There were few things that led us more astray than the idea of autism being a developmental delay. Last week Emma wrote, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely.” I was reminded of this last night as I watched a video from 2006 when we took Emma, who was then four-years old, to meet the late Stanley Greenspan. (This post is not about Stanley Greenspan or his method. His name is brought up only because of the video that inspired this post.)
Watching that video last night was brutal. The private hell of regret is a cruel place to linger. Emma described her experience of watching the video last night as “wading into the marsh of worry and fear, but quiet love was there even when the days were dark.” In typical Emma-fashion she generously and compassionately reminded me that it was not all an unmitigated hell. Unable to communicate her complex and insightful thoughts with spoken language, she languished for years in an abyss of being constantly underestimated and misunderstood. Because people assumed she spoke what she intended and meant, she was penalized for the words she managed to utter. “Do you want to go fast or slow?” “Do you want to stop or go?” “Do you want to open the door or close it?”
Again and again the video shows us making assumptions about her actions. We assume she has no interest in engaging. We assume she doesn’t want to spend time with us. We assume she is “in her own world.” We make assumptions and we behave according to those mistaken beliefs. We believed each word was a milestone, paving the way for more language acquisition. We believed it made sense. Lay the foundation, create a strong base of words for more to follow… Use your words, use your words, use your words…
The assumption that her spoken language represented her comprehension and intelligence and therefore we needed to push for more was never disputed. This idea of a developmental delay bled into every single aspect of her being. It was believed that her speech was delayed, as were her fine and gross motor skills. Therapies were structured around this concept. All held the promise that if we did intensive, ongoing therapy she would one day, catch up, particularly if we did this during that brief window of opportunity, before she turned three, and then four, maybe if we were lucky, we hoped, the window would still remain open at five, what about six? At the time we didn’t question any of this. Had we known then that she probably already knew how to read, had we understood that what she said, was not representative of her intelligence or indicative of what she understood or knew, if we’d known that autism was not a developmental delay, but rather a “different road entirely”, it would have changed the path we proceeded down.
As it was, we did not know. We listened to the many professionals we consulted. Well meaning professionals, often incredibly kind and thoughtful, a few even brilliant, but none, not a single one ever mentioned the concept of a body/mind disconnect or how that might apply to our daughter. It never once occurred to me that maybe, just maybe what she said was not what she intended to say. It did not enter my mind that when she didn’t answer a question it was because she knew the answer, but couldn’t say the words, this thought, this idea was not something I even knew to consider. We would learn about all of this much, much later and when we did hear these ideas, it came from the most unexpected source – our own daughter, Emma. Not only was she the person we least expected to enlighten us, but she did so, not through spoken language, but by typing. Eight years ago, I don’t know that I would have believed any of this, let alone that Emma would write about all of this in such detail, as she has in these posts:
“Rethinking Your Beliefs About Autism”
When the Body Does not Obey the Mind
Parents who are just getting a diagnosis for their young children have so many more resources available to them than we had in 2004. The most important being, blogs written by Autistic people of all ages, non-speakers, speakers, semi-speakers and everyone in between. It is the writings and friendships I now am fortunate enough to enjoy, that have helped me more than anything else. One day I hope the professionals parents are introduced to will be Autistic professionals.
My friend Bridget of the blog, It’s Bridget’s Word said to me, “The ‘delay’ concept is a trap. Development is not linear no matter how many folk whose livelihood depends on timetables try to make it.”
Cynthia Kim, author of Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate , I Think I Might be Autistic, the blog Musings of An Aspie and owner of StimTastic said, “That waiting to catch up feeling is so insidious and one that I subconsciously lived with for a long time.”
My friend Ibby, educator and author of the blog, Tiny Grace Notes, who is like family to me, said, “Speaking now as an education professor: “developmental delay” is an actual category under the IDEA which is not allowed to be used after the age of eight. The purpose of it was to give people with conditions in which they might “catch up” a chance to do so, and the doctors more time to pinpoint their diagnostics if not. If you look at the lists for most states of what conditions might cause “developmental delay” to be diagnosed before age 5 (as it has to be in most states) it makes some sense as being this sort of thing. Autism is not a “delay” but a condition causing atypical (as opposed to delayed but still on the same track of typical) development.”
Ibby added, “In short, this is not only dangerous and unhelpful but technically ignorant even if separated from the consequences.”
So what are the consequences of believing autism is a developmental delay?
Well, for us it meant constantly comparing our daughter to her non autistic peers (using their development, and not hers, as the ideal). It meant pursuing all kinds of therapies that never questioned the push for spoken language. It meant not considering AAC devices, because she “had language.” It meant encouraging my daughter to “use your words.” It meant asking her to focus on things that made it impossible for her to concentrate on what was being taught. It meant looking at her through the lens of deficits, so much so that they became blinders shutting out everything else.
There are so many things Emma can do, that I cannot. Her mind, as she so beautifully described it, is a “wonder, channel changing, multi-screened on fast forward” thing of beauty that defies all limits placed upon it. My daughter amazes me every, single day. As always, Emma said it best and it bears repeating, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely” and what an amazing road it is!
Emma – 2006