Category Archives: language

How we Communicate – A Podcast

*This was an assignment for English Composition to create a podcast about something you care about.  This is mine after many revisions and incorporating notes from my teacher.  A written transcript of the podcast is below, but if you can, listen first!


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Emma – 2016  Photograph by Pete Thompson

This voice?  The one that you’re hearing read these words?  Yeah, that one.  It isn’t my voice.  It’s my mom’s.  You’re probably wondering why a teenage girl would want her mom to read what she’s written.  In my case, it’s because I can’t read what I write out loud.  There’s not a direct line between my brain and my mouth.  It’s more like an elaborate maze.  I can’t speak so people understand what I mean.  If asked a question, my mouth says things that do not answer the question.  My brain doesn’t think in words the way most people’s do.  Names of things and people get handed to me instead of the words that would make sense to the person questioning me.  Sometimes I blurt out whole sentences from another time in my life.  (Emma’s voice) “I bounce a balloon to Emma.  I bounce it back to me.”  They may be images that remind me of the person I’m with or where I am, or words I’ve heard spoken by others, things that get caught in my mind, or unrelated scripts, but that convey the exact emotion I’m feeling.  (Emma’s voice) “No more ice skating.  Ice skating’s gone.”  In any case, what I manage to say usually baffles the people I am speaking to, causing them to misunderstand me.  Not being able to speak what’s in my heart so that others are able to understand can be challenging, but I can type things that I cannot reliably say.  There are computer generated voices that say the letters as I type them and sound like this – (Computerized young girl’s voice) “I am your friendly computerized female voice.  I sound like I’m maybe five years old.”  (Another computerized young girl’s voice) “Or I can sound like this and pretend I’m British.  But yeah, it’s just not me.”  Or I can sound like this.  Okay it’s not my voice, but with some direction, Mom sounds better than a computer.

Imagine for a minute that you can’t talk to people in any way that makes sense to them or you.  Imagine if every time you opened your mouth to speak other words tumbled out.  If you are like me, you might get used to not answering people’s questions or being able to stay on topic.  So what would you do?  How would you interact with people?  Would you ignore their questions?  Pretend you didn’t hear them?  How would you express yourself?  Maybe you would try to connect with scripts you’ve memorized, things you’ve heard other people say in similar situations or maybe you’d find non-word based ways to communicate.  That’s what I do.

(Sound of footsteps, people talking and the subway)

Sound is everywhere.  I don’t have a filtering system marking one particular sound as more important than another.  Can you understand what I’m saying right now?  Mom had to raise the volume of her voice so that you could hear it above all the other noise.  My brain doesn’t do that.  It hears all sounds equally and does not discriminate.  But some people’s voices are not as dramatic to my ear as the honking of a horn.  I love the sound of honking horns.  (Horns honking and traffic noise)  Favoring some sounds dilutes others, but music has the best sounds of all.  (Body Knows Best – Anya Marina)

Music is my first language.  It is a friend who loves me unconditionally.  It’s there when I need it and does not shed a tear if ignored for some time.  Music is a positive force as it stands by my side.  I like hearing the same melodies repeated and did so even when I was very young.  It’s been a comfort to me as long as I can remember.  Music grounds me and plays a huge role in seeking my creativity as it allows me to perform as I choose to.  It’s a way to communicate; it gives me hope, tells me I am not alone and inspires me to create.  Though people respond differently to music, I believe there are always emotions involved. Music has the ability to transform my fearsome thoughts laden with anxiety and stress.  (Music fades out)  It calms me and this has been the case throughout my life.  When singing lyrics I stumble and have trouble articulating the words, (Lose Yourself – Eminem) but I can remember the sounds I hear and recreate them with my voice.  When I sing I am not apart from, but instead am part of.

Music can be both private and public, but it needs to be loud.  (Music gets louder) No one composes music in a whisper.  My body needs to feel the beat so that I can be consumed by it.  (Volume increases steadily and then fades)  When that happens I become part of the music, like another instrument or an extension of it.  I jump and dance and move.  My arms swing or are raised up and my head bops, my whole body keeps time to the beat.  I’m transported to another reality and it is in this alternate reality that I am most happy and comfortable.

At home my need for high volume can cause problems because the members of my family have differing sensory needs that come in direct conflict with mine.  (Heartless – Kanye WestMy older brother has to have music as background, while I perform alongside, so it makes sense for mine to be public and his to be private.

(Emma’s brother)  “Yeah I think it’s totally fair that you’re able to use the living room.  It’s not like you play bad music or anything.  If you played music I didn’t really like, I’ll just shut the door and go in my room and hang out.”

My mom and dad both work at home and need quiet in order to concentrate.  I am told to wear headphones, which encumber my movement and dilute my experience.  My family has worked out a solution that allows me to commandeer the living room in the evening.  For several hours I am blissfully able to indulge my love of loud music and dancing while my brother stays in his room or hangs out with my parents in theirs.

Until about a year ago I didn’t know the joy of creating music.  Until then I was an audience member, but not a participant.  My parents encouraged my love of music and hired teachers to help me expand my interests.  Guitar is beautiful to listen to, but it is difficult for my fingers to recreate the sounds flowing through my mind.  Piano is also hard and requires dedication and lots of practice, but I think it’s a better fit for me.  Singing is easy and my lack of inhibitions, great sense of tone and ability to mimic sounds I hear makes it the best choice of all.   Eliot is my piano teacher and Karen is my singing coach.  Eliot came first.

(Eliot) “Emma has a great ear.  She can learn to sing new melodies really quickly and accurately.  Recently she’s been listening to the car horns outside and sings their exact pitch.  Emma is a fun, expressive and creative singer/performer.  She brings a lot of life, passion and feel to the material.”

Karen came next.

(Karen) “Emma has really great pitch control.  She knows exactly how the melodies go whether she knows the words or not and she makes it a real point to study each specific thing that happens in the song and can honor each thing in the song by movement and she can also emulate the sound really well as far as consonants and vowels.”  

(Gimme Resurrection – Anya MarinaKaren and I have great fun together.  I feel at ease in her presence, which is important when you are learning new things and trying to be creative.

Eliot and Karen have taught me to be patient with myself.  From them I have learned how hard it is to become masterful and yet I’ve decided it’s better to love the process of learning as much as the final product.  Communicating isn’t just talking, it’s developing a connection with another.  Music connects us all.  I wrote these lyrics and composed this melody, so this voice?  Yeah, this one’s mine.

Emma sings Over and Coming
Eliot Krimsky on keyboard

The girl’s going in the bed
the girl is going inside
the girl is going outside.

Who is this girl I see?
Who is that girl I see?
Watch careful-ee-ee-ey
Listen to me-ee-ee

Over and coming and over and coming,
over and coming and over and coming

Go, go, go,
go, go, go,
go, go, go, go

Go, go, go,
go, go, go,
go, go, go, go

Find a way
to seize the day
Dare to be the leading girl!

The girl walks out the door
the girl walks in the door
the girl is a teenager.

I am the girl you see,
I am this girl you see,
Do you believe in me?
Please do believe in me.

I’m ready to fly if you let me,
I’ll go
Turn up the music and
just don’t say no.

Starting and going and starting and going
starting and going and starting and going
Starting and going

Do, do, do, do, do, do….

Beep. Leave a Message


Waiting for a message that cannot find its way

from brain to muscles

that connect to sounds we know to be

recognizable words with understood context.

They elude, slipping and sliding

they have no legs

slithering in the muck of misunderstanding

those words that manage to escape from my mouth are heard,

but baffle.


Battling it out for recognition are the silent thoughts that are not

“you need to take a turn to share

“you have to wait our turn

“you want to go fast?

“you have to share”

Words, words and more words.

She has language they say, but the language she shouts is not a language at all

buffering frustration, relieving anxiety, clouding meaning

I’d whisper if I could

but I can’t.


A Few Thoughts From Emma

“Today I will talk about the weather,”  Emma wrote.  Then she smiled and wrote, “That’s a joke.”

*Quick aside from Ariane.  Emma has referred to those who are well versed in cocktail party conversation as “weather talkers”.

“You’re funny,” Ariane said.

“Lean trains of thought provide rich moments of quiet peace.  Purposeful silence holds meaningful interconnection between like-minded souls.  Caring beings care in the silence as much or more as with words.   Now for a moment of silence.”

The view from the deck where we are staying

The view from the deck where we are staying

“Talking is Easy, But Saying What I Mean is Hard”

Most of us, who have spent our lives using spoken language as a way to socialize and convey what we are thinking, do not ponder what it would be like if we could not do so.  Most of us who are able to speak do not spend time imagining what it would be like if we could speak, but what came out of our mouths did not necessarily match what was in our minds, or wasn’t what we wanted to say, or was taken to mean something else.  For those of us who speak and have little difficulty having a conversation with another it is difficult to imagine what it might be like if we could not speak at all.  We easily tune out our environment allowing us to focus on what is being said by another person.  Asking questions comes naturally, and without thinking we ask for clarification about things we don’t understand or want to know more about.  When we cannot hear something or lose part of a sentence spoken by another, we ask to have the part we didn’t hear repeated, or request that it be said in a different way.  And even so people misunderstand each other all the time.

But what if we could speak only a little and those hard-earned words we finally managed to say were met with confusion, irritation, even anger and led to misunderstandings.  Or what if speaking words was so difficult it was easier to utter sentences constructed by others, sentences that held special meaning to us because it reminded us of a happy or sad or anxious or frightening time. Whenever one of those emotions surfaced, we would blurt out that sentence from the past, because it so beautifully captured what we were feeling now.  Maybe though, other people who did not understand or know the meaning they held for us, took them to mean something entirely different.

A blogger friend, E. of the fabulous blog The Third Glance wrote an amazing piece, Words, a couple of years ago about trying to participate in a conversation with a group of friends.  I’ve never forgotten that post, it was one of a number of posts that radically changed my thinking.  You can read it by clicking ‘here‘.  She describes wanting to keep up with a conversation that a group of people she knows is having in a busy place, while trying to filter out the noise that comes with being in a public place, the stress of trying to figure out when it would be appropriate to interject a comment, the pressure of knowing some sort of response is expected of her, and not being successful.

Yesterday Emma wrote, “Talking is easy, but saying what I mean is hard.”  I understand that when she wrote that, she meant it literally.  Emma “has language” yet cannot carry on a spoken conversation.  Emma cannot answer with spoken words questions like, “What did you do in school today?”  Or “What did you think of that movie?”  Or “Which student in your class do you like best?”  Or “What’s your favorite subject?”  Or even “What are the names of the other students in your class?” or “Where do we go to borrow books?”  As a result all those so-called reading comprehension questions are met with silence, or with words that seem to have nothing to do with the question asked.

The other person then draws the conclusion that Emma does not understand the question, or cannot read, or isn’t interested, or doesn’t care or is intellectually disabled, impaired, has a disorder, a disease, is afflicted, suffers from, is a puzzle piece, is locked in her own world or any other word or phrase used to convey what we believe to be true because of our understanding of her and those like her based upon what she can or cannot say with spoken words.  This is the same girl who wrote, ““I can’t talk the way I think.  Where is the label for that?”  The same person who eloquently answered questions about functioning labels, stimming and autism, ‘here‘, ‘here‘, and ‘here‘.

“Talking is easy, but saying what I mean is hard.”

Emma Playing the "My Mouth is Glued Shut" Game

Emma Playing the “My Mouth is Glued Shut” Game

The Problem with “Use Your Words”

How many of us have uttered those three words to our kids?

Use your words!

And yet, if your child is like mine, they probably do use words.  Perhaps they “script”, words we dismiss because we recognize them from a movie, or perhaps we hear the tone and recognize it as echolalia and therefore  ignore.  Maybe we think of the words as a verbal stim or maybe we hear that those words come from a teacher, the bus driver, another kid, a friend, us…  and again we dismiss them as meaningless.  But what if we are wrong?  What if all those words our kids are nobly attempting to use ARE communicating something, but it is US who cannot make the connection?  What if our kids do not learn language as we think of language being learned, but they are learning it, in their own way, on their own timeline?  What if all those words they keep using, the ones we are told to ignore or not reinforce by acknowledging, are HOW they are learning to speak?

I am currently reading Marge Blanc’s book, Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language
and these are but a few of the questions being answered.  One thing I have not yet seen or can find in this terrific book is any mention of Tourette’s.  I am curious to know the authors opinion on how Tourette’s factors into language acquisition or if it even does.  Marge, if you’re reading this, I’m hoping you’ll comment!

In those early, blurred years after Emma’s diagnosis I remember thinking that any language was good language.  And then my daughter began to say things, things I could not and did not understand and I was told, those are meaningless words, you must ignore them, you must not reinforce them.  But maybe, just maybe those words are the foundation for others that I and others will be able to understand at some point.  My friend Ibby, of the fabulous blog, Tiny Grace Notes, told me more than a year ago about the importance of not trying to do a word for word translation of the things my daughter said, but rather to lean into the words.  I couldn’t fully understand what she was telling me at the time, but slowly I have begun to.

Marge Blanc writes, “As we valiantly try to replace our kids’ echolalia, their natural language, we feel validated when they learn to say new things.  We teach our kids a dozen functional phrases and sentences and feel satisfied that we have taught “functional speech.”  The tragedy is that while IEP goals are met, children’s linguistic potential has been ignored – and undermined.  We have forgotten how to assess a child’s developmental language level and his capacity to develop generative language.  And we have also failed to consider that the functional phrases we’ve taught might actually interfere with his potential to develop language competence.  And in the process, the echolalia doesn’t go away.”

Now add to this idea the way we are taught to ignore those scripts, that we mustn’t give them any air to breathe as we will only encourage the proliferation of similar non “language.”  So we smile patiently and nod our heads and say…

Use your words.

But not those words.  Use these words.  The words I want to hear.  The words I am now going to repeat and have you say over and over with the hope that you will say these words, my words, in place of yours.  Isn’t that really what we mean when we say “use your words”?  Use words I want to hear.  Use words I give you, but don’t, please don’t use YOUR words.

Over a year ago I wrote about how Emma advocated for herself on the school bus.  You can read that post ‘here‘.  What I didn’t spend a great deal of time talking about was how she tried, repeatedly to “use her words” but was not listened to because they did not believe she understood what she was saying.  It was only after many attempts of using the only words she knew, “you’re going the wrong way!”  “Emma goes to a different school!”  and “you have to go this way!” that she began to scream and then bite herself and eventually punch herself in the face.  Even then, when she fell to the floor of the bus, refusing to get off, crying and hurting herself, even then they continued to not listen to the words she was saying and using and insisted she get off the bus.  It was only when one of the staff at her old school heard her and recognized her and thought to tell the driver that yes, she was correct and no longer went to this school, that she was on the wrong bus, it was only then that they dialed my number and told me my daughter was refusing to go to school, and as it turns out, rightfully so.  They had taken her to the wrong school.

When they brought her home she was devastated.  I will never forget the look on her face as she descended the steps of that bus.  Before her feet hit the ground I said, “You are so awesome Emma!  You told them this wasn’t your bus.   You told them they were going the wrong way!  I am so proud of you!”  Emma still talks about that morning, that morning over a year ago when she was “using her words” and no one listened.

Use your words.

Waiting for the school bus ~ October 2, 2013
*Em copy

Language Acquisition?

Yesterday I wrote about some of the problems inherent in asking children to read out loud.  You can read that post ‘here‘.  The comments have been uniformly terrific, extremely informative, and very helpful.  Ischemgeek wrote several comments that I’ve actually printed out and even copied and pasted into emails to a few teachers I know.  She wrote a terrific explanation and series of suggestions in answer to a question I posed asking for her thoughts regarding handwriting.  My question to her was slightly off topic from the original post, but if you read the comments you’ll see how the conversation evolved.

Another comment, from bjforshaw, reminded me of how when Emma was a baby she seemed to acquire two or even three word phrases (“chase me”, “go out”, “all done”, “play catch” “I donwannta”)  as opposed to individual words.  Bjforshaw wrote, “I dislike reading aloud because it is so different from the way I normally read and this makes it feel uncomfortable. My usual reading speed is fast, much faster than my speech, and I scan phrases, groups of words, even whole sentences. In contrast when I read aloud I have to plod along one word at a time.

When I read his comment I had one of those “light bulb” moments.  You know, where you think – wow!  This reminds me of this other, seemingly unrelated thing, I wonder if there’s a relationship?  So I went to the internet to see if I could find any articles on the topic of language acquisition, but haven’t found any dealing with babies learning whole phrases and chunks of words at a time.  Not only have I not been able to find any articles written on this topic, but I cannot find many articles written about language acquisition and autism, specifically, that aren’t more than ten years old, which I find baffling. If anyone has relevant links, please send.

I have no idea if, for some, language learning is similar to the way bjforshaw describes his ability to read, but I’m curious now.  Could it be similar?  Has anyone heard or read anything about this?  For those of you who read in chunks and not the individual word, do you know or remember whether you also learned to speak this way?  In other words instead of learning one word and then building upon that word, did you learn a phrase or several words together?  Could this also then be related to scripts? I’m thinking out loud here, but I’m wondering if scripts are meaningful because they are learned chunks of language that come to represent more than the literal interpretation given by those listening. Do the scripts carry more (hidden) meanings to the person saying them?

Thanks again to all who have commented, and to those who intend to, thank you in advance.

Em types for an audience in Tampa, April 2013Em types with Pascal

When We Say Things We Do Not Mean

Erratic speech.  Unreliable language.  These are all words to describe what many, like my daughter, experience.   Speech that does not represent what is meant,  but that people hear and make assumptions about the person based on what has been said.  Rosemary Crossley in her book, Speechless talks about nominal aphasia – “One of the familiar aftereffects of stroke, for example, is not being able to say what you mean.

Many years ago I became friends with a man who’d had a stroke, leaving him aphasic (meaning he was mostly unable to speak, though he understood what was being said to him.)  Every few months my then boyfriend and I would pick him up at his apartment and take him somewhere.  I don’t remember if he could type his thoughts, this was long before the advent of the iPad, and as he could not hold a writing implement, this was not something he did when we were together.  I do not remember him ever uttering a single word.  Prior to his stroke he had made a name for himself as an avant-garde theater director.  In the theater world he was thought of as a god.  After his stroke he went on to direct a number of works with many famous actors.  People were willing to believe he could not only understand what was being said, but that he had a great deal to say, even though he could not verbalize his thoughts.   His name was Joseph Chaikin.

For those who are Autistic and also have unreliable speech, people tend to take what they say at face value and believe their speech is indicative of their thinking and thought process.  Yet this could not be farther from the truth.  Many are willing to dispense with their disbelief when someone is famous and once spoke, but most are not as willing to believe when someone has word retrieval issues, that they are capable of more than what we hear them say.  “…children who have never been able to speak fluently have not had a chance to establish themselves.  They have not had the typical infant’s experience of controlling the world with their speech.” ~ Speechless by Rosemary Crossley

And as a result they also do not have the same types of interactions with others as those who have more fluent speech.

Because our judgments of intellectual capacity, both formal and informal, are strongly tied to speech, a child who says the wrong words, who gives “silly” answers when asked questions, is likely to be seen as stupid.  A child who can never find the word he wants, or a child who cannot make his tongue do what it should, can come to associate speech with tension, embarrassment, and failure.” ~ Speechless by Rosemary Crossley.

Children with severe speech impairments often develop behavioral problems. These may simply be a result of the frustration inherent in not being able to say what you mean, but this frustration may also be exacerbated by the reactions of the people around them.” ~ Speechless by Rosemary Crossley

One young man who had unreliable language and who Rosemary worked with typed, “I dont make sense and people think Im senseless.” Speechless by Rosemary Crossley

Typically, when someone speaks to us, we believe that what they say is what they mean to say.  We respond  accordingly.  When people tell me something Emma has said and how they don’t understand why she then became so upset because they were doing what she told them she wanted, I understand.  I understand how frustrating that must be, for her, for the other person, for everyone involved.  Emma does not have phrases like, “Oh I know the answer to that, but I can’t think of it just now” or “give me a minute, it will come to me” or “it’s on the tip of my tongue” or “I just had it, the word was right there” or “what’s the word, you know it sounds like ________?”  or “wait, I know this, I know this…” or any of the other things most of us say when we know something, but the words have momentarily escaped us.

Communication is not just speech and for some, spoken language is an unreliable method of communicating.  Finding a more reliable method then becomes essential.  For my daughter, typing is proving to be a far more reliable way to communicate.  And as it turns out, there are a great many others who are just like her.


Speaking vs Typing

At an Autism Conference last month someone asked my daughter “Have you ever been to Australia?”  Em immediately answered “Yes!”  Yet when this person held up a laminated card with two boxes, one red with the word NO and the other box green with the word YES and asked the same question, Em promptly pointed to the red box with the word “NO”.  When asked what she had for breakfast that morning, she answered, “Vanilla cake!” but when asked the same question and asked to respond by typing she wrote, “I ate cereal, toast and yogurt.”

Many people ask me why we are spending so much time and energy learning to support Emma’s typing.  The most common two questions I’m asked regarding this are – why do you need to support her at all when she can use her two index fingers to type independently  (I will write a separate post on that question) and why do you encourage her to type when she does and can speak?

Ironically I have yet to find accurate words to describe my daughter’s speech.  I’ve said things like, “Her speech is unreliable” or “She can use language, but it often does not reflect what she really means to say” or “When she types we get a more accurate idea of what she intends to say, wants, or is thinking.”  But I’m never sure people understand what I mean or if they do understand, whether it helps them when they try to talk to someone like Emma.  (I have since met a great many people who have some language, but it is “unreliable” in that they will say things that are not necessarily the answer they mean or the words they meant to say.)  Inaccurate speech is not because the person means to evade or is willfully not telling the truth, but is indicative of specific brain function.  Lots of speech therapy, concentrating on spoken language, did not help Emma.

By the way verbal scripts serve as a default and come into play often in context to what is going on, but sometimes they are triggered by a detail.  The script can appear to have nothing to do with the topic being discussed.  For example we had an electrical storm the other night which reminds Emma of the fireworks on both New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July.  Emma calls both firework displays and electrical storms, “thunder fireworks.”  She also calls rain storms and electrical storms, “firework bubbles” or “motorcycle bubbles”.  But if you didn’t know any of this and were with her when it began to rain, you probably would not understand the association when she said, “Ohhh, look!  It’s motorcycle bubbles!” and then pointed cheerfully out the window.

If I ask, “Em do you want to make vanilla cake?” Em will ecstatically respond, “Yes!”  She happens to love nothing more than vanilla cake with vanilla frosting.  I know this, no further questions are needed.  However, if I ask her, “Em what did you eat for dinner last night?” She might respond with, “Vanilla cake!” or she might respond with what she actually ate.  If I ask her why she was crying on the school bus, she might say, “You cannot scream!  You cannot scream and bite on the bus.  If you bite, no hitting!”  or some other equally cryptic answer that does not answer the question of why, though it does give me a good idea of what was said to her and that she became so upset she began to bite herself.

However if I ask her to type her answer, she might type, “A boy was scratching my seat.  I asked him to stop, but he kept scratching.  He made me mad.  The matron said, no kicking.  Emma’s sad, Emma bit her arm. I don’t like that boy.”  If pressed further, she will type his name and I will be able to tell the bus matron that Emma should not be seated near the boy whose name is X.  Problem solved.  The point is, when typing, Emma will write things she does not say. But to people who are unfamiliar with someone like this, they find it confusing.

When I showed Emma this photograph just now and asked, “what do you see?”  She answered, “Good!”  We went horseback riding while visiting my sister last week.  And it was.  It was “good!”

Horseback riding

Person First Language

I wrote yesterday about an evolving fantasy of my ideal introduction to autism and what that might look like.  Later I was asked privately about ‘person first’ language.  An example of ‘person first’ language is:  “My child has autism” or “She is a person with autism” as opposed to:  “My daughter is Autistic.” This topic comes up repeatedly so I thought I’d tackle it with a post of its own.  The current language used to describe autism and Autistic people, starting with the insistence among many parents, educational institutions and the medical establishment to use person-first language (read Jim Sinclair’s Why I Dislike ‘Person First’ Language),  is all about deficits, comparing Autistic neurology (inferior) to non Autistic neurology (superior) which is self-serving, biased and continues to further the general public’s misperceptions about autism and Autistic people.

Shame based language, the things we say because we don’t know better, because we’ve heard or been told it’s how, whatever the topic is, should be spoken of, is still shame based language.  For a long time I didn’t understand why person-first language was objectionable.  It seemed “respectful” to speak of the person first before adding their neurology.  Except that autism brings with it discrimination, prejudice, misunderstanding, assumptions about intelligence or a lack of, and so suddenly all those people who are being so careful to describe this person, whose neurology is “Autistic”, are actually implying that they think autism is something to be avoided, it’s something we pity, it’s something we’d like to be sure the person knows, we “understand” and are being careful to give them “respect” except we are doing exactly the opposite.  When we have no particular issue with some aspect of a person, we do not make sure they understand we are aware they are part of the human race.

I will always respect anyone’s personal preference, but in general, I will continue to use “Autistic” because I am not ashamed of my daughter’s neurology and I refuse to convey that underlying message of ‘less than’ inherent in ‘person first’ language.

Autistic perspective on ‘person first’ language:

ASAN – Identity First Language
Shaping Clay – Person-First Language Doesn’t Put People First, It Makes Them Invisibly
Autistic Hoya – A Second Argument Against Person-First Language
Radical Neurodivergence Speaking:  I don’t have autism.  I am autistic.
Amy Sequenzia – I am Autistic


“The Signs Of Autism”

When my daughter was diagnosed I heard all the autism statistics.  I read a great deal and I learned a lot.  But what I learned was not so much about autism as it was about non-Autistic perceptions of autism and what that meant to those who are not Autistic.  Non Autistic people tend to view autism with tremendous fear.  There’s so much we don’t know.   Non Autistic parents are left trying to sift through the opposing opinions about a child they may have a difficult time understanding.  Most parents deeply love their children and want what they believe is best for their child.  So when they see literature describing the “signs of autism” it looks scary.  The various “signs of Autism” do not bring them any closer to understanding their child, rather they serve as a critique.  Right away parents are shown how to view their child as less than, as not good enough, as “wrong”.

From the Mayo Clinic the first sentence under the heading “Symptoms” reads, “Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development – social interaction, language and behavior.”

If I had read this sentence upon receiving my daughter’s diagnosis I would have thought, okay, so how do we fix these problems, because  problems are to be fixed, right?   And though I did not read this exact sentence in 2004 when my daughter was diagnosed, I read a great many just like it.  I never once thought about the sentence and who was writing it.  I never once questioned it’s validity or examined the words being used.  It never occurred to me to read this sentence with skepticism and doubt.  It didn’t occur to me to wonder how my two-year old daughter might feel growing up in a society that believes the ways in which she interacts, speaks and behaves are viewed as problematic.  But I think about all of this now.  Not because my daughter is reading a sentence like this or because we are discussing things of this nature, but because I see everything regarding autism and those who are Autistic differently.  I am hyper aware of the judgmental and critical tone in almost everything to do with autism because I now know a great many people who are Autistic and they explain it to me.  I now know how offensive this language is and I understand why.

So let me ask all of you who are not Autistic this – how would you feel if you were described from the moment you were born as problematic?  How would you feel if you were taken from one doctor to the next, examined and criticized?  How would it affect you if you were told, “Stop looking at me when I speak to you!”  And then when you found that impossible, the person physically reached down and turned your head away so that you could not make eye contact.   How would you feel if you were paying attention and suddenly two hands grabbed your wrists and shook them so that  your hands flapped rapidly on either side of your face.  When you tried to pull away, you were told, “Move your hands!”  How would you feel if you were happily playing with your dolls and your parent demanded, “What are doing? Why are you making them interact that way?  Why are you trying to feed it?   You understand this is a piece of plastic and not real, don’t you?”

The point I’m trying to make, (probably poorly) is that almost all the literature about Autism is written by NON Autistic people and negatively compares Autism to a different neurology.  Is it any wonder parents feel so confused?  How is this thinking helping our kids?  How is it helping parents?


Islands of Words

In Judy Endow’s book, Paper Wordsshe describes the process she went through to communicate.  She writes about the “bridge pieces” or information storage system she experienced, “Then world-people might see the little bridge pieces stuck onto the sides of all these stone islands.  

“Bridge pieces just hanging there serving no purpose (other than to underline the fact that a bridge was meant to be there, but isn’t) little bridge pieces going nowhere with gray -matter   g   a   p   s    where the bridges should be.

“Perhaps then the world-people might come to understand that even though she may know all the info that’s needed to answer their question or to produce a reciprocal response to keep up with her part of their conversation, sometimes it takes a lot of her time to jump in a boat and float around in that gray-matter space of her mind floating in the    g   a   p   s     trying to find all the right islands of stone that might hold any relevant data pertinent to the subject at hand.

“Sometimes it’s a cumbersome task to access information in this manner and at other times it is downright impossible.”

Judy’s book is incredible on so many levels and I hope she will forgive me for butchering the placement of her words, because my blog would not allow me to replicate what she does in her book.  However, I will try to explain.  She literally breaks the sentences apart in meaningful ways.  There are the words she’s writing, but there is another layer of meaning to be gleaned from her words, and that is how and where she places the words on the page.  As an example of the above quote, these words are placed in such a way as to create islands of words, separate from each other and yet the meaning overlaps, but the placement of the words (the islands) do not.  This requires the reader to visually leap from one island of words to the next, just as she describes her thought process must do.  It is a wild experience to read in this way and further illustrates her struggles with “bridge pieces” (information storage), “gaps” (information processing),  and canoe transportation (information retrieval).

In her chapter entitled,”People Are Not Interchangeable” Judy Endow writes, “…meaning that if PERSON ONE has a conversation with her today   …then tomorrow she can’t speak her response to PERSON TWO even if both persons belong to the very same group  sometimes when she knows what she’s talking about and the person to whom she is speaking acts like he doesn’t understand her the first thing she does is to repeat herself saying her exact words over but if the person still acts confused she begins to wonder… this may be one of those times when she needs to be talking to PERSON ONE but because both of them are in the same group it somehow makes perfect sense to her to be talking to PERSON TWO but this kind of mistake rarely works out so she must always remember the rule that she made for herself:  “People are NOT interchangeable.”

Again I couldn’t duplicate the arrangement of these words on this blog, an arrangement that serves to visually recreate the issues she describes having.

As I read Judy’s powerful book it was impossible not to reflect on my daughter.  How often has she said something that I did not/ could not understand?  How many times has she spoken to me about something or someone who I didn’t understand the context of, but that she seemed to know and understood me to know as well.  Only I did not.  How many times did I think – what am I missing?  And now I wonder, was she speaking to me, assuming I was PERSON TWO, while PERSON ONE might well have known exactly what she was referring to?  How many times have I been PERSON ONE and then explained to PERSON TWO what I thought was meant?

It happens often.

Emma doing one of her favorite “finger mazes” – 2013

Emma mazes

That Wasn’t A Question

Last night.  I’m at my computer writing.  Emma walks past me.

Em:  Have cereal and toast?

Me:  Em, you just had dinner a little while ago.

Em:  Time for cereal and toast?

Richard:  What?  No Em.  You just ate.

Em:  Emma’s hungry.   Have cereal and toast.

It took three times, but then I understood.  This wasn’t a question, this was a statement.

And with that, Emma went into the kitchen and fixed herself dinner #2 – cereal and toast, while Richard and I looked at each other and laughed.  

Evening light – New York City, 2013


Less Than A Year Ago…

If I don’t immediately take notes during and after my typing sessions with Emma, I would wonder whether the words she typed were a figment of my imagination. There is something almost magical seeing and reading the words typed from someone who does not, or does not easily, communicate with spoken language.  It reminds me of the time I went to a lecture given by Soma Mukhopadhyay with her autistic son, Tito who began answering questions from the audience.  Tito is non-speaking and has a great many stims, yet translates his beautifully eloquent, poetic  thoughts into words and has no problem answering any question posed.  It’s often a disconnect for the neurotypical person watching someone who isn’t able to verbally say what they are thinking, yet has no trouble writing their thoughts, which in no way match the presumptions we, NTs tend to make.  If you’ve never witnessed something like this, it can be pretty mind-blowing, which says more about the limitations of neurotypical thinking and the constraints we unintentionally place on others who seem different from us than anything else.

Last night I began Emma’s session with a question.  It’s the same question I always ask her.  “Hey Em, how about after you sing this song we do a typing session together?”  And Emma answered, as she does every time I ask her this question, “Yeah!  Typing session with Mommy!”  Emma’s excitement, in and of itself, makes me incredibly happy.  That she’s interested and (I think) looks forward to our sessions as much as I do, makes me believe we are on the right track.  When we went into the room, now dubbed, “Emma’s office” I tried to think of a question it seemed likely Emma would know the answer to, but that if she typed it out, I would be surprised.  As we are leaving soon to visit her Granma for the holidays, I said, “When we fly to Granma’s we have to first take a taxi to an airport.  What’s the name of the airport we usually go to?”  Without hesitation, Emma typed, “La guardia”.  Wow!  Just wow!  I then asked, “There’s another airport near La Guardia, we don’t usually fly out of, but what’s the name of it?”  Emma, again, without hesitation, typed, “kennedy”.  Whoa!   Then I threw her, what I thought would be, a curve ball and asked, “When we fly out of La Guardia we always take the same airline to visit Granma.  What’s the name of the airline we always take?”  Emma wrote “United”.   EEEEEE!!!!!  Snoopy dance.  Give me a moment while I hyperventilate.  Whooooo, whooooo.

Emma went on to tell me what state and city we live in, the name of the state we were flying to and when I asked, “What’s another name for the city we live in?  It starts with an M?”  Em immediately typed “Manhattan” though she forgot the h and one of the ts.  I followed up with, “And what’s the neighborhood we live in?”  Emma, again without hesitation, typed, “Chelsea.”  Taking another deep breath.  For those of you who are doubting what I’m writing, I understand.  Really.  I do.  As I wrote above, I actually had to take notes during our session, because I knew I would come away as if in a dream.  (Ibby suggested I record our sessions together and I keep forgetting to do that, but I have to remember to from now on.)  That’s what it feels like, a dream.  I absolutely believe in my daughter’s competence.  I believe she is far more competent than most people who come into contact with her do.  I do not for a second doubt that she has a busy, complicated and fascinating mind, filled with thoughts, ideas and knowledge I can only guess at.  But to know this, to believe this, is different from being shown this.  I don’t mean to offend any of you reading this who are non-speaking and communicate by typing.  I don’t mean to offend, really I don’t.  I hope that were Emma to ever read this she will understand what I’m trying to say.  This is not about Emma’s limitations, either intellectual or otherwise, this is about my own.

For all you neurotypicals who can speak, humor me for a moment.  Think about how you would feel if you could not speak.  Think about all the things you know, but couldn’t say.  Now imagine if you were told something simple, like the city and state where you lived over and over, repeatedly, day after day.  Just think about this for a second.  Close your eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to not be able to speak.  Imagine that well-meaning people tried to help you speak through repetition and you were not allowed to move on until you were able to say these things being “taught” aloud.  Imagine how you would feel were you never able to say these things, so you weren’t allowed to move on.  It was assumed that because you couldn’t say them, you must not KNOW them. And yet, all this time…   all this time you really did know these things.  Not only did you know these things, but you knew so much more.  But no one believed that you did.  No one treated you as though you did.  Less than a year ago I assumed Emma did not know.  Less than a year ago I assumed Emma did not understand.

Less than a year ago…

Emma waiting for the school bus with her string


The Joys and Terror of Motorcycle Bubbles

When I went to get my Master’s degree in Creative Writing my favorite class was one in which we spent the entire semester dissecting two paragraphs from Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own.   We spent two weeks on ONE sentence!  This was bliss as I’d never completely understood the word before.  Pure bliss.  Needless to say, I was the only student in a class of about 25, who felt this way.  Everyone else grumbled and complained, spoke of their excruciating boredom, many even transferred out of the class.  I couldn’t understand their feelings.  What was NOT to like?

I’m a big fan of the highlighter, so it was with some amusement that I read a note from Emma’s teacher last night, “She enjoys highlighting words at school and this will also help to increase her ability to read sight word vocabulary…”  Her teacher had thoughtfully included an enormous neon yellow highlighter in her binder!  Love that.    If I had a photo of a random page in Douglas Biklen’s book – Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone I would insert it here as almost every page has notations and sentences highlighted.  Such as this one from the chapter, Reflections on Language – Lucy Blackman:  “Birthdays were happy, exciting, chaotic, and connectional with food – the ultimate source of pleasure – so excitement was a birthday party.   But excitement, terror and fury are very similar emotions, so I still scream “birthday party” when expectations are more than I can cope with.”

In Aspen, Colorado where we go several times a year, they have fireworks at the foot of Aspen Mountain on the Fourth of July and again on New Year’s Eve.  Emma both looks forward to the beautiful display and is terrified by the sound they make.  She calls the fireworks “motorcycle bubbles” which is such a wonderfully descriptive phrasing of what she is seeing and hearing.  This idea that “excitement, terror and fury are similar emotions” is not something I’d considered before.  While walking the dogs on the ranch road with Emma, who has then (seemingly) randomly said “motorcycle bubbles”, I’m left wondering why she would say this.  Now I question whether her fear of dogs is similar to the terror/excitement she experiences from the fire works display.   She loves sitting in our neighbor’s house protected from the loud booming sounds, while still being able to see the beautiful colors of light raining down on to the mountain and town below.

Could this also be why she links rain to “motorcycle bubbles”?  Is rain equated with an electrical storm or the “raining” of lights during a firework display?  I can, literally, become lost in this kind of thinking.  I find it fascinating and exciting.  Like Virginia Woolf, whose writing I happen to be a fan of, Emma uses such disparate and surprising words to describe things.  I am reminded of the German word for “skyscraper”, the literal translation, I believe, is “cloud scratcher”.  How fantastic is that?  It’s beautifully descriptive, even poetic.

One of my favorite Cloud Scratchers – The Chrysler Building 

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At What Point Do Our Actions Constitute Torture?

The New York Times published an OpEd piece yesterday by Bill Lichtenstein about the use of restraints and seclusion rooms for children with special needs in schools.  Please read by clicking ‘here‘.   Bill Lichtenstein writes, “According to national Department of Education data, most of the nearly 40,000 students who were restrained or isolated in seclusion rooms during the 2009-10 school year had learning, behavioral, physical or developmental needs, even though students with those issues represented just 12 percent of the student population.”

When we speak of a group of people as less than, when we view them through the lens of deficiency, we begin paving the way for the kind of abuse shown in this footage at the Judge Rotenberg Center.

The Judge Rotenberg Center is still operating despite lawsuits, protests and outrage.  The Judge Rotenberg Center, the systematic use of restraints and seclusion rooms in our schools as described in the NYTimes OpEd piece are but a few examples of what happens when we allow ourselves to think of people as “low functioning,” “severely Autistic” or any of the other words so readily used when speaking of Autism .  Those words make incorrect assumptions about a person’s intellect, capabilities and cognition.

When organizations like Autism Speaks and others like them fan the flames of fear by using words like epidemic, devastating, and use war terminology regarding Autism and Autistic people we are creating a toxic environment for those who are Autistic, an environment our children, who will one day grow up to become adults, will inherit.  There is a connection to the current words being used when talking about Autism and the abuse of Autistics.

All of us, each one of us must ask ourselves – if you were unable to speak in a language that those who had power over you understood, if you were spoken of as “broken,” “deficient,” “low functioning” and people treated you as though you were incapable of understanding because you could not make yourself understood, even though you continuously tried, if you were then punished, scolded, yelled at, drugged, restrained, shocked, put into a dark room because you expressed your frustration in the only way you knew how – by acting out, by becoming violent, by self harming –  what would you do?  How would YOU feel?  At what point do our actions constitute torture?

Countless articles have been written about the abuse of disabled children and yet the abuse continues.  Mother Jones published an article  about the Judge Rotenberg Center in 2007, recently updated entitled School of Shock.  

“The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons.”

The words we use, the organizations we support, the way we speak to and about our Autistic children, as well as Autistic people, matters.  I have done so many things wrong in raising my daughter, I cannot fit it all into a single post.  I have so many regrets, I could fill several pages with the things I tried all in the name of “helping her.”  Emma could not tell me how she felt about the various treatments and remedies I tried and I never thought to ask.  I’ve written about all of this before, the DAN doctors, the specialists, the pediatricians, the stem cell treatments.  If I sit and contemplate what I’ve done to my daughter with the best of intentions, I can barely move.  I feel devastated.  I know I didn’t mean to hurt her.  I know I didn’t mean to harm her.  I know.  I did it because I thought that as her mother it was the right thing to do.  Now I know differently.  Now I know what I did was wrong.  And the only thing I can do moving forward is write about it honestly.  Talk about it.  I can make sure I do things differently now.  I can make sure I talk about these things openly, honestly, not because I am intent on beating myself up, nothing good comes of that, but because maybe, just maybe others may learn from my mistakes.

What we do, how we behave, what we say and how we say it matters.  This is the ripple effect.

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