Technology & Autism: We Still Need Acceptance

Filed Under (Acceptance, Capital, Communication, Computing/iPad, Parenting, Technology) by Estee on 05-02-2015

Adam is learning to become an independent typist so quickly now. While it makes me proud and happy for him because he wants to be independent (he has written so many times), it is really important to know that independence, for all of us, is an illusion.

First, Adam has been typing since he has been around 4-5 years old. Most teachers and therapists aren’t all familiar with how support can enable a non-speaking person to type (and possibly become independent). While we began early, we didn’t obtain the commitment from teachers who would not learn how to support him, in my view, because they didn’t understand the meaning of support.

When a person has many motor planning issues associated with their movement and speech, it can be very difficult to feel grounded enough to type. The purpose of support is to enable the body and the mind to ground (if you will allow me a metaphor). A support person also offers the emotional security in a task that is so challenging when the body and mind coordinate many different stimuli and tasks. We take for granted how we multitask, and how our bodies coordinate speech and bodily movements effortlessly. For Adam, he has expressed numerous times how he has required help.

The important addition in Adam’s life has been the support we had been looking for all these years; this means daily use of typing in all settings, almost all of the time. Adam now has access and support every day. As such, he has moved so swiftly in his ability and language expression that we are all confident that he is moving to more consistent independence.

However, I want to caution everyone here, for the emotional support of others may be needed, as well as patient and gracious listeners. Just because Adam can often type without physical support does not mean that he might now need another person nearby giving him the confidence he needs. Also, while the level of support may fade, some people may always require some level of support throughout their lifetime. In my own research, I’ve found that a generous and encouraging co-presence – of love and a presumption that Adam is intelligent and curious, has encouraged him. He has been very frustrated for how he has been treated over the years as a boy who hasn’t understood what is being said, and is eager to learn even though his day-to-day life may be challenging.

While the iPad has markedly changed the reception of Adam by others – providing Adam’s voice and enabling friendships and school work through text-to-speech technology (we use Proloquo2go) – technology is not a panacea. Too often, we make the grave mistake of thinking that if we push our children hard enough, they will learn how to speak or type, etc. “Just as long as he can communicate” thinking will not erase the experience of being autistic. Our modern notions of independence are skewed by a market-economy that demands that we, as parents, produce the most efficient workers. This is also proving to be a big issue as our autistic children turn 21.

The ABA movement, when it was nascent here in Canada in the 1990’s-present, presented itself as an early-intervention treatment to recover the autistic child. The idea that earlier (and quicker) is better, fuels parental desperation and fosters an inauspicious environment for learning. These therapies also promised parents that remediation was a passage to full inclusion in our society; that the only way to participate and contribute was to be cured of autism. Many a rights-based/legal argument constellates around the notion that to be remediated is a right; to be cured is a right in order to assure this passage to normality. All of these notions are based on a modern concept of an abstract citizen as it was formed by way of the Social Contract. In this, none of us are citizens precisely because none of us can pull our own way; we are all dependent upon one another for every cycle of the market, and for the function of our daily lives. Every rich man or woman has an army of support that enables him/her to earn that living – or production; as such one can deduce that all participants of production should be “owners.” It’s about who has the power over that capital, of course, that is called into question and is part of the discourse regarding social support.

What would it mean to think of autistic contribution and the desire to be autistic? Adding to this, can we think outside the box of productivity as we currently conceive it in modern economic terms? We have seen autistic contribution proved many times, in speaking and non-speaking ways, and perhaps it is this aspect, as having to prove oneself as normal (as possible), that troubles me. I want to call into question about how we all markate and market autistic contribution.

My interests are on how society expects autistic people to speak in “normal” ways as a passage to citizenship. As displayed in the film, Wretches & Jabberers, for instance, even when autistic people achieve communication, they are not considered full citizens; they are not included into schools or considered for employment. Here too we must acknowledge that in our society, there will be some bodies who have more material needs than others (Erevelles, 2011). How does the notion of achieving one’s “fair” or “equal” share leave out many people with significant disabilities? And what are we doing (positively and negatively) in terms of elimination of those bodies in the name of “equal” distribution?

Our questioning about autism and technology should be not just how it can make autistic people independent, but how we can change our views towards autistic people; and the right to support and education past the age of 21. Education is another system that supports economic output, of course, and needs to be reconsidered. Certainly we also know that for all of us, time-plus-experience enables knowledge. We need to provide education past that hurried (and hallowed) age of 21 and to grapple with the very troubling issues that confront us within our current system. All of these considerations may help us rethink our systems of support.

Just because we have new enabling technology doesn’t necessarily mean we accept autism. There are many contributions we all make to one another that are not counted as capital; that exist (and are valuable) outside the ledger. The ledger, after all, is a mere frame. We know there is always something left outside of it, and in this case, I am referring to a class of marginalized autistic individuals who are not considered equal because of economic potential. We need to think first about accepting autism while we consider how to educate and support autistic people with technology.

Reference:

Nirmala Erevelles, 2011. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. Palgrave MacMillan.

My Review of Wretches & Jabberers now in The Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

Filed Under (Communication, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Film) by Estee on 23-01-2015

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My review of the film Wretches & Jabberers can now be read in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies: CLICK HERE

My Son’s Good News Journalism

Filed Under (autism, Communication, Inspiration, Parenting) by Estee on 13-01-2015

Today I received a call from the school (a good call) that Adam was upset. After given the chance to type about why he was upset, he was talking about the news and of justice. He is beginning to learn about Martin Luther King. He wrote at school:

“People keep talking shit about justice…laugh out loud in life there is no happy and free people.” He was asked if he saw this on the news: “Yes at home and on subway…Hang the reporters …on the news my feeling is that it only shows really one sided opinions…great people are ignored and also sad to hear about death…”

My first instinct as Adam’s mom was to help him understand bad news by thinking of how we all cope everyday. We hear of terrorism, killings in our own city, many injustices. It is hard to watch your own child be pained by it all. I told him about how I think we don’t understand joy unless we experience struggle and also that we cope everyday by thinking about the people we love and the things we love to do. It’s all I could come up with as he listened intently while noshing on rice snacks after school today. Then I commented on all that bad news we hear and rhetorically asked why that is. I would ask any other grade seven student the same question, so why not Adam? I commented that some people only watch the news when it’s bad news. Then I grabbed my copy of the Sunday New York Times and we looked for some good news stories. Dismayed that I could not find anything in the front section, I leaped to the arts section and we found a story about inspiration. I thought we could go with that. Adam leaned in and I started talking about how we need good news journalists. This is what he wrote and with his permission, he does want this published on my blog:

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Then Proloquo (the program he uses to type) jammed so we moved to a notes section and he continued:

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It’s hard to read from the screen shot so here it is again:

“It sells because people want to see bad things. I would love to have news that is good. A good news story would be about inspiration. I would write about my noteworthy experiences as my autism is my struggle. My very hard time with speaking is my struggle. I want the world inside my open mind to understand my intelligence and I most happy when I can type. I learned to type by patient mommy and I have an about a boy who has worked hard. I think that I am a good example for parents to know that open minds are required for their kids to learn how to type. I want people to read this.”

Adam, the good news journalist, wants you to read… and to hear.

With Tidings of Struggles and Joy

Filed Under (ABA, Acceptance, Activism, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Human Rights, Inclusion, Joy) by Estee on 29-12-2014

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This is a short post to wish all of you a happy holiday and New Year. Adam and I have had such a wonderful year – his wish now to write a book and all that progress with his typing. Finally out of the clutches of autism schools that haven’t realized Adam’s abilities, Adam is now doing his grade seven curriculum. Thanks to everyone who has supported us this year! It has been a joy for all of Adam’s family and closest support staff to witness Adam’s happiness and self-esteem that is noticeably changed since he talks more with friends and family by typing.

That said, despite proof, I am dismayed with “autism programs” here in Canada and the lack of activism we engage in as families. Compliance and normality still propel autism programs here, and rape a family’s emotional and financial well-being with the empty promise of recovery, cure and a semblance of “normality.” I ache for families and more so for autistic children – many forced behind closed doors for hours a day in “therapy.” This is no quality of life, no joy. This is child-abuse and unless we begin to identify the violence of these programs, little will change. When I think of a New Year, I spend most of my time thinking about the work that needs to get done. I think about what my obligation is as Adam’s parent and it’s not about therapy.

It is our obligation as parents to understand the autistic community that is comprised of other autistic people. We are much more obliged to read and try to understand the experiences of autistic people for the positive development and growth of our children. The autism agenda (that is research and policy) is set by non-autistic people who are telling parents that is their obligation to do everything and anything to cure their autistic child – this spans from starving them from certain foods so they appear less autistic to forcing normalizing therapies. Even if in a situation (because true inclusion and acceptance is far from achieved in our country) where there seems to be little choice at but to put a child in an autism school (typically with ABA therapy), a parent must do everything to find a learning and social situation that supports difference (and I realize that using that term risks totalizing) without the propensity and impulse to normalize. Sure, these are loaded sentences that I’ve spent since 2004 working through (you can read them in the blog), but they need to be because the situation is not as black and white as most media outlets (I need to write that letter to the CBC!) and research outfits will have you believe.

As a parent, I also have to pick my battles because there are so many to be had every single day. It is the reason why we can’t write about every injustice everyday here on this blog (although I think about it). Instead, I am working with Adam and his team on delightful things – his words, his thoughts, and yes, his pain that he cites within a society that doesn’t accept him. Even though that incites me, Adam is so full of love and acceptance for that very world in which he wants to belong. I’d like to think that maybe I’ve had a bit to do with that. Exposing Adam to autism conferences where most autistic people go (as opposed to the ones where researchers and parents go), has changed Adam in profound ways. I consider these to be in part, my parental obligation to him.

But speaking of battles, at the moment, I’m challenging a ski program here in Ontario that seems to be practicing a qualified inclusion. Qualified inclusion means that an autistic person needs to be independent before the right to participate. I’m trying to explain to these folks the meaning of what I call for now, “enabled participation.” This suggests that many folks require their own chosen support staff (chosen and employed by the autistic person) in order to participate in ways also chosen by them. This process takes time. Consent and choice is a multi-faceted process – not necessarily a yes or no answer. When someone is challenged with verbal communication, they require many opportunities to respond to how they want to live their lives. They require people who believe in them and who know how to support their movements and communication.

When I mentioned to this ski program that excluding autistic people from autism programs is discrimination because it is qualified on the concept of normality, I received an email that Adam would be accepted on the ski hill. Since then, however, I’ve received an email that Adam will “be assessed.” At the moment, those criteria for assessment remain invisible to me; they have not disclosed their terms and I may only assume that independence is top of their list, even though they have accepted him with his assistant on the hill. Such assessments need to be fully transparent. When they are, we have the right to critique them (because we know that all assessments are based on discrimination and bias – that only verbal, normalized ways of participation and response are acceptable). I am not only a parent, but a scholar in this field being talked down to and to some extent, manipulated. One would think that many-a-program, to avoid human rights complaints in the future, would tap my knowledge of policy and law and how to better “the autism program.” Autistic folks and some folks working in Critical Disability Studies are able to provide this input for policy-making and this needs to be harnessed. But…

This is the struggle that we all face as parents and we have to understand that the rules are set by non-autistic people that want to make systems that befit them, not the autistic person. Remediation, cure, recovery, normality, independence – these are NOT criteria for inclusion. This is not substantive equality in the legal sense. Substantive equality enables the disabled person in their disability to participate as they are. So, I’ve targeted a battle, a struggle. It is a frustrating process to trouble such organizational policies, but this is are real job as parents. Don’t buy into the rubbish that autistic people are trouble and the “problem” of autism must be eradicated. That’s a backwards way to look at the issue. Instead, as parents who have long-supported damaging policies and educational/therapeutic models that autistic people have long been critiquing (as they have been hurt by them), it is time we turn our minds and our hearts to supporting our children, no matter what age, to change the rules that have long excluded them.

To that, I want to end by reiterating Adam’s Christmas wish that he typed on Christmas eve: “I wish for love and open hearts.”

One must also believe that open hearts may open doors too. Wishing EVERYONE some joy admist these continued struggles.

A Rights-Base Approach for Autism

Filed Under (Activism, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Discrimination, Inclusion, Politics, What is Disability?) by Estee on 05-11-2014

Adam is typing a deluge of sentences, feelings, anger at being ignored by certain people; upset by some people in his life that still do not “see his mind,” as he puts it. As Adam’s parent and protector, I know there is good reason to share our journey and good reason to protect Adam’s growth by not sharing too much. I am cognizant of his consent so I will make hints and speak generally.

We all know that there are people who like to doubt and target the autistic child or adult. Adam has a cadre of supporters around him as he is learning to assert his rights and self-advocate now as a more fluent typist. The flood gates are opening and hopefully the people in his life will pay attention. Despite his prolific writing, there are many who don’t.

I was disappointed to read that an autism school, after having seen the movie Wretches & Jabberers, ream off reasons why it is so necessary for autistic people to become independent. We have a huge problem as we still cite autism as a problem in our society (mostly because of a lack of independence) and this makes it hard for many to live good lives. A blog post is not enough space to qualify what makes a good life, or how the notion of freedom and individualism is also a part of the disability rights movement itself. I will just go on briefly about the state we are in without those qualifications.

Instead of talking about rights to access, inclusion and support, our communities continue to discuss ways to make people independent before the right to inclusion and participation in society. There is a major flaw with this premise in that for most, this will result in permanent exclusion and segregation into special schools and disability centres. One method to reverse this may be to make it mandatory for acceptance and support to enable the right to be included, but of course we need a value system to buttress this. Until we understand how autistic people can be enabled, and how they wish to be supported, we usually set the stage for an inequitable and unjust relationships whereby the people who “teach” autistic people put themselves in a superior role of remediator (therapist, teacher, etc). This means that we believe that the normal body and behaviour is considered the “right” way to be in society.

We have to understand the necessity of support before we go further, and seek counsel from autistic people in how they wish to be supported.This happens in our everyday interactions, as every behaviour is a mode of communication. Good support that is grounded in understanding rights, the theory behind that, and more pointedly, the movement differences of many folks with disabilities helps us to understand the need for support (there are more points to be made but I just wrote these to be a starting point for discussion). However, we also have to remember that the supports are not universal because there is no monolithic autism. It is this tension about competing needs in the service industry that makes this complicated. Not every autistic person requires the same support, but everyone does require the same access and rights. Rights requires a more detailed discussion too, but again, I am writing from a basic premise that our rights in society are established even though they not always acknowledged or enacted.

Sometimes support can enable people to become independent. Other times, it can enable that much more independence than before, but not absolute independence. Of course, this is a fractured notion since none of us are independent. We can think of a myriad of examples of how we are all connected despite our heralded idea of individualism and the notion of freedom associated with this. By way of philosopher Charles Taylor, I quite agree that our modern notions individualism and freedom are tied in with instrumental reason, that is, a means to an end. In ordinary terms that relate to autism and independence, this means that the heralded modern ideal makes it incumbent to be independent to be included and to work (the means, to be independent, becomes the end, a person who costs less and is efficient to producing goods in a market economy as it is today). As such, the ideal is exclusive and does not work for the majority of autistic people. What we will have left after the misguided premise will be more need for adult services which continue to segregate and have done nothing to enable communication, choice, and participation.

The film Wretches & Jabberers certainly promotes the idea of the independent mind – but that mind is enabled by support. It refutes the assumption that a cogent mind and a fluent body must co-exist. We learn that the body will often not do what the mind is thinking, and that the body also has its own unique ways of knowing through movements we call “inappropriate” (the term “inappropriate behaviour” should be reserved for people who inflict ill will to another). Without support, many autistic people who have movement difficulties, inability to speak, and other difficulties, would never gain access to any communication whatsoever. In turn, it is equally unjust to take an autistic person’s voice away when a therapist or a support worker wishes to be successful in helping the autistic person to the point that it enables the therapist’s own career. For example, in many therapeutic settings, a therapist will do certain things to over prompt the autistic person to gain a positive outcome or may falsify data results. This happens with supported communication just has much as it happens in ABA and with other methods. A “best practice” seems to me to take all of the above into account to ensure that the checks and balances are there to test the support worker more than the autistic person – which requires a rights-based approach.

Supported communication’s time has come as more and more autistic children gain access with support and later do become independent. Maybe this is more so than in the 1990’s because many have matured from childhood to become regular and mostly independent (through typing) communicators.(For the time being I am not going into the problems of a positivist to this). It is this burden of proof, incumbent on the autistic body, that has sadly been necessary as a result of a doubting public on the intelligence of individuals who cannot speak, or who make “inarticulate” sounds and effusive bodily movements. However, let us not withdraw support for those who require the assistant or aide worker to contribute, work and communicate. For many, this interdependency will be vital to life. In this sense, plenty of proofs (as quoted from the film) are not enough. We need a proof of commitment from every person in society; we need the proof that autistic rights/disability rights mean something in Canada. We need to be able to enforce those rights.

So this obviously, I hope, points to something I think we all need to discuss: ourselves. What is it about society that keeps autistic people from participating as autistic people? What assumptions do we make about disability and belonging and why is most of it lip service and not action? What is a rights based approach to helping autistic people? Why are we avoiding helping people to use devices?

One thing I have learned is that we learn to include by including. Adam is severely autistic and intelligent and has so much he wants to offer. He has friends. He complains about being ignored by some people who likely assume that he doesn’t understand. These complaints suggest something very wrong with our assumptions that despite the work of autistic people for us to hear and see them, continue to be ignored. Why? What more proof do we need?

Now I come to the who benefits question. I’ve written about this before, as have many writers and theorists. Perhaps we have to take a look at the industry we have created from the vulnerabilities of others. Who is getting paid? Who is getting attention or even celebrity in the autism world and why? I’m fed up with an expert culture feeding upon parent’s imaginations and pocket books. As I see and do in our own autism lives here in Toronto, education and access can work. We are living and breathing examples of it. But ours is a hard-work story. It’s not a cure story, and not one that feeds into celebrity culture.

Every day I work to figure out why and who this can be made accessible to the many families who are in need of support, but either are drained financially or must be subservient to a program that they must take or get nothing else. You may think at this point that it costs too much. Indeed, that’s the economic cost to society argument that comes at a great cost to many. It is inhumane. The great cost is continue to promote a method of therapy fueled by an attitude that continues to segregate. We tend to concur with an argument that abuse perpetrated by aide workers happens because of economic reasons – that the worker is being paid too little. I realize this could be a topic of its own, but I can’t resist inserting it here. How can we accept this low standard for disabled people? We would not accept this for children, but over and over again we hear it happens to disabled people and write off the story instead of talking about our collective ethical responsibility to improve our attitudes and values towards the disabled in our society. And this needs to happen among people who are not touched by disability as much as within disabled families. The only way we can make it happen is together. The only way we can improve our lives is to change the way we discuss autism and society.

I would love to have a voice loud enough to make a call to all schools and autism organizations, parents and autistic people, to include these discussions in the autism agenda; perhaps I can only hope some people will take what they need from this and many other posts written by autistic people. We need to come together to create this collective voice! Very often these policy documents are centred around therapy and services. Ethics, value, inclusion are sidelined by discussions about how to make the autistic person independent through therapy. I believe that a person-centred approach could be focussed more on these autistic rights and ethics discussions. The question is, why hasn’t it?

Rights is not necessarily (and most definitely not exclusively) about the right to therapy but the right to be autistic and included. In the meantime, since these rights are established (although not acknowledged for autistic people in Canada as we can see by our public institutions) we must do everything to provide access to communication tools beyond a PECS system. Autistic people are intelligent and the spectrum notion is highly misguided in terms of our understanding of people, yet it satisfies the need for a quick summary of autistic people for non-autistic people. We must also urge people to rid the notion that the autistic person will miraculously one day type clear thoughts or speak – it is unfair for the autistic people and supporters who toil to communicate. This is not to say that an autistic person will not come to speech later in life. Indeed Adam can talk the more he types but talking is different than typing. You can read up on that yourself. Not all autistic people will ever be able to talk even though they will be able to type (notice my assertion).

As many will attest who have learned to type, it’s a long and arduous process for both the typist and the supporter. Adam is now 12 and is just beginning to really express complicated things. We’ve been at it since he was 4, and we still have a ways to go. This is the kind of patience, perseverance and belief that all of us require to support the autistic person into adulthood. I know that Adam will go on in his education, so long as we can fight for the right for him to be classroom at either college or university. As Adam grows and learns now that he is out of autism classrooms, I can say safely that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. This is also the case for his speaking up to the people in his life and about his own experiences as a person who has had to live with this autism label and all that it comes with. I am not underestimating the ongoing challenges that he will have to contend with, and how I will have to support him in this. I am often enraged by our culture that perpetuates despair for families instead of supporting them in making all of our “autistic lives” good and contented ones.

It takes a fight to avoid the pull of “experts” who will insist that your child has the “intelligence of a 5 year old,” or from the doctor who, after an 18 second observation will tell you that your child’s tics require psychotropic medication (the list goes on). For certain, every person’s situation is different and will require different supports, but the point is that too often we let the medical profession and the medicalized therapeutic professions do this to us and we all need more empowerment and support to critically think about what it is that prevents our children from being in a classroom to being out in the community with all kinds of people – not just fellow autistic ones. It is better to find someone who will spend time and listen with us, start with conservative approaches, and of course, put the rights of the child first. We must find each other for support along the way.

While I get fed up with the barrage of public opinion (indeed another flaw of modern culture that insists that individualism is associated with this free opinion) that suggest that independence is of utmost importance and the underlying prejudice (and thus barrier) that exists within that statement, I think that we have a lot more work to do. Sometimes we have to be brave in this and say it like it is.

This is Our Halloween

Filed Under (Acceptance, Accessibility, Adam, Autistic Self Advocacy, Communication, Development, Family, Holidays, Joy, The Joy Of Autism) by Estee on 31-10-2014

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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:

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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.

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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:

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And another year, he fell in love with a cowboy costume from the store – he wore that one two years in a row:

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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!

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Beyond Mall Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Moving along…

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

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

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

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

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

Parent/Teacher

Filed Under (Adam, Anxiety, Behaviours, Communication, Estee, Language, Obsessions, Parenting, school, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 07-01-2014

We begin 2014 anew. I have applied for a leave of absence from my PhD study to focus entirely on Adam’s program. In so doing, I recognize I need time to energize myself and have some free time; this is not possible as a single parent of an autistic child if I don’t cut back. So, at the end of 2013, I made the empowering decision to become a communications specialist and educator of my son. I’m making field notes along the way. I don’t do this alone of course; it takes others to assist us. But in Canada where there is a lack of trained specialists in supported communication, this is up to me now. Thankfully I have other supporters and success stories including our own.

With the ice storm, a sudden move to a hotel due to the massive power outages in Toronto, the holidays and general upset at the end of this year, I may have fallen into one of my darkest places. I hate to see my son so upset, so less able to handle transitions. I realize I hate holidays too – there was too much expectation despite the fact that I know that this a sure way to fail. No way, no how next year. One modest dinner and one present…that’s enough and that’s lovely.

Of course, much of this has to do with my own resilience and preparedness. Sometimes, Adam requires more preparation than usual – more social stories, lists, repetition of what we are going to do next. He can be the kind of kid that seems to be rolling along quite well and then he needs exceptional support. Let’s just say this past December he needed way more than I provided. School had exhausted me as well which didn’t help. Writing about the philosophy of language and disability takes a lot of of one when a child’s scream replaces words; they are more commanding. As soon as I turned my attention to helping Adam, he calmed down. His school assisted with what we call “operation calm down” and his environment, demands and work were all reassessed. For Adam, he requires proactive breaks every twenty minutes to return to his desk. His school has been most accommodating in helping to provide these breaks. Eventually, kids who are accommodated are often able to increase their level and time of focus as they mature. If there’s one thing I never stop learning is that changing expectations means that you always have to reassess them.

Adam then had a long break (albeit the first half was stressful with the storm). When he returned Sunday, we had another cold weather, namely the “polar vortex.” Schools were cancelled so I planned the day: a walk before it got too cold to go outside, art, reading and typing (I made a program for that), sensory swing, and computer. In between such a good day, Adam decided he wanted some pretend play so we went with that (lots of language there). There was only one incident when his grandfather popped by and then Adam thought he was going to “gramma’s house.” Adam will tend to want to do things that are routinized and when he found out he wasn’t going, he screamed. I left the room and asked him to read a book to calm down. He did so in less than five minutes, which I thought was pretty good. When he was quiet, I returned to ask if he was feeling better, ready for another scream. None came, but it might have. I told Adam I’d check on him again in a few minutes.

When I did, Adam went through his lists when he knew “gramma’s house” wasn’t an option: “Brunos”(which is a grocery store), “Hero Burger…Burger King…Shoppers Drug Mart…”

“Adam, mom needs a break. I’m going to have a cup of tea,” I said. I decided that bargaining wasn’t going to get me anywhere and I’m trying hard to build Adam’s “no” muscle. I sat quietly on the couch drinking my tea, expecting the whole while that another scream was possible. None came. Soon, Adam made his way up the stairs from where he was in the rec room, and lay flat in the hallway. I said nothing and kept drinking my tea. Eventually, Adam brought a book to the couch and sat with me. We got to the point where I could ask him what he wanted for dinner. If he would scream, I would have sent him quietly to his room not as a punishment, but so he learns about self-calm and what I expect from him. There, he has more books to read, which I feel is a positive way to self-regulate intense emotions and which seems to work for Adam.

“Teachable moments” like these make me feel like a competent parent and teacher, and I think we all need to feel that way. I had prepared, I have been studying to make Adam’s programs comprehensive, and I’m becoming more prepared and working on the more difficult behaviours such as bolting, opening doors, and the so-called willfulness of puberty while recognizing that Adam might be confused and sometimes fearful – helplessly resorting to routinous behaviour in order to self-regulate or find order. It is my job to help him. This is what makes my days feel gratifying rather than worried about him while I sink my head in Barthes and Derrida. While I’m not going to stop reading and writing, I just am going to use what I’ve learned in theory and turn it into a practice.

Yesterday and this morning, Adam was beaming. He was happy to go back to school this morning. Starting next week, I get to teach Adam more communication, typing and literacy, life and social skills. I have begun my leave to do this work. I hope we both have a wonderful 2014.

2014

Filed Under (Academia, Acceptance, Anxiety, Behaviours, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Inclusion, Inspiration, Intelligence, Joy, Language, school) by Estee on 18-12-2013

There are days when I feel so grateful for the support Adam and I receive from the team, friends and family. My university is so supportive of our needs as well, allowing me a leave so I can lesson-plan for Adam and train him more in language and typing. With support since he was around five years old, Adam is now somewhat independent when conversations are not that open-ended and unclear. I can hand him a keyboard anytime and he can type his feelings or what he needs sometimes faster than he can speak the words. I also learned that animating words makes them meaningful and is better than rote vocabulary instruction.

Adam, as a hyperlexic individual since we could hear him speak at 11 months of age, loves letters and words. I am going to work with my son’s strengths. In so doing, I am training others in the process. Others watch how I do this with Adam and also learn to do it with him. I have no formal training other than personal study and my PhD work which focuses on semiotics and language and disability. This is my passion because of my son.

Adam is heading into puberty and has issues with anxiety, but seems most frustrated at not being able to say what he wants to say. When he gets the words out, he says them forcefully, looking into my eyes and saying the phrases again and again until I say it back. He knows I’ve understood him. I think it’s the way he’s been treated all of his life by us jabberers (dominant ordinary language users) in that we tend to repeat ourselves to autistic people who have trouble with ordinary language because we think they don’t understand us. Adam is doing what we have been doing to him. When I say the words back, echo him, he is satisfied that his message is understood. Phrases like, “I can’t wait anymore!” can be met by me with an acknowledgement and a timer which settles his need to know how much longer he must wait for his desired activity or item.

Also, operation calm down has worked. Adam is happier, the screaming tics abated. Following the stress and episode, Adam always emerges with more sentences (communication). I’ve yet to hear anything from the neurologists on it, but we keep trying just in case. This is not to “cure” the autism as much as it is to ensure that Adam’s health is attended to well; that we are not missing something. The health of the autistic person must be attended to as much as the non-disabled person. (Another topic about how to regard the autistic person might be better sought from autistic people themselves).

It was as if Adam was saying “please listen to me!” and we have. Some of it was because he didn’t enjoy a transition and the team and I will be working on this all year. That said, Adam is fairly flexible all things considered. We haul him on our travels, and I plan on taking him on many no matter what. I believe in respecting his difference and limitations while also helping him through without pushing too hard some days and knowing when to push because those days are so apparent. He loves to be with other people and to see new things. He loves being out in the world and engaged. It’s in the manner we engage him that is important to expand his horizons. I want to thank my university for supporting us in making this the best year for Adam and I. Without the understanding of schools and universities, we might never be able to do this important work that does effect so many people with disabilities in that not every year can be a consistent, machine-like operation. Sometimes we need to step back and focus on our children, or our own disabilities. I am overwhelmed by my school’s support. Thank you York University! I look forward to sharing my copious notes and experiences from the journey this year.

As for Adam this year, my mantra has nothing to do with compliance. It is about cooperation, engagement, respect, “muchness,” connection and yes, joy. Adam’s learning can’t happen without these principles.

Emerging Tensions: Puberty, Autonomy and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathing Life into Words

Filed Under (Communication, Language) by Estee on 03-12-2013

photo

Adam has been reading words since he’s been 11 months old. When he reads aloud, it sounds as if Adam has weaker reading skills, but his typing is always better than reading out loud. Yet there is a difference in how we come to language, and I suppose I’m more inclined these days to post-structuralism in the way words relate to other words when I think of relativism and how, as we hear about some autistic folks, that words can have an associational meaning. For many people, words relate to an event, a sound, an occurrence. They are associational; sometimes they are sensory where metaphor works best. The point is, language is just a system. It limits experience that can not always be translated into words. For Adam, words are very important. They can mean life and death since most people would not bother to understand Adam’s language outside of “behavioural” contexts. As David Abram says, we are conditioned to speech. We miss the sensory properties and ways of knowing outside of speech and language; it is very hard for Adam and other people who come to language differently (if they can at all), to translate experience into words. Decoding and reading words can be different than feeling. I think that we have to view language more creatively and recognize that language does not denote intelligence – although we live in a society that still believes it does. Language is a half-formed tool, and in a political sense, it excludes many folks who do not come to the dominant, or ordinary, language as easily as some.

Adam and I were reading last night. I asked him to read out loud, but unless he uses words in the way he uses them (which is why typing is useful in many ways), it’s difficult to know what he knows about a word. So, as we were reading, I quickly ripped off strips of paper and we not only spelled words (which he can do well), but we made them come alive. The word around when literally around Adam’s head. The word “through” went through his fingers. “Wind” moved violently (fanned by me with a large book) and a pictorial leaf “spinned” and “tumbled” to the ground. “Whisper” came close to his ear and whispered “I love you,” and the “breeze” gentle moved the word on the strip of paper in the air. Adam wanted to read more. He grabbed book after book off the shelf as he read out loud, while we both made the words come alive for hours.

This is akin to when we hear parents labeling items all around the house which makes words “functional.” Yet words are more than that. How can we make words sensory? How do we make them experiential? How can we role-reverse the word? God may have breathed the word into Adam, but he forgot that we have to also breathe life into words. And still, words are never enough.

Why is Seeing, Believing?

Filed Under (Adam, Anxiety, Behaviours, Communication) by Estee on 21-11-2013

I learned another lesson tonight. Adam has had a few difficult days. He was complaining last week that his ear hurt, and I thought maybe he had an ear infection. I took him to the doctor who suggested it could be his 12-year-old molars coming in. I was still worried; I thought the dentist told me they had already come in. A few days passed and Adam wasn’t eating that much. His body began to twitch and spasm more. Yesterday, he placed his body under the cushions of the couch, wanted to watch a Baby Einstein video (as opposed to Shrek or Wall-E) and I knew he needed comfort. These are the things he will do to get it. I then suggested a bath and he headed for the stairs.

Once he got to the front door, however, things were out of place. Adam spent time picking up his coat, and placing his shoes just the way he wanted them and did it again and again. He was stuck in his loop. Then all of a sudden, he layed down on the floor on his goose-down coat and began to scream, biting the fabric of the sweater that was laying beside it. The blood-curdling scream broke my heart. I sat at the top of the stair, where I was waiting for him, calm and quiet. “It’s okay, Adam. I’m right here.” Adam let out a few more screams, but they didn’t last too long. I called my father to come over as I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Grandpa is one of Adam’s favorite people and I thought it would help. But Before Grandpa arrived, I came down the stairs and sat at Adam’s feet. “I’m right here. It’s okay.”

“Okay,” he said in a distressed voice.

“Do you want to move to the couch?” Adam seemed uncertain, needing more of my help to get him there; he got up walked half way down the hall, then back, unsure of where he needed to land.

“Come to the couch,” I repeated. Adam laid down and I sat at the edge of his feet with my hands on his legs. “I love you Adam. Everything’s going to be okay,” I said in my Zen-mother voice. My entire body wanting to absorb the knotted energy around him. I smiled at him lovingly and he smiled back.

“Hand is hurting,” he said looking straight into my eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry your hand is hurting!” He leaned back and then sat forward again.

“Hand is hurting,” he repeated, holding it out for me.

“Yes your hand is hurting. Do you want me to kiss it or blow on it?”

At that point Grandpa arrived, also quiet and calm in Adam’s presence. Adam lead him to the basement where they typically hang out together. Soon after he came back upstairs for a bath and went to sleep.

This morning on the way to school, Adam sat in the back seat in the car and declared, “tooth hurting,” while pointing to his front tooth. When we arrived at school I checked but couldn’t see anything wrong. Adam had a fine but reportedly cuddly morning with his assistant. She said he became increasingly twitchy. Adam had said “yellow” which is what he has learned from the 5-point scale which symbolizes levels of distress. His assistant immediately took him to the sensory room. Adam began to tell her that his back, bottom, nose, were hurting and indeed he had a nosebleed at lunch time. When I heard he was pale and sweaty, I decided to fetch Adam early from school. Upon hearing about this, Adam assumed that he would not be able to go to circus arts where he is coached in the trampoline and began to scream. I texted (much of this conversation was happening by text) his assistant to say no, we were going no matter what because he had been asking for it all week long.

Adam did well the first half of the session and then let out a yelp. His coach put him in the silk swing until he yelped again. It was time to go home.

Nearly in tears for the way my own body responds to Adam’s distress on the inside, Adam yelped again in my car.
“Adam, I need a word please. I don’t understand screams.” I was expecting protest but Adam was quiet. When we arrived home, he again had a meagre appetite, unusual after rigorous exercise. He again placed his body underneath the cushions of the couch. He then showered and then yelped in his room. I suggested we brush his teeth, and when we did I noticed that a tooth had broken through the skin.

“Oh Adam, poor you. You are in pain!” Adam smiled from ear-to-ear, probably relieved that I finally understood what he had been telling us all along. I hugged him.

“Tired,” he declared as he climbed into bed. “Daddy hurt.” I figured he wanted to tell his father that he was in pain.

“Do you want to call daddy now?”

“No”

“Do you want to see daddy tomorrow?”

“Daddy tomorrow.” That’s an affirmative.

So as I think this through, when Adam says he’s sick and many of us just think sometimes he says things that don’t mean anything, I consider how much MORE listening we all have to do. Why do we need proof? Why do we need to see a tooth is hurting to believe it? I’m not suggesting that people (or I) don’t listen to Adam,but that Adam seems to need a lot more time and affirmation to feel comfortable as he passes through pain. Even for all the words Adam mustered to communicate how he felt, to get help, we didn’t see it and we didn’t know quite what to do for him. It’s not that we didn’t try to be helpful, or that we didn’t go to the doctor, but we beat ourselves up about Adam and his “behaviour” almost to the point of wondering if it had any function at all. Another lesson learned: We don’t always need to see to believe and Adam did the job that we always tell him to do. He communicates like hell.

What Might Derrida Say About Autism and Language?

Filed Under (Activism, autism, Communication, Community) by Estee on 16-11-2013

Adam types, mostly independently, and also with various modes of assistance. Of late, he has developed his grammatically perfect sentences and I have to wonder about teaching the system of language. To most, this should be a heralded moment when Adam has joined us, society, in the shared system of social reciprocity. Yet I wonder about that term reciprocity. Is it reciprocal when we are a dominant group of language users? What of Adam’s own communication is considered valid? With learning our system of signs and signifiers, he will be able to join classrooms and other groups. I wonder about the validation of his body, his movements as asserting his being in society. I wonder if he will not lose his, for lack of a better way of putting it, metaphorical ways of speaking. This to me was representative of communicating a pattern of thought, perhaps translation, and perhaps a pattern of sensory experience; meagerly conveyed through our dominant language. In order to think this through, we have to consider how we limit experience by insisting on a form of contemporary autistic “oralism” (a term used for the Deaf/deaf, when they were force to speak instead of sign).

Adam also sometimes speaks. Sometimes he finds it hard to use words and “speaks” better through his body. This discontinuity, as it is often called, is referred to in the medical system as impairment or a problem. Speech in our society, we must remember, is also denotative of “rationality” which I continue to problematize. Derrida might not consider his speech discontinuous any less than language and rationality are (Simons, 88). Derrida says that without any gap between pages and letters, there would be no language or communication. So language is in itself discontinuous.

Adam’s meaning must be considered similarly. Without considering his whole being in the moment I could not weave a meaning. (And it should be noted that this should not be executed by only myself. I recognize I am a dominanat language user/speaker and I have to ask for various clarifications in a translation process but also have to be patient and simply watch and listen). Meaning is co-constructed, but the most important part of this that I want to convey is that often parents ignore this complex aspect of communication and maintain a level of expectation that no one autistic person will ever accomplish without a feeling of self-loss. Inasmuch as people should be praised for achievements, they should be praised for who they are. I also consider how this interactive view contributes to the feelings of impairment; that is, every interaction with others, mostly those fluent in speech (and who may consider themselves superior or normal as a result of being a political majority of talkers), contribute to feelings of impairment. There are a number of issues here, too long for a mere blog post, but let me continue.

If I follow Derrida’s line of thinking about language, there is no easy translation. I consider Adam’s typing a way of translating his thoughts into a system; I have to recognize that language limits the expanse of his thoughts, experiences and sensations. Like science, which is a system of thought and signs, we learn to frame a “problem.” We understand science by learning its language and it is primarily an encapsulated system which speaks among itself. It is here that I will reiterate a need to move away from science as “truth” as there are other valid modes of inquiry, much of which is already produced by those who are non-speaking. I am concerned also when fellow allies and autistics revert to this form of absolutism which has only oppressed them for many years. There are ways to take back the research and inquiry and IMFAR (among other science orgs) needs to respond to them too. I am reticent, as much as I support, a specific “autistic” advocacy as we know that language and labels change with time. How do autistic people keep their needed culture while at the same time co-organize across the many disabilities who share the need for respect, acceptance and inclusion (the latter word needs clarification but I will not do so here)? Many people labeled with autism prior to 1993 were placarded with dementia praecox, schizophrenia, mental retardation, to name a few. Labels are socially constructed, temporal. They are as diachronic and responsive to society as much as the rehabilitative and treatment methods seek to “recover” them. Yet they do share one characteristic which is political and social exclusion. Here, language as a system has played a huge role in how we regard and treat autism.

To continue with Derrida, discourse and meanings are shared and malleable (my word). Meaning is assembled across spacing/timing and interactive contexts. A text is like a textile, “produced only in the transformation of another text” (Writing and Difference, 279-80). The problem occurs in the behavioural and the sciences, Derrida would argue, when “provisional meanings are taken for definitive ones” (Simons, p. 90). Isn’t this what we’ve done? Isn’t this the way we continue to respond to organizations like Autism Speaks? In a Sausserean sense, we react to the constructed meaning, signifier of autism and we continue to validate it. In other words, by reacting, we also support the dominant system. In a political sense, I think this is important to remember when we respond. It’s not that we should not do so, but we must also think of ways of moving beyond this discourse as I fear we may only be continuing to support the current infrastructure that oppresses many people who do not fit the normal paradigm.

References:
Derrida, Jacques. (1978) Writing and Difference. Pp.279-80
Simons, Jon. Contemporary Critical Theorists from Lacan to Said. p. 90.

Where I left off..let me say a few words

Filed Under (Adam, Communication, Estee) by Estee on 08-11-2013

Hmmm, let me see, where do I need to begin again? I am in the mood to just tell you where I last left this blog off, between finishing my MRP, changing Adam’s school and off to the PhD races. I can already see where this will try to pull me in many directions but Adam keeps me focused. He types on his own, but he also increases his spoken words. He is not cured of autism just because he is gaining these skills. It simply represents (if I can use that word) that coming to words, no matter how many or few, is different for all of us. Progress is not linear and I’m skeptical of progress. In terms of the human body, it changes over time. That’s about it.

Focusing on words, despite the fact that I write and defer to them all the time, remains tenuous – open to interpretation. Words are both important in this verbose culture, one where David Abram might say we are conditioned to speech (alas unaware of nature around us and our other senses) whereas Adam and others may be more attuned. If I say that, I am walking a tightrope – I wish to avoid sensationalizing “autistic” skill. Could it be there is a space in between words that we are ignoring more than ever before? Don’t we all tend to say that we live in a world where we feel more disconnected? How ironic the term automatic/automatism/autism; I get up, get in my car behind glass and these actions are automatic and required for work. People honk horns, illustrating a passive aggressive irritation – with other human beings – that may dissolve without the glass, behind computer screens. By stating my observation, I am speaking my hope. This doesn’t have to be, “just the way it is.” We can rethink the way we form relationships and community.

Words are what Adam learns in school, what we teach him through typing, reading. He is strongly attracted to words; he owns that hyperLEXIC label. We find it hard to find the right lexicon to describe our lives within a paradigm of normality, alas devoted to speech. We cannot see the forest for the trees; we are too busy building roads and computerized devices. We are busy proving our minds… and our reason.

Still, Adam is happier. He is being educated in a “real” school, and that only happens with those willing to accept that he still needs a person to help him navigate spaces, other bodies…a deluge of words coming at him in the forms of conversations and instructions. He is with other kids, and he gets to learn. This makes him happy. He directs when he needs to be with others and when he needs his space, and he learns to translate what he knows into the words we need for proof. And I, in a PhD program, must combine lots of words to put to this, in an attempt to move beyond them. In the meantime, I always feel full when Adam is around and there are few words between us. I seem to understand so much about his meaning, and he mine. Silence is full.

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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.