My Imaginary Ancestor

Preface:  My mother has been tracing our family’s history for many years now.  Many of our ancestors on her side of the family were German and wrote in German script.  She has been painstakingly translating the letters they wrote and kept.  During our recent vacation my mother told us about some of our ancestors and the lives they led.  All of it was fascinating.

This morning I asked Emma what she wanted to write about.  Emma typed, “I want to write about recent stories heard.”  I said, “Okay.  What do you mean by that?  What recent stories are you referring to?”  Emma then typed the following story.

 “I will write about an ancestor who is imaginary.

“Long ago in another era there lived a writer who did not think in words.  She was fiercely independent in an age when this was not viewed favorably.  She was believed to be peculiar and could not say what she thought as words escaped her, fleeing to dark, secret places out of reach.  The only way to capture the words was by writing them down, restraining them to the confines of a piece of paper.  This made her sad for the words that wanted nothing more than to run wild and free.  So she spoke and the words rushed out, but other people did not understand and thought she needed to be controlled.  She was my ancestor.”

 

Our Ancestors - Emma, Anina, Antonie and Marie

Our Ancestors – Top and going clockwise – Emma, Anina, Antonie and Marie

Science Lessons

This past month Emma has been having Skype calls with Dr. C. (PhD in bio-chemistry) Dr. C has been giving Emma science lessons three to four times a week and so far he’s covered cells, cell division, cell mutation, genetics, chromosomes, DNA, nutrition, ecological footprints, world population and so much more.  As we are now homeschooling having people like Dr. C., who volunteered to teach Emma science, has been invaluable. 

 Emma typed the other day that I should put some of the things she’s been learning on the blog.  I haven’t asked Dr. C permission so I cannot write more about their sessions other than to say they’ve been incredible.  Dr. C is a great teacher, is brilliant, passionate and has a great sense of humor.  What follows are two exchanges Emma recently had with him that were particularly great.

Regarding chromosomes:

Dr. C:  One pair is the sex chromosome and you, Emma, have two X chromosomes, while your brother, N. has one X and one Y.
Emma:  Poor N.

Regarding genetics:

Dr. C:  A brown haired mother mates with a blond haired father.  All of their children have brown hair, why is this?
Emma:  Dominant genes do not pay attention to prevailing standards of beauty.

August, 2014

August, 2014

 

Statistics and Parenting

Fear.  I have grappled with fear my entire life.  I’m 54 years old.   You’d think I’d have figured out a magic formula to ward off fear by now…  but I have not.  However I have figured out some things that used to frighten me, but that no longer do.  Things like this:

“Among all autistics, 75 percent are expected to score in the mentally retarded range on standard intelligence tests — that’s an IQ of 70 or less.” ~ Wired Magazine 2008

“Roughly 25 percent of people with autism speak few or no words.” ~ SFARI 2013

These two quotes had not yet been written when my daughter was diagnosed, instead there were countless other “statistics” spoken and/or written as though fact, that terrified me.  I had not yet learned to question everything we were told about autism.  I had not yet realized that almost everything people said to us about autism and our daughter would turn out to be untrue.  I had not yet understood that it was these types of things that caused me fear, not my daughter.

Often someone reaches out to me and they are filled with the same fear I once felt.  They remind me of all those predictions, the “statistics,” the warnings, all the things people said to us that caused me to stay up at night.  Terrified because the way autism was spoken of was filled with dire predictions, awful statistics, and because I did not yet know what autism would mean for my daughter.

It is one thing to read statistics that make you feel terrified and another to live with a person these statistics claim to represent.  A lived life, a human life, a living, breathing, feeling, human being who also has fears and thoughts and desires.  So many parents need help figuring all of this out so they can help their children flourish.  Parents who hear and read all the terrible things people say about autism and Autistic people and then are faced with their child and find all those things being said distance them from the genetically closest human being they will ever experience in this life.  (This was something Emma wrote to her brother not so long ago – “the one closest genetic person to you.”)

Statistics do not help us parent better.

One of the single most important things Richard and I began doing was to talk to Emma as though she understood, even when we were not sure she did, even when she walked away, even when she seemed uninterested, had her back to us, closed her eyes, said words that seemed completely unrelated, wandered off to some other part of the room, even then, we kept talking to her, including her in whatever conversation was going on.  And now.  Now we are so glad we began doing that, because, as it turns out, we were right, she understood it all.

She understood it all.

August, 2014

August, 2014

Another Year…

It’s been eleven days since anything was posted on this blog, the longest stretch, in the more than four years of its existence, that it has lay dormant.  It was not intended, but instead just happened.

This has been a year of incredible transformation…  I’ve turned a year older today and yet see how much there is to still learn.  Learning and traveling…  nothing makes me feel more alive, more happy, more eager.  And because of my daughter, I am learning more than I ever believed possible.  But that is for another post(s).  Today…  today is a day I am celebrating my family, friends and beautiful life.

Coyote looking back at us with the same curiosity we were viewing them.

Coyote roaming the ranch, looking back at us with the same curiosity we were viewing them

Heading out on a hike

Heading out on a hike

One of a number of bucks who hang around the barn...

One of a number of bucks who hang around the barn…

Sunset - The Rocky Mountains

Sunset – The Rocky Mountains

A rare photograph of  Richard and Ariane together as Ariane is usually behind the camera and not in front of it… Photograph taken by John Kelly.

A rare photograph of Richard and Ariane together as Ariane is usually behind the camera and not in front of it…
Photograph taken by John Kelly.

Wishing all of you a wonderful day.

More will be revealed…

The Seduction of “Recovery”

Perhaps the single most insidious and ultimately destructive promise during those early years after my daughter was diagnosed was the idea of “recovery.” There were a multitude of different diets, the gluten-free/casein free diet and the GAPS diet, that some said had “recovered” their child, making them indistinguishable from their peers.  There were the bio-med treatments ranging from daily B-12 shots, hyperbaric chambers, ointments applied topically, vitamin supplements, chelation, homeopathic and naturopathic remedies to stem cell treatments.  There were the therapies that made up the center piece of books claiming full recovery and the many doctors and specialists who supported them.

In the beginning we were terrified.  I still remember that feeling.  The nights of not being able to sleep, staring at the ceiling and worrying only to finally slip into a semi-conscious state of fitful sleep.  The next morning, there were often those first 60 seconds upon waking when I’d forget the worries that had kept me up. Then reality would come rushing back and it was like being thrown into a bottomless pit of worry, stress and terror.   The fear was relentless and was fueled by just about everyone we came into contact with.  Our child was far too young to have predictions made about her future, and yet people made them and all of them except those stories of “recovery” threw me into further fear.

People compared her neurology to cancer or Parkinson’s and likened the various therapies and treatments to chemo; a necessary horror that no one enjoyed, but that must be done.   And I believed them.  I had to save my child.  I would do anything to save my child.  Various things were deemed more acceptable than others, but dig deep enough and you can find any number of people, doctors and specialists who swear by whatever it is they believe will transform a child who does not speak, who seems so frustrated and unhappy into a speaking child who is no longer in pain.  Had this not been the case, had they not claimed complete “recovery” we would not have subjected our child to any of it, but instead, we tried all of them.

So much of what we were told seemed to coincide with what we were seeing.  My daughter could not use spoken language to speak.  She seemed to be in almost constant internal discomfort.  She cried, gut wrenching screams of pain, regularly.  Her sleep was erratic, her behavior confounding, her distress with things I couldn’t understand seemed constant, her inability to communicate what was going on made it all the more confusing.  So many of the professionals we took our daughter to seemed convinced that their treatment or remedy or whatever it was would be the thing that changed everything.  I desperately wanted her to not be in pain.  I desperately wanted her to be able to communicate.  I wanted nothing more than to ease her frustration.  For years I never thought – perhaps everyone is thinking about all of this wrong.

So on one hand we were introduced to autism as a horrible thing, but that there were people and things that could “treat” it and if we were lucky she could “recover” and on the other hand we were told no one knew what caused it and there was no cure. It is this, seemingly two opposing thoughts, that many parents are introduced to.  It is no wonder so many choose to believe the former and not the later, even when, in doing so, we head into a labyrinth from which there is no end.  The third idea, that this is a different type of neurology and to compare Autistic neurology with non autistic neurology is detrimental to all involved and to suggest that one neurology can be trained to become a different one is not only an unachievable goal, but an unworthy one, was not introduced to us until much later.

There is nothing quite so awful as to see your child through the lens of those who are seeing nothing but deficiencies, challenges and problems.  Assumptions are made about intelligence based on tests used for a different neurology.   I often wonder what we would have done had we been introduced to Autistic people who didn’t use spoken language, but who typed to communicate.  Would we have been so frantic?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that rethinking everything we once believed, refusing to submit to the idea that autism is the source of all that is wrong, seeing how non autistic neurology has its own set of deficits and challenges, and finding a way for our daughter to communicate has changed everything.  If we spent even a small percentage of the money currently being spent on autism and autism research, on finding better ways to support our non-speaking kids so that they too could communicate using stencil boards, letter boards and typing keyboards, at least some of the panic many parents feel would subside.

2005

2005

An Erratic Life

Our lives seem to be particularly erratic these days.  We are homeschooling, trying to get some semblance of a routine, but that hasn’t happened yet.  I keep thinking it will, any time now… Each morning I wake up with a plan, fully intending for it to be put into action and assume everything will fall into place.  I’ve thought this since the end of May when we pulled Emma from her school.  At a certain point I may realize my plans will not be realized, at a certain point I may even stop making them, but I’m not there yet.

Meanwhile I’m trying to figure it out.  How is this going to work?  Why hasn’t the ceramics studio, where I’m hoping to get Emma pottery lessons, returned my calls?  What about swimming?  I’ve totally dropped the ball on setting up swimming lessons.  Then I spin off into a reverie about the word Schwimmen, which we’ve recently learned is the German word for swimming and why it is that in German all nouns are capitalized, and the stress mounts.

My latest brilliant idea is that yoga is the answer.  I hate yoga.  An emoticon does not exist for the expression on my face when I think of yoga.  I am old enough to remember when yoga was a thing back in the 70’s. Perhaps this was my first mistake, thinking this latest craze would be similar.  As I have an inexplicable dislike for yoga it made perfect sense that I would go online to see if I could find yoga for the Wii.   Some things are better done in private I reasoned.  The only DVD I didn’t already own was more than fifty dollars.  No, I thought.  This is not the answer.  And then I had to have a serious talk with myself.  This is a pattern for me.  Looking for answers to things I already have the answer to.  Yoga is out, redialing that pottery studio for Emma is in…  Wish me luck.

pottery

Emma Interviews

Emma has been interviewing various family members.  So I wasn’t surprised when she wrote that she wanted to conduct another interview.  Except this time she wrote that she wanted to interview me.  This is part one of that interview…

Emma:  What sparks your imagination more? Words? Pictures? Music?

It depends on the situation.  I have been inspired and moved by all three at various times and can think of examples of each sparking my imagination.  If I had to put them in order of most moving and inspiring, I would have to say visual, whether experiential as in scenic or static pictures, painted, photographs, sculpture, visual art.  But even as I say this I’m thinking of music that has brought me to tears, and literature and poetry that completely captivated, even non fiction writing, particularly memoirs have completely enthralled me.  Each has inspired and sparked my imagination.  I don’t know that I can choose!

Emma:  Who do you wish you could have known and why?

My grandfather, your Great-Grandfather.  He is the one your granma, my mother speaks so highly of.   It would have been nice to have had the experience of knowing him.  He was also an extremely ambitious, smart and I’ve been told, fascinating man who lived a complicated and unusual life.  I would have liked the opportunity to have interviewed him the way you are interviewing me.

Emma:  What taught you more about life – notable happiness or terrible suffering?

In a strange way, both as they are both great teachers and I’ve experienced large doses of each.  I only wish I was a faster learner so the suffering didn’t have to go on for as long as it did.

Emma:  When were you decidedly happiest and when were you easily the most unhappy?

The most difficult time in my life was the years when I was bulimic.  I felt as though I was watching life pass me by as I remained stuck in my obsessive-compulsive addictive behaviors.  It was a terrible time of feeling I was betraying myself on a daily basis and couldn’t stop, though I wanted to more than anything. Sadly that period lasted for about 22 years.  That’s an awfully long time to be so unhappy.

This period of my life is by far the happiest.  I have learned and experience daily the power of gratitude, friendship, humility, family and the gift of giving back.  I am so grateful for the many gifts I’ve been given – Daddy, N. and you, extended family and friendship.  I have so much love in my life.  I am extremely fortunate.  Gratitude encourages misery to withdraw.  People say it’s harder to talk about unhappiness, but I have found the opposite to be true.  Misery came easily to me. Happiness I’ve had to fight for and once I caught slivers of it, I wasn’t willing to let it go.

Emma chose this photo of me to accompany her interview

Emma chose this photo of me to accompany her interview (I figure since I chose photos of Emma throughout her childhood, it is only fair that she now choose the photographs posted on this blog.)

The Messiness of Blogging

Years ago I wrote about the difficulties involved in writing a balanced and yet honest depiction of life.  I just reread that post and my first response was to delete it.  But as I no longer do things on this blog without asking Emma, I asked her if she wanted me to remove it and others like it.  She wrote, “no.”  So I’m leaving it, though, for the record, if this were left entirely up to me, I would delete it, along with a great many others where I detail personal things about my daughter without thinking about how she might feel having such information made public.  To be honest, I would delete the first two and a half years of this blog, just wipe the slate clean and begin with the spring of 2012 when I began to become aware of Autistic people who were writing about their lives.  But this blog is not mine alone.  This blog is a group blog, written by three people, one of whom has their name featured on it, Emma.  (Emma has said she likes the name of the blog and does not want it changed.)

A blog is a curated version of life.  We tell what we are comfortable discussing, what we are aware of and understand at the time of writing.  But when writing about others, particularly family members, things get trickier.  Even a year ago I wrote things I am not comfortable with, but as Emma wrote a few weeks ago, “it’s important to show that times were difficult.  It is still not easy at all times.”  Emma wrote this regarding another project, but when I asked her if her statement applied to this blog too, she wrote, “Yes.”  

My dilemma in continuing to contribute to this blog concerns that difficult balancing act of writing about the things I am learning, processing and thinking about, while being respectful of other members of my family and not writing in a way that suggests I speak for them.  Even so, I am not always successful.  But more and more there’s a great deal I don’t write about.  If Emma is going through something that causes her pain, I no longer feel comfortable writing about it, even from my perspective unless she asks me to.  I argue that a certain amount of self censorship, particularly when done to protect the confidences and security of others, is not necessarily a bad thing.

The only time I’ve posted things that are personal and painful are when Emma has written, “Put this on the blog.”  Or when I’ve asked her, “What do you want to talk about?” And her response was, “I want to write a blog post.”  But these omissions, this version of life that I do feel comfortable enough to discuss here, cannot, by their very nature, give a true picture of our lives.  So for some, it may seem our lives are ideal, or some readers may mistakenly think we never struggle, or perhaps these posts give the impression that we live a pain-free life of nothing but joy and ease.

Blogging is an intimate and immediate form of writing.  Those of us who blog are far more available to those who read what we write than other people who write. Anyone can make comments and most bloggers, even those who do not or rarely respond to comments, read what commenters have to say.  It is part of what makes blogging unique, and to me anyway, particularly compelling and interesting.  Comments from others, whether they agree or not, are fascinating, often thought-provoking and some even make me reconsider what I believe or how I think about something.

Blogging is the reality TV version of writing.  But even so, there is more left on the editing room floor than gets seen.  It is the nature of the beast.  Life is far too complex and messy, particularly when it is four lives or five, if one counts our mischievous kitty, to capture in 800 words or less, even when posting Monday through Friday.

WhiteWaterRafting copy

Alone? Frightened? Worried?

“No one knows how to help us.”  This was what I once said to my husband.  It was many years ago.  So many, I no longer remember the year.  Along with that realization was this one – “We are in this alone.”  And while, at the time, that thought terrified me, it was the beginning of finding another way.  It was the moment when I realized all these people we were looking to for guidance, didn’t know what was best for our daughter, even when they believed they did.

In the beginning we were told how fortunate we were, our daughter was “mild” we were told and if we followed their advice – an aggressive implementation of ABA, Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy – she would be in a regular classroom by the time she entered kindergarten.  She was still two years old when she was diagnosed and we knew nothing about autism.  We did as we were told.  We were assured she would “skyrocket.”  We fought to increase the hours of therapy, we went to the team meetings, we took notes, we learned how to “play” with her using ABA’s techniques, we monitored her and kept charts.  We filled notebooks with our observations and we waited for her to “skyrocket.”

When she turned three we enrolled her in an ABA based pre-school.  By the end of that school year I no longer believed all that I was being told.  The therapists were no longer assuring us she would “skyrocket.”  Now words like “red flag” were being used to describe her behavior.  She had “behaviors” and these were being pinpointed and noted with alarming frequency.  We were getting reports of non-compliance, an inability to “use her words” as though she was being defiant  and then she began to self-injure. No one understood why.  Everyone was baffled.

And now, so many years later, I look back on those years and it all seems so understandable.  They say hind sight is 20/20, that looking back we can easily understand that which was once incomprehensible.  I understand now.  We didn’t appreciate what was going on.  We didn’t think we understood our child, and for the most part we didn’t and we kept looking to others to explain her to us.  The explanations they gave us, we believed.  We thought, since we didn’t understand and they seemed sure that they did, they must be right.  It took several more years for me to realize they didn’t and they didn’t know how to help us or her either.  When the methods they believed in didn’t do what they believed should and would happen, they blamed us and they blamed her.

Emma continues to remind me that “regret is not needed” and she’s right.  I am working hard on that one.  I cannot describe someone else’s experience, I can only write about mine.  This was mine.  As the mother of a daughter who was once believed “mild” and later “moderate” and finally “moderate to severe” on autism’s vast spectrum, we have learned a great deal.  And while many may not derive any solace in what I’m about to say, I would have.  No one can predict what life holds for your two, three, four, five, six or seven-year old child.  No one can predict another’s future, there are too many variables.

That my daughter has some spoken language is, and was, the single biggest red herring for those who meet her.  It never occurred to us that all that speech therapy, focusing on spoken language, would ultimately be unhelpful.  I knew nothing of AAC  (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices or methods and as spoken language seemed to me to be the ideal, the idea of her using something else honestly never crossed my mind.  Why would I encourage her to use something else to communicate if she could speak?  When, after years of speech therapy focusing on spoken language, she still couldn’t have a conversation with us, our answer was to try more, push harder and it would come.

So many people ask what we would have done, knowing all we know now.  This is a question that is specific to my daughter, but I know there are other children who are similar as I’ve met so many of them.  I would not have waited so long to begin using other forms of communication.  In fact, this would have been the thing I would have concentrated on right away.  There is no evidence that using an AAC device will have a negative effect on spoken language acquisition, in fact there are studies showing the opposite is likely to be true.  Had my daughter been able to communicate at an earlier age, many things would have changed.  The most important one being that we would have understood much earlier all that she knew and understood.  This may strike some as a little thing, but I can assure you, had we realized this early on, had we believed this right away, it would have changed every single decision we then made.  Not to mention the massive reduction in our stress, anxiety and fear.

There is so much we are learning and still have to learn, but we are no longer alone.  We are surrounded by other parents, professionals, educators and, most importantly, people who share our daughter’s neurology, those who are Autistic and who continue to share their experiences with us so that we might better parent our Autistic daughter.  And of course, our daughter, Emma whose patience, love, wisdom and endless compassion is teaching us more than any.

 

One year after the diagnosis

One year after the diagnosis

A Researcher Asks…

I speak with a researcher who says, “we need to hear the pain and needs of the parents of individuals affected by the disorder.”  She goes on to say, “Nobody else can know better what the needs of the affected person are.”  “Oh,” I say, “how about speaking with Autistic people?”  Surely they know better than any what it’s like to have once been a child.  The researcher tells me this is not their focus.  I try to understand what I’m missing, what is the focus then?  I ask more questions.  I listen.  As I listen I am aware of my heart.  It feels louder, is that possible I find myself wondering.  Can one’s heart actually beat harder?  I decide this cannot be true.  I’m upset.  I know I become more aware of my heart when I’m upset.  I try to listen to her words, but I’m not able to hear all of them.  I know I’m missing some of what she’s saying.  I concentrate harder.  My throat constricts.  My stomach tightens, my face feels warm.

I try to make a few helpful suggestions based on what I hear her saying.  But she is not interested in suggestions.  I try again.  It is as though we are speaking two different languages.  I cannot understand hers and she seems unable to understand mine.  We are becoming exasperated with one another. I try to provide answers from my perspective, but this is not the focus of her research she tells me.  The needs of Autistic people are not the focus.  I feel some confusion.  How is this research?  How can one do research if the questions are already skewed?  Isn’t research supposed to be unbiased?  Isn’t the point of research to learn more, to understand?  But we are trying to understand, she tells me.

We are circling each other with growing wariness.  The conversation began one way and somewhere it took a turn.  I’m trying to both back track to see where it changed from cordial, curious and open, to distrust, while also still listening and trying to understand what this research is meant for.  My daughter is behind me.  She drifts past where I’m sitting and stops.   She is looking up toward the ceiling, her head slightly cocked to one side.  I know she hears this conversation.  I know she can feel my growing tension.  “I’m just going to take this call into the other room,” I whisper to her.  I go into the other room and shut the door.  I don’t want my daughter exposed to more of this.

The constant barrage of words – Disorder.  Pain.  Afflicted.  These are the words the researcher uses.  These are the words, like a never-ending eddy threatening to pull my daughter down.  I once used these words too.  I once said things to others in front of her.  “You walk forward and not backward,” Emma wrote the other day.  Just before that she’d written, “…regrets are not needed.”  I owe this to her.  I must move forward and not backward.  Regret, like those words, pull me down.  I have made a commitment to become more aware of my regrets and to not allow them to keep me stuck.

I become aware of the researchers voice again.  She really wants to know, she says, about the pain.  And I lose my patience.  I tell her no one would dream of asking me this question regarding my non autistic child.  I tell her that if she is interested in understanding Autistic children, she should ask Autistic adults to describe what it was like.  She says, “Well, if you’d like us to speak to your daughter we can certainly do that too.”  But that isn’t what I suggested.

My exasperation with her has now crossed over into anger.  She compares autism to Parkinsons and I’m furious.  “Let’s not do this,” I say.  We are practically competing with each other as to who can hang up faster.  I am madly hitting the red button on my phone to hang up, but it won’t disconnect.  This would be comical if I weren’t so upset.  I have a moment when I see the humor, but it’s fleeting.  I remind myself to come back to this feeling.  Finally I stand there looking at my phone and I feel utterly defeated.  This was an opportunity to offer another point of view and I failed.  Miserably.  I go out into the other room, where Emma is listening to music and dancing.  I watch her, marveling at her beauty, her grace, her joy.  In contrast, I’m a churning mess of anger, indignation, sadness and upset.

“We are interested in the needs of the parents,” the researcher said.  More accurate information, unbiased research, questions that are not skewed to get a particular response, training that would have helped us support my daughter to communicate through typing at an early age, removing the emphasis on spoken language, abandoning functioning labels, showing me that my neurology has deficits too, that we have devised a society skewed to accommodate non autistics who use spoken language to communicate and how that benefits those of us who speak and aren’t Autistic, but hurts those who are, helping me understand that we have set up our schools to segregate a population that should be included and not excluded.  My needs?  Change the way autism is viewed and spoken of and my needs will dramatically decrease.  Help me navigate parenting an Autistic child by giving me access to Autistic people and culture.  Show me others who are parenting with love, compassion and complete and utter respect for their child.  Most of these are things I’ve found for myself, but what a wonderful difference this would have made earlier.

Research

 

Presuming Competence – Revised

Over the past few years I’ve written about presuming competence as I have come to understand it, ‘here,’ ‘here,’ ‘here,’ and ‘here‘.  Over the years my definition continues to shift or, perhaps more accurately I should say, my ability to practice presuming competence continues to shift.  I still grapple with whether I am going far enough when I  presume competence, though the simplest definition, is also the best one, which is that we presume all human beings are capable of learning if given the right supports and accommodations.  But many want to know what that means for a specific person they know or are working with.  What are those supports and accommodations?

There are a couple of universal things I have found extremely helpful.  (I’m hoping others will add what they’ve found universally helpful as well as specifics that may be particular to just one or two.)  The first is being respectful of the person and speaking to them as one would speak to any human being regardless of whether they use spoken language or not.  It may take some getting used to, because unlike someone who uses spoken language easily, you may not get a spoken reply, or you may get a spoken response that you cannot make sense of.  Either way, I have found, speaking to my daughter (and I’m now talking about before we knew all that she knows and before she was typing with us) as I would any person her age, was critical.  Explaining to her what was going on, what was going to happen next, what we would do if something we expected to happen didn’t, and including her in any and all conversations that were taking place in her presence, has been key.

In situations where a meeting is occurring, as might happen during an IEP meeting at school or with a team of therapists or with a doctor and nurse, I have found the single best thing I can do is include her in the conversation.  (I have made many mistakes over the years, so please do not interpret this as my suggesting I do all of this perfectly without ever stumbling along the way.)  So, for example, when we arrive at the place we are having the meeting, I will speak to her as I would anyone her age.  I will ask if she’s comfortable in a particular chair or if she’d prefer sitting in a different one, perhaps away from direct light, or one that might have a cushion.  Today I always sit to her right so that I can hold her keyboard for her as she types.  I make sure she knows why we are all gathered.

If others begin to speak about her (as they almost always do and will) I will then politely remind them that she is right here and has no issues with her hearing.  Emma wrote during one such meeting, “My hearing is excellent.”  These days I hold the keyboard for her to write questions she may have or to add whatever she might like.  As Emma now types with us daily and is more used to this, she will often initiate a question or comment without me asking her if she wants to add something.   But in the past, if the people at the meeting continued to speak about her as though she weren’t present or seemed completely confused by my insistence on including her, (which many undoubtedly will)  I might then say something about how hurtful and disrespectful it is to be spoken of in this way and that I’d appreciate it if they would rephrase their language.

If the talk becomes an endless list of deficits I would ask them to identify her many talents and assets and point out that constant criticism is unhelpful and destroys self-confidence and self-esteem.  If they are silent (as has happened to us in the past) and seem incapable of naming any assets, I would give them a few opportunities to learn and do better, but at a certain point, professionals should be held accountable for what they are doing and how they are behaving.  If after several opportunities, they continue to disregard my daughter and seem incapable of treating her with respect and seem convinced that she cannot understand, they do not deserve to be paid for their “services”.

Another helpful tool is a yes/no laminated card.  I used to carry one or several around with me and would ask Emma to verify any yes or no question, because she often says “yes,” but means “no”.  I found that what she pointed to with the laminated card, was almost always correct, while the spoken answer wasn’t as much.  I have since seen iPhone and iPad apps that people use, which are almost exactly the same as the laminated card I once used.  A friend of mine holds up her index fingers from each hand and says, “yes” and gestures with the one index finger, or “no” and then gestures with the other index finger.  I remember being shocked that this simple method could produce accurate answers and yet it did.  Obviously if there are profound physical issues, this may not be possible, so the laminated card might work better as one can position it so that a large range of physical movement will not be required.

Yes/No

Yes/No

 

Parenting an Autistic Child

One of the most difficult things about being a parent to an Autistic child is the realization that almost everyone we parents come into contact with, when getting the diagnosis, have ideas about autism and what that means for our child, regardless if their ideas are based in fact.  So many people have theories and opinions about what autism is or isn’t.  There are endless charts and check lists meant to be helpful, yet they are all skewed and written from the point of view of a non autistic person or someone who uses spoken language to communicate.

Once you begin the evaluation process you are asked hundreds of questions.  Questions such as, “How many words does your child know?”  We answer these questions to the best of our ability and from the perspective that “knowing” means “speaking”.  Zero, or maybe five, ten, oh perhaps twenty, we say with wavering confidence and this answer is then noted.  “Does your child show interest in others?”  “Does your child engage in imaginative play?” We are asked.  And again, we do our best to answer honestly from what we’ve witnessed or believe we know.

But if we use spoken language, we answer these questions from the perspective of one who speaks, not from the perspective of one who does not.   The idea that someone might be unable to speak, but knows a massive amount and can learn to write to communicate or someone might have a difficult time translating words, whether written or spoken to match their non word thinking, is never brought up. As parents, we do not hear this idea voiced and yet it is crucial to our understanding of our child.  How different we might feel and understand our child if we were told that this may be our child’s experience of the world.  We could be told about the body/mind disconnect and how that might manifest itself.  We could be given the words of non-speaking children, teenagers and adults to help us understand.  Why are parents not being informed of this?

Instead your child is observed, notes are made and a diagnosis is given.  We parents are left with a word, laden with opinions, ideas, but few facts.  People talk about the “science” behind various “treatments” and we are told that the only scientifically proven method is x.  We are told that we must hurry as the window to help our child is quickly closing.  We rush ahead, madly, blindly, we do as we are told.  There’s no time to wait, to find other opinions, we must hurry, hurry.  We feel the guilt and the horror of not doing enough.  We must engage our child in a specific way.  We must urge them to complete puzzles and force them to play with dolls or farm animals, we give them treats so that they’ll comply, we buy play kitchens and a variety of toys and when they finally show an interest in one, we watch to be sure they don’t show too much interest.  Too much interest is a red flag, we are told.

When things do not feel right to us, we begin to do more research, looking for answers and we begin to form our own opinions about what’s really going on.  But for many of us we just feel terror and confusion.  Well meaning people give us advice.  We are sent links and the names of specialists.  Suddenly, many of us are deeply immersed in that surreal world of “alternative” medicine.  Each person we see speaks with the authoritative voice of someone who knows, who understands, who is convinced this will make our child “better”.  Yet few question what that word means.  What is “better” and what does “better” look like for my child?

The sinking feeling that something is terribly “wrong” embeds itself into every fiber of your being. Almost everything you read about autism confirms that sinking feeling.  This is a terrible thing that has happened.  It makes sense that  to you and your family, the focus is on “righting” what is wrong with your child.  A child whose life would be so much easier were they neurologically like the majority of the world.  But they are not neurologically like the rest of the world.   This one fact is overlooked as we continue to pursue all that we are told and advised to do.

How do we conceive of something we do not understand?  How do we see something we’ve not heard of or ever believed possible?  How can we understand a neurology that is so different from our own?  Autism.  What does that mean?  What does it mean for my child?  How do we support our children so that they flourish?  How do we best raise an intensely sensitive being who does not necessarily use words to think?  These are the questions I would like to hear educators, doctors and all those who feel they are experts answer.

The things that are being said, all those recommended check lists and the questions asked by all those autism organizations and experts are encouraging us to teach our children that they are the problem.   We are raising a population of children who are internalizing the awful message given to them…  Our children, who will grow up to be Autistic adults, are getting this message from almost everyone they come into contact with from the moment they are given the diagnosis.  It is a message that is hurting our children and hurts all Autistic people.  Our children, whatever their neurology hear it,and those who have internalized it may go on to deliver it too.  It is up to us to change the message.

Ask a parent what they want most for their children and most will say, “Happiness.”  Yet so much of what we are told about autism and our Autistic children is ensuring the opposite outcome.

"I don't want to talk about it!"  ~ One of Emma's favorite spoken comments

“Music is Language of the Soul”

A friend of ours sent us a link to a short piece about stuttering and singing as something that has proven helpful for some.  After Emma and I read the piece I asked Emma what she thought.  Emma wrote, “Singing is the only time words come easily.”

When Emma was very young many of her therapists would sing various songs to her, but usually repeated the same ones, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “The wheels on the bus” being the two that feature most prominently in my memory of that period.  I was curious about Emma’s memory about those songs and so asked her.

“The mistake people made was in not using music more.  Music was more beneficial than anything else,” Emma wrote.

“Even though you couldn’t articulate the few words you spoke back then, I’m talking about when you were just two and three years old, you loved singing and sang a lot.  Did you understand the meaning of the words of the songs you would sing?” I asked.

Emma wrote, “Yes.”

Did you purposefully choose songs that communicated what you were feeling?

“Music conveyed my feelings more than anything else.  I might feel something that no words can describe.  Music is the language of the soul,” Emma wrote.

Yesterday Richard, Emma and I were discussing consciousness, thinking and different ways of communicating our thoughts.  Emma wrote, “Can you think about how I sense the world and then try not to use words?  My pacifist’s stance is the only way.  Fighting requires words, pacifism does not.”

Richard then asked, “Are you saying that from your perspective you see all intelligence as being linked and one, and we, who use words, fight because we cannot see and understand this?”

Emma wrote, “You are trying to define knowledge and intelligence with inadequate words.  Intelligence is not word based.  Music and words used in song come closest.”

Summer - 2009

Summer – 2009

 

A Father’s Powerful & Extremely Personal Thoughts on Parenting

*This was what my wonderful husband, Richard, wrote as a comment on my post the other day.  I asked him if I could make it a post all on its own.  He gave me permission…

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

There are plenty of difficulties in life. Parenting is hard, but “childering” is harder. Parents usually have some experience in navigating the complex social expectations of the world. Children must gain that experience with each passing day, hopefully with the guidance, support and unconditional love of parents who put their children’s needs ahead of their own.

But there are a lot of parents who aren’t like that. Mine for example. I was taught from birth that my obedience and subservience were more important than my own needs and desires, or personal considerations. When I didn’t do what I was told to do, or didn’t do it fast enough with a “good attitude” I was yelled at. Punished. Spanked. Slapped in the face. Called awful names. Verbally abused. Degraded. Humiliated. And that happened nearly every day of my life until I left home at the age of eighteen.

My parents constantly reminded me how difficult I was to cope with. How hard I made life for them. If I would only try harder, work harder, move faster, then their lives would be so much better. Their lives.

Me? I didn’t really matter.

I waited a long time before becoming a parent. For years I swore I would never have children, perhaps because I was afraid I might behave like my own parents. And no child deserved that. When I met Ariane, something shifted monumentally in me, and I was suddenly eager to be a dad. I was 40 years old. Maybe I was finally emotionally mature enough to handle the enormous responsibility of parenting. I was ready to put someone else’s needs ahead of my own. Because for me, that’s what parenting is about. Service. My children don’t exist to fulfill my expectations, or make me happy. They exist in order to experience life and fulfill their destinies.

It is indeed hard to be a parent. I empathize and sympathize with all the parents who feel overwhelmed, who don’t have the resources or support to cope well with these tremendous responsibilities. I know life is hard for you. But trust me, no matter how hard you think you have it, your children have it harder. They sense your frustration, your discontent, your fear and panic, your anger and rage, your sadness and depression and hopelessness.

And quite likely, they feel themselves to be responsible. Maybe they are even told they are responsible. They feel guilt and shame. They try harder to make you happy. To not be so upset with them. Because they have learned–deep, deep inside–that they are “the problem.”

I’m talking about all children here, not just autistic children. For autistic children, multiply that angst level by a thousand. If you are autistic, you live in a world where so many people are telling you that you are broken, that you need to be fixed, that you need to be trained, conditioned to “act normal.” If you like to spin around over and over, or bounce, or rock back and forth, you are given the message, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, that this is “wrong.” And therefore, by extension, there is “something wrong with you.”

If you are non-speaking, or have difficulty with speaking, or with other physical issues, life is even harder, because you are being told that there is something REALLY “wrong” with you. Meanwhile, you’re trying to live in a world of “talkers” that constantly underestimate your intelligence and capabilities, who treat you like babies, who give you dirty looks, or tease you, or bully you.

You are put to “work” when you’re only two or three years old, or as soon as it has been decided that something is “wrong” with you. Early Intervention is required, in order that you be “fixed” and/or “rescued.” This is not optional for you. It is mandatory. You have no choice in the matter. And if you can’t speak, you can’t even complain. So it begins. The endless conditioning. The continuous demand to stop being who you are and “fit in.”

And nearly the entire world of medicine and science and education is conspiring to maintain the status quo of the deficit model. Autism isn’t defined by all its wondrous capabilities, but by what is seen as lacking. Autism Speaks continuously fuels the bonfire of “wrongness” with every dollar they spend.

And it has to stop. It is wrong. It is life-killing and soul-killing. And if you, as a parent, can’t see that this is the reality your children are living with every second of every day, you need to open your eyes and ears and heart.

I so wish it hadn’t taken me so long to wake up. I so wish that I could erase all the damage I did to Emma, like subjecting her to the torture of ABA when she was only two years old. But I can’t change the past. I can’t take it back. What I can do, is speak the truth of what I’ve learned to whomever is willing to listen.

My Beautiful Husband and Daughter

Richard and Emma – 2011

Insights From a Non-Talker: Emma’s Conversation With A Friend

The following is a conversation Emma, Richard and I had with a friend of ours who works at a school.  (DF = dear friend)  I have paraphrased DF’s part of the conversation because a) I cannot type as quickly as she speaks and b) she was thinking out loud at certain points, so I just wrote the gist of what she was saying. All of Emma’s words are what she typed.  Both DF and Emma gave permission to have their words posted here.  As Emma wrote – “People need to understand.”

DF:  I’ve been thinking about your presentation (click ‘here‘ to watch Emma’s presentation) and the body/mind disconnect that you talked about during your presentation last week.  I was thinking about being respectful and making faces back at you and I know you’re smart, but I was afraid that if you can’t control your body and don’t mean to make faces, is it disrespectful to make faces back?

Emma:  Making faces is fun communication in my chosen language.

DF:  Is it also the same for the words you sometimes use?  So, if you’re saying a word like “peacock”, is it respectful to repeat it back and play with words that way?

Emma:  Playing in all ways is my favored way of interacting with people even when they don’t speak silly.

DF:  Sometimes I feel bad because I want to ask you questions because I want to know you better, but I don’t want to ask because I know how hard work it is for you to answer.

Emma:  Talkers always want words, as though everyone stated exactly what they meant.

Richard & Ariane:  (we both asked similar questions, but in different ways, this is a combined version of what we asked) Emma, I’m curious…  when you say “peacock” sometimes you are singing in an operatic voice, but other times you are saying the word over and over while also saying “peek-a-boo” so I’m wondering are you mimicking the bird or are you playing around with the words, “peek-a-boo”?

Instead of pointing to the “y” or “n” for yes or no, Emma pointed to the letter, “w”.  This led to a quick back and forth between us, talkers, about how Emma rarely just answers yes or no when given the opportunity to, but instead writes much more.  I even then joked to Emma, “Em, that was a yes or no question.  You can just hit “y” for yes or “n” for no!”

Emma:  Word play is joyful and I think obvious joy is had with both associations.  Decision to sing while thinking about birds with peek-a-boo tail  feathers brings happy feelings.

Ariane:  Oh my gosh, Emma!  That’s so amazing.  The tail feathers look like hundreds of eyes and they are only fanned out at particular times!  So this wasn’t a yes or no question after all!

We then discussed peacocks, their beautiful plumage and how we often thought we were asking a yes or no question, only to realize how wrong this assumption is.

DF:  Okay, so here’s a problem that many teachers have at school.  A lot of times kids your age or older have fascinations with things that talkers think are inappropriate.  Things like a teenager who likes Teletubbies or wants to carry around a stuffed animal or wants to talk about Thomas the Tank Engine.  We want to be respectful and treat that kid like a mature teenager, but we don’t feel comfortable talking about Teletubbies or Thomas the Tank Engine.

Emma:  This is their fear of indulging a mind that they suspect is simple, but someone who is known to be brilliant would be thought eccentric.

DF:  Should I defend their right to explore their interest in school?

Emma:  Yes, expressions are not threatening and harm none.

*Quick aside – using interests as the gateway to other academics is how many homeschool/unschool .

Richard:  In the past, while watching you type, you’ve made faces at me and I’ve made faces back and was told not to do that.  But I’ve seen you making faces and you still are able to type, should we feel free to make faces with you while you’re typing?

Emma:  This is a difficult answer because I prefer to make faces, but I know how much you want to talk.

R:  What I meant was, do you enjoy having someone make faces back while you’re typing or would you prefer they did not?

E:  I would love to just make faces and not type.

*Another quick aside – so this is the ongoing struggle of all parents it seems to me.  It’s those grey areas when we ask our children to do something, even when they may not always want to.  For us, we put boundaries around typing sessions, so there is a clear beginning, middle and end.  As with most parents, we hope our decision is the right one.

Ariane:  Talk to me about when you say to guests, “good-bye”.  Often you say it shortly after they’ve arrived, sometimes immediately after they’ve finished dinner.  You can clear the room in seconds because they think you want them to leave.  But do you want them to leave?

Emma:  Saying good-bye to some is because I think they need to go, but other times I am sad and say it because I don’t want them to leave.

*Emma then made a sad face and pretended to cry.

Richard:  That’s a good face to make when you’re sad that they must go!

DF, Richard and I circled back to DF’s question about students who have interests in things that the non-autistic educators deem not age appropriate.

Emma:  It’s hypocritical though, because I was often given very young books, more suited for a toddler.

 

I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, "google - "talking" and then chose this.

I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, “google – “talking” and then chose this.