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.

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.

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.

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.

I Am In Here by Mark Utter

Filed Under (Acceptance, Communication, Community, Computing/iPad) by Estee on 08-08-2013

We met Mark this year; he was so sweet to Adam. Mark also wrote the script for this movie I Am In Here. Mark answered many questions after the filming of this, and Adam listened. Thank you everyone for your hard work. I believe we are getting to know how difficult it can be to learn how to type, to translate an experience into a language. Thanks to many autistic typists, so many kids are accessing AAC or learning how to type, and support workers are learning what support means in terms of autonomy. Thanks to typing, Adam is becoming a two-handed typist on some days. Some people will become fully independent and others will always need some form of support, and I certainly hope with a greater understanding of interdependent relationships, that support becomes better understood and accepted. I suppose the main message I would have for people would be: do we support people and enable autistic people by mitigating our proclivity to normalize (and over-value independence)? I think many of our practices are the taken-for-granted normate methods and attitudes that erase many autistic contributions. Are we supporting autistic people in order not to be frustrated, to self-advocate? I won’t go into the “system” which lays out how we value people and for what (such as productivity, independence) – in fact, I think these mechanisms are universal, except they are more difficult standards for disabled people to achieve, especially when they are not accommodated. I suppose any method could be used for normalization, and this is what we always have to be troubling; by thinking about autistic self-advocacy and autobiography as valid and primary information about autistic experience, and thinking of how our treatments, attitudes and supports can even affect these experiences. By thinking and talking about such topics, perhaps we can better support the community instead of rushing in to say how autistic people ought to be in society.

To Order the Film, Visit VSA Vermont By CLICKING HERE. Thank you, Mark!!!

Personal Interest and Academic Reserach

Filed Under (Activism, Adam, Advocacy, Autism and Intelligence, Communication, Community, Computing/iPad, Critical Disability Studies, Living, Politics, Writing) by Estee on 28-05-2013

The end of the day of Adam healing from the croup and us both watching repeats of Wretches & Jabberers for my thesis. Adam can’t help laughing at the scenes of Naoki jumping up and down to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee – flapping his hands, moving the window blind from side-to-side, opening and closing doors, and running up and down the stairs to then, finally settling at his computer utterly focused and well, communicative. I can tell Adam’s feeling better as he giggles and then afterwards decided to do some puckered-lip kissing practice on my cheek.

Watching these clips from YouTube are also very important for anyone wanting to discuss it. I would imagine we’re all concerned about Tracy’s living situation and want that to change. As I write an academic paper about a subject that I am personally invested in, I also feel a responsibility to my son’s community. I am also selfish and grateful at the same time – selfish in not wanting Adam or anyone like him to have to be in Tracy’s position as well as inordinately grateful to both Tracy and Larry and their supporters for going out into the world to do this work. We are all motivated by personal circumstances which enables our emapthy. I am hoping to articulate my personal interests and vulnerabilities in my own academic writing, where one is otherwise supposed to be, in a traditional empiricist sense, emotionally removed and (supposedly) objective. Others have discussed this as well – Behar in The Vulnerable Observer, and Douglas Biklen in Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone and recently this new paper by Andrew Bennet in this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly discusses the possibilities of our mutual vulnerabilities – as researcher and research participants.

I really appreciate this clip that comes in addition to the film, as I wanted to know more about Mr. Thresher’s situation. I don’t live in Vermont, but I do think that the issue should be a politically active one here in Ontario as our autism societies take up adult autism issues. How can we enable autistic people to advocate on their own behalf for their own needs? How can we support them? This film should be shown at every chance in discussing positive living situations outside of institutions and segregated shelters.

I also work hard to get Adam to type and use AAC and seek people to support Adam. It is frighteningly slow for people to believe that Adam can understand, read, and have the ability to type and both of us need more support that is difficult to find here in Ontario. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 and been telling people he could read words, numbers and book spines since he was 11 months old. I find it really frustrating if some verbal behaviourists teach him the word “cat” over and over again so he can say it correctly when he’s been reading it since before he could walk. The autism curriculum must change to include education and academics in its programs to be truly supportive of the autistic person’s right to education.

In terms of typing, his school will support him visually, and I think because of the time I’ve spent typing with Adam with support, that he is able to type to some extent at school without it. Yet I think with better support he could do better there and I’m trying to teach people myself. If you are a parent, you know this is a labour. However, I can’t understand any longer, as Adam and I have also been informally tested (yes, that’s the doubt people have about autistic people) that Adam’s communication is his own, and that with the right kinds of supports and teaching, he could communicate better by typing. This is seen in the same way deaf sign language was once denied to deaf people in favour of lip reading and speaking. Yet, communication is also a right. To deny a person with a communication disability such support and access will become an issue for law and policy, but our important work for now as activists and educators is to keep showing the work of autistic self-advocates, such as Larry and Tracy, as well as autistic people who are prolific bloggers and writers, and to keep breaking down barriers within our own homes, communities and schools, one person at a time.

My last thoughts for the evening: Isn’t it better to support an autistic person in their autonomy rather than to fret about what level of dependence they are going to have on their families or in group homes? In other words, isn’t the support of autonomy and our mutual interdependence a much more empowering prospect for us all? (I have to add, I am not intentionally favouring those who are able or have the desire to type or use AAC. There are those who are not able to use it and we have to consider the people missing from this dialogue).

Part of my work wonders why such doubt exists regarding Adam and why we’ve had to struggle with so much resistance with educators and clinicians. I do think that Adam, like other autistic people, will dispel the doubts. But I also wonder if we have to ask ourselves what or why we doubt, exactly? What do we fear if people with communication disabilities can communicate via other means? Is this the right question?

A New Kind of Autism Lobby: A Proposal

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Charity, Communication, Community, Critical Disability Studies, Language, Organizations/Events, Politics, The Autism Acceptance Project) by Estee on 09-05-2013

I’m writing my thesis and am hankering to blog – so many things on my mind with the recent Ontario budget proposal, the ever-so teensy weensy allowance for an individual on ODSP to take home a couple hundred bucks a month and the way we may have to reconsider how we advocate for support as autistic families. Can I say at least it wasn’t cut altogether as was the original threat? Also in the budget is a brief mention of autism services and a reduction of wait-list times for those in urgent need. I’d like here to write a post for all of us to reconsider what all autistic people and families need, and how we have to lobby.

I’m writing my thesis on autism advocacy, in particular, among non-verbal populations. There are wonderful contributions to this already out there to be cited. Also, The Autism Acceptance Project (TAAP) is in meetings, where the autistic population is setting the agenda and I am a facilitator/organizer (also we hope to announce an upcoming event soon). I’ve thought long and hard about the work of autistic folks and re-evaluate my role as a partner and ally to Adam and others. The most fundamental concern I have that will effect all autistic people and their families is autistic rights – to be viewed as valuable citizens; this means that the “spectrum” concept of functioning does not preclude rights and that all people are equal and valuable. This is addressed in substantive equality, where differential treatment must be sought for many to achieve equality (Rioux, 1999). In other words, many disabled people require support and accommodation to participate in their chosen ways in society. What is particularly worrisome to me as a parent of an autistic child, is the lack of access and lack of education. Yet, I also see our traditional education system crumbling, which to me, provides a new opportunity to finally give access to education for everyone. This post proposes not only services to alleviate families, but many opportunities for autistic people of all ages.

Here, I see potential for those who are also ABA lobbyists (I will specifically mention this group since ABA is cited in all government literature now and as I predicted in 2005, it would be the only service available to autistics) to change their drumbeat from tragedy to substantive rights. I’ve cited recently the Jefferey Moore case in British Columbia (2012) wherein it was stated that the notion of remediation risked adverse effect discrimination. I would argue the same – that when we believe we have to remediate an autistic individual, or any individual with a learning disability, before allowing them access to school, or to an education, then this is a fundamental oppression and devaluation. ABA schools can consider integrating academics into their methods as well as any other therapies out there, thus supporting, enabling, respecting (instead of normalizing) autistic being. That Augmentative Assistive Communication (AAC) and other supported communication techniques is not considered a right to communication should be an outrage to us all. At one time, the Deaf community was not allowed to sign! Now, the same thing is happening to the non-verbal autism community. The most fundamental right is the right to access communication. Yet, teachers also have to learn how to support an autistic person to use them, while also considering the autistic learning style (there is research out there you can find easily on this). There are enough autistic independent typists as well as teaching methods available. I could go on — video monitors, white boards, computers – these are fundamental for autistic learning and we all have a wonderful opportunity to learn to support autistic individuals! My question to educators and supporters, how can we change the way we do things to support autistic rights?

Back to the the right to education – music, art, math, science, geography – all of these are fundamental to an individual’s quality of life. Adam is autistic and has a curious mind. When he is introduced to new topics, they may be hard at first if they are taught in traditional ways, but as he learns he becomes more interested, proud and excited; doors open and he wants to learn more! Should an autistic person in a Verbal Behaviour or ABA program be denied access to academic material when they have read the same word since they were a toddler? Or, can this new material be integrated within a program? How creative can we be?How can autistic children be allowed access to their own interests and material and how can teachers facilitate their continued learning of what interests them? These are also fundamental rights – the right to choose and to follow one’s own path. While it has been cited numerous times that everyone – disabled and not – can benefit from an individualized approach to education – it as also been deemed difficult in the traditional system where teachers have been the gatekeepers of knowledge.

I was turned on recently to Sal Kahn, who has created a series of educational videos on YouTube which are utilized by some classrooms. Some teachers are reconsidering their role as facilitators instead of lecturers at the front of the classroom, monitoring a child’s work on the computer using Kahn’s lessons, and then stepping in to help when needed. Online learning can be very effective for autistic individuals and must be considered if we are to enable a future of autistic participation and contribution. This provides fantastic opportunities where video learning and technology – such as Mindcraft – are enablers – autistic people can build in this program, make art and new worlds, and this can be a monitored learning program (and many do which attests to innate autistic intelligence and ability). Online friendships and self-advocacy, as reported by many non-verbal autistic individuals, have also enabled better socialization skills in virtual and real time. How can rethink such spaces that are already at our disposal? How can we allow for autistic work to take place also on autistic terms?

We have to reconsider these spaces from traditional ones to creative ones where all people can participate. At the moment, I can say that while I work to have Adam included, he is mostly segregated – goes to school, goes to a few programs with an aide worker which thankfully enables him to participate. Within the system at our disposal, we work with Adam’s team to provide him the best we can and we are all learning. But this is what I ask of all Canadian society – at least give Adam, and others, the opportunity to participate. To-date, he is not allowed. Even trying to get Adam into certain schools is fraught with traditional testing – not allowing him frequent pre-visits or adapting work in formats that he can best respond to. All I can say is, the world is losing out too for Adam can give back so much.

As I consider my daily life as Adam’s mother, and how my heart wrenches for him – I at least want him to have choices. This drives my work towards a more inclusive future (which may require specialized education in the real sense of education for his future – not sequestering, normalizing and presuming incompetence) for our children and for families to support this, this also traverses to the arena of advocacy with such questions as: What of my role as his parent and an “autism rights activist?” How can I, as a non-autistic person who is used to traditional hierarchical boards, committees and organization, become familiar with an alternative way of organization and allowing a new space, or room, for autistic self-advocates? How can autistic people enable us when some of us are listening? What about virtual spaces and how might they be maximized? How can we allow for dissent and debate that reflects true democracy and recognize that not all autistic people feel the same way, not all people require the same supports, and not everyone will agree? What must we recognize in ourselves as neurotypical teachers, parents, therapists, caregivers and charity organizers in stepping aside and lending a hand to create this space? In speaking of charity and it’s historical role of “handing out,” how can we build communities that support self-advocate needs? In one sense, I truly understand the need for autistic people to have this space, and predominant “voices,” if you will, but we also all have to recognize the important role of allies and parent supporters and educate families about the history of the autistic self-advocacy, and its fragility. We cannot afford to lose the ground gained by autistic-self advocates! Autistic people also have to allow for us to become political facilitators alongside autistic people without us more verbally loquacious dominating the agenda or “speaking over” autistics. Autistic people can teach us patience and learning to listen without speaking over. Let me ramble here by making another comment – research teams and funders have to recognize this urgent need for emancipatory research that requires much patience and time, and make allowances for it.

Here, I acknowledge the independence via interdependence model that I write a lot about – that we tend to advocate for complete autonomy and independence that drives our therapies and expectations for autistic people before giving them full value and citizenship. Yet when we truly look at how interdependent we all are – on our families, on technology, on a service system, none of us are independent. This is the area in which we need to discuss when we talk about autism services – not a cradle to grave service where we put autistic people away, but a collective economy of support where autistic people can also contribute and where we do not view responsibility as something tragic. I can only think that in North America this notion is strongest – when I lived in Europe, families often stayed in the same home all of their lives and supported one another. Part of me can’t help but think that this notion of supporting our children into adulthood is a construction of the industrial revolution – where children were sent into factories to work. As we see those structures crumbling, I hope we can reconsider that supporting one another should be something to be grateful for, not a tragedy. Will our quality of life not improve when we know that all of us who need more support at various points in our lifetimes, will also be respected, supported and not be made to feel guilty or less than for it?

Finally, I can think of all the “job creation,” for autistic people and support workers alike when I think of Ontario’s new proposed budget. Yet as long as we are wedded to this false notion of “independence,” we might continue to build cities which isolate everyone. For certain, this is the ultimate paradox – I think we all feel isolated in many concrete jungles, and we need a call to building collectives and communities which utilize and respect the varying contributions of all citizens. To respect human variation and possibility for re-building, I draw on Jennifer Sarrett’s Autistic Human Rights: A Proposal:

“[H]uman rights are to be enjoyed based on fundamental frailty and vulnerability inherent within the state of being human. By focusing on vulnerability, a state that all people experience at various points in life, disability and difference becomes an experience that can tie all humans together.” (2012, Disability Studies Quarterly, unpaginated)

Also, quoting Eva Kittay, Sarrett includes that while not all people are equally vulnerable, that is, some people are more vulnerable than others, it does not mean that the more vulnerable are less worthy or entitled to justice, equality and human rights:

This principle, in contrast to the others, would not be based on our equal vulnerability, nor on our possession of rationality, a sense of justice, and a vision of our own good. Instead, it would be based on our unequal vulnerability in dependency, on our moral power to respond to others in need, on on the primacy of human relations to happiness and well-being.” (Kittay in Sarrett, 2012)

Sarrett further states that,

“human rights do not have to rely on a single doctrine – dependence or fragility or oppression or humanness or capability. The autism-based model described here is built on a foundation of dependence, individuality, and valuing human diversity, allowing for the inclusion of the entire sphere [note: she uses ‘sphere’ instead of ‘spectrum’ which she considers ableist] of cognitive, intellectual, physical and psychiatric traits within the human condition. Accounting for and respecting variations in the human state are central to the ongoing and dynamic process of developing human rights models most effective for any time and place. Any model of human rights should be in constant conversation with contemporary issues of diversity, medicine, law, and advocacy. Thus, all models…should be subject to alterations and updates to ensure the most acute and powerful application in every community and for every person.”

She notes that while some positive rights have been granted for education and health care, that the autistic rights model, fashioned after civil rights, has difficulty with the promotion of negative rights which includes the right to assemble. Sarrett says that negative rights are integral to this inclusive model of human rights, but self-representation and advocacy can be difficult for many non-verbal advocates who have assembled more easily online, and find real-time meetings and interactions very difficult. This asks us to reconsider how accessible our boards, committees and systems and how they enact as barriers to many autistic people. How might we re-organize our organizations? I, for one, believe that the Internet provides the future possibilities for the democratic process.

Reference:

Sarrett, Jennifer (2012). Autistic Human Rights: A Proposal. Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol. 32. No. 4.

Talking About Autism & Building Community

Filed Under (Autism Theories, Autistic Self Advocacy, Community, Language, Media, Research, Uncategorized) by Estee on 11-11-2012

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.

Reference:

Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber & Patricia Lina Leavy, Feminist Research Practice, London, Sage Publications, 2007.

If you are interested in a Media Analysis of Disability, See the Research done by Disability Rights Promotion International.

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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.