Why Every Minute Is Not Therapy (or a short case for why it shouldn’t be)

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Contributions to Society, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Inclusion, Research) by Estee on 08-09-2011

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

I heard this term used by someone today. It is often used in ABA-speak — that every minute of every day must be a form of “therapy” for the autistic child. Some believe this is necessary because there is a belief that autistic children are not learning unless they are doing it in a way that that we can understand…measurable. This made me think of Sisyphus and the futile attempts we make in trying to normalize an autistic person.

The truth is, we take comfort in measures. Yet as I wrote in my essay/presentation The Mismeasure of Autism, we cannot hold autistic people up against the same measures as we do of people with typical people. Not all brains are wired in the same way.

For example, women have quickly discovered that when we compare ourselves to men in the workplace, or try to behave like men, we fail. In pretending to be like men, we can undergo a great deal of stress because we are working against our nature. When we are valued for the manner in which we can accomplish the same tasks as men, but in our own way, we discover that our differences can be beneficial to the workplace. Women to men are as autistic people to neurotypical ones: different and equal.

I was reminded of the contributions of those who are different from the film titled Journey Into Dyslexia, which profiles accomplished people with dyslexia. The trailer can be seen by clicking here.

During the film, dyslexic individuals describe their trauma with the education system — how no one appreciated the unique wiring of their brain and tried to make the dyslexic students learn like typical ones. I was so saddened by the life-long adverse effects this had on them.

In another segment, a researcher discusses how dyslexic individuals have unique abilities and pattern recognition and explain that our world would not be the same without such thinkers. This reminded me of the research being done which shows advanced perceptual ability in autistic individuals of all functioning levels.

It should be said that in the film about dyslexia, individuals do not appear disabled. In autism, this isn’t always the case. While some individuals do not physically appear different, others are distiguishable by their various eye-gaze, facial expression, gait and idiosyncratic body movements (which serve most often to regulate or feel the body in space), referred to as self-stimulatory behaviour. I thought to myself that in our (still) disabled-adverse society, it is easier to accept dyslexic people, that is, sadly easier to accept people who do not have any obvious appearance of disability. Yet, dyslexics did not always have the same recognition and status. Dyslexic students were labeled and marginalized — called stupid — and not much was expected from them in the future.

Time changed that. Studies of the brain and achievements and activism by dyslexic individuals changed it too. So I had to wonder, as I always do when I watch such movies, why it is taking so long for the autistic community to receive such recognition and access? There are scientific studies that demonstrate advanced perceptual abilities, patterning skills in autistic individuals despite the labels of “functioning levels.” There is anecdotal evidence that autistic individuals are exceptional employees — reliable, honest, able to do detailed and repetitive work, and perhaps even able to design world-renowned facilities (think Temple Grandin).

Still, we as an autistic community (meaning parents, researchers and autistic people) tend to discount the mounting evidence. While I don’t wish to go into yet another lengthy about high and low functioning labels, but I will reiterate that they are unreliable in determining intelligence levels. Not all intelligences can be measured the same way, as demonstrated by many of the neurological differences which now have labels out there. This is also explained brilliantly in the film.

We can learn from our fellow disability communities. We can turn to ones, like the dyslexic community, in learning how to advocate for autistic individuals. We can definitely acknowledge that it is natural for the human speicies to have differently-wired brains and that these “different” brains are integral to the survival of our speicies (watch the movie for an advanced argument on that point).

That is the reason why the idea that “every minute should be therapy” for the autistic person is a form of discrimination. Underneath the premise is the idea that autistic people need to learn and act like those who are different from them. I cannot imagine the anguish of that experience, and every day I try to feel what Adam must have to go through and what he may come to say of it when he grows older.

Before the hyper-programmed generation (that is, my generation), we had many bored moments when our parents let us figure out what to do on our own. We stared at clouds, talked to ourselves and created laboratories out of our mother’s cosmetic bottles and the contents therein. When I look back, I remember creating many imaginary worlds. Adam’s chatter is considered abnormal to many behaviourists, although I’ve never stopped him. I’ve now learned how valuable that self-chatter is to autistic children for language acquisition.

Compare the way we let typical children play to the existence of the autistic child today. It is said that autistic children can’t learn on their own, let alone imagine, without our intervention. Autistic free time is not valued. Autistic nature is not valued. Autistic learning is not valued and the autistic person is more often than not, underestimated.

I tend to use the story of how Adam taught himself how to read and count in an argument such as this. A more recent example I would use is how he has taught himself how to search for what he wants on the computer. You see, those are the things we see and measure, but I wouldn’t be able to determine how he came to do it. I can’t measure the exact process he went through. I can wait until he is able to explain some of it to me, unscientifically maybe, and I am certain now that he will as his verbal and typing skills catapulted again this summer along with his long days in the fresh air.

If I had turned each and every one of Adam’s minutes — nay existence — into “therapy,” not only would I become completely exhausted and dismayed, but I’m quite certain that Adam would not be has happy and as well adjusted as any young autistic individual can wish to be. He will have his complaints, I am certain. He is up against so much more than I have ever been.

I am thankful for my attitude of late and for the balanced approach that time and experience has given us. It is not always easy to maintain this attitude consistently in our community where autistic children are not taught to their needs or potential, let alone accepted into many schools and taught well. For many autism parents, it is the fear of the future that is the driving force behind the idea that every moment needs to be a therapeutic one. I completely understand that fear.

It is in these very moments when we need to turn to autistic adults and call upon all of our autism societies to spotlight the achievements of autistic individuals of all functioning levels, and their contributions to society. In autism we have Temple Grandin, Vernon Smith (Nobel Prize Winner), Stephen Wiltshire, Daniel Tammet, Donna Williams, Michelle Dawson, Matt Savage, Amanda Baggs, Larry Bissonnette, and so many more autistic contributors. In so many of their stories, we have heard how they have learned and achieved by virtue of their autistic brains and societal accommodation, not from minute-by-minute therapy.

We should do everything to celebrate the achievements of our comrades, as this will enable better services and accommodations for the next generation of autistic people to contribute. If we do not stand up for our own community, what chances will our children have to prove themselves? What chances for acceptance?

Everyone has something to contribute.

Autistic Girl Taken By Province

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who, I wondered. I sat up straighter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Please sign this petition to help bring Ayn home.

Autistic Wandering and the DSM

Filed Under (Activism, autism, Autism Spectrum and Diagnosis, Discrimination) by Estee on 04-04-2011

Recently, the CDC proposed a separate criteria for wandering in autism. You can find the PDF here. I have received permission from the Autism National Committee (AUTCOM) to make this letter available to readers in response to the proposal:

Dear Ms. Pickett:

We are writing as a coalition of organizations representing a wide variety of different constituents in the disabilities field. We include organizations run by people with disabilities as well as those run by parents, other family members, professionals, providers and many others. Our coalition also includes groups representing a wide array of different kinds of disability categories, including developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities. We are writing to express our profound concern about the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering discussed at the last meeting of the ICD Coordination and Maintenance Committee on March 9th-10th.

While wandering behavior leading to injury and death represents an important and legitimate safety issue for the disability community, we are concerned that the proposal put forward by CDC’s National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) is not rooted in high quality research and has significant potential unintended consequences for people with disabilities and family members. We encourage the National Center for Health Statistics to reject an ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior as ill-advised and inappropriate.

First, a code for wandering behavior could limit the self-determination rights of adults with disabilities. The wandering coding has no clear operational definition and thus no limits to its application. The proposal makes no distinction between wandering behavior that would qualify for the coding and a rational and willful effort by an individual with a disability to remove oneself from a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. For individuals with significant communication challenges, attempting to leave a situation may be one of the only ways of communicating abuse, a sensorily overwhelming situation or simple boredom. We are concerned that if this coding enters the ICD-9-CM such attempts at communication will be disregarded as medical symptoms.

Second, a code for wandering behavior could lead to serious unintended consequences in professional practice for schools and residential service-provision settings for adults with disabilities. Restraint and seclusion in schools and in residential service-provision settings is already a persistent problem. The application of this coding may result in increased restraint and seclusion as a way of preventing wandering behavior, supplanting required active support, person-centered planning and appropriate supervision. In addition, we are concerned that this coding may enable other forms of overly restrictive interventions and settings. For example, individuals with disabilities who are labeled with a wandering coding may be less likely to be included in the general education classroom, more likely to be placed in large group homes or institutions and more likely to experience chemical restraint. Each of these issues already represents a critical problem for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that this coding may exacerbate. For example, while only 18% of adults on the autism spectrum receiving developmental disability services have a diagnosis of mental illness, 41% of such individuals are receiving psychotropic medications, suggesting a high incidence of chemical restraint.

Third, the proposed ICD-9-CM code for wandering behavior lacks research support and is not based on evidence or a controlled examination of the issues involved. No research exists to look at wandering as a medical rather than behavioral issue. The research which CDC relies on to make the case for this coding is weak. For example, one of the statistics that CDC cites (that 92% of families of children on the autism spectrum report at least one or more incidents of wandering) comes not from a high quality research study, but instead from an online poll on the website of an advocacy organization. This is not in line with the high standards for research and evidence that CDC’s bases its other decision-making on.

While we respect the good intentions behind the creation of this coding, we firmly believe that there are other ways of accomplishing the positive objectives of this coding without placing people with disabilities and our families at risk of the same unintended consequences. Other methods of data collection around wandering can and are being pursued by both public and private funders. In addition, a wide variety of human services and educational approaches hold significant promise in addressing the issue of dangerous wandering behavior outside of a medical context. As a result, we strongly urge you to reconsider and reject the proposed ICD-9-CM coding for wandering behavior.

Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services (NASDDDS)

If you wish to respond, please contact AUTCOM or circulate this letter.

Terminal Fates

Filed Under (Activism, Advocacy, Discrimination, Politics) by Estee on 29-11-2010

“You can’t say your child is great,” I was told when looking into services for Adam. As part of our growing process, we have to know what is available to us. I was discussing how Adam has many challenges and is also:

-likes to be social but has difficulty at times…

“He sounds great,” interrupted the woman I was speaking to on the telephone who had asked me what Adam was like. “Just so you know, I have a child with Down’s syndrome. It’s a drag to have to paint the worst scenario, but in order to get services, you just have to.”

Why subjugate our wonderful children, young and old, to terminal fates? You remember — the ones “worse than cancer.” Why must we have to paint a dimsal picture, or view people with disabilities as something horrible and devastating to us and society? This is the very reason why we’ve had such misrepresentation that hurts autistic people, and why parents are literally forced to represent ourselves as desperate, our children as hopeless without certain types of services. People with challenges have a right to support. At the same time, we have a right to love and cherish our children and believe in them. We have a right to think our children our terrific, great, a joy, even. It’s not sugar coating anything (back in the day, I was accused of this). My child needs lots of support. I do not wish to embellish anything. I simply want to tell people what he needs as his inherent right. As it is, the services and supports for autistic people here in Ontario are neither diverse nor robust.

If there is a thing called fate, I think it’s terminal for all of us, isn’t it? I sure wouldn’t call autism a fate worse than cancer and to be honest, I find it really hard to speak about my son in a way that I find demeaning to him. There are facts, and there are exaggerations. We all want to make the best of the lives we have, and so we should — with the support we need, and the love in our hearts that we just need to express.


Filed Under (Advocacy, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination) by Estee on 17-11-2010

Below is a reading from my favourite author Milan Kundera excerpted from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  It would have made (and now makes) an appropriate accompaniment to my essays of several years ago titled The Economy of Pity and The Mismeasure of Autism — the latter which was included in Wendy Lawson’s book Concepts of Normality: The Autistic and Typical Spectrum:

A Single Mom’s View of Autism, Divorce Rates and Stigma in the Pursuit of Love

Filed Under (autism, Critical Disability Studies, Disability Finances/Benefits, Discrimination, Parenting, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 29-07-2010

“Before you break something apart, it helps to know how it hangs together.”

 — a quote from SEED magazine regarding art and science and the contributions art can make before distilling the neurological nature of being human.

It helps to know what makes a marriage or relationship hang together. The manner in which we build a union between two people can be pinpointed from the moment it begins. Over time, I’ve come to believe that strong foundations for a relationship are built on honesty, sharing, trust, communication, respect, personal character and commitment. These attributes become ever-more important when we decide to start a family. I might suggest, as a woman with some experience, that a serious review of some of these attributes in ourselves as well our partners, and an agreement of some kind, is of prime importance before starting a family.

Instead we get swept up, probably because most of us are young, in the idea of what a marriage should be instead of looking at the practicalities of construction. Naively, we come to believe that having a baby is romantic and naturally, all we want to do is proliferate the romance. In an age where we are encouraged, and should to some degree, go with the flow, we may have swung too far. Perhaps we do not consider our partners in construction carefully enough because it seems too “business-like.” Yet real life seems to be that fine balance between the two. As the saying goes, all we have at the end are the relationships we’ve built, and might I add, maintained. In a society that values Individualism, it seems to me that many of us have forgotten that it takes a community to not only raise a child, but to also sustain us as adults, so we better be paying attention to how and what we build. As Thoreau said, “build [those] castles in the sky…” but it helps to place the foundations under them. It behooves us to try our best to ensure they are strong.

Let me clarify here that I am a woman writing in retrospect as I am now a single mother of an autistic child. I’ve seen that when relationships fall apart, we blame it on other things. No matter what, external factors will impact a life and a marriage — illness, disability, death and other unfortunate occurrences. We hear it in the marriage vows (for better or for worse, in sickness and in health), yet it seems few of us care to consider the meaning of those words which, in my view, can apply to our friendships and other types of partnerships. I mean, no one can really scoff at those marriage vows even if one doesn’t believe in the institution. We all want someone to see us for who we are, and to love us until the end. Yet, sometimes the two people who came together with the best of intentions cannot endure the stress and do not function well as a team when challenged. In an era of extreme autism fascination and fear we can be ultimately challenged. As such, it is also assumed, and often written, that autism is a main cause of divorce. The unknowing, innocent autistic child is then targeted by society as a result, and it is yet one more reason added to an exhaustive list of why we must cure and change the autistic child as quickly as possible. Instead of considering that all children are a test — that in fact, all of life is one big test — we yet again blame the autism.

I have always found the idea of blaming the autistic child for the deterioration of marriage as something unfair to autistic people. Yet, when my own marriage ended, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of those ideas behind the eighty per-cent divorce rates and autism might even in some small way be true. There can be more stress because our children have atypical needs that are not easily accommodated in our communities. In North America, we are still in the process of legislating what the rights of disabled (including autistic) people must be. We have acknowledged that the rights of autistic people are about thirty years behind of how we regard and grant rights to people with other disabilities. In other words, there is still a journey ahead.

As a parent also living in an age when governments do not understand autism and the accommodations autistic people need to contribute as autistic people, there is more stress when we have to fight to get our kids into schools, obtain financial support, acquire respite help, augmentative communication devices, social skills and vocational training and later, appropriate housing accommodations, access to community colleges and universities with aides and supports that allow our adult children to continue to learn and contribute. By default, we’ve become activists, advocates by no choice of our own. Daily, in some way shape or form, we always seem to be negotiating prejudice in order to get our children and our families what they need. Yes, it can be exhausting in the beginning. I believe all parents need to pace themselves for like life, the journey is long.

I’ve heard that some spouses complain about mothers (let me clarify that the bulk of writings on the topic seem to address the mothers) who take on such a role. “If only the child was “normal,” then the mother would be able to attend to her husband more often. I’ve also heard single moms of more than one autistic child claim that their entire identities are entwined in autism, and as you can see from the laundry list above, it is with good reason. Further, some families that are mixed with typical and autistic children also seem to experience more stress because the autistic child is held up against the typical one and there might be some unhealthy comparisons. As a mother of only one child, I have to consider that some of my stress may be alleviated by the fact that I know of no other way to live. I have no other child to compare mine against. I consider this one of my many blessings.

It might be true that some husbands (and this can also apply to mothers, I do not wish to target husbands, so let me clarify this here even if I do state either “fathers” or “mothers”) do not care to participate in the intensive initial learning curve of raising an autistic child. It is true that some partners bail and leave the brunt of the work to the mother. It is true that in the first years after a diagnosis, and in our new age of autism fascination and fear, autism required a lot of reading, research and self-enquiry. Yet, life evolves, our children mature and we move beyond that “crisis” phase. One can only hope that our partners will hang on until we get there. Still, blaming the mother for the failed marriage is an old idea — we’re either as cold-as-ice- Bettelheim- Refrigerator-Mothers or we are terrible wives. Misogynistic ideas flagellate us and the ideas run so deep they are tough to beat. While there are single mothers truly struggling and are in need of respite, access to services and financial support, I also suggest that these are the caregivers who should be at the top of the list for such support. For after all, it is true that if a mother does not explore herself and her own needs, she will not be able to give herself to her family.

I also think there are all kinds of mothers, those with special needs or typical children. Some are the ones always carpooling, always talking about their children at social functions — forgive me please if you are one of them for it’s your right, but it’s just not my style. Although I spoke a lot about autism in the early years as I tried to figure it out for myself, and I often write about my son on my blog, I do not always wish to talk about him or about autism and I never wanted a bucket full of kids. In short, I’ve seen more women of typical children get so caught up in their motherhood roles that I find it so ironic that mothers of autistic children get blamed for failed marriages because we get so involved in our “autistic” children’s lives! Indirectly of course, the autism, or autistic child is also blamed. In all of my years I’ve tried to always enjoy my passions, even if I’ve had to sometimes put them on hold at various points in my life. Even while my autistic child is a huge source of happiness for me, I recognize that in order to be a good mother, I have to explore and live my own life. I believe that by being my non-super-mom (hence the lack of carpooling) very basic self, I am setting a good example for my son. Mothers of autistic children are also professors and other professionals with successful partnerships and marriages and others are struggling to care for the children on their own while trying to make ends meet. Like everyone, we are also a diverse community. No matter where we are at, finding the balance is an art we seem to always be working at.

A new study debunks the incorrect divorce rate and some of the assumptions that we have mustered that belong to the myth. Dr. Brian Freedman of the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that a child’s autism “had no effect on the family structure.” In fact, he found that 64 per cent of children with autism belong to a family with two married biological or adoptive parents compared to 65 per cent of children who do not have ASD. Freedman’s study acknowledges that parenting an autistic child may be more stressful and it may put pressure on the marriage, which he found in past studies. As I looked back to reference this, I found one executed in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Vol. 19, No. 1, 1989): Brief Report: Psychological Effects of Parenting Stress on Parents of Autistic Children (Wolf, Noh, Fisman, Speechly). What was noteworthy to me in this study was an assumption that parents felt that their own personal goals were delayed or forfeited (Kohut, 1966), disappointments with delayed developmental milestones (Howard, 1978), worry regarding future self-sufficiency (Wing, 1985; Wolf & Goldberg, 1986), and the unpredictable, ambiguous nature of autism as important sources of life stress that impose physical and emotional strains on parents exceeding levels experienced by parents of normal children (Bristol & Schopler, 1984; Korn, Chess, & Fernandez, 1978). Freedman seems to have used these assumptions when citing that parents of autistic children suffer a greater amount of stress than parents of children with Down Syndrome or typical children; that mothers report more depression and fathers deal with stress by distancing themselves and becoming less involved with the family. (Source: Kennedy Krieger Institute).

Yet, in an analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health, data showed that other factors can contribute to divorce, “such has having a child with particularly challenging behaviors with and without autism [bold mine]. For some families, the challenges of parenting a child with special needs may indeed result in straining the marriage to the breaking point.” Freedman wishes to conduct more longitudinal studies to find out how relationships can survive such stressors and what factors may enable the successful marriage. Alison Singer, founder of The Autism Science Foundation agrees that it would be helpful to find the “net stress reducers,” for families, noting also that the 80% divorce-rate myth may have added to our stress as parents and marriage partners.

It might help to add here that Canadian researcher Lonnie Zwaigenbaum in his paper A Qualitative Investigation of Changes in the Belief Systems of Families of Children With Autism or Down Syndrome (Child: Care, Health and Development, 2006,32: 353-369) concluded that families with autistic and Down syndrome children resulted in a reconstruction of values, expectations and actually added to a sense of overall happiness and joy. His team noted that most families believed that their children improved their quality of life. I will concur. Having an autistic child, even with the challenges, has brought me down to earth and made me appreciate many more aspects and people that are currently in my life. My son Adam has been my most profound teacher in helping me see not only the realities of life, but in living with them to the best possible degree.

Still, I thought it really important to discover why so many people believe that families with autistic children in them, are subject to higher divorce rates. They seem to be based in our beliefs and fears, whether they are real or not. We are told many negative things when we first hear the word autism and the idea of having a difficult marriage is not a welcome message. As a single parent, I also have to consider what of those negative messages permeate societal thoughts and the potential for future relationships as society (and potential partners within it) believes that life is so hard for us that we do not have time for the pursuit of happiness.

We learned the extraordinary lengths we would have to take to help or “cure” our children — the strain on our financial resources and time — but the future, even with such investments, looked uncertain. When I consider stress, I have to account for some of the images I have had in my own journey, particularly the early ones. Thoughts like: thwarted dreams, a curbed schedule, shiny white hospitals with fluorescent lights, and spare cots (as seen in the neglected institutions of the 1960’s) popped into my head as I lay putting my autistic son to bed, his hair still baby-soft and face so sweet. The images did not fit with my reality, yet, I wondered how these haunted thoughts would effect the way I dealt with my son. Those images collide against the perfect Hollywood glam of serial daters and spouses with their perfectly coiffed children in gleaming black limousines. Let me quickly add that you will find me often blaming Hollywood for our warped self-images.

By taking a serious look at these narratives and images, it is possible to come back down to reality and back away from feelings of doom. Not only do I know my marriage did not dissolve because of my autistic child, but I became interested in the underlying fears that may prohibit some people from believing that future relationships with autistic children are possible. In other words, I think there is a correlation between our idea that autistic families must have higher divorce rates because,

– we believe we suffer more stress because we feel we devote much more time to the autistic child than the neurotypical child, possibly without considering the issues that many typical children have that can also put a strain on marriages and the outcome of all children is uncertain;

– we have automatically concluded without further inquiry into our belief systems, that single parents of autistic children have it tougher and therefore have less time for current or future relationships (as compared to families with typical children);

– and that our historical view of the disabled as asexual non persons is inherited in how we view ourselves as parents and human beings.

The stigma facing the disabled community still lingers. We see a person with real physical or cognitive issues, and a slew of ideas and images cross our minds. I find it helps to always catch myself in these moments of thought and question the immediately. It’s not that most of us really know anything about the disabled person’s life, for many of us have never had a family member or lived with a disability. History continues to pulse through our veins and when we view disabled persons, we think of institutions, hardship and poverty — not the typical attractive traits we think of when exploring sexual relationships.

In autism in particular, we are all too familiar with the head-banging narrative. It was the first thing we envisioned when we heard the word AUTISM. Whether our children were diagnosed at the age of two, three, four or beyond, that very word altered our perspectives of both our children, and our futures. I can think of no image associated with a word more powerful in my lifetime. It takes so much time and self enquiry to unravel the fear and begin to find that balance again. In addition to unraveling and reconstructing our expectations for our children, we need time to discover what we need as parents to live a full and “balanced” life. As a newly single parent who has spent two years thinking hard about this, I can think of nothing as important as taking care of myself and having an important relationship (one can be happy being single — everyone has to find their own path, of course) as not only setting the right example for my autistic child, but for my own happiness which is as much as my right to have as it is my son’s.

It is said that the most successful people in life are the ones who are most adaptable. We are put to the test time and again. We try to build strong foundations and sometimes the end result doesn’t turn out the way we expect. So we keep trying. I’ve given myself some space and time to create a positive atmosphere and peace around myself and my son. This painful time has been precious and with every day comes an awareness that life is neither perfect nor predictable. We cannot predict the outcome of the autistic or the typical child, as much as we would like to think that we can and for that reason I believe things are meant to fall apart so we can rebuild them again with more wisdom and a healthier outlook. I share this story in hopes that we can all exchange our experiences and become a little wiser. Today, we are so fortunate to have the benefit of more autistic adults showing us what they need to contribute to society. We have more positive examples to live by and this by its very nature gives parents more hope. I find it quite relieving to see that there is a sort of “normal” path of autistic development. We are made more aware of the stigma that influences our thinking and can choose to move away from it.

The outcome of divorce and lack of support can fall on single parents with all kinds of children. Yes, autistic children need more support in a world that doesn’t value them as they are. In a recent conference called Autism, Ethics and Society, based in the U.K., the introduction to the sessions read: “Autism is a common [italics mine] neurodevelopmental condition that has dramatically captured attention in the last decade.” While there is much concern about further stigma regarding genetic testing and other scientific discoveries, there is comfort in common-ness, commune and community. Might we be coming to a new decade where autism isn’t as scary and we as parents receive more moral and practical support (like getting into schools), that ease the mental stress that seems to going along with both marriage and single parenting? I definitely believe that along with new people that will come into our lives, this is the new frontier for Adam and myself. At least it’s my castle in the sky. I’m in the process of rebuilding the foundation underneath it.

A little postscript today: After writing this, I received a note from Adam’s camp counsellors describing him. It says, “Adam brings charm to the senior 24 group. Like the gentle Snorlax Pokeman, he maintains peace with everyone and shows a love for nature. If it was not for him, we would have never found all the golden eggs.” All I can say is….exactly.

Has Our Autism Doomsday Arrived?

Filed Under (Activism, Advocacy, autism, Discrimination, Ethics, Research) by Estee on 10-06-2010

We knew there were genetic studies on autism. We knew this was coming. Perhaps a better title for this would be “for every downside, there is an upside.” This is could be very true about the Human Genome Project.

Today Carolyn Abraham reports on the front page of The Globe and Mail the recent publicity surrounding the findings of an international group of scientists trying to uncover the genes that comprise autism. Throughout the article, Ms. Abraham describes autism and it’s “genes” as a hiccup — “genes fouled up by long stretches of missing or duplicated pieces of DNA.”

Doomsday is coming, or it could come. I know that there are parents who dread having a child with any disability. I understand that no two families are alike in the way they approach the subject. Yet there are families who do cope well; those of us who value the children we have and balk at the concept that humanity can be distilled into DNA. Of course, it can in a sense, but the complexities of being human cannot. I could tear this article apart. I am utterly offended by it, if I am to admit my leanings. I cringe at the thought of my son reading that he is a “hiccup” or a series of “fouled up genes.”

Just as important is the idea, the very scary idea I might add, that we can terminate an autistic pregnancy. The study co-author Peter Szatmari admits that the prospect of the commercial test that will prematurely reach the market “makes me nervous. I don’t think we have the science yet to nail it down. This isn’t one gene but a profile of genes, a pattern of susceptibility, not cause.” As reporter Abraham writes, “in the direct market age, the market rarely waits for more research.” In other words, in a world that hardly understands disability, how disabled people live and feel, disabled pride, autistic pride, and rarely hears or listens to the voices of autistic people, parents may rush to pick up a screening test. Without this knowledge, what do you think is going to happen?

Then it occurred to me: Adam’s parents, that’s right — his father and myself and his entire family — would likely have many of those genes — those “fouled up” ones in one way shape or form. Maybe this would mean I would not be here, his dad, his grandparents, his Bubby or his Zaida. “In all,” says the Globe article, “the study spearheaded by post-doctoral fellow Dalila Pinto at Sick Kids, identified more than 100 genes affected in the people with autism, many of them forming a part of a network that governs how brain cells grow and talk to each other.” Perhaps this comprehensive network is part of all of us that make up autism. Autism is an accentuation of our very human traits.

As far as I’m concerned, this is doomsday approaching fast IF the dialogue about how we use science — how we implement knowledge — better be linked with a dialogue about not only what it means to be human, but the very right to be disabled, autistic and yes, what can be wonderful about that in our world that has been taught to fear disability. There is a social aspect here that is running the show and we are a highly biased society against those with neurological differences and further, we write about autism as if it’s the worst thing on the planet.

In our family, and in many others that I know of, it is not. Premature reporting of scientific findings without a balanced argument (or even acknowledgment that there are people who prefer to be autistic) of this kind runs a very high risk.

Another discussion that may help our own:

The article referred to in Nature here.

Living Without Question

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Discrimination) by Estee on 27-04-2010

At Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, we got Adam’s EEG done today, I’m relieved to report. Adam, Grandma and I went together and I’m glad we shall get some information after the few months we’ve had (see previous posts on body jerks/spasms). I’m too tired to write too much at the moment — the sedative was so strong I could not leave Adam’s side all day — but, I do have to say that I get asked a lot of questions about autism when I go to Sick Kids. As I try to soothe my son from a stinging needle in his muscle, I get asked

When was he diagnosed?
How did you know?
How did it look?
Was he detached from you from birth?
Did he line his toys up?

Yada yada.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do not mind answering questions, but I also need to attend to my son. I suppose I should say I do not mind in the appropriate context. I would rather come in and answer any question on another day rather than be asked with Adam listening as if he’s not in the room. Indeed, I did mention something as politely as I could.

It’s a bit of an issue for us parents and for autistic people, this having to answer all of these questions all of the time. Yes, I mean every time we step out the door. Yet others have to understand that part of our willingness to answer such questions is also an attempt to be able to move on in our lives without having to explain ourselves — “us” being parents of autistic people or autistic people themselves.

Sometimes I wonder how far we’ve come in autism “advocacy” — if we are doing more harm than good. If people were not classified in the first place, if a statistical norm was never invented (indeed it was in the nineteenth century by the medical and legal communities in order to deem who might be dangerous in society — all based on possibility, not on facts…read Foucault), if autism and autistic people were not as targetted in the media as “abnormal,” if we were truly a more accepting society of all forms of human, we might not have to live our lives constantly having to answer how we exist and how we came to be.

Isn’t this what we’re aiming for — to live without question?

It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and The Media, Discrimination, Inclusion, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 01-03-2010

Now I know first hand what it’s like to feel dark inside — when my child is disorganized and appears to be in pain and cannot tell me. These are the toughest moments when a parent feels helpless. Also frustrating are schools that claim they are there to support autistic children but will not take “non verbal” autistic children. Believe me, the conditions out there in order to participate in society are just plain ridiculous and prohibitive, so I’m going to make a strong plea to everyone — INCLUSION IS NECESSARY. Stop pretending to be inclusive to autistic children if they have to “talk and walk” at the same time. It’s not autism-friendly! Argh.

Yet when I am feeling depleted, I fight it and I will urge every single one of you to do it too. For each one of us has that power, if we can be aware and monitor what’s happening to us inside. It’s important to remain honest with ourselves and then be able to step back from those feelings that can suck us down.

I reach out for help. I call people. I call Adam’s aides and therapists for help when I’m feeling overwhelmed. This is a good place to start. Always call for help and bring in only those who support you and your child in the manner that you need. Do not bring people in who will put you down, make you feel lower or try to fix your child. The most important thing you and your child need are love and respect.

One thing I know FOR SURE, is that there comes a time in life when we really do have to muster every bit of strength we have and resist the calls of the demons. The echoes of The Autism Everyday video and “wanting to drive over the George Washington bridge is like a siren call and this is why this kind of marketing — the kind that exploits and capitalizes on people’s pain — should be illegal in my opinion. It’s not that I disrespect Allison Tepper Singer for her genuine feelings that might be expressed cautiously in a book or another venue. It’s about how those feelings were exploited for capital gain: make autism desperate enough and we can raise money to cure it. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe this kind of marketing (consider type of presentation, method of delivery etc.,) is more harmful to parents than ever.

People shouldn’t have to stifle their feelings — that doesn’t help and can an adverse effect. I’ve read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and it’s all about wanting to die. Beautiful work exists because of honesty and by sharing honest feelings we do not feel alone. There are expressions of hopelessness everywhere — and some quite well-written in fact. Yet these can be used to empower and can also be used as cautionary tales. It’s the latter cautionary tale I wish to dwell upon. People must reach out in a world where literature on loneliness prevails. In this past weekend alone, I’ve found one book on Lonely by Emily White (it destigmatizes loneliness and it is an interesting read) and two articles on loneliness and depression (The New Yorker and a review of White’s book in Saturday’s Globe & Mail). It feels as if we live in a technologically hooked-up world that seems, in fact, to be coming socially undone.

This morning I find the following story on the murder of an autistic child (see below) which is why Autism Acceptance is so vitally, URGENTLY important — not just for parents but for society at large. Society must begin to realize the incredible challenges that families with autistic kids have when they are NOT included and accepted. If we are a community, then EVERYONE IS RESPONSIBLE. I take the story of Gigi (excerpted below…almost there) very seriously. It shows that no amount of money can fix anything. Better spent, is money accommodating autistic children and making sure every child gets a fair shot at being included and educated. If I have one dream, it would for The Autism Acceptance Project to raise more money to advocate more strongly that acceptance is a social responsibility, and to make a place where autistic kids can be fully accepted and receive an amazing education.

My former neighbour Mike Lipkin is motivational speaker extraordinaire and author of several books, one called Strong Mind, Strong Heart, co-written with Dr. Bernard Levinson. I’m very good friends with his exceptional wife and herself an inspiration, Hilary. Re-reading some of his chapters after a very challenging couple of weeks with Adam reminded me how certain thoughts are defeating. Mike reminds us:

“Are you worried about your children’s future? Are you unsure whether you’re on the high road or the low road? Have you noticed that everyone you talk to has a different idea of where you should be going? Are you slightly confused? Are you a little exhausted by having to make so many decisions all of the time? Are you being bombarded by massive change? Is your brain frying?” (p.88)

I think that many parents can say yes to all of these questions. We worry what will become of our children and where they’ll end up.

We want our kids to go to school, to have places to be social and be accepted there too. With so much negative information getting into our brains from the media or from individuals who believe that an autistic person is only better once they are cured, there are real dangers that lie ahead. By reading Gigi’s story (still coming, I promise) it was clear that she was overwhelmed with trying “fix the problem.” When one discovers that autism cannot be fixed or changed, but perhaps begins to appreciate that while there are challenges, there are many advantages, life begins to look a little less desperate. I urge everyone to consider the list of what an autistic child contributes to the family instead of what s/he takes away. While the rhythm of life certainly changes, it is only those who can adapt and learn to walk to the beat of the new drum who will find joy in life. An autistic child demands that we learn to go with the flow.

Mike Lipkin talks about this a bit, albeit not about autism specifically. He talks about how life “will hit you hard like hail from the sky.” (p. 79) He says that people need to learn how to be resilient. “Resilience is the ability to heal after a hurt. It’s the knowledge that bad things happen in this world, but just because bad things happen, it doesn’t mean you’re bad. People who lack resilience are people who invest too much negative meaning in what has happened to them. They obsess on the dark side of their psyche. They focus on why the knocks happened to them. They ask the fatal question:

Why does this have to happen to me?” (p 80)

We all have dark days. Autistic people also have dark days and learning to be resilient is hardest for them. The world is tough and it hits you hard. And you have to fight it with everything you’ve got. Gigi Jordan could not:

A few weeks ago a terrible story unfolded in a posh midtown Manhattan hotel where a 49-year-old mother, Gigi Jordan, was found “babbling and incoherent” beside the body of her eight-year-old son Jude, dead from an apparent overdose of ground up prescription pills, including Ambien and Xanax. Later it was revealed Jude was autistic.

In his press conference, the stunned and shattered father, estranged from his ex-wife and son for the last two years, said he had no idea what provoked his ex-wife to kill their child. “To be honest, she was the most wonderful mother I’ve ever seen. She left her business, left everything, just to take care of Jude.” Her oldest friend, Dr. Marcus Conant said, “She went to clinics all over the country looking for new treatments, grasping at straws, trying to fix the problem.”

The kind of hopelessness that Gigi faced might have been averted. Also new as a single mother, I know those nights when I feel I have no one to call upon. In those moments, I know I have to pull myself together again and remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn. It doesn’t have to be Adam that can make me feel this way. It could be a separation, a loss of a loved one.

Mike Lipkin would agree:

“One of the greatest sources of stress afflicting the people who come to us is the discontinuity that prevails everywhere. Just when our clients thought they had finally figured out a pattern, the pattern splintered into pieces again.” (p. 88) That pattern in the autism world is expectation. If we expect our children to change, to be fixed, to adapt easily, we cannot be resilient parents.

Mike suggests that we “sketch out many different paths” in our minds to “create an array of different possibilities.” He reminds us that not only is life unstable but that “as human beings, we have deep-rooted desire for certainty and stability, ” and quotes Francis Bacon who nearly 400 years ago said, “If a man begins with certainties, he shall end in doubts. But if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

In autism too, there are no certainties. The article that talks about Gigi, talks about how the autistic brain “hardens” at the age of eight, and it would make any parent want to cry if you’ll believe it. Again, the article is somewhat misleading. It’s only through misleading expectations that a child must be fixed before the age of eight or all is lost that sends many parents into a tailspin like Gigi. Not only is this inaccurate about autistic people, but it’s this type of limited thinking that can stifle us and make us feel hopeless.

I for one know that autistic people continue to learn and the possibilities are endless as they are for any human being. Instead, as Adam also turns eight this April, I will ask myself how Adam and I can make a difference in the lives of others who are also on this path. For helping others and having this self-ascribed mission helps us. We have opportunities to learn. Every hard-knock and experience is another opportunity to learn. We get our hard-knocks every single day every time a school or a program doesn’t appreciate the special contributions Adam can make to the world. It’s enough to make me want to start my own school — and I know many other parents feel the same way (can we harness this energy??).

Do not listen to the media, but trust that your child is a human being filled with potential. The media will always be there, and sometimes it’s just a good idea to turn it off or give it a hearty guffaw because you will be tempted to feel sorry for yourself and this will deplete your capabilities as a parent. Become the kind of warrior that fends off the demons of the mind and the media. Remember that every child has difficult times and when our autistic children have them, we have to take deeper breaths, ask for help and figure out where this journey is supposed to take us alongside our children. While times seem a little easier for those with special needs, there’s a whole lot of discrimination still going on in our communities. WE have to change this together and support each other in our efforts.

“So once again, here’s one unchanging Life Principle over and over again,” says Mike. “You need a Still Mind to think through the confusion and noise. The only way you can master the cacophony on the outside is to have harmony on the inside. Without inner harmony and quiet, you cannot have a Strong Heart. And without a Strong Heart, where are you going to find the resources to not only brave the darkness, but lead others as well?” (p. 90).

It looks like all of us have to lead. It is also important to stop listening to others and begin believing in ourselves and our children.  We are forging ahead with a new demand in this world and that demand is that our children be integrated into our communities. For this, we need to be brave.

Adam and I had a tough weekend adapting, still, to his new home. So much so that I’ve asked his aide to bring him home early so we can begin implementing fun activities here and teach him some structure. It is my hope that he will swagger on his turf soon and we can both get back on the path of working on our mission which is to help others along in the Inclusion Process.

Yesterday morning, after a very dark night, I stopped my inner fight. I leaned in to Adam (who has difficulty speaking but not always understanding), and modeled language (this means that I say a sentence that he might wish to say himself in order to show him that I understand) while he was trying to soothe himself by playing on the computer. “I’m not feeling well, Mommy,” I said in a soft sweet voice. Immediately, Adam stopped what he was doing, came over and leaned his head of feather-hair into my arms for a hug, and we remained like that for a while. As the day wore on, Adam became calmer and things got a little better.

This morning, the sun came out and his happy grin made me shine inside. If we can hold on, the sun will come out again and the possibilities are endless. But you have to believe it. I hope by sharing a bit of our story and adding some inspirational words from my friend Mike, I have helped anyone who is reading this a little too.

For more reading on how to cope with dark days and how to take care of yourself in order to care for your child:

Still Mind, Strong Heart by Dr. Bernard Levinson and Mike Lipkin (not specifically on autism but created for inspiration)
More Than A Mom by Amy Baskin and Heather Fawcett
Autism Acceptance and Survival Guide by Susan Senator

Other Back to Basics Autism Books:

The Autism Answer Book by William Stillman
Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm
Autism Handbook for Parents: Facts and Strategies for Parenting Success by Janice E. Janzen
Parenting Your Complex Child, by Peggy Lou Morgon

A Mother’s First Reponse to the “Maternal Sensitivity” Study

Filed Under (Acceptance, autism, Communication, Discrimination) by Estee on 28-02-2010

This study sent a little shiver through my body. Remember the story of the big bad “Refrigerater Mother?” She was the mother who was blamed for causing autism in her child in the 1960’s. Many mothers during that period were tormented for being pushed to believe they were the cause of their child’s autism. I wonder if the legend survives. From a peripheral read of the following study, this mom had a maternal “first response:”

A new study by researchers from the University of Miami shows that maternal sensitivity may influence language development among children who go on to develop autism. Although parenting styles are not considered as a cause for autism, this report examines how early parenting can promote resiliency in this population. The study entitled, “A Pilot Study of Maternal Sensitivity in the Context of Emergent Autism,” is published online this month and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

I am not commenting on how the study was conducted nor the value of “resiliency.” I am commenting on the inference. I am a sensitive mother. Some say I’m pretty good at mothering. I’m extremely sensitive to my son, and he is non verbal. He can manage a word or phrase now and again, but at nearly eight years of age, it’s pretty difficult. I engaged Adam. I did everything (and still do everything) I can think of. He is a wonderful child who is anxious and has some sleep issues. I’m not sure I could have been even more sensitive than I was to make him more resilient. While he’s pretty good at moving around the community, going to school (with an aide), traveling, he does have extremely difficult days too and we are going through some of them RIGHT NOW during a major transition in our lives. Because of Adam I continue to grow and learn how to work with him, and there is always something new for me to learn.

With this study, I fail to see an acknowledgment (in the links I could find tonight, I have to qualify this) that for many autistic individuals the inability to speak fluently, or at all, is neurological, not just dependent on the sensitive mother. The term “re-wiring” is used a lot for individuals with brain injury and just as often by gurus selling therapies for curing autism. I will never argue that, as parents, we all want to try and help our children in a world that is often confusing and frustrating for them. Yet, I also wonder if teaching autistic children how to communicate is something very different than re-wiring, for that implies that we are fixing something to make it better. Adam communicates all the time. Like the two-year-old who may have warbled speech indecipherable to many but the parent, some of us close to Adam know what he is communicating — and quite boldly. Perhaps we might consider that working with autistic children is like figuring out the intricate wiring that already exists. Like the ill-suited American plug to the European outlet, maybe we aren’t meant to re-wire the autistic brain into a neurotypical one.

“In this study, maternal sensitivity (and primarily, sensitive structuring) was more predictive of language growth among toddlers developing autism than among children who did not go on to an autism diagnosis. One possible explanation is that children with autism may be more dependent on their environment to learn certain skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.”

I would agree that our children need our support, and this does take extra effort on our part.

“Parenting may matter even more for children with developmental problems such as autism because certain things that tend to develop easily in children with typical neurological development, like social communication, don’t come as naturally for kids with autism, so these skills need to be taught,” says Jason K. Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who conducted the study with Messinger while at UM.”

I don’t disagree with the idea that autistic children require more support and accommodation in a confusing environment, and that “being sensitive” is especially important. Many of this know this. I tend to see this as part of the autism and NT (neurotypical) equation, for the key is that we as parents learn how our children learn and how they see the world. I don’t see it as a tugging into “our world,” but a sharing. It’s the manner in which we, as parents, figure out how to be with the child who is already with us, with challenges in a world that has such difficulty understanding autism, but also with many strengths and attributes. Acceptance is a daily exercise and the idea will challenge us day in and day out — some days (and nights) more than others. Every day Adam works so hard to accept me, to accept this world and the people around him, and I wonder if that’s all we seem to ask him to do. The least we can do is to accommodate him and what he needs and wants from this world.

This article ends with a shallow disclaimer: “We know that parenting doesn’t cause autism. The message here is that parents can make a difference in helping their children fight against autism.” Okay, it doesn’t cause autism, but the implication is that the sensitive mother can improve language acquisition and resiliency skills. The results may have been one hundred percent true according to the study design, but the key piece of accepting autism is missing.

While it is certainly advantageous to have a sensitive parent to ANY child, I would hate to think that one might judge me as being an insensitive one if my son is not able to speak. Further, the focus on mothers specifically has reminded me of times I thought had long gone by. Maybe the Refrigerator Mother still lurks in the dark recesses of some minds. To conclude from my peripheral read and no reading of scientific critique on how the study was conducted, I sniff not only an omission or two, but a little bias.

Autism And The Whale

Filed Under (Acceptance, Advocacy, Discrimination) by Estee on 25-02-2010

images-1 Tilikum is the “killer” whale confined at Seaworld with an apparently demanding entertainment schedule. Listening to Naomi Rose, head of the American Humane Society and a mammal scientist on CBC News at Noon today, she noted that Tilikum is not meant to “be a clown,” and that this puts a great deal of stress on the animal, explaining reasons for its aggressive behaviour. She spoke about Orca Whales as “individuals,” and discussed them and their families, as well as their social networks, and that when in their natural environment, do not attack humans.

In the media, the debate rages as to whether the whale should be put down, kept at Seaworld to remain an entertainer, or be sent to a Sea Tank in Iceland — a choice which Rose recommends. Transcribing her statements on CBC today, she noted that Tilikum has a history of this behaviour and should not be kept under the same conditions. In other words, get the message!

“He could be trained to adjust to going out into the open ocean to exercise and get more choices and then maybe his stress would be reduced,” she said, suggesting Tilikum may have simply been trying to play with his trainer.

“If they keep him in isolation the way they do, they keep him in that small tank that he’s in, this is going to happen again.”

There sure is a lot of attention for this beautiful creature. All the talk about how the animal is under stress and how that animal communicates that stress naturally got me thinking about Adam, autism and methods of communication and how many of us do the same things over and over again to no avail. Working against nature doesn’t work for very long. It has real consequences.

We are calmer on the home-front again and Adam seems to have found his place here in the house that has been understandably strange. I expect that while he is calm now, we will have a few more bouts of stress. Like Tilikum, we cannot demand that he perform like nothing has happened to him, or not react to this kind of change. Adam will communicate his true nature and it is up to me to listen.

Now if autism advocates would advocate for autism they way Naomi Rose does for Tilikum…

In keeping with the theme of this story is a post by Clay I would urge readers to visit: “Violated for Having Autism.” 

Restraint as behavioural tactic on CBC tonight

Filed Under (Acceptance, Activism, Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Ethics) by Estee on 08-01-2010

Tonight on The Fifth Estate we can watch the documentary Out of Control which addresses how youth and the mentally ill are treated for their behaviours by the use of restraint. Ashely Smith, once detained, committed suicide.

Yesterday, Boy Interrupted was aired about Evan Perry who had bi-polar disorder and committed suicide by the age of fifteen. “Bi-polar disorder,” says the family doctor in the piece, “is like cancer. It can kill. Some people survive.” Produced and directed by Evan’s mother Dana Heinz Perry, we see the family’s genetic history of the disorder while also understanding the mother’s profound love of her child.

It strikes me as odd when I hear stories, sometimes, of people saying to parents of disabled children that, if they had died, that it’s somehow a “relief.” For certain, watching Boy Interrupted made me realize my love for Adam, autism and what a travesty it is that we complain so much about the so-called “problems” we have instead of viewing them as opportunities to make the world a more accepting place. Yes that takes patience and disciplined work. While I know “making the world a more accepting place” is becoming an over-used phrase, thus coming to mean nothing, our work to understand mental illness and disability and de-stigmatize both is valuable and worth it.

We don’t seem to value people who have disabilities, depression, or any other physical illness very well. We spend more money and time putting people away rather than investing in them. Charity without thought and engagement is particularly concerning as it is a way of avoiding real issues. In the Buddhist sense, I read something that the 17th Karmapa (thus ordained by the Dalai Lama), who stated about generosity:

True generosity requires some wisdom — a clear understanding of ourselves who are giving, what we are giving, and to whom we are giving. If we use our intelligence, then generosity benefits both ourselves and others. We should not give just for the sake of giving or from an old habit. Further, in the process of giving, we should not become distracted, for losing our focus diminishes the scope and effect of our activity.” (Shambala Sun, January 2010, p. 52)

Many other Western philosophers felt the same about charity, particularly Nietszche who believed that charity was given by the rich to make them feel superior. It is also a way to avoid engaging with real problems and people and thus pretending the problem isn’t ours, but we are good people to at least do something about it. While charity can be helpful, it can also be a declaration: go away — I don’t want to deal with it, or, thank God it’s not me.

When we watch The Fifth Estate tonight and think about people like Ashley Smith of Evan Perry, I hope we can all try to think differently about all different kinds of people… and how we “treat” them.

Just because he’s laughing….

Filed Under (Adam, Discrimination, Family) by Estee on 16-12-2009

All of us have encountered ongoing misunderstandings about our autistic children. Adam, going through something at the moment, could also very well be going through stress. Perhaps delayed, perhaps not, what really worries me is the assumption that just because he appears happy, that he must be happy and as such, because of his autism he is neither affected by nor registers the new people in his life and the separation itself. To borrow a recent post by A Life Less Ordinary, Emily writes of this regarding the autistic child and school and it resonated with me in these days of Adam’s apparent stress levels:

–An autistic child can often be”low arousal” in certain ways. That means that even a brutal and ill-intended pummeling may not elicit a visible or detectable response. Never assume that such behavior is being taken in good part just because the autistic child isn’t crying or complaining about it.

–An autistic child may not tell an adult about physical and emotional bullying unless they are very close to and comfortable with that adult.

–An autistic child may not respond to repeated insults until some unclear breaking point is reached. The autistic child may then respond. Just because the autistic child made no previous mention of the bullying doesn’t somehow make the bullying OK or negate the fact that the child’s response was provoked.

–An autistic child may not express the emotion you expect. An autistic child in great pain–emotional or physical–may smile or even laugh right through it. I can assure you that the laughter does not mean the autistic child is actually having a good time.

–An autistic child does not express himself or herself the way a neurotypical child or adult might. Try not to judge an autistic child’s facial or emotional expressions through a neurotypical filter or from a neurotypical viewpoint. You’ll never have the correct understanding of the autistic child if you do.

–An autistic child may look like s/he is having a great time. If that child is, however, in the midst of a scrum of running, pushing, verbally sparring children, that child likely has no idea what is really going on. And that child is also likely a target of under-the-radar bullying that you’ll never hear about.

–An autistic child in an unstructured, chaotic social situation is a child who is likely completely at sea and who is likely the target of bullying, both subtle and overt, both physical and emotional. Don’t ever lapse into thinking otherwise.

–An autistic child in the midst of more than a couple of neurotypical peers in an unstructured situation is never fully armed, never as completely socially able, never truly interacting on a level playing field as the neurotypical peers. Never.

To assume otherwise is not to understand the autistic child.

Like everyone, Adam responds well to a good vacation and in addition to some upcoming necessary tests, I’m glad he will have one soon and hope for a resolution so that I really know what I’m dealing with. He appears to be doing well in school, and accompanied by an aide, I am assured he is not being bullied. Yet I also wonder how he views himself now that he is maturing, next to his “typical” peers and indeed, we are in a completely new phase of our lives.

So a vacation is needed and mom needs to think. Unlike previous years, he will first go with his dad and then be rejoined with his mom in Florida.  I am definitely concerned as his mom with all the transitions he has had to endure (as an autistic person they are far more stressful than for an average child) and the assumption that this separation has not effected him deeply, even though as parents, we are doing the best we can.

We’re in the “struggle” part

Filed Under (Adam, autism, Discrimination) by Estee on 13-12-2009

When I wrote The Joy of Autism blog, I wrote a mantra with one line that said “because joy doesn’t come without struggle.” I don’t know if it’s part of the way I think about things, something about me, but my friends certainly share the struggle part. I am lucky to be able support some friends in some difficult times right now as my friends are supporting me. I have to think long and hard these days about joy and struggle and still, I am so convinced that if people understood autism a little more, we would not have necessarily had insult added to injury in the emergency ward.

Adam and I returned from the hospital yesterday after observation Friday night. We did not go to our usual hospital, and the benefits of not going to it may have been some extra attention in the end. But attending emergency was a bit of a nightmare as everyone who registered after us, got admitted before us, even though they didn’t look that ill at all (and consequently they all got discharged while we were still sitting in emerg). After having asked the triage nurse “how much longer, can’t you see he’s in pain writhing over there,” in a relative calm voice, she told me not to yell at her (are they trained in saying that even though someone is not yelling?). I had to do my part in managing her the way she was, I suppose, trained in managing me. It took some, let’s just say, urging after that to get Adam in (she had been lying about the crowds in the hallways inside because once we got in, it was relatively empty) or else we would have likely spent another three hours just sitting there without any help or attention. There was absolutely no visibly known/obvious reason for this after we were admitted.

Many families can imagine a child screaming so much til they are red in the face. In addition to whatever is happening with Adam, going to the hospital and waiting is one of his number one stressors. “Can he at least have a sedative?” I asked after waiting six hours like this, Adam’s face apple red, his lips quivering, his whole body shaking and contorting into a letter C. Nothing.

Thankfully, from my trip to Paris, my bag was full of goodies. I found melatonin strips buried deep at the bottom and after six hours of waiting for any kind of help, gave him a strip. By the time Adam’s dad and grandfather arrived, the edge was gone and Adam was lying on top of me on a gurney.

The doctor was prudent enough to want to observe Adam overnight and I got to sleep with him in the pediatric ward. Later arrived his bag from home with DVD’s, some food, his P.J’s so I could try an emulate the comforts of home. Bloodwork was then taken with little trouble due to the melatonin and the hours of previous crying which had completely exhausted Adam.

My mother went to the nurses station. “You are the talk of the station,” she said. “They didn’t know melatonin worked for autistic kids.”

YIKES, I thought. Melatonin may not work for all autistic kids. In fact, some families have told me melatonin stops working. While I am grateful for the female doctor (not from Canada), for her soft bedside manner and her prudence with regards to his body jerks and spasms, I am still very concerned that hospitals do not understand the needs of autistic people and the stress levels that going to hospitals can create. I mean, as Adam was screaming, one staff in emerg said “Oh you mean he isn’t always like this?”

And readers of this blog and my Facebook will know that uh, no, he is not “always like this.” Adam does not always spasm, contort, and melt-down. He has some anxiety but he is a very happy little guy. In addition, what would have happened if I did not have that melatonin on me?  I mean, his heart was beating so fast I was concerned he’d go into cardiac arrest. When they witnessed the calming effect they said, “Can you give him another 3 mg before we give him his bloodwork?” Folks, as “autism parents” we have to advocate for our children, and carry our “bag of goodies,” every day. Some days it seems that there is no one out there to help us when the times get tough. When there is one good person, they shine like the rays of light in an otherwise dark day. It is a universal truth, I believe, that every single one of us finds the “advocacy” part exhausting as our children our lumped into the autism stereotype. And it’s not helping, that stereotype, and this is what I hope to stress here in this post. It just seems to mean that Adam gets ignored because of it. Well, at least in the emergency ward (which needs a complete systemic overhaul in my opinion).

While we await an EEG this week to hopefully rule out epilepsy, I am rudely awakened, despite all exhaustion today, that we still have lots of work to do. There is joy, there is struggle. There is paradox. As my grandfather always told me, “that’s life.”

My friend Leda sent me this piece of music today (see below). It calms me after the “storm.” I think Adam will love it because it is calm. It’s sad and beautiful and just a piece of music for the moment because I am worried and a little “spent.” Yet, even in this struggle, Adam is my joy and my life. He is the joy in our autism and for and because of him, we keep on going despite all with which we must deal.

In the words of Goethe: “Der Zweck des Lebens ist das Leben selbst,” I believe life is not just how “good” we live it (that has been filtered down in our society to mean something quite trite) but in accepting and living with its struggles. Afterall, we just don’t seem to have a choice.

Barb, Tim and Annie Farlow and the quest for justice

Filed Under (Critical Disability Studies, Discrimination, Ethics) by Estee on 30-11-2009

What does the story of a three-month-old baby with Trisomy 13 and her death have to do with the rights of all disabled individuals? It’s a question that Barb Farlow and her husband Tim have raised for the past several years, and today, the loss of their court case was featured in The National Post.

I’ve known Barb for several years and supported her after we shared numerous emails a couple of years ago about her daughter, Annie. Only because of a difficult year in my own life was I unable to support Barb more actively in her quest in 2008. Barb with her husband Tim, have pursued justice for their three-month-old relentlessly. Not only has their struggle symbolized a deep respect for the life of their daughter, but for the rights and dignity of all disabled individuals.  They have argued that  because Annie had Trisomy 13, hospital staff  executed a DNR from a subsequent illness without her parent’s permission. The Farlow’s, having taken great pains and effort to ask questions and pursue the case, have raised the question about how we value the life of disabled individuals, no matter how severe their disability.

Noreen Kelly wrote in her piece Crusade for Change:

“Most infants born with Annie’s genetic condition die shortly after birth; few live past the age of 10. Despite these odds, Barbara and her husband Tim decided, after much research and deliberation, that the right thing to do, for them and their family, was to give Annie a chance and to make medical decisions for her in the same way as a child without disabilities. The Farlows were assured that Annie would be treated like any child, and that if surgical considerations arose, they would be discussed and a decision would be arrived at mutually with the physicians.

Annie was born full term and received excellent supportive care at a Canadian hospital for the first several weeks. In August 2005, when she was not yet three months old, she suffered episodic respiratory distress. Annie died within 24 hours of arriving at the hospital. At that time, her parents believed that she would not have survived surgery and that her death was natural.

After obtaining the medical records and discovering the shocking facts of Annie’s last hours, Barbara and Tim Farlow made an exhaustive effort to seek answers and a resolution with the hospital. When this effort failed to yield much beyond an insincere apology and token, ineffective plans, they believed they had no choice but to sue the hospital and two doctors involved. The allegations included practicing a policy of non-treatment for children with certain genetic conditions and secretive euthanasia. Annie’s story is a multi-faceted case including allegations of violation of civil laws of consent and violation of international human rights laws, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

Barb and Tim loved Annie deeply — that is evident from the emails I’ve shared with Barb. As a mother with a special needs child, though, I also feel deeply indebted to her, her family and to Annie as they have helped to raise awareness in hopes that more disabled people everywhere will be granted the same “net worth” as those living without disabilities.


About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (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.