This is Our Halloween

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

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We got up a little earlier today to rush to get Adam’s makeup on for Halloween here in Toronto. Adam decided to be a happy bear, so we came up with Happy Panda – it’s also a story about mindfulness that we sometimes read. It just feels right to show a happy little autistic guy, a preteen no less, who types to talk and gets excited like every other kid about Halloween. Adam is part of the whole process in deciding what he wants to be. Since Adam started typing at the age of 4, and is now 12, he has become more able to self-advocate and tell us a lot of what it is like to be Adam.

Here he is (below) inspecting my make up job… I must admit I wasn’t sure if he liked it when it was all done… and I didn’t have time to discuss it with him as we were rushing out the door. But he seems to be thinking about it here:

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Alas, in this next shot, Adam is a Happy Panda posing for the camera. Today at his (inclusive) school he will go trick and treating around to each classroom. It’s raining in Toronto, so it is unlikely he will go out tonight with his dad… I’ll miss Halloween with Adam this year. It’s the first year ever I’ll miss it with him.

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I hope all autistic families will enjoy their Halloweens if they want to. I never believe in forcing our kids to do things that are expected, but at the same time, I also believe in inclusion and participation in ways that the kids can and want to participate. I always tried not to expect too much when Adam was little. We stayed in one Halloween when he preferred to hand out candies rather than going door-to-door. That remains a really fond memory because Adam chose to do this and he enjoyed it so much. Before he could self-advocate with words, I gave Adam an array of choices, making costumes that reflected his interests. Since Adam was deemed hyperlexic and loved numbers and letters, I stitched letters and numbers to his clothes and named him “Alphabet Boy” – indeed my kind of superhero. This year, it helps a lot in all activities to make up our own social stories so that Adam knows what is expected, and I have him participate in writing them by making choices before decisions are made. This can involve all the steps that are made from ringing a door bell to what to say, to how many doors Adam can knock on so he feels a little more secure about how the evening is constructed. It’s also part of why I like the process of making Halloween costumes (although I’m not that talented at it, I still enjoy it) because it gets him involved and a chance to anticipate and be a part of any given event.

Two years ago, he wanted to be a ghost, and we managed to make together a Tim Burtonesque version… he loved that one; in fact I think he’s channeling Tim Burton again this year! Here’s a photo of that costume:

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

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It’s been a joy to watch Adam grow and develop over the years. Having an autistic child is wonderful to me, the challenges included as they have encouraged me to think outside of the box. Let’s all make our Halloweens what we want or need them to be, and find our contentment with that!

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A New Beginning

Filed Under (Adam, Estee, Family, Friendship, Love, Single Parenthood, Transitions) by Estee on 15-09-2014

Adam on the move Adam on the move[/caption]

And so we moved again. It has been lots of hard work to prepare Adam for another (and final) move to our now permanent home in downtown Toronto. I decided to put everything aside to prepare him (and our new home) for the transition. This involved many social stories, visitations to the renovation site, weekly pictures and a reassurance that this was going to be a happy move. Our last move was a consequence of divorce and took its toll on both of us.

Adam had lots of positive support and a smooth summer at camp. I prepared calendars, reviewed them, we typed (talked) about moving all the time. I also made a calendar countdown to prepare with a symbolic punctuation to indicate our last day at our house; this involved letting go of four red balloons into the sky. On them I wrote: Mommy and Adam, Hope and Dreams, Bye Bye (address), and New Home.

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Before the bus came to pick up Adam early on August 14th, we stood on the driveway on the sunny morning and discussed each balloon then let them go one by one. We watched them float high in the sky – the sun in our eyes – until they disappeared. Adam’s grin was wide and he jumped up and down a few times; my heart was heavy as it was giddy to see how well this was going. Adam seemed to be coping so well… not tearful or anxious as I expected him to be. In fact, I was floored when he typed about the move, “you are home to me.” Now that’s putting things into perspective!

Soon I would let Adam get on the bus and say goodbye for two weeks. Later that day he would go to his dad’s house while I prepared our new home for his arrival. The movers would be there on the heels of his camp bus, gutting our memories – of becoming a new kind of family from the new pictures on our mantel to Adam’s art that would make it our home. I wonder if I had made such earnest preparations to avoid the severe spasms Adam encountered during the divorce move; to avoid the heartbreak we worked so hard to overcome…and succeeded.

I recalled when we made another happy move – when Adam’s father and I built a new house and Adam participated in his weekly construction with frequent visitation to the site. There was one object I had left back in our, what I will call, “Rosemary House” (to do with the location) that I had to return to obtain. I was pregnant with Adam in that house. We had found out Adam was autistic in that house and endured hours of “therapy.” I was becoming the mother I was meant to be. It was old and rickety but it had cradled precious memories that are heritage to me (sadly the house was not and has since been torn down). The object I returned for was Adam’s bassinet which was mine as an infant. My mother worked hard to refurbish it for Adam and it was hand-made by my grandmother. Heritage was at least maintained in this. A light summer storm was brewing in the late afternoon as I pulled into the driveway and Adam, only a toddler, was asleep in the back seat. I left him in the car to quickly run in and grab the bassinet to put in the back of my van. But it was hard to leave the warm inside. There is a compulsion to stay in an old empty house full of memories even when it is stripped bare except for the dust bunnies that appeared like tumbleweeds in the desert. I remember standing in our bedroom, where Adam spent most nights with us, trying to review all the memories in fast-forward. I had to pull myself away to return to Adam, still unaware and fast asleep.

Perhaps we’ve now had too many of those moments ever since. As Adam’s bus turned the corner, the movers pulled in. They worked quickly removing boxes and our house was empty again. I vacuumed and cleaned it for the new owners but also because of gratitude and the love we built in that house. I felt the pull again to linger and remember how Adam and I learned to become our own family unit; how friends became our family there and how my parents Adam and I have become closer than ever. Adam and I did it – we pulled it together in that house. As I felt the tears begin, I abruptly left. It is time to move on…go, I said aloud. Time to move to our happy house, close to public transit and bustling life on the streets… and down the hall from my parents. It was part of my plan for Adam and his future being in the heart of transit and the city for his quality of life. It was fortuitous that it all worked out. So instead of preaching, I decided to lead by example: to leave quickly and look forward while paying respect to our past. Remember the red balloon that read: Adam and MommyHopes and Dreams.

A month later I can write about it. There is more to follow.

Emerging Tensions: Puberty, Autonomy and Safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Loving, Fellowship Feeling

Filed Under (Adam, Family, Friendship, Inclusion, Joy, Living, school, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 05-08-2013

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Adam and Nolan lunch

This is Adam’s best friend. Aside from going back to camp this summer, which he is able to do with an assistant, this is the friend who Adam spends time with. We recognized it was a real, unscripted friendship when the two of them preferred to play without words, to roll around on the floor, or when Adam would lead his friend around the house to show him things. His friend is verbal and not autistic and seems to understand and have compassion for Adam, and I believe the feeling is mutual for Adam towards his friend.

There have been lots of events this past week, most importantly the decision to send him back to the school he attended two years ago, which is not an autism school, but a school for all kinds of wonderful kids. Adam had good friendships there; we could make adaptations in the way work was presented; he could show off his skills and he especially enjoyed the mentoring program when the older kids would teach him. There, he made lasting friendships that have stood the test of time – the same friends attend his camp, and they enjoy each other’s company. His typing stories is getting stronger this summer with our daily practice, and helping Adam with schedules and learning to be patient with me (I’m a single mom… I need his patience) is another important lesson he’s learning with success. Let’s just say, I’ve made these things my mission and I find when I attend to them carefully, we generally do well.

Here’s an example: Every weekend, he wants so badly to go to his grandparent’s house. There, he is soothed and served by my mother. My father gives him strong hugs and takes him on his long walks and subway rides. How could he not love the attention and understanding he receives there? (In fact, he loves them so much, I’m going to ask the TTC if they will take us on a special learning tour). If I don’t take him and I don’t have a plan, he had been getting quite distraught with me. I decided to let it be. I broke part of my foot on Friday and couldn’t do everything he asked. This prompted a teaching moment.

“Grandma’s house,” he demanded on Saturday, looking at me with determination in his eyes. I was a bit nervous he would bite his wrist if he got angry with me; he wears a chewy tube or heart around his neck so if he’s inclined to do so, he will choose that now instead.

“We can’t go today. We’ll go tomorrow,” I said, thinking whoops – that’s an abstract concept and I’m not sure if tomorrow could wait. What is tomorrow when we want it now? I tried making a calendar, and since he can read – I simply wrote in the plan for the days. We went through Saturday, then Sunday…

“Grandma’s house,” he said again emphatically.

“Not today. First we will eat lunch, then we will go for a drive,” I declared, thinking of my foot. Adam got out of the chair, he was sitting in, and I wondered what he was going to do next. Then, he walked towards the rotary phone I bought – to gain his interest in making telephone calls, since he seemed averse to talking on the phone. He picked up the receiver and began dialing. I quickly held up grandma and grandpa’s phone-number, just to make sure we weren’t calling Australia. He put his finger in each hole and dialed each number carefully. He began speaking into the phone, without my assistance.

“Hi,” he said quietly.

“Adam, may I listen?” I asked, knowing that my folks weren’t likely to be home. Sure enough it was the answering machine. “Okay, they’re not home,” I said to Adam. “Let’s call grandpa’s cell phone.” I held up the number for him to follow again and dial.

“Hello” he said into the receiver. Again, I did not know what was being said to Adam, or if anyone was even there. “I’m fine,” he said again. “I love you….can… I… go…to…your…house?” he asked softly, speaking each word deliberately.

“Adam,” I interjected. “May I please speak to grandpa?” I took the phone from Adam to ask my parents where they were and indeed, they were not going to be home. I asked if they would please tell Adam themselves (they were in the car on speaker phone).

“Tomorrow” I heard Adam say softly and he began to whine. “Bye.”

I was elated that Adam made his first phone call by himself. After that, we were able to follow through with the day without a hitch. I asked him if he wanted to go for ice cream, it went so well.

“What flavour do you want…raspberry?” I asked.

“No.”

“Lemon?”

“No.”

“How about chocolate?”

“No.” In fact, if you’ve ever watched Gumby,you might recall Mr.Nopey, from which Adam has earned one of his many nicknames; you’ll just about get the right intonation and speed of Adam’s replies.

I waited for a bit. Then Adam declared…”White!” I realized that someone told me he had tried lemon once and really liked it.

“I think white is lemon, Adam,” I said.

We drove to the frozen yoghurt shop and indeed, he loved lemon.

So today, with my broken foot, I sent Adam along with his friend to Canada’s Wonderland where they shared rides and won a couple of prizes. I’ve been thinking of the typing, the relationship we share when we do it together, preparing Adam the way he needs to be prepared, and Adam’s strong desire to connect. I think when I spend more time with Adam typing and sharing, and when he can spend more time in sincere relationships that aren’t always highly verbal and difficult for him, he is a happier kid. Then, as I finished my Master’s Research Paper (more or less) today, I was thinking of Larry’s line in the movie Wretches and Jabberer’s when he speaks to Tracy about their trip to Japan and Sri Lanka, and they’re in dialogue about how nice it was that they traveled together: “Larry loops twice on that loving fellowship feeling.” Indeed, there is something about the summer that triggers these feelings -perhaps it’s simply more time – and I’ve learned how important these feelings are…all year long.

The Adam Family

Filed Under (Ableism, Autism and Employment, Autism and Learning, Communication, Critical Disability Studies, Family, Inclusion, Inspiration, Joy) by Estee on 10-09-2012

We are The Adam Family. As we grow into our lives with autism, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the “normal” world as the actual opposite of what it purports to be by that label. The more on the margins of society we seem sit, the more absurd “the rules” seem to be. In thinking more about Inclusion and The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I realized that the idea of Adam having his own family, therefore, is not a sight-out-of-reach. It is a possibility, his choice, and right which must be enabled and protected. How, on earth, if you are a new parent to an autistic child, particularly one like mine who has limited verbal ability, could this be possible? Well, it may seem a bit quirky, and some would be up-in-arms against us citing us as a future social welfare burden, but first let share this take on The Addam’s Family series:

Much of the humor derives from their culture clash with the rest of the world. They invariably treat normal visitors with great warmth and courtesy, even though their guests often have evil intentions. They are puzzled by the horrified reactions to their (to them) good-natured and normal behavior since they are under the impression that their tastes are shared by most of society. Accordingly they view “conventional” tastes with generally tolerant suspicion. For example, Fester once cites a neighboring family’s meticulously maintained petunia patches as evidence that they are “nothing but riff-raff.” A recurring theme in the epilogue of many episodes was the Addamses getting an update on the most recent visitor to their home, either via something in the newspaper or a phone call. Invariably, as a result of their visit to the Addamses, the visitor would be institutionalized, change professions, move out of the country, or have some other negative life-changing event. The Addamses would always misinterpret the update and see it as good news for that most recent visitor.

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I wish we could all live with the same conviction. When parents get frightened about autism, it’s usually because of fear for the future – will my child get married, go to school, have friends? The pressure to conform the unconformable is immense. For many years I quietly shared the same worries, although I feel my worries were more rooted in society’s acceptance of Adam. My viewpoint is shared with the more widespread social model of disability — that our modern definition of disabled is a term to describe the social barriers that make a life living with an impairment exclusive/segregated. There are naturally going to be times in the beginning of having an autism diagnosis, most-likely if we’ve never experienced disability before, that we will be thinking in terms of our own lives, how we grew up, went to school, made friends, had our first boy/girlfriends and later, maybe even got married and had families of our own. When we don’t see our children doing the same things in typical ways, we worry for them and maybe even for ourselves. The life trajectory is one that our society uses to plan every stage of our lives from how we go to school, to what we are supposed to become, to building our retirement nest-egg.

We expect to be on a path that is economically driven. We are raised to comply, to be a part of society. About a century ago, the formation of “school” was intended to prepare children for later entrance to the military. Today, we plan for our babies at the get-go with pre-school and envision them at Harvard – the ultimate preparation for a new kind of regime. We prepare our little ones for the economic march into consumerist culture. Our frame of reference for understanding is capitalist. Erich Fromm believed that we tend to categorize individuals “according to various types of status, to glorify superiors, and to look down on those who are regarded as of lower rank (e.g. persons belonging to other ‘races’) – must be understood in light of an authoritarian upbringing, which in turn is associated with other general authoritarian tendencies in the workplace and society in general.” (Alvesson and Sköldberg). That “authority” well, to coin James Carville, is “the economy, stupid.” (I’m using Carville’s words and am not implying anyone is stupid. I want to acknowledge the sensitivity I actually have when people use words that can be used violently). While resources are an issue for supporting autistic individuals, others site Libreralism as a issue as it put great stake in “liberty, automony and choice… Given the reality that some persons with disabilities will necessarily be in situations of intense dependency and reliance, can liberty and autonomy — with their emphasis on freedom from — really be the lodestars liberalism has assumed?” (Devlin and Pothier).

When we bring an autistic child into the world, we don’t fit the model pretty much from day one and especially after our children receive their first official diagnosis. We try to squeeze into charitable models for definitions of our existence, but they feel uncomfortable, placing us in (again) subordinate positions yielding to the “power” of the do-gooder/philanthropist and the “experts” in receipt of their research funds – an unequal relationship. Our families collide with ideologies that we are forced to question. Not “fitting in” is another way of describing how we are placed on the margins of society, or discriminated against. Relatively recent disability laws are made to protect us from exclusion, giving our children full citizenship rights.

Still, we struggle find such justice for them within their daily lives. We first look to school systems and are met with the red-tape of the process of getting IEP’s and special accommodations and quickly realize it’s a legal issue and process. I often wonder which “side” that law protects. We parents (I am writing as a mother so I have to assume that if you are disabled/autistic reading this, you will understand that I recognize this also as your issue) don’t count on having to fill in reams of paper applications, spending hours in meetings, navigating government support systems and administration when we are swaddling our new bundles-of-joy. The navigation to be special – not that it’s our choice – indicates from the start that we’re not supposed to be this way. Our children aren’t supposed to be autistic and public schools protect themselves from us with the red-tape, and we have to fight for our children to be included, not marginally integrated or tokenized. Most of us don’t “fight,” we become diplomatic contortionists and try to get our kids “in” to the extent we can. While it’s a worthy fight, it’s still one that we’d rather not spend our time on. We look forward to the day when autism – about twenty to thirty years behind our recongition of other disabilities, including intellectual disabilities – is widely accepted and welcomed in society. With that welcoming is also a recognition of the intersections between race, culture, gender among other interlocking connections, that make up experience.

As I let Adam go into the world, with the support he needs in order to be an equal citizen, I am always working on my visions for him as a parent. The other day, I thought long and hard about a photo I collected from Toronto’s Abilities Arts Festival a few years ago. It is a photo where two intellectually disabled parents sit on the couch with their three typical children — a “normal” family photo called “Lucky Strike.” The subjects also wrote a paragraph about how they got married and had a family with the help of their support workers. It dawned on me about Adam and his family: there is no reason why Adam may not have a family of his own, by accident or by choice as is the cycle of life for many a typical person. There is no reason why he cannot attend higher-education as an adult. There is no reason why he cannot participate in whatever he wants. It is, after all, the law, granted, subject to enforcement as well as interpretation and dominant social attitudes that are still weighted against the disabled person. We also know that not all our rights are enacted and there is a hesitancy by many families and individuals to go through the legal process. Not all universities understand the need and function of the aide worker. Although York University accommodates people with disabilities, it found itself in a legal dispute with Ashif Jaffer, a student with Down syndrome, because he claimed the university did not accommodate his needs. For these reasons, we have to keep on working hard, and likely take a few risks, for the rights of our beloved family members to be included with the accommodations that they require. This means also the help of aide workers and various technologies, among many other individualized needs.

People can have families and also be supported by others. Our children, even our non-verbal ones, can have a say in their plans and lives with guided decision-making practices. Non-verbal people may be able to type or write visual essays and participate in research about autism, and all autistic people have a right to both participate in research and have results disseminated to them in ways they can use and understand. Check out websites on emancipatory research and visual essay formats. No it’s not easy to do, but we’re starting to do it and we are inevitably going to learn by doing.

An “emancipatory” life requires support and that support requires a vision of possibility, enablement, democracy and a plan. As a paraplegic requires a wheelchair, many an autistic person requires people in their lives to support them getting to and from destinations, to having families, to making decisions, to managing the many details of life. Some of this right now is a privilege for the families that can afford them. It is, however, everyone’s right and I for one want to hear more stories about how families and autistic people are helping to let autistic people live their lives as autistic people. For the families who are able to provide the supports we seek from society and governments, we need to hear your stories in order to provide more buidling blocks of enablement.

What is independence? I can’t work on the technology of my computer on my own. I need tons of help with it. I need extra hands to help me around the house and in managing a schedule as a single mother. I need teachers, handy-men and someone to help me when I’m ill. I build my human network as a result of necessity. Others also need me and I am able to lend my hand or my special skill set. For reasons revolving around Adam, I am sensitive to our capitalist notions of independence and how that seems to relate to the family and school. Are we creating communities of people who are interdependent on each other, or human silos? How “happy” does that latter future look like sitting there all alone in them?

Here’s a future that I can see unraveling before my eyes, despite the struggles, tensions and issues we presently encounter and grapple with: I see more people employed in these areas to assist and guide, but further than this, to balance the power that can be offset by the “abled versus the disabled.” Ergo the terms “assistants and aide-workers,” not therapists. I see more effort towards emancipatory lives for the autistic, of all “functioning” levels. I see our growing ability to understand and respect one another, to honour the visual way and other modes of learning and communicating, presenting and even reading the materials by individuals with autism. It is a reciprocal human economy with autistic people in it.

For the first time since I’ve had Adam, I imagine that it might be possible, as Adam is my only-child, that I could one day be a grandmother after-all. It was actually one thing that made me a little sad when Adam was diagnosed — the world seemed to be locking its doors to us so soon. Of course, all of this is Adam’s choice, hopefully. It’s the choice that matters. The principles upon which I now imagine and locate our lives, in practice as well as principle, is one of possibility and of how our lives can be enriched, even made better, by including autistic people in them.

Adam’s life should be one of his own making, and I am here to support him down his many paths. The questions I now ask more often, are not only about how much work does Adam must do (as the onus has, to-date, largely be on the autistic person to become more normal before s/he can participate in society), but how can I help him obtain for himself not just a “quality of life,” but a vibrancy, of life — the excitement of possibility and choice — that many of us took for granted while we were growing up? This also belongs to him.

This can be our future — for our children and even for us as parents of autistic children. This is our Adam Family.

References:

Mats Alvesson & Kaj Skoldberg, Reflexive Methodolgoy: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, 2nd Ed.

Pothier, Dianne and Devlin, Richard.”Introduction” in Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law, edited by Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, pp. 1-24, 2006.

Towards a New Autism Research

Filed Under (Ableism, Acceptance, Activism, Advocacy, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism and The Media, Autistic Self Advocacy, Book Reviews, Communication, Computing/iPad, Critical Disability Studies, Development, Discrimination, Family, Movement Disturbance, Research, school, Sensory Differences, Transitions) by Estee on 06-07-2012

It doesn’t matter who you are, or how high you rise. One day you will get the call. The question is, how will you respond?” — African American U, Senior Administrator

Adam left for camp this morning. Last week, he did well at his piano recital. His lessons have been adapted for him — colour coding left and right hands, bass and treble clef lines, to give a sense of the many adaptations we’ve learned. Not only have we adapted lessons for him so that he may learn in “typical” ways, but I also asked the teacher to let him explore the piano on his own, as well as have her play for him. I became a musician when I was very young, and a neighbour let me bang away at the keys doing whatever I wanted.

I was proud that Adam was able to attend and play well at his recital. I asked that he make his little bow, and sure, everyone thought that was sweet. Afterwards, as there was another special needs person as part of the concert, I was noticing faces as he sang — his articulation was challenged. I didn’t see gleaming “ain’t that sweet” smiles. I saw strained faces. Not until the children who were fluent with well-pitched voices were singing did the “ain’t that adorable” look beam as high as the church rafters. That effected me a lot, and I pay attention to these subtleties every day. I don’t think people realize the subversive effects of a mere countenance. I, at least, read faces well. Adam seems to pick up on vibes, but that’s my assumption after knowing him for so long.

Last week, Adam was more verbal — asking me “what are you doing?” when I was at work at my desk and he wanted to play. In addition to a successful recital and these questions, we had a “good” week. Having Adam ask me a rare question is exciting. I am happy when he gets more verbal, types on his iPad, and now, starts to ask me questions. When the camp bus came for a visit last week and Adam got upset afterwards, he typed (independently), “why is bus going?” It shows that his world is expanding by his growing ability to communicate. I find myself relieved because I think it will make his life more fulfilling, if not easier in a world that favours the able-bodied and the fluently verbal.

Two days after his verbal “spike,” however, something that comes and goes but improves steadily all the time (akin to a graph with a steady climb overall, but with monthly plateaus and slight dips), and also possibly correlating to the end of school, the transition to camp, a possible cold or allergies (get the picture?), Adam began to twitch more and he lost his ability to talk for a couple of days. He is better at being able to type a few words when he is under stress. He couldn’t do that at all before.

While I still worry, mostly if I see him uncomfortable when it happens, I’m getting better at waiting him out. Whatever is effecting him needs to be processed by him in his own way. Within a couple of days, although the twitching slowly abated. He started to smile and become more verbal after a couple of days of the most intense part of it. I really do not understand what is happening to him neurologically and neither does anyone else. Only some autistic people can give me a sense of it. There is no guru or expert or scientist who has truly “discovered” what causes Adam to tic and twitch the way he does. We know of similarities in other disabilities. Adam was tested for seizures and at least on the day he was tested, it showed negative. These are but some of the things we don’t fully understand about Adam and what we refer to as his autism.

As his mother, I’m well aware of my bias, in spite of my enduring “acceptance” of him. Bias and ideas are so deep-rooted in us that acceptance is something we have to work on every day. (Boy, would I love to read that caveat in someone’s research paper on autism). As Adam’s mother, I realize that although I love him dearly and accept him as he is, it is still difficult to resist the temptation to praise Adam’s “normal” feats and accomplishments only, and not recognize his autistic ones. Like all of us, we are under such a strong ableist or “normalist” influence that we don’t praise, cite, recognize autistic-ness as often as we need to.

We need so much more of a new kind of autism research — one that captures autistic accomplishment without sensationalizing autism. Too often any achievement by an autistic individual gets refered to as “genius.” While in some cases in may be extraordinary, we do this because we are still not looking at autism as a whole in the way we should look at all of humanity. We fracture autism into little bits and pieces as much as we end up doing people.

When I attended Autreat too long ago now (I am due for a revisit), I purchased fifteen years of workshop notes and presentations. I remember when I attended being giddy that there were workshops for autistic kids on how to make their own stim toys. Autreat, founded by Jim Sinclair, who is also autistic, is run by and for autistic people.

For months now since he started in an autism school especiallly, despite my praise of Adam for his feats, I still wonder how I can nurture his autistic-self. So I went downstairs and dug the old material up. Here’s a clue of what I wish to study more about:

How to Play With Dolls: For Kids and Adults Jim Sinclair, disability educator and consultant, coordinator of Autism Network International

For purposes of this workshop, a “doll” may be any inanimate object that we play with by imagining it to have aspects of personhood. This includes the traditional toy-human type of doll, as well as toy animals, and any other toys or objects that our imaginations transform into living entities. In this intergenerational workshop, we will share and explore different ways that autistic people can use doll play for fun and for learning, and ways that parents, educators, and therapists can use doll play to help autistic people in developing skills and understanding…”

Music: What Is It, What Does It Mean To Us, and How Can We Use It?
Katja Gottschewski, musician and music therapist, Bodo, Norway

In this workshop, we will explore different aspects of music. We will look at differences and similarities in how we as individuals or as AC’s and NT’s [autistics and neurotypicals] define and experience music. It will be discussed how we can communicate through music. How is music different than language? Can music be a bridge between AC’s and NT’s?

Understanding How Plants Can Facilitate Connection in Autistic Children and Adults
George Salamunec, HTR, COTA/L, Certified Master Gardener, Susan Golubock, M.Ed., OTR/L
Autreat 2004

Working with, and understanding about, plants can be an effective tool for developing the senses, reducing stress, and learning to make new connections in autistic children and adults. Matching plants to one’s personality and needs is an important first step. Plants provide opportunities for autistic children to explore life, nurturing, modulation, non aggressive options and choices for dealing with natural adversities, and why learning about other life (and people) outside of ourselves is so important…

Making Employment Fit: Accommodations and Other Dirty Words
Joel Smith, Autreat 2004

Employment is difficult for many autistic people. We are square pegs who dont fit nicely into round holes. Rather than forcing the autistic into a job, would it be possible to change the job to better fit the autistic? In this presentation, ideas and real-life examples are presented of how jobs can be modified to best accommodate autistic sensitivities. We will also discuss how to modify your job without alientating your boss and co-workers.

That was from Autreat 2000 and 2004. Twelve years later, I am concerned (especially after attending IMFAR), how we hardly research autistic ways of being. We usually do it framed in a bias — comparative research against the “normal,” population.

We really don’t value what makes up the true and different, “not less,” accomplishments of the autistic person. I’ve read blogs where “experts” bluntly claim that there is “no value” in lining objects up. I’m not going to target the scientist specifically here, but I wonder how many readers of this may have at one time or another thought the same thing? Other than people like Temple Grandin, how can we all study the value of object-organization and how that is transferable into learning at school and later, in the workplace? I don’t think this is a trivial skill that needs to be solely relegated to the OCD side of the human column.

Just because we don’t see the value doesn’t mean it ain’t there. We don’t understand. We are viewing under a comparative, normal versus abnormal one, and that’s so limiting. While I try to make the “least dangerous assumption,” a term first coined by Dr. Anne Donnellan, I realize that I must work to continue to see Adam for who he is in all contexts. It’s a absolute daily task and obligation of mine as his parent. I wake up every morning thinking about this, more than I pander to alarmism. In fact, next time an autism commercial brings you to tears, please ask what buttons are being pressed and why, and if there’s a better way to achieve a quality of life for us all?

I’m also reading Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary’s newly released book Autism: Sensory-Movement Difference and Diversity and I would highly recommend it. I liked especially this example:

According to Oliver Sack’s book, Seeing Voices, in learning sign in infancy he will develop brain patterns remarkably different from his ‘normal’ peers. And he will continue to develop in different ways, but we can in no way call those differences ‘deficiencies.’ He will develop different social and cultural skills. If given the most standardized IQ tests, even with a signing interpreter, he will perform differently, and possibly less well, than his speaking/hearing peers. On tests that tap the developmental experiences of deaf people he would probably score far higher than his hearing friends. Yet it is no surprise but nonetheless sad to learn that for decades deaf children were routinely diagnosed as mentally retarded. Still today, they are often considered to have diminished capacity relative to their hearing peers, even when we clearly know that they can flourish if given the appropriate education and experiences. (p. 33).

Consider that, for the deaf which we think we’ve come, arguably, to understand and accept, of how far behind we are in autism to apply this level of consideration. Think how far behind! Thankfully, a small pool (and I hope a growing one) of researchers are taking up this call. In Steven Kapp’s (et al) paper Deficit, Difference of Both? Autism and Neurodiversity, there is also a call to discover the state of autism acceptance and “potential areas of common ground in research and practice regarding [how] autism [is] discussed.”

Scientists, working with the community, can help stakeholders with competing agendas make informed choices between rights, responsibilities, and needs at personal, social, and political levels by affirming that diverse societies respect multiple perspectives.

I’d like to see us all work towards the question of how to nurture autistic strengths and learning and balancing the real need to cope in this world as a minority, as well as continuing to value autistic contribution and being in society.

A Whole Better World
Autreat, May 2000,
Clay Adams

I can imagine a whole better world,
Where people don’t laugh at each other’s pain
A world where the sun shines on every one
And one’s well-being is everyone’s gain

Must we, in fact, feed off each other?
Fool the unwary, to sell our wares?

Adam the Groomsman

Filed Under (Family, Inclusion) by Estee on 08-06-2012

It has been a busy week of winding down the school year, preparing for camp and… Adam’s eldest sister is getting married on Sunday. My boy will be walking down the aisle in front of hundreds of people in a tuxedo. How do we prepare our kids for a large wedding like this, never mind one in which he will be looked at by many people? That’s nerve-wracking for most of us.

I don’t have a formula, but can only tell you what I’ve been doing. Adam and I visited the site and took pictures of it on his iPad together — from outside the building into the foyer, up the elevators — the whole part. It is a very big facility so I know he will be tempted to run to every dark nook and cranny. Using the pictures we took, which won’t look at all like the facility when it’s decorated, I wrote a story about the entire schedule of the event and what Adam will be doing… Adam’s own little visual wedding book. I say to Adam that there will be doors and he will be okay if he doesn’t go through them. For him it’s a huge curiousity and an area of anxiety if he doesn’t know what’s behind a door. Adam has been practicing walking down the aisle, and I’ve tried to glean aspects of the ceremony from his dad and sister so I can prepare Adam as much as I can. Lots of visuals, including a schedule on his iPad, discussions and practice are key to making Adam not only a part of the wedding, but hopefully, in making it work for him as well.

There will be a lot of waiting too. I’ve had to back Adam out of some of the family photographs and arrange to accommodate him so he doesn’t have to wait around for hours. It’s not important to be at every scheduled photo — he could be photoshopped in, and there will be other photo opportunities. It’s not important that he stay at the party, either, which will be hundreds of adults. He typically loves a good party — the flashing lights on the dance floor and he can really cut the rug. In this case, being on a Sunday night, we’ll play it by ear after the ceremony. He might hang for a bit, and if he can’t that’s okay. We’ve got someone on standby to whisk him home. A bag of food, his iPad and the things he likes will help for a while. I try not to get anxious about making it for every single part of the event.

One has to also ask what’s really important with events such as these. It’s important to make his sister happy and for him to participate in the way that he can. He’s been asked to do it in a typical fashion, and with the help of his two brothers, I think it will work for Adam. For me, the goal is keeping Adam happy and calm for his walk down the aisle.

We can’t prepare for everything, but we can prepare to a certain extent. I am excited to see Adam in his tuxedo and report back here. I am also excited that he will be a part and he will have a memory of participating in his big sister’s, big wedding.

The Purpose of Parenting Studies?

Filed Under (Family, Inclusion, Joy, Parenting, Research) by Estee on 29-05-2012

At IMFAR and with other researchers I meet, I am confronted with many requests to participate in “parent studies.” The purpose is to study what levels of stress, and how different it is to parent and autistic child. I am reticient to participate. What about parenting are the researchers trying to find? Are we attempting to affirm that life is harder with an autistic child? Of course, we have to ask what the researchers are hoping to find. Is the purpose to support parents, the autistic child, or both? Or is there a more insidious angle to this kind of research, that is to say, that autism itself is the problem? I know, that may sound blunt and provocative, but think about it. To what end are we really getting on with the business of helping autistic people contribute to society as autistic people? How are we really helping autistic people and their families with their quality of life?

Honestly, I don’t see the purpose in trying to affirm that life might be tougher with an autistic child in it, and I’ve written about that with the unconfirmed (by research) assumption that autism is the cause of increasing divorce rates here. All I know is that when Adam is happy and accommodated, I am very happy. If he is excluded, I too feel isolated. What is it that makes the perception of life harder, then? What about society could assist in supporting us all? These are some of the questions I wish the research would tackle.

A few parents and some commenters on other blog posts have stated that some parents, myself included, are in a state of denial by insisting that we find joy in our children. Asserting that your child is a joy is not a denial of the challenges that we all face. The act of assertion is the affirmation that our children’s lives are important and valuable. On all counts, Adam has been my greatest joy. Yes, I get stressed in trying to understand his discomfort. No parent wants to see their child in distress, and we can focus on that in some of our research.

Most of the stress we faced lived in incompatible circumstances. Once I could see that our environment had to be calm, and that there was no time for compromise with people who had no interest in supporting us, life became a little smoother. I’ve had four years to wrap ourselves in the warmth of the people who really care about us. Let’s face it, our plates are full and we don’t have time for everyone. Energy must be spent wisely.

I dont’ like to give advice, but I’ve had a few thoughts over the past few years about parenting an autistic child. If there is parenting stress, perhaps evaluate the other underlying factors that could be relating to the stress instead of just focussing on the autistic person in the family. This would include all of your relationships, including the one with yourself. Think about how you communicate about autism, and consider changing your thought patterns, attitude and language surrounding it. I know that as a mom of Adam, I’ve had to work, and continue to work, daily at my expectations and putting them in check. I look at my own anxiety levels and what I do to add or detract from the stress. Even when I’m at my limit, I accept bad thoughts and let them go through me. I express them in private and then my head is clear again to see Adam for the beautiful boy he is. My attitude is very important. Loving and accepting Adam has also helped me to love and accept myself, which wasn’t (and sometimes still isn’t easy). Yet what’s the point in having a double standard?

When others have accused me of being in denial of other people’s stress or autism itself, I came to learn that my approach was my way, the way I was raised and my survival mechanism. There is absolutely no one who can tell you how you should raise your autistic child, and the assistance out there is on the journey as much as we are as parents. And, by the way, we all have a right to enjoy our children for who and what they are! It is up to us completely to advocate for our children — our right to have and enjoy them, to be included in society, for a good and suitable education, for accommodation, for respect, equality, and excellent opportunities and living environments into our children’s adulthood. There’s no getting around it and no excuses. It sucks some days, but we can’t complain. We have to stick together and stop the urge of research and the typical population to pity us. Pity won’t get is the services we deserve. If we continue on the path, we’ll just get the dusty old van and the group home. Not to knock some of the individuals there who sacrafice and provide for our children on a daily basis. It’s just that I think people with disabilities don’t deserve dusty vans and the poverty line.

I just think we all deserve better. Parents feel stress because of the lack of support, accommodation and acceptance. We feel it because we are stared out in the check-out line, or at the park, or while waiting to get into school. We feel it when someone marks “retard” on the picnic table outside our kid’s school. Can you add ot the list? Yes, our children indeed have challenges. Stigma makes these challenges a whole lot more difficult. Now think of how the autistic person must feel.

On the up side, there are many couples and single parents who have found their niche and who have pulled together with stronger families because of the challenges that an Abelist society brings to us every day. There are friends who really pull for us and who believe in us as a whole, not a fractured, family. There are people rooting for us in every way. Here’s where to put our focus.

I have only one child. Sometimes I think the time I spend on Adam may be like raising a group of children, but he’s worth it. He’s worth doing the IEP, organizing programs, doing advocacy work, managing teams, people because there are so few autism services and programs suited for the autistic person. It’s like inventing the wheel over here. I don’t have to manage the jealousies of same-aged siblings who don’t understand why so much more time is spent with the special-needs child in the house, and even the sudden “adult” responsibilities they may feel. I know of many parents who do. We all have our own package of issues, though.

I hope that researchers doing parent-studies have these points in mind. Society’s view of disability has a great deal to do with how we parent, how we view our lives, how we convey autism and disability to our communities and future generations, and how we are supported. It’s not the fault of autism or the autistic child. We must be so cautious in slanting any research in this direction.

Are You My Mother?

Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Family, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 23-02-2012

“Mommy!” Adam looks into my eyes and says my name as if he’s reassuring himself. It’s as if he’s saying you’re my mommy, and that is that.

“Yes, Adam, I’m Mommy.” I say. He’s eyes are glued to mine until I answer him. After I do, he looks relieved and goes back to his business. The look reminds me of that P.D. Eastman story I used to read Adam over and over again when he was a baby, “Are You My Mother?”

I hear “Mommy” after he’s visited his dad’s house. What could he be thinking, I wonder? Is he confused, as many children are, of the other women in their father’s life? If Adam were a more verbal child, what would be the many questions he’d have of the divorce, and his dad returning to his first ex-wife with whom Adam shares half-siblings? I have experienced such younger “typical” children with many questions. I’ve often wondered if people just carry on as if it’s not confusing for Adam at all because they don’t believe that he understands, or at least has many questions that he can’t articulate? No matter how nice people are to Adam over the years, he will always have questions, and he has the right to have them answered. It’s always better to answer children with the facts rather than emotion or pretense, in ways appropriate to their age. I’m taking the inquisitive “are you my mother?” look he frequently gives me now as something much deeper. I’ve read him children’s books about divorce but I think Adam is beginning to have more questions.

The past few days, Adam has also had the flu. It’s all my fault. I caught a bad one and he got it from me. We’ve been down and out for a week now. I know Adam is really ill when he doesn’t move around much and when he’s not eating, of course. Yesterday, he spent the whole day with me sitting on the couch, and today will be the second day. We watched tv, he played with his iPad and rested. He’s body was close to mine — his way of comfort and reassurance. If I got up to do something, he would grab my arm to stay with him.

As a single mom, I don’t have anyone else to delegate all my responsibilities. Yet the feel of Adam’s overly warm body needing mine for comfort and security is more important to me than any bill or piece of paper sitting on my desk. Those things will have to wait. I could complain, but then I realize that I am the most important person in the world to him right now. I have been his rock, his “constant person.”

That’s right, Adam. I am! I am your mother!

The Colour of Love

Filed Under (Family, Inspiration) by Estee on 13-02-2012

I love colour. After my separation and divorce, the colours I picked for our home were all grey. As first couple of years separation passed, and then meeting someone very special and having lots of friends and laughter in our home, I’ve been picking more colour. Every piece of new fabric is like another step towards feeling comfortable here, another step towards creating our unique family. I write a lot about home because to me it is symbolic (or I should go into interior design). When Adam and I moved here, I found three four leaf clovers on the property. While I was a little superstitious before, I now really believe in omens.

Recently we’ve been fixing our kitchen and doing a bit of re-decorating, managing to fix things, making the house more ours than the previous owners. It was my decision to put our whole selves here because it’s the only way to grow. I decided we can’t live life half-way, waiting for it to happen to us. As I add fabric — purples, yellows, vibrant ochres and the yellows I saw in Sri Lanka, I feel more relaxed. Adam burrows himself under the lavender blanket by the window on the new couch, or sits and reads his books and he looks so, well, at home. Someone said to me that choosing colour because I’m happier, and they are right. Adam, of course, picks up on this. We are growing our roots again.

Two years ago, Valentines Day, Adam and I had to leave the home that sadly caught fire last year, ironically also in February. It was a home we had built ourselves. I felt awful because it was still the home Adam later visited his father after I moved out. Adam did a lot of crying and spasming when he had to make the move. In the past several months, I drove Adam past the other house, which is still standing, and Adam wanted to go in. When I explained that he no longer lived there any more, he didn’t fuss. He knows his home is here now. I felt, though, that I owed him some gentle explanations and drive-bys — everytime we went near after the fire, he would crank his neck out the back seat window of my car to try and see his “old” home across the park or down the street. I felt awful not letting him back initally, but I had to make sure he would be able to handle it.

I think about that move and how hard it was on Adam, and on me. Our home now is a place where love thrives and I thank those who are close to us for bringing it back into our lives.

Happy Valentines Day.

Reflections On Our First Decade

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Advocacy, autism, Autism and Employment, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Autism Theories, Autistic Self Advocacy, Discrimination, Estee, Ethics, Family, Joy, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 11-01-2012

Tonight Adam asked to be carried to his bed. “Carry!” he implores. He has a determined look in his eye. Usually, he climbs into my lap and expects me to carry him to his bed. So I let him again, and cradled him in my arms, trying not to hit his extremities in the doorway.

“Adam, you are getting too big for this now,” I say, my neck and back feeling strained. I carry him into his bedroom and plunk his heavy body on the soft bed.

“I’m not a caterpillar anymore!” he says melodically, and smiles.

“That’s right Adam!”I am pleasantly surprised. It is a rare lucid statement. With all his movements and chants, for the unexperienced, it is difficult to believe Adam is understanding, or paying attention to, many things. Yet I’ve always known he does, even on the days I get frustrated when he can’t respond.

There is a story that Adam The Caterpillar and the Polliwog by Jack Kent. He is using the line from that story and I know he has associated my discussions about him becoming a big boy to the story. “You are not a caterpillar anymore. You are a butterfly!” Adam lifts his head from his pillow. With a big smile, he plants a kiss on my lips and lies back down, contented. I turn out the lights and say goodnight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Adam and his growth over the past year. Over the New Year, I’ve been thinking how this will be Adam’s first complete decade, and my first decade as a mom. I simply cannot believe that it’s been that long as I remember our journey with autism and with each other.

Adam was diagnosed with autism at 19 months of age and I began writing privately in coffee shops about our experiences when Adam spent a couple of hours in pre-school. I started The Joy of Autism blog and running the events of The Autism Acceptance Project when Adam was three years old. Reaction to my blog and title of the events (The Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability of Quality of Life) were met with both applause and contempt. Today, we read about the joy of autism and parenting an autistic child much more often. Then, parents who were struggling with challenging behaviours and expectations of a cure, challenged me. What did I know?! questioned many parents of slightly older autistic children who were being phased out of services. Wait until your autistic child grows up, then you’ll be in big trouble; you’ll see what we are going through. He won’t be cute forever! I suppose we’ve now reached that same stage. While Adam can still be cute, he is quickly becoming a pre-teen.

In the past decade, we have struggled with acceptance, understanding from others, and in finding a great education. We deal with stigma, and having to justify why we behave as we do. As parents, we are sometimes pitied or called heroes. It’s hard to be a normal parent in the “outside world,” even though autism is our normal. Having to justify our children, and their right, need, and desire to be included can be exhausting if not downright heart-breaking. We keep going out there every day as we brush disappointment off our weary selves. I suppose this is brave.

I also realize, that as bloggers, writers, and advocates, everyone has an opinion. When there is no one cause for autism that science can find, the speculation gets polemic. The nexus of contention seems to be the nature of autistic being and intelligence; is autism a natural, “alternative” way to be human, or is it a defect of the human condition? Of course, I believe it is what it is, although throughout the years I’ve always questioned my own thinking. I still come back to the value of human diversity. Whatever the reason or the cause, I value Adam for who and what he is, how he thinks. I also recognize and try to assist his challenges. I cannot call him a defect. He is whole, loving, able, with his disability. I can’t think of my life without him in it. He requires the extra effort of all to understand his differences in order to enable him. Being constantly challenged for my beliefs has been exhausting and emotional at times. The blessing of this first decade has been the deeper recognition and understanding of the values I held instinctively, and early on.

In the past decade of writing and talking about Adam and autism, I’ve been torn between sharing parts of our experience and our privacy. In the hopes of helping Adam’s future, I’ve seriously thought about whether or not to close the blog, especially since Adam’s first decade also included a divorce — a challenge for any child, and an extra challenge for Adam. I decided that not only does writing about experience help me as his mother, but that sharing is a gift we both give and receive. I was helped by the writing and sharing of other autistic people and parents. I don’t want to fear the sharing, although I’m continually challenged by this. Of course, it is my duty to protect Adam and his privacy, so I believe that every parent must choose our stories carefully. I’ve decided to continue writing.

I also can’t help thinking about the parents who had autistic children ten years before us. Many were the parents in Canada who argued for ABA to be covered as medically necessary treatment (the political argument still exists). Some parents found out about Dr. Lovaas in L.A. and even moved down with their children for treatment, and I may have done the same thing if Adam had been born earlier — maybe not. Adam was born in 2002. In 1992, ABA was turned to as the hope for the education and life skills training for autistic children. It was believed that ABA would be the way to shape the child’s behaviour and normalize them, in time for school. It seemed much more humane and reasonable than “holding therapy.”

The window in which to do this, they were told (and we were too) was five to six years of age. If a child could not talk or learn normally by then, the window of opportunity would close. The “early diagnosis is key,” notice, is also used for cancer, and I know from personal experience that yes, better to get a cancer early (another part of our past decade). Science, parents, autistic people, however, have proven that there is no such thing as lost opportunity. Autistic people need continued life-long learning. I like to think of that all of us require continued training throughout our lives to put this in perspective.

New methods and teaching approaches have been explored and integrated into many classrooms. ABA therapy has, to some extent, integrated different therapies into their own practice. By “operationalizing” these other methods and taking “data” it seems to have been rebranded as “Positive Behavioural Therapy” or “Support. While there is still controversy there because the therapy still doesn’t fully address the abilities and the nature of autistic perception and intelligence, one could view it as a step forward.

It is also difficult to let go of labels. Political policies are built on them. They are made for autistic people largely by non autistic people. Definitions and systems must be defined in policy, and this has been difficult for autistic people because their issues have not fully been acknowledged. So we must be cautious not to lose sight of the progress have made in the science regarding autistic ability, perception and intelligence. We must continue to work to answer the question on how we can best educate and address an autistic person’s needs, and how an autistic person can participate in society as they are. The dyslexic community had to learn and now so must we.

Ten years before ABA took hold in Canada, in 1982, Lorna Wing wrote her pivotal paper reviving the work of Hans Asperger and spotlighting Aspergers sydrome in her paper, Aspergers Syndrome: A Clinical Account. It was ten years after that paper that Autism Spectrum Disorder label and definition of the “triad of impairments” made it into the DSM IV. In thinking about decades, I thought back to 1972 when Ontario’s last mental institution was shut down. It freaks me out to think that Adam’s life could have been so very different thirty or more decades ago. He would have been even more segregated than he is today.

As I measure the decades against autism treatment, and treatment of autistic people, I see that in 2012, we’re learning more every day. We do so even in a perilous time when “designer babies” arguably threaten the continued existence of people with disabilities. Many communities like ours and the Down syndrome community grieve the loss of others “like” them as a loss of community. We’ve launched autism acceptance movement, akin to other civil rights movements, for the equal and fair regard of autistic people in our society. It is still a nascent movement of which most people are unaware. We have not accomplished full inclusion and accommodation. We still have not raised enough awareness.

As I think to 2022, when Adam will be twenty years old, I hope for the ability for Adam to continue his education and the welcoming of his assistants not because he is unable, but because he can be enabled with them. I want for his participation in his own life planning, pre-college/university prep, and vocational training that will be unique to the needs of him and others like him. I think of his life, like mine, as a continual learning curve — certainly not ending at the age of twenty one. I watch and read the other parents and autistic individuals ten years ahead of us, and wish to thank them for the paths they are forging.

I look ahead to the next couple of decades. There was a time I fretted about it until I realized that time is relative and all people develop as they should. I worried about Adam’s future and where he would live. Yet, I intend to hang in there with him, come what may. I had some very difficult moments after my divorce and raising Adam here alone and this is when my worries were at an all-time high. On one very low day, a calm and quiet thought suddenly entered my head, and it was filled with love. While autism may have brought me some of my greatest challenges, it has also bestowed my greatest gift.

I love Adam more than words. He has always been my pride and joy. I know that it is my duty to assist him, and to find others to assist him along the way who will help him become the man he is meant to be.

Maybe I just can’t believe he’s going to be ten years old this year. I turned on an old video when he was first diagnosed. He is twenty months and has the same smile, the same boundless energy. He is the same boy in a growing, lanky body. He is a butterfly.

“I Had A Feeling That I Belonged”

Filed Under (Family, Inspiration, Joy, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 07-02-2011

Everyone who goes through a divorce will attest, after a significant chunk of time, you can feel cast out, a little lost.

It will be a year since Adam and I moved into our new home on February 14, ironically, Valentine’s Day. As I prepared the house for him to move in, I purchased a sign that I placed on my mantel: “Friends and Family Gather Here.” I knew what was important to me. I knew I wanted to finally build my own place where Adam and I would always belong. This coming Valentine’s Day, although I hate the Hallmark cheese, I’ve got something really special to commemorate: creating love and a warm place to belong. This is a celebration.

People say that you have to live with intention. Well, I guess I did that. I make lists, I put my intentions out there a lot. I wanted to build tranquility, beauty and a happy home for Adam. After some difficult transitioning in the first few months (you can read those posts from a year ago), Adam adjusted. A bitter winter unfurled into spring and summer. Our friends came. Then, my big family on my mother’s side. It has meant so much to me, and I know, for Adam who beams when he sees people here.

Before I got married, I used to play in bands, work in art, write (I’ve always written) and paint. I’m back at it. Adam loves it. Our home is filled with simplicity and lots of music. As I learn to play the guitar again, he strums while I learn the chords. I’ve also taken up my piano playing and Adam played improvised with me for over a half hour last week, proud that he could create something with me. It was just the two of us in the basement, communicating in our way.

I’ve just learned how to play Fast Car by Tracy Chapman on the guitar. I love this song about clawing one’s way to a better life. Belonging is a big theme in my life. Ironically, it’s also a big issue for disabled people.

“Me myself I got nothing to prove.”

For What It’s Worth

Filed Under (Adam, Family, Joy, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 13-06-2010

I have to admit that I’m adjusting to my new role, still, as single mother. There are lovely days, like yesterday, when I want to spend my time with Adam. We awaited a thunderstorm that never came, but watched Disney’s Mulan anyway — a movie Adam has not yet seen. Adam is more interested in watching movies from start to finish now that his attention is stronger, his awareness keen. In the “early days,” Adam could only sit still for about ten or so minutes and movies were simply not possible. These are rather nice days, like the time today we spent walking around the Scarborough Bluffs, listening to the waves gently swell upon the shore and watching the geese fly off as elegantly as immaculately set-up dominoes. Adam lead me to the shore-side restaurant and we ate together. I’ll admit that sometimes I miss having someone to share this with us, and then again I cherish every moment now because I have learned that life changes in a moment.

Sometimes we spend our afternoons by the pool and he is content in what I have called his nest (see picture) — I have this chair outside even though the rain is determined to wither the wicker away. He will curl up after a swim and stare at the maple leaves hanging above him in the sunlight, reluctant to depart at my declarations that he must be getting cold and it’s time for a hot shower. No, he prefers to cuddle up and listen to the birds. I don’t blame him — it was the same chair I healed in after surgeries a couple of years ago and I dragged it outside because it’s far better to heal outside than in.

As his treat, I purchased Adam a new nest for his room today so I could put it in the corner where he has come to read his books. I placed it under a canopy I also created for him with twinkling lights when I set up his room in his new house. Like all things these days, it was over-wrapped. We arrived home and I was determined to get this simple task done for him. He helped me lug a bag inside and I asked him to play on his own nearby. He wanted to eat, he wanted to do something else — he wanted my help.

“Adam, mommy doesn’t have any help so you have to be my helper today,” I said. New single-mother talk, I’m thinking. But I’m also thinking how frustrated I am over trying to do everything as quickly as possible, wishing right now, in this moment, that I had someone to do it for me so I can turn to Adam instead.

“Just wait, Adam,” I say with irritated breath, unraveling yards of ties and cardboard with an inappropriate pair of kiddie scissors that were handy. It’s me that I realize I’m telling to wait, though. Adam is doing just fine.

I struggle to carry the big hoop of the chair to the upstairs and set the chair up, going as fast as I can.

“Come see, Adam. Come upstairs,” I am now asking after I just told him to stay put. I imagine my son thinks I’m nuts. He obliges me and goes into the chair and curls into it contentedly reading his series of I Spy phonics books, reminding me that “it’s not a horse; it’s a duck.” His language skills have improved. He talks in more sentences, in particular to tell me everything he sees. I suck in some air and sit on the edge of his bed, enjoying him enjoying the chair. I like to watch Adam happy and calm. Heck, I like to experience myself happy and calm.

I know I have to prepare dinner. The grandparents are coming soon, Adam was searching hi and lo in my kitchen for something, as usual, to eat. It’s a wonder the boy is so slim with all he eats.

I am breathing more calmly thinking that I know I can’t do everything at every moment I want to. I know that something’s gotta give; of some things I must let go at certain moments, and maybe even for life. I am still in that growing phase of learning to be on my own as a parent. Although life isn’t bad, it isn’t the same when you have to do everything yourself. I am learning, still, after two years to be okay with this.

While I get a lot of snuggles from Adam and a lot of kisses too, I realized that I don’t get a lot of “how are you’s?” from anyone, really. I don’t get the “how are you really doing?” kind of caring-talk. I suddenly realize it when Adam pops out of his room and hollers from the top of the stairs, “I wub you!”

“What?” I ask loudly as I am in the kitchen preparing food.

“I wub you mum!” All his words were spoken with force but with the same intonation. Then, I hear him go back into the room and shut the door.

I am stunned. I think Adam is saying thank you for the chair, for his little nest. I think he totally knows how much I love him.

For what it’s worth, I needed that.

What Do Autism Mom’s Need On Mother’s Day?

Filed Under (Acceptance, Family) by Estee on 08-05-2010

I was doing a little mother’s day research this evening. When I saw Sophie, I was really happy. I was happy because I know Adam thanks me for all of these things that I do every day and I do not need him to say it just because it’s Mother’s Day. I can see his appreciation everyday when he sees me, grabs my face to look at me, when he snuggles with me, when he jumps into my bed, when he comes to me when he’s sad for comfort. We have the same connection.

All I need is this, and Adam needs my unconditional love.

It’s great being an autism mom, as it is any other kind. Happy Mother’s Day to all the autism mothers and grandmothers today.

Somewhere in between: the truth and fiction behind autism and divorce rates

Filed Under (Acceptance, Celebrity Advocacy, Family, Single Parenthood) by Estee on 04-01-2010

I feel manipulated. Not by a person, but by the many messages I am getting about autism and high divorce rates. Imagine me now looking through new eyes. Adam’s dad and I have been separated for little over a year now. Last night on TVO aired Autism The Musical and the BBC production of The Autism Puzzle (the latter which I found to be a good documentary…it is the second time I’ve watched it) and today on CNN (again) I am confronted with a deluge of autism media and I am sitting in my bed, alone, weeping, laughing at myself — weeping again. I might look to an outsider like Meg Ryan in some Hollywood romantic comedy. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Autism The Musical. It’s just that I have to think critically of how a general public might view some of the very real comments — so real they made me weep. Take a look at this story before continuing to read:

Lisa Jo Rudy of About.com on all things autism (an autism mom herself) also recollects about Adam’s dad (from the movie — not my Adam):“Adam’s dad, now estranged from his mom, is bitter because of his wife’s obsession with Adam’s autism. Mom, meanwhile, spins out of control when she thinks her son’s cello solo will be cut from the final musical production.”Adam’s dad (in the film) suggests that he believes all autism moms suffer divorce because they are scrounging every ounce of information for the benefit of the child. Adam’s mom and dad are still together during the filming and the mom discusses how dad has had a long-standing affair, and she is clearly overstressed and bitter and I understand all of that.

As I’ve said, I’m looking through different eyes now. Yes, Adam didn’t sleep and I was so grossly sleep deprived. Yes, I was obsessed with finding out every ounce of information in a world that doesn’t accept autism. As a mother who loves their child (or a father — think Robert Hughes, Ralph Savarese among hundreds of other incredibly dedicated dads), this was the obvious choice. As an educated person, I read and study…and go back to university to get a degree in Critical Disability Studies. It is my way of dealing with things. I have a need to help Adam in this world that still does not offer enough programs, services, care, respect and inclusion. And I’m choosing to accept the choice with open arms. I’m choosing to move forward and continue learning from all the lessons on this autism journey.

Truth about divorce lies somewhere between anecdote and statistics. While I have compassion and I feel that this is so real for so many families, I have to question if we are all being manipulated. I am thinking of Jenny McCarthy and her story of feeling alone in her marriage with her autistic child. I think many parents feel alone when they are researching and searching for scarce programs — indeed there is a feeling of isolation that sometimes even extended family members will never understand. I remember the Autism Everyday Video and how the number “eighty percent of all autism marriages end in divorce” was thrown out as a matter of fact, rather than what it is — speculation. I spoke out about the “wanting to drive off the George Washington bridge” with the autistic child comment because it was used in a campaign to raise money for autism by making autism look terrible, not because I don’t believe or do not have compassion for the moments when some parent may be in a moment of despair. It’s all real, you see. The divorce is real too. Some partners do not want to deal with the responsibilities of raising children — particularly disabled children. Some partners do not leave just because of autism. The problem with using these stories in autism promotion videos is that it is used to sway our feelings about autistic people in particular. It uses autistic people as a crutch for the gamut of natural human emotion. People with non-disabled children also get divorced. People with non-disabled children also do unspeakable acts to their children. It is simply not fair to blame autism or disability as the cause for despair and divorce.

There may be some truth to divorce and disability, but statistics don’t necessarily agree. Apparently divorce rates, according to Kristina Chew’s article, are down and I’m particularly concerned when disability is used as the sole reason for a divorce. Kristina also writes: “Citing autism as the reason for a marriage failing can be seen as yet another reason for saying why autism is so awful. Taking care of Charlie is a privilege but it is not always easy. Childcare arrangements are a constant juggling act for Jim and me and we tend always to think of Charlie’s needs first, and of each other’s after that. We both agree that it should be this way. Jim and I would much prefer living closer to New York City due to our jobs but Charlie’s education comes first. We left the house that we planned to live in for 30 years in order that Charlie could have the right school placement. (And until this September we were living with my in-laws, which was very, if not too, interesting at times.) Jim and I have made many of our choices based on ‘what Charlie needs’ rather than on what would be best for the two of us and I do hope that, ultimately this will be best for the three of us.”

It doesn’t matter what stressors are involved in marriage — the more there are, the more vulnerable a marriage becomes. Some couples manage to work together, some do not. Sometimes, when the marriage is done and some of the stressors are gone, parents become better at working together. Sometimes challenges bring couples closer together. There is no magic formula and there are no right or wrong answers. Is raising a child with a disability more challenging? Absolutely. Should it be blamed for divorce? No.

What we need along with the compassion is to look at our sorry weeping selves in the mirror to ask analytical questions. Who is producing the video? Is it a real story or is a fundraising video? What is it asking us to believe? Does it pull on our heart-strings to sell copies? Telling truth means that the conclusions are not necessarily clear — at least not for public consumption. I for one, will not blame autism or Adam for my marital situation, even when day-to-day life is not always easy. In her article Genie In A Bottle, Shelley Hendrix in HuffPo discusses divorce, emotion and her autistic son: “For a very simple reason over the last six years, I have clung to the hope that my son Liam was insulated from the emotional distress that can envelope a child when their parents divorce. He has autism.

For once, I had hoped that his exceptionality was a perk, protecting his innocence and preserving his heart. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. With his nonverbal days behind him and his growing conversational skills he can express himself, just like any other child that experiences divorce.

His message this summer? He desperately misses the unified family that he once had. His questions and comments mirror the conversations I have had with his younger sister throughout the years. Is it his fault? Why can’t we get back together? Why did you get a divorce? Did you love daddy? Did he love you?.”

I worry like any other parent during a time of divorce. I too want to protect Adam, as all children of divorce seem to do, from blaming himself. I am particularly aware of how he manifests anxiety and worry that it’s because of divorce — and as autistic children are not unaffected, I must assume that there are days when his head wonders what the heck has happened. One day, like Liam, he may be able to tell me so, and I don’t think anyone should underestimate the effects of divorce on the autistic child just because that child seems happy all the time, or cannot talk, or does not appear to be aware of what’s going on.

Two adults are responsible for making it (or not) and society is also responsible for supporting marriage and families — particularly families who have more on their plates because of the lack of community supports. (And uh hum — who is going to want to provide supports when people — as the woman interviewed – discuss autism as worse than getting a root canal?!) Two divorced adults are also responsible for making transitions in life for the autistic child as smooth as possible, while respecting the child’s need to express their concerns which are manifested by anxiety (and we know as autism parents that anxiety doesn’t always look anxious, but also hyper). Adults are responsible for taking the responsibility. There is no easy answer for our lives in marriage or divorce; no predictions.

The work I must do for Adam still sits in front of me. The assistance he may require in his adult years is likely. I look at it this way: when a marriage ends there are new opportunities — to build strength and hopefully cooperation. Right now, as I myself am going through this new transition I have yet another opportunity to look at pity in the eye and step forward proudly with my autistic child.

Of course I would not be human if I did not wonder if more support, programs and information would have lessened the time I spent assisting Adam, coordinating his teams, his school requirements, his IEP, his communication devices and needs, playgroups… Would I have done things differently if there was more support out there? If I had had more sleep? This is a question I cannot yet answer. All I can say for now is that it was a choice grown from love and devotion. Choices have consequences and rewards. I don’t blame autism. I don’t blame a person. It’s what was meant to happen. The work we do today, I believe, may help others tomorrow. Adam, for one, will know that he is valued and that I valued the time I was married to his father. I value the lessons we continue to learn and the many joys and struggles on our journey.

I started the Joy of Autism blog in 2005 with the support of my then-husband who told me to “start a blog” not unlike Julia’s husband in Julia and Julia. He apparently believed that, like Julia, I “have thoughts.” :) He supported the work I did for The Autism Acceptance Project. But life, as they say, is “complicated.” Here we are. Who would believe that I think that even all of this is a gift?

I do. Now, on with the future.

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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.