Tag Archives: Autistic child

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

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

 

Your Child’s Been Diagnosed. Now What?

I always think I’ve written something already about any given topic only to realize there is more to add.  So it was the other day when asked about advice for a parent whose child was just diagnosed with autism.  This is a question that comes up often and always when asked I hesitate and here’s why.  For every child that might respond to various “interventions” the way my daughter did, there will be countless others who will not.  The therapy may be worse or better.  The child may have different sensory issues, they may be voracious readers, hyperlexic or they may not be able to see the printed word because of visual issues, the letters may swim on the page until a different background is found or some other tweak is done, which allows everything to stay still.

There may be auditory issues that my daughter does not share, tactile, physical issues and the list goes on.  So what to do?  How does a parent wade through all the opinions?  How do you find a way to quell your fear, respect your child, ignore that list of all that’s wrong and find the things that will help your child flourish?

For me it boils down to two essentials.  The first is to presume my child competent.  I’ve written about this concept a great deal, but here are a few posts which talk about what that means – ‘here‘, ‘here‘, ‘here‘ and ‘here‘.  Presuming competence is very much a work in progress.  What I once presumed as “competent” my daughter has shown me didn’t go nearly far enough.  We do the best we can with the information we have.  But anything intended to “help” my daughter, anyone who is going to be spending time with her, must understand the concept and be committed to putting it into action.  This includes, speaking to her and not about her in her presence.  It means, even if the child shows no sign of understanding, even if the child has no spoken language and has never written a single word, we assume they can understand more than their bodies and gestures and utterances indicate.

Presuming competence has evolved for me and is helped by keeping my fear, judgment and assumptions checked at the door.  I cannot presume my daughter capable if I am simultaneously engaged in a running list of all she’s doing wrong.  I cannot practice a presumption of competence if every interaction I have with her is really an ongoing test where I’m insisting she prove herself to me.  Presuming competence is a life long practice and it is has far-reaching implications for not just my daughter, but all human beings I come into contact with.

Presuming competence is key, without doing this, everything else I do, no matter how great my intentions, will fall flat.  I have to believe in my kid.  It means that I speak to my child the same way I would speak to any child their age.  It means I approach my child believing in their ability to learn.  It means I believe they can and will learn.  It means they will communicate, I just have to find the best way to support them so that they can and it may not be with spoken language.  It means any therapy, no matter how popular, must be based in presuming my child competent, respecting my child’s process and treating them with the same respect I would insist on for anyone coming into contact with my non autistic child.  It means I have to do the inner work regarding what I believe, notions of should and shouldn’t, entitlement, prejudices, and whatever ideas I may have about my child and who they should be.  It means I approach my child with love, consideration, respect and curiosity.

I have come to believe that services, those services that everyone talks about and that are centered on our children, should include services for parents.  Early intervention for parents is crucial and much needed.  We parents are often in greater need of help and support than our children.  Good quality respite care, therapy for us, the parents, designed to help us cope and sort through our messy emotions so that we are in a better position to be there for our children.  I needed support from parents who’ve traveled the path I now found myself on.  No parent should ever feel the kind of fear I once felt.  Which means we have to change the current conversation surrounding autism if we are going to help our children.  No one is helped by having their every flaw (which is completely subjective, by the way,) scrutinized, both publicly and privately.  There are ways to get support and the help we and our kids need without demonizing our children and talking about them in ways we would never allow people to speak about our non autistic children.

Which brings me to the second essential thing – Autistic people.  It is imperative that all parents be given a list of blogs written by Autistic people who are describing their experience of the world.  This has to be essential reading while we figure out a way to put into place advisory programs made up of Autistic adults who are able to help parents understand their children.  These must be paid positions just as all other people involved with early intervention are paid.

We need mentorship programs of Autistic people mentoring our kids AND mentorship programs where our Autistic kids are mentoring younger Autistic and non Autistic kids.  One of the most valuable relationships my daughter currently has is with a little boy who shows no signs of being Autistic himself.  But they enjoy being together and the boy’s parents encourage their relationship. An inclusive society is key as we move forward.

On the Resources page of this blog I’ve put together a fairly extensive list, beginning with non-speaking Autistic people’s blogs.  I am always adding to this list.  I encourage all parents to start clicking on those blogs, find the ones that resonate and speak to you and follow them.  Start commenting on them, reach out to others who share your child’s neurology, develop relationships.  Listen and learn.  You will learn more from doing this than anything I learned in the half-dozen years I spent listening and reading non autistic people’s opinions.

And finally this is a short list of what I consider essential reading/viewing for anyone who has an Autistic child.

Wretches and Jabberers
Ido in Autismland
Intense World Theory of Autism

Emma and Teddy

Emma and Teddy

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

Emma, Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference - July, 2013

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference – July, 2013

Emma and Laura

Emma and Laura

Emma and Ibby

Emma and Ibby

Larry Bissonette takes Emma's photograph

Larry Bissonette takes Emma’s photograph

Emma and Henry

Emma and Henry

Separation Anxiety

In our ongoing “spring cleaning” (which never seems to end) I came upon a large spiral notebook filled with notes from the dozen or so ABA therapists who came to our home beginning in November, 2004 through August, 2005.  Emma was just two years old when all of this began.  It’s a fascinating document of that time period and it depresses me to no end.  Over and over the notations remark upon Emma’s “clingy-ness to Mom”, her “whimpering” and “despondency” when I would leave the room and her internal discomfort.

It is impossible for me to read the notes and not see an obvious pattern.  For a therapy that prides itself in collecting data, it is curious that this larger and, what seemed to me anyway, obvious pattern was largely ignored or, perhaps it is what naturally happens when we pathologize a neurology.  Emma’s desire to seek comfort and assurance from me, her mom, was seen as a negative, something to be trained away, something that was getting in the way of more important things.  It is ironic that this was being said about a young child who was diagnosed with autism, which has, according to all those experts, as one of its most defining characteristics, “social impairment” and an inability to form close bonds.

A two-year old not wanting to go off with a stranger is considered a “good” thing by most people.  That this same child would prefer being with their mother, even after getting to know someone else, would still, in most instances, be thought of as an excellent example of bonding and having a close relationship with one of the most important people in that person’s life – their mother.  After all, if you cannot trust your mother to protect you, to be there for you when you are two, how will you learn to trust anyone later in life?

Richard and I talk about “what we would have done” all the time.  Not as in – what would we have done if we could do it all over again – as much as, what would we do now if we had a two-year old today who was just like Emma.  And the first thing, the absolute first thing would have been PRESUME COMPETENCE.  That is the key, the foundation by which everything else would have been gauged.  This does not mean expecting a two-year old to understand, know and behave as a twenty year old.  It means we would have presumed she understood and felt what a two-year old is capable of understanding and feeling not less.

When Emma began her ABA based preschool in the fall of 2005, I was told to drop her off and immediately leave.  Yet when my non autistic son went to preschool they had a three-week “transition period’ in place where parents routinely stayed with their child, slowly reducing the time they stayed until eventually the child separated from their parent when they felt comfortable to do so.  Each child was different.  Some children ran off within the first few days, others needed more time, some needed several weeks, but no one said, “Leave now, even though your child is hysterically crying and clinging to your leg, it will be good for them.”  I remember asking about this at Emma’s preschool and being told they didn’t allow parents to stay with their child as this only prolonged the child’s suffering.  How is it that one method is good for one child, but not another?

Knowing how sensitive my daughter is and was, knowing how intensely painful this must have been for her, I can only sit here, filled with sadness that we just didn’t know better.  It was as though, when we got her diagnosis, all common sense left us.

So I am asking all my Autistic friends – What would have helped you when you were a small child?  Would it have been helpful to have your parent stay with you until you were comfortable and felt safe enough to go off on your own?  Would you have liked knowing your parent was there, even if you didn’t need to be right next to them?  What do you advise parents new to all of this?

OT session ~ 2005

OT session ~ 2005

How We Discuss Our Children

Some people say that parents like me are dismissive of how difficult it is to parent an Autistic child.  They say that we are choosing not to dwell on the negative and that it’s important that the other side be shown.  They suggest that by NOT discussing how very challenging it is, we are doing harm, that it is in the stories of horror and devastation that services are gotten.  They say that pathologizing autism is necessary because without talking about it as a pathology, funding would be diminished or cut off.  Many people assume that those of us who write about the positive aspects, the joys, the triumphs that we experience as parents of Autistic children, we must have “high functioning” children and that we cannot possibly know what it is like to have a child who is “severe”.   We are accused of diminishing or dismissing the suffering other parents experience.

When I was fairly new to all of this, not so long ago, I thought nothing of writing about my child’s latest upset in graphic detail.  Not so long ago, I wrote about my child, believing she did not and could not understand what was being written, that she would never read my words, that she could not and did not understand what I said to others, what I wrote.  I posted photos of her, never once considering whether she wanted such a photo posted on the internet for all to see.  It did not occur to me to ask her.  Literally, it did not occur to me.  These are things I now am aware of.  Posts have been deleted, photos have been removed, but had I continued to listen to what I was being told, had I not seen and met non-speaking Autistic children, teenagers and adults who wrote how it felt to be spoken of, written about, and treated as though they weren’t there, I don’t know that I would have thought to stop.

It isn’t that parenting is never challenging, hell, life is challenging, it’s that in talking about parenting it too often sounds like we are blaming our child for our suffering.  It’s like when my husband and I fight and I think to myself, if he didn’t do x, y and z, I wouldn’t get so angry and while there may be some truth to that, it also isn’t owning up to my part in the fight.  So many people write about parenting but they don’t seem to connect it to how they respond to this situation with their child, is how they respond to stress, not getting what we want, impatience, dealing with upheaval, etc.  It seems to me, the less common conversation is the one that talks about personal responsibility and honoring another person, instead of blaming them for what ails us.

In all of this, the Autistic person, whether they are a child, teenager or an adult, are being “treated as though they weren’t there.”  This was the thing that changed everything for me.  Realizing that there is a person there.  Right there.  Right here.  Right in front of me.  And this person has feelings and thoughts and her opinions about herself are affected by what I’m doing and saying about her.  She is just like any other child, who would feel tremendously sad and even traumatized knowing that her parent blames her for their pain and upset.  

This post is being interrupted by more pressing matters, so I will have to come back to this when I have more time…

Em on her pogo stick copy