We got up a little earlier today to rush to get Adam’s makeup on for Halloween here in Toronto. Adam decided to be a happy bear, so we came up with Happy Panda – it’s also a story about mindfulness that we sometimes read. It just feels right to show a happy little autistic guy, a preteen no less, who types to talk and gets excited like every other kid about Halloween. Adam is part of the whole process in deciding what he wants to be. Since Adam started typing at the age of 4, and is now 12, he has become more able to self-advocate and tell us a lot of what it is like to be Adam.
Here he is (below) inspecting my make up job… I must admit I wasn’t sure if he liked it when it was all done… and I didn’t have time to discuss it with him as we were rushing out the door. But he seems to be thinking about it here:
Alas, in this next shot, Adam is a Happy Panda posing for the camera. Today at his (inclusive) school he will go trick and treating around to each classroom. It’s raining in Toronto, so it is unlikely he will go out tonight with his dad… I’ll miss Halloween with Adam this year. It’s the first year ever I’ll miss it with him.
I hope all autistic families will enjoy their Halloweens if they want to. I never believe in forcing our kids to do things that are expected, but at the same time, I also believe in inclusion and participation in ways that the kids can and want to participate. I always tried not to expect too much when Adam was little. We stayed in one Halloween when he preferred to hand out candies rather than going door-to-door. That remains a really fond memory because Adam chose to do this and he enjoyed it so much. Before he could self-advocate with words, I gave Adam an array of choices, making costumes that reflected his interests. Since Adam was deemed hyperlexic and loved numbers and letters, I stitched letters and numbers to his clothes and named him “Alphabet Boy” – indeed my kind of superhero. This year, it helps a lot in all activities to make up our own social stories so that Adam knows what is expected, and I have him participate in writing them by making choices before decisions are made. This can involve all the steps that are made from ringing a door bell to what to say, to how many doors Adam can knock on so he feels a little more secure about how the evening is constructed. It’s also part of why I like the process of making Halloween costumes (although I’m not that talented at it, I still enjoy it) because it gets him involved and a chance to anticipate and be a part of any given event.
Two years ago, he wanted to be a ghost, and we managed to make together a Tim Burtonesque version… he loved that one; in fact I think he’s channeling Tim Burton again this year! Here’s a photo of that costume:
And another year, he fell in love with a cowboy costume from the store – he wore that one two years in a row:
It’s been a joy to watch Adam grow and develop over the years. Having an autistic child is wonderful to me, the challenges included as they have encouraged me to think outside of the box. Let’s all make our Halloweens what we want or need them to be, and find our contentment with that!
I am adding this press release as the founder and director of The Autism Acceptance Project and critical disability scholar who supports autistic-driven agency and political mandates for autism. I would like our Canadian agencies to consider the same and question how we might also urge our politicians to mandate autism agencies to do the same. Please share:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 29, 2014
Autistic Self Advocacy Network applauds letter from Congressional champions urging increased representation of autistic adults in Autism CARES Act funded programs.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Autistic Self Advocacy Network applauded five leading congressional champions for autism services this morning for authoring a letter sent yesterday to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The letter, signed by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), Rep. Tammy Duckworth (IL-8), Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), Rep. Jackie Speier (CA-14) and Rep. Paul Tonko (NY-20), expressed concern with lack of representation of autistic people in programs funded by the Autism CARES Act, recently passed legislation governing federal autism programs.
The letter notes the severe underrepresentation of autistic people on the Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), which is responsible for overseeing all federal funds used on autism research, and in federally-funded programs on autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. The letter also expresses concern over the disproportionately small percentage of research funding that focuses on quality of services (2.4%) and adults on the autism spectrum (1.5%).
“HHS should take the opportunity posed by the Autism CARES legislation to address long-standing inequities in federal autism policy,” said Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “We applaud Rep. Schakowsky and the other signatories to this letter for their leadership in urging real inclusion of autistic people in federal autism policymaking.”
The signatories to the letter recommended increasing representation of autistic people and organizations run by them on the IACC, ensuring that autistic people participate in training programs funded through the law and other measures designed to enhance participation of autistic people in programs designed to serve them.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for Autistic people. ASAN’s supporters include Autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators and friends. Its activities include public policy advocacy, community engagement to encourage inclusion and respect for neurodiversity, leadership trainings, cross-disability advocacy, and the development of Autistic cultural activities.
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.
Here is one video I want to share in support of autistic people with Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher. If you haven’t yet watched Wretches and Jabberers, you can access the entire movie on YouTube.
Here they are at a panel at Chapman University. As for my son, he is asked to type independently by his teachers for work. At home, I support him to communicate more complicated conversation. Some days he is fully independent and other days he isn’t. I believe that provided supported communication is a substantive right as it is for the Deaf community to have interpreters to interact in society. I view this only as a way to view how autistic people are not granted the right to supported communication or many forms of assistance or devices as a right because the ABA lobby in Canada takes the attention away from these rights.
(Also note: such a comparator group was not used in Auton v. B.C. because autism was cited only as a medical condition that should receive remediation under Medicare…which is very problematic on many levels for substantive equality, and which deserves more attention than I’m writing in this post. The Auton case is an example of adverse effect discrimination, that is, not recognizing the right to be different, but instead, simply put, that autistic people need to be remediated or normalized before having the right to be included and/or educated and/or to participate in society. The case is so problematic that I encourage people to read Michelle Dawson’s factum. I also drew attention to this in Moore v. British Columbia, 2012 where this adverse effect was acknowledged in the factum. I have also written a series of papers on the law which may be added to this website at a later date).
My son’s speech (the oh so important goal of most people for better or worse, and often to the detriment of some autistics) happens to become more fluent as he is supported. He’ll begin to type a sentence, and then more able to complete what he’s started by speech. This shows that it acts, for him anyway, very much as a prompt. An important one.
Enjoy watching this in support of autistic people:
How can The Toronto Star and by many autism charities address the diverse needs and views of the autism community? My concern is that there is little (if not any) of critical disability perspectives. Typically, journalists run to autism “experts” with medical backgrounds and this becomes the only lens through which we have come to understand and view autism. Autism, a classification imagined and made by humans, has become reified. This essentialist view is the most troubling for our community.
My questions of late are: How can we facilitate a respectful discourse among autistic people with different experiences? How can we include non-autistic family members into the dialogue who are also stakeholders, but whose very involvement in autism charity (which directs research) can be considered based in positivism and reflective of an imbalance of power? In other words, concerning the latter, as non-autistic parents and medical “experts,” we impose a concept of normalcy that we are discovering through autistic communication of experience that, in fact, is different from how many of us non-autistic people view things. We (typicals) consider our viewpoint over and above the experiences of autistic people. We produce knowledge that is language-based and that is taken as more true and accurate. I’m also very curious how we all appropriate such impositions upon our own identities? For instance, if you are given a narrative about yourself (autistic or not) and how you must be, do you then turn it inward (this has also been refered to as internalized ableism or oppression)? How does this effect the questions posed here?
Autism charities, researchers and news media need to consider these questions to reflect the broader autism discourse, even when many views run counter to their marketing campaigns and economic research interests (or should I say, especially when). By doing so, we may discover ways to better address the real needs of autisic people specifically. I’d like to see autism charities take up this dialectic discourse. It doesn’t have deadlines or meet fundraising goals, but this is what our community needs the most. I get concerned when autistic individuals are folded into big charities largely populated by non-autistic interests.
Feminist research has pointed to a constructive confrontation. “bell hooks (1990) declares the need for ‘meaningful contestation and constructive confrontation between different perspectives and urges the creation of safe spaces where critical dialogues can take place between individuals who have not traditionally been compelled…to speak with one another.”(Hess Biber, Leavy, 2007)… constructing a space that is open to dialogue across… voices are granted equal air time, we actually build community…” This comes from feminist research methods which has changed the way we have been able to do research. Both feminist empiricism and emancipatory methodology can provide useful examples to the way we approach autism research and community.
Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber & Patricia Lina Leavy, Feminist Research Practice, London, Sage Publications, 2007.
The purpose of the title is from historical readings that the disabled in history were displaced and living on the margins of society. Who were considered/are considered valued members of society? Socities have been obsessed with placing the disabled into a variety of contexts that justifies human existence, or fears (demons, monsters, mad, deviants) making the normal the privileged members. Without a comparative measure, as it were, what would we humans deem ourselves to be?
I have a series of questions that I’ll be considering (probably for a lifetime). Feel free to try and contribute thoughts in the comment box.
Pro/claiming Autistic Identity:
Is claiming biological identify leading to another possible eugenics movement? Is there a danger to biological self-identification? How important are self-identification and self-advocacy and pride-movements?
Are pride movements perpetuating the dis/abled dichotomies that already oppress? Do you think they have a positive purpose? Should there be a point at which we stop advancing pride movements, in other words, move beyond them? When is a good time to do so?
How important is the label autism to accommodation if autism is a social construct? (It is). Where “special” and enforcing “inclusion” have already proved challenging, maybe even impossible thus far, is it so because we continue to place the disabled out of the confines of the norm. In other words, are we continuing to perpetuate a false dichotomy that does little to value and serve, but more to segregate and isolate? By wanting inclusion, we are saying we are excluded? Does this stance further the goal itself, or not any longer?
Who Gets To Produce Knowledge About Autism?
The DSMV, behavioural analysis and observation, and the categorization of people.
Who gets to diagnose whom? Who gets to produce knowledge and categories about autism? In the past, and to a large extent today, it is non-autistic or “normal” people and we now witness a gradual inclusion of disabled “voices” to this mix. Do disabled individuals appropriate notions of impairment and abnormality enforced by long-held categories made originally by people who have not had disabilities? After all, autistic people are still largely tokenized minorities among autism charities, autism committees, and as participants in autism research studies.
Accommodation and Acceptance:
To what extent is the citing of needs/impairments an important part (or not) of acknowledging that we are all part of the abled-disabled continuum, which herein, I have already parsed?
Do you think the term autism and/or disability will exist one hundred years from now? Or are we a society that simply wears the same dress, just in different colours?
Have we learned anything from autistic self-advocates that assist us to simply accept autistic individuals and value the right of all people to exist, be educated, and be valued, no matter what level of disability, in society?
Utopias and ideals have perpetuated individual and societal notions about what we should be – what we are versus what we aspire to be. To what extent may this continue to be a driving force (as in survivial of the fittest) under an capitalist/economic lens, and where are we now with this “force” in viewing the disabled as part of this? As disability has always been a part of human existence, despite eugenics movement’s attempts at normalizing society and eradicating “deviant” people from the norms, how far have we come to accepting, embracing and valuing human difference? After all, while the eugenicists caused great harm to many people, and have continued to do so as a legacy, they didn’t succeed in eradicating human difference.*
*In reference to the eugenics movement from Davis, “Constructing Normalcy” in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability Deafness and the Body, pp. 23-49, 1995:
“The conflation of disability with depravity itself expressed itself in the formulation ‘defective class.’ As the president of the University of Wisconsin declared after World War One, ‘we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.’ At it must be reiterated that the eugenics movement was not stocked with eccentrics…Rockefeller, Churchill, Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes”…among a longer list. Some food for thought when thinking about such questions.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, or how high you rise. One day you will get the call. The question is, how will you respond?” — African American U, Senior Administrator
Adam left for camp this morning. Last week, he did well at his piano recital. His lessons have been adapted for him — colour coding left and right hands, bass and treble clef lines, to give a sense of the many adaptations we’ve learned. Not only have we adapted lessons for him so that he may learn in “typical” ways, but I also asked the teacher to let him explore the piano on his own, as well as have her play for him. I became a musician when I was very young, and a neighbour let me bang away at the keys doing whatever I wanted.
I was proud that Adam was able to attend and play well at his recital. I asked that he make his little bow, and sure, everyone thought that was sweet. Afterwards, as there was another special needs person as part of the concert, I was noticing faces as he sang — his articulation was challenged. I didn’t see gleaming “ain’t that sweet” smiles. I saw strained faces. Not until the children who were fluent with well-pitched voices were singing did the “ain’t that adorable” look beam as high as the church rafters. That effected me a lot, and I pay attention to these subtleties every day. I don’t think people realize the subversive effects of a mere countenance. I, at least, read faces well. Adam seems to pick up on vibes, but that’s my assumption after knowing him for so long.
Last week, Adam was more verbal — asking me “what are you doing?” when I was at work at my desk and he wanted to play. In addition to a successful recital and these questions, we had a “good” week. Having Adam ask me a rare question is exciting. I am happy when he gets more verbal, types on his iPad, and now, starts to ask me questions. When the camp bus came for a visit last week and Adam got upset afterwards, he typed (independently), “why is bus going?” It shows that his world is expanding by his growing ability to communicate. I find myself relieved because I think it will make his life more fulfilling, if not easier in a world that favours the able-bodied and the fluently verbal.
Two days after his verbal “spike,” however, something that comes and goes but improves steadily all the time (akin to a graph with a steady climb overall, but with monthly plateaus and slight dips), and also possibly correlating to the end of school, the transition to camp, a possible cold or allergies (get the picture?), Adam began to twitch more and he lost his ability to talk for a couple of days. He is better at being able to type a few words when he is under stress. He couldn’t do that at all before.
While I still worry, mostly if I see him uncomfortable when it happens, I’m getting better at waiting him out. Whatever is effecting him needs to be processed by him in his own way. Within a couple of days, although the twitching slowly abated. He started to smile and become more verbal after a couple of days of the most intense part of it. I really do not understand what is happening to him neurologically and neither does anyone else. Only some autistic people can give me a sense of it. There is no guru or expert or scientist who has truly “discovered” what causes Adam to tic and twitch the way he does. We know of similarities in other disabilities. Adam was tested for seizures and at least on the day he was tested, it showed negative. These are but some of the things we don’t fully understand about Adam and what we refer to as his autism.
As his mother, I’m well aware of my bias, in spite of my enduring “acceptance” of him. Bias and ideas are so deep-rooted in us that acceptance is something we have to work on every day. (Boy, would I love to read that caveat in someone’s research paper on autism). As Adam’s mother, I realize that although I love him dearly and accept him as he is, it is still difficult to resist the temptation to praise Adam’s “normal” feats and accomplishments only, and not recognize his autistic ones. Like all of us, we are under such a strong ableist or “normalist” influence that we don’t praise, cite, recognize autistic-ness as often as we need to.
We need so much more of a new kind of autism research — one that captures autistic accomplishment without sensationalizing autism. Too often any achievement by an autistic individual gets refered to as “genius.” While in some cases in may be extraordinary, we do this because we are still not looking at autism as a whole in the way we should look at all of humanity. We fracture autism into little bits and pieces as much as we end up doing people.
When I attended Autreat too long ago now (I am due for a revisit), I purchased fifteen years of workshop notes and presentations. I remember when I attended being giddy that there were workshops for autistic kids on how to make their own stim toys. Autreat, founded by Jim Sinclair, who is also autistic, is run by and for autistic people.
For months now since he started in an autism school especiallly, despite my praise of Adam for his feats, I still wonder how I can nurture his autistic-self. So I went downstairs and dug the old material up. Here’s a clue of what I wish to study more about:
How to Play With Dolls: For Kids and Adults Jim Sinclair, disability educator and consultant, coordinator of Autism Network International
For purposes of this workshop, a “doll” may be any inanimate object that we play with by imagining it to have aspects of personhood. This includes the traditional toy-human type of doll, as well as toy animals, and any other toys or objects that our imaginations transform into living entities. In this intergenerational workshop, we will share and explore different ways that autistic people can use doll play for fun and for learning, and ways that parents, educators, and therapists can use doll play to help autistic people in developing skills and understanding…”
Music: What Is It, What Does It Mean To Us, and How Can We Use It?
Katja Gottschewski, musician and music therapist, Bodo, Norway
In this workshop, we will explore different aspects of music. We will look at differences and similarities in how we as individuals or as AC’s and NT’s [autistics and neurotypicals] define and experience music. It will be discussed how we can communicate through music. How is music different than language? Can music be a bridge between AC’s and NT’s?
Understanding How Plants Can Facilitate Connection in Autistic Children and Adults
George Salamunec, HTR, COTA/L, Certified Master Gardener, Susan Golubock, M.Ed., OTR/L
Working with, and understanding about, plants can be an effective tool for developing the senses, reducing stress, and learning to make new connections in autistic children and adults. Matching plants to one’s personality and needs is an important first step. Plants provide opportunities for autistic children to explore life, nurturing, modulation, non aggressive options and choices for dealing with natural adversities, and why learning about other life (and people) outside of ourselves is so important…
Making Employment Fit: Accommodations and Other Dirty Words
Joel Smith, Autreat 2004
Employment is difficult for many autistic people. We are square pegs who dont fit nicely into round holes. Rather than forcing the autistic into a job, would it be possible to change the job to better fit the autistic? In this presentation, ideas and real-life examples are presented of how jobs can be modified to best accommodate autistic sensitivities. We will also discuss how to modify your job without alientating your boss and co-workers.
That was from Autreat 2000 and 2004. Twelve years later, I am concerned (especially after attending IMFAR), how we hardly research autistic ways of being. We usually do it framed in a bias — comparative research against the “normal,” population.
We really don’t value what makes up the true and different, “not less,” accomplishments of the autistic person. I’ve read blogs where “experts” bluntly claim that there is “no value” in lining objects up. I’m not going to target the scientist specifically here, but I wonder how many readers of this may have at one time or another thought the same thing? Other than people like Temple Grandin, how can we all study the value of object-organization and how that is transferable into learning at school and later, in the workplace? I don’t think this is a trivial skill that needs to be solely relegated to the OCD side of the human column.
Just because we don’t see the value doesn’t mean it ain’t there. We don’t understand. We are viewing under a comparative, normal versus abnormal one, and that’s so limiting. While I try to make the “least dangerous assumption,” a term first coined by Dr. Anne Donnellan, I realize that I must work to continue to see Adam for who he is in all contexts. It’s a absolute daily task and obligation of mine as his parent. I wake up every morning thinking about this, more than I pander to alarmism. In fact, next time an autism commercial brings you to tears, please ask what buttons are being pressed and why, and if there’s a better way to achieve a quality of life for us all?
According to Oliver Sack’s book, Seeing Voices, in learning sign in infancy he will develop brain patterns remarkably different from his ‘normal’ peers. And he will continue to develop in different ways, but we can in no way call those differences ‘deficiencies.’ He will develop different social and cultural skills. If given the most standardized IQ tests, even with a signing interpreter, he will perform differently, and possibly less well, than his speaking/hearing peers. On tests that tap the developmental experiences of deaf people he would probably score far higher than his hearing friends. Yet it is no surprise but nonetheless sad to learn that for decades deaf children were routinely diagnosed as mentally retarded. Still today, they are often considered to have diminished capacity relative to their hearing peers, even when we clearly know that they can flourish if given the appropriate education and experiences. (p. 33).
Consider that, for the deaf which we think we’ve come, arguably, to understand and accept, of how far behind we are in autism to apply this level of consideration. Think how far behind! Thankfully, a small pool (and I hope a growing one) of researchers are taking up this call. In Steven Kapp’s (et al) paper Deficit, Difference of Both? Autism and Neurodiversity, there is also a call to discover the state of autism acceptance and “potential areas of common ground in research and practice regarding [how] autism [is] discussed.”
Scientists, working with the community, can help stakeholders with competing agendas make informed choices between rights, responsibilities, and needs at personal, social, and political levels by affirming that diverse societies respect multiple perspectives.
I’d like to see us all work towards the question of how to nurture autistic strengths and learning and balancing the real need to cope in this world as a minority, as well as continuing to value autistic contribution and being in society.
A Whole Better World
Autreat, May 2000,
I can imagine a whole better world,
Where people don’t laugh at each other’s pain
A world where the sun shines on every one
And one’s well-being is everyone’s gain
Must we, in fact, feed off each other?
Fool the unwary, to sell our wares?
Adam is talking a little more again. It’s the inconsistency in autism that people really have a difficult understanding. This is part of the disability that others need to learn. I’ve heard some people describe the spasms and twitches as the “neurological storm.” I take to that description not because Adam shows aggression, but because he’s all over the map with with body — his excessive need to climb, jump, move all the time, flap, jump again, spin, walk up and down the stairs, jump again…the little lad as a hard time staying still, and it’s not all behavioural. This is why he has a rigorous exercise program.
He’s also so “on” the past few days, though, and I thought it was important to write about it in light of the recent release of Carly’s Voice. Adam also has to move and twitch. When he has a cold, his system seems suppresed enough to turn down the volume of his bodily movements that he can focus a lot better. It’s the jumbled Alphabet Soup of autism that we need to discuss here, and not every autistic person possesses the same level of tics & movement disturbance (read a couple of posts down from this one), which Carly and Adam seem to share to some extent.
Adam is not able to talk all of the time. It’s in part motor planning, “apraxia” and his neurology that effects his consistency. These “neurological inconsistencies” or “inconcistency in performance” are, for many autistic people, a real struggle. I am often told that Adam is a “complex” child because of it — that he’s “intelligent but inconisistent because he cannot always focus and always needs to move.” Teachers generally want to put him on meds. I am for medications if they assist the person in their own pain or distress. I’m concerned about using them only for “compliance.” Educators largely focus on an autistic student’s inability to sit still rather than what captures the ability — what engages the autistic child.
Sometimes Adam can say a perfectly clear sentence and make perfect sense, other times he mumbles like we all tend to do when we don’t know the words to a song. I can tell he’s trying very hard to form the words and it overjoys me. Other times he babbles and I can’t make out what he is saying. I’m frustrated with myself when he’s intentionally asking me for something because I can’t quite understand him and he’s looking right at me! I still try to acknowledge his utterances no matter what.
Some parents get really frustrated with the “babbling,” but I’ve learned it’s an important part of language aquisition — talking to oneself, self-babble. I would say don’t ever try to stop it. Even “shaping” it all the time can get very discouraging for the autistic person. While we can model, we don’t always want to be correcting a person. Sometimes I’ll just acknowledge like “oh” or “yes” or “I know what you mean.” I like to always remember that Adam is on a different trajectory than other kids. As I recollect our first decade now together, I relish in the fact that we have little chats, although idiosyncratic, in the car. Some people might view this still as extremely “impaired” communication between us. Yet, when Adam was a toddler, I had wondered if we’d ever have a chat in the car on the way home from school. There was always silence, and I wondered if all I would ever hear was my own voice.
This morning, he was reading to me! “Clink” he read from his book Spoon He can some days and not on others. The past couple of nights, he’s been picking up “age-appropriate” books, although he’ll also need his “baby books” for security and comfort. His recent favorite is Geronimo Stilton’s The Kingdom of Fantasy. I bought it because the chapters are short and the illustrations are great. He read the words effortlessly last night, while other days he struggles to get the words out of his mouth. He will stare at the word and utter nothing, or go to, what I call his “default word”; one which looks similar but is not the same, often triggered by the first two or three letters. I figure he’s trying to access it and because he can’t get it out quickly enough to appease me, he will say what first word comes to his mind. Often, it may take up to minutes for an autstic person to process what is being asked of them and then they will answer. Inconsistent.
These inconsistencies are really important to remember with some of the non verbal autistic children, many who have motor planning difficulty. It is one of the points also which many families do not understand about Facilitated Communication, or what is now called “Supported Typing” — what it is and why it exists. There was so much controversey about this effective and important way of teaching children with motor planning difficulties and low muscle tone that the term had to be changed. It had been abused by some therapists, but we’ve learned ways in which to avoid this abuse.
When we’re talking about getting devices into the hands of autistic children, I’m delighted. I’ve been advocating for that for nearly a decade now. The recently released book, Carly’s Voice will put more of these devices into the hands of autistic children. Carly has a strong voice and she can add to the other autistic individuals like her who use typing as their main form of communication — Amanda Baggs, Larry Bissonnette, Tito Mukhopadhyay to name only three of many. Every time another autistic person “comes out” I continue to have hope that our understanding of autistic people, and the education and the services they require, will be more available to them. I believe that the more educators are interested in teaching the autistic, the better education autistic people we will have. Educators have to believe in autistic people first, and I think Carly can help with this.
The one point I wish to extend about typing and using devices that wasn’t addressed in Carly’s Voice, is the critical role of the communication partner — particularly in the difficult beginning of learning how to use devices or in learning to type, which not all people with motor planning difficulties may be able to achieve. In the book, her dad, Arthur Fleischmann states that Carly could not initally type with her parents. When Carly was nestled in between her therapists Howard and Barb, she could type some of the time. Her father admits that he thought it “incredulous” when her therapists claim of her typing ability and intelligence.
Having close proximity to a communication partner is “Supported Typing.” It’s a form of prompt, security and trust, and it must be used in order to get many autistic people started. I know from Adam that typing open-ended conversations can be really hard for him. He may require reinforcers or some sort of assistance to keep going. He can type independently for things, now even some phrases, but when we have an open-ended conversation, he still needs me to sit closely. Learning how and when to push an autistic child to type is dependent on many factors that need to be carefully evaluated.
He is independent, some of the time, when motivated and when he knows what to do. He would not have started typing independently had I not began supported typing when he was four years old. When alone with YouTube, Adam can search for very sophisticated videos he wants like “psychedelic cartoons.” I don’t need to be there — his fingers can move as fast as lightening. He also spells on his own on his iPad spelling programs that he likes to play around with. Put him in an ABA program where he’s asked to type the same word that he’s known since he’s been 11 months of age, however, (he was also diagnosed hyperlexic), he may not type the “correct response” one hundred per cent of the time because, I imagine, he’s so bored and he can’t always do what is commanded of him. Or for the reasons cited above, he’s inconsistent. He’s consistent, however, in many other things, like his need for movement, deep pressure, his way of learning, and, well, being autistic, which is generally undervalued.
This is what I don’t like about ABA programs and why I think it holds the autistic child back in the area of academics, especially. I keep telling his school they need to move on — if he’s interested in YouTube or the computer, let him search and build his research and typing skills from there. ABA supervisors and therapists desperately need to learn the value of other methodologies such as supported typing and following an autistic person’s interests, not to mention truly understanding the need of certain physical movements in order to achieve comfort and to learn. Learning happens all the time, even for autistic people whom we tend to believe are not learning unless they are responding typically and “attending.” I struggle with the marrying of “learning how to respond typically,” and Adam’s innate ability, I’ll admit.
One strategy also that ABA’ers need to learn is not only to see what an autistic person is doing on their own “consistently,” even if it appears “atypical” but also to let them respond by giving them visual multiple choice since most autistic people are visual learners. Adam will usually score 90-100 percent on this method of testing knowledge. If asked to respond without the visual prompt, he’d be in a low percentile. Still, he’s judged on a typical scale instead of an autistic one most of the time. Visual support is critical to autistic learning and responding and should be used in any communication program.
When looking at Carly as a young child, because of her motor-planning difficulty, it is clear that she learns to press the buttons on her Cheap Talk machine (this is a machine loaded with PECS with a voice recording so the box is an early ‘talk box’ for very young children). Her index finger is held by the therapist and formed into a point. Her dad writes about her low muscle tone, so Carly would have needed this level of support. She is also lead to the box, which is an example of how many autistic children need to learn the purpose of these communication devices. We must not simply hand an autstic child a device and expect them to type miraculously. Watch for it in the shots where she is a little girl:
Some people don’t have the full motor capability and others are effected by movement disturbance — a form of catatonia in autism, or spasmodic-like movement — where they need a reminder to keep moving. This can be as subtle as a command to “keep going,” or a light touch on the shoulder. For more assistance, a backward pressure, or resistance, can be applied on the arm. It can servce as a physical reminder to keep moving the hand forward. If done correctly, the supporter will neutralize the users hand in the centre of the keyboard to ensure that there is no influence over the communication itself.
It is important not to acknowledge the hard work of many of autistic non verbal individuals, and their therapists, who learned to type and communicate this way. So many are independent now because of it, but just because some people cannot be fully independent is not to assume, as Carly says so well, that there is no intelligence. Carly also tells us that she worked very hard. It’s not easy for an autistic person to learn how to type, nor is it for parents and therapists. I know it’s not easy for Adam.
As a visual learner, Adam uses the program Pictello on his iPad for him to practice open-ended communication. What this means is communication without a specific ending that he would come easy for us, like conversation. Adam is able to take his own pictures, or we can of him, on his own device, he can load them into Pictello, and he can write independently about each picture, and we can have a conversation about his pictures. Due to his inconsistent capability of speech, we ask him to read the sentences he writes so we can record his own voice with the program. Afterwards, he’s created a story of his day and he can listen to himself narrate. His so delighted with it that he’s eager to use it everyday. He loves to hear his own voice and I can hear how he’s trying so hard!
Before the iPad we used the Alphasmart Neo because it was portable, but it didn’t have the text to speech output that has helped Adam also learn to talk. Now with the iPad, we have so many inexpensive options to communicate. I know the iPad isn’t accessible to all autistic families, and Autcom is also working in the US to get subsidy for families for the iPad. I hope Carly’s Voice and the many other autistic voices will continue to raise this awareness so that educators will be also eager to learn how autistic people can learn and communicate. Sometimes it takes such highly publicized success stories to get our educators even interested in our autistic kids. I am grateful that Arthur talks honestly about his own struggles as a parent, and still never giving up on Carly.
Let us all be patient and believe. The onus is not solely on the autistic person. We cannot expect them to know what to do with the device — it’s not easy to learn. It may take years. From my experience, and judging from Carly’s Voice, it’s well worth it.
Some References for Assistive Augmentative Communication and Supported Typing:
“This way!” Adam says firmly from the backseat of our car. He points to the direction he wants me to turn as he declares it. It’s not always safe for me to see where he’s pointing while I’m driving. I am asking him to tell me whether to go left, right or straight.
He’s usually directing me to the local grocery store he prefers. He likes to go almost every day after school. I’ve turned my grocery shopping into a daily routine, and generally buy only what we need for dinner that evening. It is not only turning into an exercise in frugality — buying only what we need — but one where Adam now shops for himself.
Adam was getting a little fixed on the one grocery store, so I mixed it up — Loblaws, Brunos, the “big store,” the “little store,” and the “dollar store.” I decided to shake it up a bit when Adam got fixed on Ginger Bread cookies at Brunos. Adam would need to buy a ginger-bread cookie, preferring to look at it rather than eat it. Once our cupboard was getting full of Gingerbread Snowmen, Christmas Trees and Stars of David, I had to ask myself what I was going to do with them all — make a house out of them or just say no. I ended up doing both. He soon tired of the cookies, thank goodness, and moved to the deli section, picking tender pieces of steak, big lean hamburgers and veal schnitzels. From there, he’s moved to different stores.
We don’t always need something from the grocery store, of course, so I’m finding other things to do. I realize that Adam, while he seems to be a little foodie, also just likes doing something after school before he goes home. We can go out to dinner, he goes skiing once a week — he loves that. He needs the outside world. He’s so anxious to take a bite, and his explorations seem to begin with a routine.
“That way,” he points. He’s leading me toward the little store. No matter where I am on the road, he knows the direction. Sometimes he even just wants to drive around. Sometimes I don’t feel like it.
“We’re going home now,” I say. He whines in protest.
“That way!” he insists.
“It’s time to go home,” I say with a melodic voice laced with an I’m-not-flinching tone. I hear his red, goose-down-filled arm shuffle, pointing. He looks like the 1960’s kid who can’t move in the snowsuit.
“This way,” he says pointing to the left. I turn my head and our eyes mirror defiance.
“Home time,” I say, keeping it clear. I’m holding my breath hoping that my simplicity will help avoid crying or whining. Sometimes Adam gets upset, although his protests are generally abating as he I notice he’s beginning to learn how to negotiate with me. If I say it’s dinner time, he may tell me what he wants to eat instead of being fixed on going to a store. “We’re going home now.”
“Pizza!” he demands.
“Okay, Adam, tonight you can have pizza.” Well, he can if it’s only once a week.
He’ll accept more, but I do often give Adam a lot of choice, especially if he has decided to “dance” with me and negotiates for what he wants (in fact, I’m thrilled about it). I do want Adam to take a bite out of the world and savour it. I do want him to learn how to negotiate, and he seems to be learning it all on his own.
I suppose I don’t mind having him as my bossy little back seat driver right now. In fact, I remember the days when I longed for him to boss me around — to talk to me. I’m even at the stage when I’m demanding a please and thank-you from him. Metaphorically he’s no longer in the back seat. He’s pushing his way, as he should, right up to the front.
Tonight Adam asked to be carried to his bed. “Carry!” he implores. He has a determined look in his eye. Usually, he climbs into my lap and expects me to carry him to his bed. So I let him again, and cradled him in my arms, trying not to hit his extremities in the doorway.
“Adam, you are getting too big for this now,” I say, my neck and back feeling strained. I carry him into his bedroom and plunk his heavy body on the soft bed.
“I’m not a caterpillar anymore!” he says melodically, and smiles.
“That’s right Adam!”I am pleasantly surprised. It is a rare lucid statement. With all his movements and chants, for the unexperienced, it is difficult to believe Adam is understanding, or paying attention to, many things. Yet I’ve always known he does, even on the days I get frustrated when he can’t respond.
There is a story that Adam The Caterpillar and the Polliwog by Jack Kent. He is using the line from that story and I know he has associated my discussions about him becoming a big boy to the story. “You are not a caterpillar anymore. You are a butterfly!” Adam lifts his head from his pillow. With a big smile, he plants a kiss on my lips and lies back down, contented. I turn out the lights and say goodnight.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam and his growth over the past year. Over the New Year, I’ve been thinking how this will be Adam’s first complete decade, and my first decade as a mom. I simply cannot believe that it’s been that long as I remember our journey with autism and with each other.
Adam was diagnosed with autism at 19 months of age and I began writing privately in coffee shops about our experiences when Adam spent a couple of hours in pre-school. I started The Joy of Autism blog and running the events of The Autism Acceptance Project when Adam was three years old. Reaction to my blog and title of the events (The Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability of Quality of Life) were met with both applause and contempt. Today, we read about the joy of autism and parenting an autistic child much more often. Then, parents who were struggling with challenging behaviours and expectations of a cure, challenged me. What did I know?! questioned many parents of slightly older autistic children who were being phased out of services. Wait until your autistic child grows up, then you’ll be in big trouble; you’ll see what we are going through. He won’t be cute forever! I suppose we’ve now reached that same stage. While Adam can still be cute, he is quickly becoming a pre-teen.
In the past decade, we have struggled with acceptance, understanding from others, and in finding a great education. We deal with stigma, and having to justify why we behave as we do. As parents, we are sometimes pitied or called heroes. It’s hard to be a normal parent in the “outside world,” even though autism is our normal. Having to justify our children, and their right, need, and desire to be included can be exhausting if not downright heart-breaking. We keep going out there every day as we brush disappointment off our weary selves. I suppose this is brave.
I also realize, that as bloggers, writers, and advocates, everyone has an opinion. When there is no one cause for autism that science can find, the speculation gets polemic. The nexus of contention seems to be the nature of autistic being and intelligence; is autism a natural, “alternative” way to be human, or is it a defect of the human condition? Of course, I believe it is what it is, although throughout the years I’ve always questioned my own thinking. I still come back to the value of human diversity. Whatever the reason or the cause, I value Adam for who and what he is, how he thinks. I also recognize and try to assist his challenges. I cannot call him a defect. He is whole, loving, able, with his disability. I can’t think of my life without him in it. He requires the extra effort of all to understand his differences in order to enable him. Being constantly challenged for my beliefs has been exhausting and emotional at times. The blessing of this first decade has been the deeper recognition and understanding of the values I held instinctively, and early on.
In the past decade of writing and talking about Adam and autism, I’ve been torn between sharing parts of our experience and our privacy. In the hopes of helping Adam’s future, I’ve seriously thought about whether or not to close the blog, especially since Adam’s first decade also included a divorce — a challenge for any child, and an extra challenge for Adam. I decided that not only does writing about experience help me as his mother, but that sharing is a gift we both give and receive. I was helped by the writing and sharing of other autistic people and parents. I don’t want to fear the sharing, although I’m continually challenged by this. Of course, it is my duty to protect Adam and his privacy, so I believe that every parent must choose our stories carefully. I’ve decided to continue writing.
I also can’t help thinking about the parents who had autistic children ten years before us. Many were the parents in Canada who argued for ABA to be covered as medically necessary treatment (the political argument still exists). Some parents found out about Dr. Lovaas in L.A. and even moved down with their children for treatment, and I may have done the same thing if Adam had been born earlier — maybe not. Adam was born in 2002. In 1992, ABA was turned to as the hope for the education and life skills training for autistic children. It was believed that ABA would be the way to shape the child’s behaviour and normalize them, in time for school. It seemed much more humane and reasonable than “holding therapy.”
The window in which to do this, they were told (and we were too) was five to six years of age. If a child could not talk or learn normally by then, the window of opportunity would close. The “early diagnosis is key,” notice, is also used for cancer, and I know from personal experience that yes, better to get a cancer early (another part of our past decade). Science, parents, autistic people, however, have proven that there is no such thing as lost opportunity. Autistic people need continued life-long learning. I like to think of that all of us require continued training throughout our lives to put this in perspective.
New methods and teaching approaches have been explored and integrated into many classrooms. ABA therapy has, to some extent, integrated different therapies into their own practice. By “operationalizing” these other methods and taking “data” it seems to have been rebranded as “Positive Behavioural Therapy” or “Support. While there is still controversy there because the therapy still doesn’t fully address the abilities and the nature of autistic perception and intelligence, one could view it as a step forward.
It is also difficult to let go of labels. Political policies are built on them. They are made for autistic people largely by non autistic people. Definitions and systems must be defined in policy, and this has been difficult for autistic people because their issues have not fully been acknowledged. So we must be cautious not to lose sight of the progress have made in the science regarding autistic ability, perception and intelligence. We must continue to work to answer the question on how we can best educate and address an autistic person’s needs, and how an autistic person can participate in society as they are. The dyslexic community had to learn and now so must we.
Ten years before ABA took hold in Canada, in 1982, Lorna Wing wrote her pivotal paper reviving the work of Hans Asperger and spotlighting Aspergers sydrome in her paper, Aspergers Syndrome: A Clinical Account. It was ten years after that paper that Autism Spectrum Disorder label and definition of the “triad of impairments” made it into the DSM IV. In thinking about decades, I thought back to 1972 when Ontario’s last mental institution was shut down. It freaks me out to think that Adam’s life could have been so very different thirty or more decades ago. He would have been even more segregated than he is today.
As I measure the decades against autism treatment, and treatment of autistic people, I see that in 2012, we’re learning more every day. We do so even in a perilous time when “designer babies” arguably threaten the continued existence of people with disabilities. Many communities like ours and the Down syndrome community grieve the loss of others “like” them as a loss of community. We’ve launched autism acceptance movement, akin to other civil rights movements, for the equal and fair regard of autistic people in our society. It is still a nascent movement of which most people are unaware. We have not accomplished full inclusion and accommodation. We still have not raised enough awareness.
As I think to 2022, when Adam will be twenty years old, I hope for the ability for Adam to continue his education and the welcoming of his assistants not because he is unable, but because he can be enabled with them. I want for his participation in his own life planning, pre-college/university prep, and vocational training that will be unique to the needs of him and others like him. I think of his life, like mine, as a continual learning curve — certainly not ending at the age of twenty one. I watch and read the other parents and autistic individuals ten years ahead of us, and wish to thank them for the paths they are forging.
I look ahead to the next couple of decades. There was a time I fretted about it until I realized that time is relative and all people develop as they should. I worried about Adam’s future and where he would live. Yet, I intend to hang in there with him, come what may. I had some very difficult moments after my divorce and raising Adam here alone and this is when my worries were at an all-time high. On one very low day, a calm and quiet thought suddenly entered my head, and it was filled with love. While autism may have brought me some of my greatest challenges, it has also bestowed my greatest gift.
I love Adam more than words. He has always been my pride and joy. I know that it is my duty to assist him, and to find others to assist him along the way who will help him become the man he is meant to be.
Maybe I just can’t believe he’s going to be ten years old this year. I turned on an old video when he was first diagnosed. He is twenty months and has the same smile, the same boundless energy. He is the same boy in a growing, lanky body. He is a butterfly.
“Turn it off!” I had been watching some old videos of Adam before he was even two years old. Adam, now eight-years-old, stood in front of the television and watched for two minutes intensely before he told me what to do.
There are two therapists in that video, in front of him talking fast and loud. He is sitting in a chair and they insist that he stay there — he small enough that every time he tries to escape they physically replace him onto the chair. The video begins with Adam crying, squirming and trying to get away. He is so small, such a baby. He is saying many things, although they are hard to hear because the therapists are talking so loudly compared to his forming, warbled articulation. As one of the therapists replaces his tiny body in the chair, she tickles his stomach.
“Don’t,” I hear him say in a super tiny voice. I hear him say it now re-watching these, but I may not have heard it back then. I may have not heard it in the frantic effort to get Adam to do and say what the therapists wanted him to say. I would have not heard it over their loud voices.
I am watching these videos six years later, as Adam has developed and changed so much. I feel we have very much entered a new phase of life together, a new phase of understanding our lives as an autistic family.
Adam then went to his Vanguard device after telling me to shut off the TV. “I am uncomfortable,” he pressed. I suppose I can say, said. We call it his talk box. The Vanguard device, which is a series of pictures and words can be programmed to make sentences. Things like verbs, feelings, activities are all categorized on it so Adam can tell us many things. Sometimes Adam can type sentences on his computer, sometimes he uses the Vanguard and sometimes, especially this past weekend, Adam can talk. Adam talked more this past weekend than I can remember in his lifetime.
I have set out to watch those videos on my own without Adam present. As I watch them now, I am highly disturbed. We made him sit so young, and forced him to watch the therapists. Although this was NOT a strict ABA program, we did attempt to “programme” Adam in an ABA format. The therapists talked, they wanted him to answer, they dangled coloured circles over his head so he would repeat the colours, blew in his face, repositioned him on the chair — all at a roaring rate. I cannot imagine how completely overwhelming that experience was for Adam.
All I had in the beginning was ABA therapy. Then came along RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). I thought I kept helping Adam better each time I learned about something new because no one offered us any other solution. While I tried to follow my instinct, what was available to us wasn’t keeping pace with the values I was forming about Adam as an autistic person. Still, Adam was forced to “conform” no matter how much we said it was to “engage” him. Later, we became more adept at involving ourselves in his games. Later, we became quieter with him.
As Adam’s mother, I sometimes want to cry when I watch these videos. He was bombarded. In no way was he respected as an autistic person from the get-go. A couple years after that I definitely learned more and tried harder. Yet I wonder, since we are still talking about finding genes in autism and intervening earlier, what kind of life experience our autistic children will have and remember, when they are programmed to be typical.
I find it so ironic that Adam talked the most he had in his lifetime this weekend, and he told me to turn off one of those “early intervention” videos. I suspect he does not feel good about it at all. What makes me feel so guilty, because I love Adam so much, is that even though I searched for ways of assisting him while trying to respect him, he may have not been in those earlier years when he was so vulnerable. He couldn’t really communicate in words then. He has severe difficulties, even now, to do so consistently. As Adam becomes his own self-advocate, I just found it so striking to have this juxtaposition between the old videos against the Adam of today. Even back then, just because he wasn’t talking, he was still a person. I suppose I could say he was ignored like the moment when he said in a voice so quiet, “don’t.”
I think if someone had shown me this when we received the diagnosis, if autistic people could recount their stories and be available to all “new” autism parents, my life may have been calmer and Adam may have had better supports that accepted him as autistic. I write this with forboding, wondering what kinds of early interventions are being concocted for infant autistics. Certainly, I changed the approaches after those first two years, and he became happier for it. He has had many challenges, but he is also now talking. As he does so, while it is nice to know what our children are thinking, I can tell you it is not a solution. It is not the Holy Grail. We will have many years ahead of dealing with Adam’s unique way of functioning in the world, and I don’t always expect it to be easy. Communication is important. Acceptance is vital.
I am really disappointed that the Autism Hub is on “hiatus.” A lot of people were referred to the Hub around the world and it is an extremely important gathering of blogs in support of autistic people. I remember when the Hub was started in and around 2005 by Kevin Leitch and what an undertaking that was. The Hub, since, has been explored at universities world-wide and on television.
My vote is to get it back online as quickly as possible. How can we help to do that?
Unlike Dawn, I am not a woman with Aspergers nor a primate anthropologist who has garnered much of what she has learned about humanity through primates. If you have not read her book, Songs of A Gorilla Nation it is a must-read. It has left its imprint upon me for years now. No, I am a mother of an autistic child, similar but not just like, her child, relating to my son in unexpected ways, finding my points of context from art and my own awkward experiences growing up — trying to overlay those in helping me understand Adam’s path. My stress has mainly come from outsiders who have put the pressure on us to change and be something other than what we are. I am glad to understand this stress and pressure in order to better help Adam chart his course.
From the time I began The Joy of Autism blog — and been downright attacked for it when it first started in 2005 (see right margin for the archive) — I was incapable of viewing Adam as that “blight” and “burden” that autistics were named. Everything Adam did was a downright miracle to me. Today, Adam — a kind, affable, giggly boy, has developed a curiousity and way of learning that never ceases to expand my own world and way of seeing things. Like Dawn’s son, however, Adam is changing, developing tics. He is growing into a world that he is beginning to understand in ways that I knew (and feared) he would. One could say it happens to all parents. Yet Dawn’s essay, however, cites a few exceptionalities to the growth.
People fear each other. The flavor of distance seems to me to be how a community organizes itself. The codes of distance constitute the law—for the living and the dead, so people close the lid on the toilet when they sit down to talk to someone else in the bathroom, signaling that they don’t intend to dominantly mark their territory in the midst of the other; and men can’t pick up and hold a crying child who is a stranger. This is why people always smile and say hello more often when they are on a trail in the forest, far from help, than when they are on a city street.
Unfortunately, the chief danger and distance he was learning is that people can tell you that what you are isn’t what you should be. I knew that the children at school were teasing him for talking to plants and bugs and rocks. His teacher told us he had a learning disability and had some attention deficit problems. He was starting to not be able to sleep at night and had anxiety attacks. Where he had always been an easy child he started to throw himself to the floor and scream over the smallest challenges. He started to be unable to go to restaurants because the lights hurt his eyes and the normal noise of conversation hurt his ears—he would cover them with his hands and rock, trying to get under the table. He developed strict routines and would fall apart if something unexpected happened. He started to develop tics. He was becoming contextually autistic.
This essay is beautifully written. Remembering Teryk, her son, playing in the prototype sensory room set up at The Sheraton Hotel in Toronto, where I introduced myself to Dawn and received such a warm hug from her, I feel we share a bond beyond that introduction by way of this piece on the special privilege of raising an autistic child. It is the bond of easing ourselves into the world as both autistic people and as their parents amidst the deluge of questions, quandaries and challenges that continue to face our children all the while loving them and getting them for who they are. And who better than Dawn?
Ari Ne’eman of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and an autistic man himself (he can be viewed on the Positively Autistic video by CBC on the right hand margin of this blog), is now a writer for The Huffington Post.
Congratulations Ari on this and the outstanding work you and ASAN is doing.
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.
because finding joy doesn't come without struggle;
because the point is to find it;
because if an autistic person calls autism their way of being, not an illness, then it is;
because every human has value and is a joy;
because despite inhumane acts, I believe in humanity;
but most of all, because of my son Adam.