to be proud of the country I live in in how it supports autistic individuals and families. This incident does not make me proud, or rest easy.

Let me share one more quote from Temple Grandin, lest society think that autistics can’t understand what’s happening to them:

As an autistic child, difficulty in speaking was one of my greatest problems. Although I could understand everything people said, my responses were limited. I’d try, but most of the time no spoken words came. It was similar to stuttering; the words just wouldn’t come out…”

and,

Too many therapists and psychologically-trained people believe that if a child is allowed to indulge his fixations, irreparable harm will result. I do not think this is true in all cases. Fixations can be guided into something constructive. Talking the fixation away can be unwise. Just as a bad habit is expunged only to be replaced by another bad habit, so it is with fixation. But making a positive action out of a fixation can be rewarding.

Maybe Ayn needs that trampoline. Maybe a neighbour can give her that access. Social services should give Ayn back to her father as soon as possible. Parents and autistic people need accommodation and better supports. Foster care will not give Ayn many options and will likely create irreparable damage. Ayn is a person-first and a very lovely little autistic girl, I might add. This is the stuff that makes being a parent of an autistic child, challenging. Let me reiterate: we need understanding and support. Not punishment.

Please sign this petition to help bring Ayn home.

The Morning After Losing Adam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Adam

Filed Under (Activism, Wandering) by Estee on 14-05-2011

I’m going to write this raw and unedited.

Have you ever been so scared that you literally wet yourself? I did today. I lost Adam.

I took him to Sportball. It takes place in a church — they don’t lock the doors. All the kids are special needs. The gym is in the basement. I usually go and his instructor has responsibility for a bunch of kids. We’ve not really had difficulty like this before, but I could see it coming. I ordered the shoe tags, a GPS, but they haven’t arrived yet. Adam’s father reported that Adam tried to bolt last weekend.

So I turned to Adam’s instructor to address the issue. In just one second (no exaggeration), Adam was gone. I knew I had to move quickly because Adam is so fast, but they tried to reassure me he was ok, so I thought they moved a little slowly. I ran around the entire church — full of rooms, nooks and crannies. The front doors to the outside were locked. But there were more doors. An alarm went off. I ran outside screaming for Adam, I ran back in to look in between pews. He was gone.

Someone called 911. I peed my pants, running and running, hoping my desperate voice would trigger his tiny “here I am,” voice, but nothing. One more run back into the main sanctuary, and there he was under the cross, peering behind the curtain, on the altar.

I grabbed him and couldn’t stop crying…sorry it’s hard for me to write because I’m starting to cry again. Adults came in to say that they saw him running outside the church. He could have run out to a very busy street alongside the church. He could have been really hurt. No one stopped him. No one thought of it. Even those who knew him. I guess people thought we must have been nearby.

I held him so tight when I found him on the altar. I’ve called my team and my parents because I need support right now.

Adam’s impulse to explore, especially go through every door, has become insatiable. I do have extra inside locks on every door of my house, and lucky too because I can see he’s trying to unlock the regular ones. I’ve managed to keep us safe and myself sane in my home, but now I see I have to deal with this aggressively and he cannot be left unattended. I’d also wish to suggest for programs for special needs kids (or maybe all kids) that the doors be locked so kids can’t just disappear this easily. It seems to be a huge oversight and a lack of accommodation.

I’m so glad I have him because after five minutes of searching and calling out frantically, I thought I was going to be one of those parents you hear about on the news. I don’t want to come that close ever again. Not only will he always have a shadow with him now, there will be more aggressive teaching about safety and more positive reinforcement for staying and asking for permission to explore. I also implemented intuitively (and later read) that it’s really important to take your kids on the same routes all the time. They will usually want the same routes and can either be found or will find their way home. As Adam ran outside, he managed to find an open door back into the church.

It was Adam who found his way back. I found my way back to him.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

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