The Autism “Spectrum,” Assessed Identity, and Supporting Access…some thoughts

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, Autism and Learning, Communication, Computing/iPad, Identity, Spectrumism) by Estee on 16-05-2013

This photo is of Adam with his Grandma.

I know I don’t write about Adam that much these days. I’m always caught in ethical considerations about his right to privacy and protection versus the benefits of sharing stories. I work a lot with autistic adults theses days as well (am always grateful to have them in our lives and realize how sharing of information and differences of viewpoints benefit us all), and I also work and play every day with Adam. I juggle between my studies, re-growing work with TAAP and as his mom – teaching him after school when I can. Single motherhood brings it’s own worries – am I giving him enough? What would happen if I get ill?, among many questions. I do the best I can and I have to accept my situation. As usual, I digress…

Adam is typing on his own now, is becoming a trampoline champion with an excellent coach, and has a friend. The challenge and sorrow, when I feel any, is the isolation by comparison to other children, or quite frankly, the concern I feel when people ask me questions that are proliferated by the media about how “functioning” Adam is. When people ask me about Adam’s functioning level, I get to ask in return why that matters to them – I think it’s important to ask others in order for them to think about it deeply. I then usually respond that I love Adam as he is, and go on about what great person he is. Functioning levels are arbitrary assessments made by subjective observation – by an individual who thinks they know something about autism, but in fact, just follow a set list of criteria that continues to change. Frankly, the most valued professional advice I would receive is the answer “I don’t know” and someone who considers Adam’s unique needs and strengths. Also, permit me to meander, it should never be an assumption that autistic people prefer to be alone. This is not fair – all autistic people are different and most express a profound loneliness. As for spectrums and functioning levels, this discursive dialogue must end if we truly value all autistic people.

In other words, there are no prognostications that are accurate. Ask any autistic adult and read through their psychometric assessments and old IEP’s and they’ll have plenty of comments – none of them positive. In fact, I am very concerned about the material reality these stacks of binders (recording bowel movements and the like) get absorbed by an autistic child regarding their identity and later, their self-narrative. I often think of taking all the binders I’ve kept over the years, papers, assessments and do something with them – no not burn them – but make an installation regarding this question: Shouldn’t we as parents be concerned about a forthcoming identity crisis as our children are told what they are by a mere label that describes virtually nothing about person-hood and individuality? If I could turn the clock back eleven years, what would I change?

I support Adam’s development and person-hood – his right to access and individuality. Further, and I have to keep saying this, it disappoints me when autistic children are not allowed to go to various programs with an aide worker. An aide worker enables many to contribute, work, participate, and feel a more a part of our community. While I cannot predict what level of assistance Adam might need when he gets older, for instance, this is besides the point – the issue is the right to access. Our autism committees and charities and governments must start considering these rights as opposed to simply believing that autism can be cured and kids can become normal with enough therapy. Instead, when we consider the value of people, we have more chances of seeking education after the age of 21, opportunities for vocational training, college, and university. More creative strategies for living situations can be considered such as co-living, assisted independent living (therefore interdependent living), micro-boards and aide workers and educators can also be treated with more respect as valuable assistants to autistic individuality and right to choose. Strategies for the latter entail visual supports, AAC, extended time, patience, teamwork.

Back to Adam…he is partially verbal and this is growing every day now as I watch him also grow taller. He is enabled more as he types a first word which seems to prompt the rest of his sentence. Some days he’s more chatty than others, which seems to be common for many partially verbal autistics. Through patience and repetition, Adam has begun to take care of himself. Adam can talk on the phone a little longer, dial his grandparents, get dressed, brush his teeth, and ask me where and what questions verbally, that is, on the more verbose days. I guess I’m saying this for all the years of misunderstandings by parents that autism acceptance means just letting a child sit around all day and do nothing. This to me is also an ableist concept which presumes that autistic people can’t do anything at all when the truth of the matter is that everyone has a different situation and we address each child uniquely and with respect.

I think many teachers and coaches have enjoyed their own teaching successes with him. I also think parents must work harder to readjust their expectations to support education and inclusion. Teachers cannot succeed if we have unreasonable expectations of normalcy and, as parents, we should be startled at this word as it discriminates our families. As we accept this we should also not accept the unfair exclusion and segregation of autistic children and the lack or regard for their education! In this, education will also have to adjust and I expect it will as computerized learning is becoming more popular – where children can be taught online and monitored and facilitated when needed. The potentials of the Internet and computers have not yet been fully tapped and could change the face of individualized education as well as citizenship. As commerce takes place online, we are also looking to the Internet for online voting – the last bastion, arguably, of citizenship. It was Singer (1999) who said “[t]he impact of the Internet on autistics may one day be compared to the spread of sign language among the deaf (1999:67). Alas, however, let’s not segregate autistic children into a room full of computers. We all need human interaction. Also we need to consider this by Alison Sheldon (2004):

“There is a small but growing body of work within disability studies that emphasizes technology’s ‘double-edged nature’ (Oliver, 1990) and stresses that it can be ‘both oppressive and emancipatory, depending on the social uses to which it is put’ (Gleeson, 1999:104).” (Sheldon, 2004: 157).

Sheldon suggests that some of the barriers to access include its cost. “We must not be distracted…into denying the socio-structural origins of the problem. Access to technology is not simply a technical issue with technical solutions. The inaccessibility of technology is just one more symptom of disabled people’s continuing oppression.” (157).

Also, to balance this drive towards access to technology, Sheldon states:

“…in the current political climate, the increased use of Internet technology as a means of disseminating information may have adverse effect on other means of information provision. The unconnected majority of disabled people may find that accessing information (and indeed other consumer goods) in traditional ways becomes even more problematic as these facilities become available online. Thus, the Internet is not a panacea that many suggest. There is still a need for appropriate and accessible information to be disseminated to disabled people in other ways, or the disabled community may simply become yet more polarized.” ( 157).

As I suggested when the iPad became popular for autistic children in schools, we cannot expect it to replace teachers, parents, the knowledge to teach autistic people how to communicate by AAC and/or supported typing. Technology should not become another means to segregate.

Finally, to end today’s ramble, it’s time for us to reconsider the spectrum concept. It’s based on a hierarchical system of who is better functioning which is discriminatory in so far as it implies whose life may be more valuable than others. It effects the way we educate, include or exclude, and keeps autistic people from obtaining fair treatment and equality of well-being. And, after all, none of us can predict the future and autistic people do not “fit” neatly into the high and low functioning paradigms.


Sheldon, Alison.(2004). Changing Technology. Disability Barriers – Enabling Environments. (John Swain, Sally French, Colin Barnes, Carol Thomas, eds). Sage Publishing.

Singer, J. (2003). Foreward: Travels in Parallel Space: an invitation, in Miller, J.K. (ed.) Women from Another Planet: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism. IN: Dancing Minds, pp. xi-xiii.


About Me


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