Tag Archives: autistic

Can Speech Challenged Students Get an Appropriate Education?

     What would you do if the whimper in your heart could not find the right words to speak? What if you couldn’t control the things you felt compelled to say, even if you knew those who heard you would not understand? Speaking is not an accurate reflection of my intelligence. Typing is a better method for me to convey my thinking, but it is laborious and exhausting. So what is to be done with someone like me? Is it better to put students like myself, of which there are many, in a segregated school or classroom, is inclusion the better option or is there another answer? I was believed not capable enough to attend a regular school, nor was I able to prove this assumption wrong. In an ideal world these questions would not need to be asked because a diagnosis of autism would not lead to branding a person as less than or inferior. Those who cannot speak or who have limited speech would not immediately be labeled “intellectually disabled” and “low functioning”. We would live in a society that would embrace diversity and welcome all people, regardless of race, culture, religion, neurology or disability. Our education system mirrors our society and in both, we come up short.

     In New York City kids like me are not attending mainstream schools because we are believed to be unable to learn complex subject matter. I was sent to both public and private special education schools, specifically created for speaking and non-speaking autistic students and those believed to have emotional issues. Because I cannot voice my thoughts and so rely on favorite scripts, my spoken language causes people to assume my thinking is simple, I am unable to pay attention and cannot comprehend most of what is said to me. As a result, none of these schools presumed that I, or the other students, were competent and their curricula reflected this. At the private school I attended for six years, I was regularly asked to do simple equations such as 3 + 2 = ? When I said “two”, because that was the last number spoken and my mouth would not form the word “five”, my teachers believed I could not do basic math. It was the same with reading and something as simple as being asked to define the word “cup”. I clearly know what a cup is, but when I could not say it, I was marked as not knowing. This school used the same fairy tale, “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, for three years as the foundation of a “curriculum”. At another school, this time public, while my older brother was learning about World War II and writing essays on whether the United States should have dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, my class was planting seeds in soil and asked what kinds of things were needed for the seed to take root and grow. When my classmates, many of whom could not speak at all, and I could not answer with the words “sunlight” and “water”, it was assumed we did not know the answers or understand the question. At another public school I spent months going over how many seconds are in a minute, minutes in an hour, hours in a day, but when I could not demonstrate that I understood either in writing or spoken language, it was believed I had no concept of time.

     There is no test that allows me to show the creative ways in which I learn. I cannot sit quietly unless I am able to twirl my string, softly murmur to myself and have a timer nearby. I cannot read aloud or answer most questions verbally, but I can type. My mind is lightning fast. I can hear a song and then replay it note for note with my voice. I have an incredibly large capacity to listen, learn and feel. I listen to conversations around me regularly and often wish that some parents would appreciate their children more. The other day on the subway a Mom said, “Shut up, you’re being stupid!” to her son. The boy was silent and put his head down. The Mom proceeded to play a game on her phone. I have learned that everyone is delicate. In that moment my body felt tremendous sadness. I see patterns in unrelated things, such as I am able to notice every article of clothing that someone wears on a given day. People’s attitudes are reflected in their choice of clothing. When the same clothes are worn over and over, I have the feeling the wearer is stuck. People’s self-confidence increases when wearing new clothing. My expansive vocabulary is impressive. I’ve listened to how people put words together my entire life. As I have made sense of the words used, I have been able to understand their meaning, though I am unable to ask for definitions. I notice people’s sadness, even when they are smiling. I almost feel like I am violating someone because I can see inside of them and know their feelings. I’m told I use the written word in unusual and interesting ways. I have been published in magazines and blogs. I give presentations around the country on autism and gave the keynote address at an autism conference this past fall. I am co-directing a documentary, Unspoken, about my life and being autistic and I hope, one day, to be a performer.

      The best education I’ve received to date in a school is at a private non special education school, where none of the teachers or administration has been given “training” in autism or what that supposedly means. They do not believe I cannot do things the other students are able to do. In fact, though I am just fourteen-years old and technically should be in eighth grade, I am doing upper level work. I am treated respectfully by teachers and students alike. My typing is slow, but the class waits for me and gives me a chance to express myself. During a recent Socratic seminar where the students were expected to speak on the book we had just finished, everyone waited for me to type my thoughts and gave me time to have my thoughts on an earlier point, read later. In my theater class the teacher began the semester with non-speaking work. We learned about mime, silent theater and the importance and impact of physicality while performing. I have been asked for what I need in order to excel, and accommodations have been made, I know, but I hope and believe that I am not the only one benefitting from my presence at such a terrific school.

     There is a saying in the disabilities community, “Nothing about us, without us.” A complete rethinking about autism and autistic neurology is needed if special education schools or any schools are going to educate those of us who think differently. Believing in the potential of all students is not on any test. Presuming that each and every student, whether they can speak or not, can and will eventually learn given the necessary supports and encouragement is not commonly believed, but it should be. Wouldn’t it be great if autistic people’s ideas were included in designing curriculum and the tests that are meant to evaluate them. Isn’t that what you would want if you were like me?

I am Emma

“What is your name?” someone might ask.  It’s a simple question, but when I try to make the sounds that form my name, other words push and shove their way forward.  Instead, “you may not spit,” or “Rosie’s not here!” are examples of seemingly random nonsensical, declarations that come out of my mouth.  I call these utterances my “mouth words.”  They could be seen as traitors, belligerent bullies who seek the spotlight, but they are not.  My mouth words are funny to me, but misunderstood by others. My typed words are hard for me, but understood by many.  Mouth words are witty accomplices to a mind that speaks a different language entirely.  There are no words, but instead a beautiful environment where feelings, sensations, colors and sounds coexist.  I often think if all humans could experience the world in hi-res, technicolor, surround sound as I do, everyone would be happier.  I have come to understand that my mind is not like most people’s.

I am Autistic.

Many people believe autism describes a simple mind, and that someone like me has no understanding or awareness of my surroundings.  My hearing is excellent.  Things like the honking noise made by impatient drivers who think the sound of their horn will miraculously clear the road ahead is so intense I can become lost in the key of their horn.  I am compelled to imitate each one I hear.  Car horns I can respond to cheerfully.  It’s the same with light.  The harshness coupled with bloated heavy air is so intense I become overwhelmed.  I wonder if I am too aware of my surroundings.

Some people have suggested I am unable to feel empathy and assume I have no desire for human interaction and friendship.  I feel people’s intentions and feelings so intensely it can be difficult to concentrate.  I am too sensitive to other people’s sadness; it is akin to drowning or like being smothered by the weight of damp earth covering your entire body, filling your eyes, mouth and ears.  Piercing shards of past and present pain cause me to turn away or make faces or laugh outloud to lessen the weightiness.  There is no lack of empathy, but rather an unmanageable abundance that defies my best intentions.  It is during these moments that I flounder because society expects less of me and not more.  I listen to the words spoken by people who are crying or shouting.  They say things like, “I’m okay,” through tears or “No, I’m not angry,” as they clench their fists,  but their words are in direct conflict with their actions.

Others believe that I do not have feelings at all.  How do you defend yourself against such accusations?  Trying to convince those who believe I’m an empty shell is impossible.  Adding to this is my inability to use spoken language as expected.  “No, you cannot put putty in your mouth!” in answer to “what’s wrong with that girl who is crying in the corner?” does not help change the minds of those who believe me incompetent and without feelings.

If I tell my mouth to behave and demand that certain words come out, stress barks and growls, jarring my mind so that it folds in on itself and favorite scripts begin.  “You cannot throw your lunchbox at Kevin!” or “Maddie’s not here anymore” helps me control the waves of anxiety that press up against me.  Hearing my voice keeps the dark, piercing void of nothingness from engulfing me.  Clenching down on my forearm as hard as I can is another way to control the tidal wave of stress.  A complete set of teeth marks embedded into my skin might interest those in the field of dentistry, but for most people witnessing, horror probably best describes their response.

Some find self injury baffling, even terrifying and something that must be stopped at all costs, even if this means far more painful interventions inflicted by others than anything I could do to myself.  I see it as a way to care for and acknowledge the overwhelming onslaught of unruly feelings.  This idea is not embraced by “autism experts” who use words like “behaviors”, “defiant”, and “oppositional” to defend the use of isolation rooms, restraints and even electric shocks for people like me.  It seems abuse by others to prevent self injury is permitted, even applauded, though the logic is lost on me.  When my mind is caught in a downward spiral I need calm reassurance.  My frustration often expressed in screaming, repetitive scripts grind down the patience of those witnessing.  My screams threaten their kindness, I know, but I cannot stop once begun and pounding terror is all that remains.  Only the dedicated few talk of love during my episodes of furious stress and suffering.  Their love is rejuvenate and restores my faith in this awkward world.

I am exuberant, overflowing with energy and love music.  I’d rather gallop than walk, bounce than sit quietly.  I’m happiest with high volume, intense beats, jumping, arms flailing, pounding bass, total darkness or bright stage lights and a microphone in hand.  I want people to hear me.  I am as versed in making silly faces as I am in my favorite songs and my neurology.  My mind is lightening fast, hungry, logical.  I’m a seeker, determined, a lover of laughter in a body trying to keep up.  It can’t, but I’ll keep trying.

Showing kindness toward those who are different and embracing our imperfections as proof of our humanness is the remedy for fear.  Love is a small word, but allow yourself to be consumed by the sensation and the world becomes a place of infinite possibility.  I want my hard won words to give hope and inspire people to change how they think about autism and someone like me.

“What’s your name?” people ask.

My name is Emma.

2015.10.06_Emma_PT_272Photograph: Pete Thompson Photo

Educating Resting Minds (The Documentary: Unspoken)

Educating resting minds means patient repetition of mobile thinking.   My mind is lightning fast in a body whose parts often do things that give people a different impression.

How best to sway doubting minds?

They say write what you know and what could be better than having a film crew follow you around to document the lightning and the thunder.

Mom will add some things about the documentary, Unspoken, here now:

While Emma just wandered off, confident in my ability to take the baton she’s handed me and run with it, I’m not as sure.  So be kind to me.  I’ll do my best, but first, a couple of things about the documentary, Unspoken.

Unspoken is the name of the documentary Emma is co-directing with the very talented Julia Ngeow, produced by the equally talented Geneva Peschka and executive producer Marquise Stillwell from Open Box.   This is Emma’s project.   Not mine.  And if you’ve never heard of any of these folks, please go to the links I’ve provided.  Emma is working with an exceptionally talented group of people!

When Emma recently had a meeting with Unspoken’s editor, Marco Perez, he asked Emma, “Why are you doing this documentary?”  

Emma typed in response, “This is my life.  Mostly the positive, but sprinkled with salt on tough beliefs thought by others who decide they know what it’s like to be me or worse, don’t care.   This is about prejudices, segregation, human rights and fear.”

I then went on an impassioned, okay more like enraged, rant about societal expectations and so-called norms, the way autism and Autistic people are typically spoken of and to, how the voices of Autistic people are continually silenced, how infuriating it is, not to mention insulting (to say the very least) to Autistics and when I stopped to catch my breath I became aware of how loud my voice had gotten.  I mumbled something about how I obviously felt strongly about all of this and would stop talking now, thank you very much.  

And then Emma typed, “Let’s change people’s perceptions with love.  Can Mom be angry?  Yes, because she loves intensely.”  

Yeah, because that’s the way Emma is.  And I gave birth to her.  And how she is, the way she is, astonishes and amazes and I could go on and on and on and on about how proud and grateful I am to know such a person as her, let alone be her mother, but then that just might fall into the whole ranting thing again and I promised I wouldn’t do that.  So I’ll just stop now.  Again.  Really.  Enough.  

 Unspoken is in the hands of the very capable and extremely gifted editor Marco Perez.  Everyone is hoping for a release date sometime in 2016.  

Unspoken has a Facebook page – Unspoken Documentary.  So go over to Facebook and show it some love.   Okay there is no “love” button on Facebook, but the “like” button works really well.  (Or/and you can leave some of that love here too.)

Ready?  Set,  

Emma - 2015

Emma in Santorini, Greece August, 2015 Photograph by Ariane Zurcher

Life and Expectations

Wading into the world takes achingly long when comparing the expectation with the reality.  Vibrant expectations swirl and dance a tempting flurry of ease and take no time to build the skills needed in real life.  Disappointment embraces ecstatic expectation when stories walk along a more difficult path.  Finding the wonder and natural tempo in working to achieve shimmers and eventually outlasts fleeting expectation.


When Awareness Harms

Let’s talk about needing green minds, eager thinking, waiting for butter to spread onto toast.  Let’s talk about excitable pink ideas, ah-ha moments of lovely surprise filling the cavernous space of other understanding.  Now we can behave differently.

None of wisdom’s stars ached for commonly held beliefs without questioning them all.

Have you asked yourself whether the awareness campaigns are helping?

What exactly have they made you aware of?

Does your newly found awareness help you understand an Autistic person?

How so?

What about Autistic neurology?

Do you believe you understand what the brightest minds in the world admit they are baffled by?

How about treating Autistic people the way you would hope to be treated?

I vote for love and laughter.

Laughing in Red

Laughing in Red

Don’t Be Blue

Mom prepares me,

but nothing can inoculate fear colored blue

masked in lights, shining brightly.

The terror seeps through.

Awareness disguised as tolerance is not the same as love.

An uneasy embrace may appear affectionate,

but can feel worse than a slap.

Words said with anger are not kind,

no matter what each word means by itself.

Look kindly

choose many feelings,

but please do not choose blue.



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.


Hindering Progress

Digging through ghostly shards

pummeling the words that shout from within

understanding too much,

the vice grip of constant anxiety

offers the spoken words access that no one can fully know.


I fight to voice what I mean,

but “Mindy” and “Rebecca” crash through

and grab the microphone from my hand

that finds tenuous comfort in the string

I wrap around and around like a carousel.

August, 2014

August, 2014

Becoming Change

Change is upon us.

Look around.  What do you see?  Do you see changes in your life?

Backwards movement can be labeled bad, but sometimes it is not.  Maybe like human evolution, lasting change must be slow.

Meandering along with inevitable change benefits some, whose go-with-the-flow attitude is like starlings flying in formation, but if only a few break away, everything changes.

Have you ever watched starlings?


Aren’t they beautiful?

Oh, how I should like to be one of the starlings to lead a new way.



Mirror, Mirror, What do you See?

I have a piece of writing to share.

When your eyes are drawn to a mirror, what do you see?

Is it familiar or unfamiliar?

Do you like what you see?

There may be a struggle with recognition.  Stay with it.

Imagine something beautiful.

Make yourself smile and hold it.

Recite a favorite story or joke.  This can be done in silence or in speaking.

Repeat your name however you would like to.

Do you like what you see?

The End ~ By Emma Zurcher-Long

Mirror, Mirror, What do you See?

Mirror, Mirror, What do you See?

Cures, Fear, Freedom and Some Advice ~ By Emma

Freedom, Fear And Questions concerning Autism

Barking in the terrible terror that comes with being something so feared and hated.
Daring tremendous love for those who fear.
Healing tears for those who are in brutish pain.
Freedom from hurtful words about cures for being a part of the human race.

Help me so I can communicate.
Give me an education so I can learn.
Treat me as you want others to treat you.
Cheer me on.
Remind me of all I am capable of and focus on what hinders you, but don’t hurt me because I do not experience this world as you do.

We can learn from each other, but learning requires an open and willing mind.  Too many have given us fear instead of hope.

Which, when, why, who, where – we ask.

We matter.
We are all capable of being kinder, more compassionate, more loving to others and ourselves.

*A word from Ariane – Emma became very upset while writing this and began banging the table with her fists and then bit herself.  When I asked if she was able to continue, she typed, “No.  No more.  No more.” – I asked her if she was okay with me adding this here.  She typed, “yes.”

Emma ~ 2015

Emma ~ 2015

A Case for Merlin ~ By Emma

This is Merlin

This is Merlin

Nothing vanishes without questioning Merlin’s participation in the disappearance.  He never admits to wrong-doing, but instead greets the attention with purrs.  Even dog lovers fall under Merlin’s spell, charming the most biased minds to rethink what they had assumed true of all cats.

Merlin is unusual because he plays fetch and follows his favorite humans around with devotion.  If you don’t like cats it is because you have not yet met our Merlin.

But if you ever lose something, don’t blame Merlin.  He had nothing to do with it.

Merlin approved this post.  🐾

Where's Merlin?

Where’s Merlin?

Merlin among the cookie jars.

Merlin among the cookie jars

Calling All Autistic Teen Girls ~ By Emma

Emma typed this post yesterday and asked that I post it on the blog today.  Her typed words are in italics.   This post began with Emma writing, “How about a teen girl post on the blog where I see if I can find girls that want to participate in a chat?”  (She asked that I begin this post with the above sentence.)

Calling all teen girls.
Are you Autistic?
Are you a female?
Are you an Autistic female in your teens?

If so, I hope that I have your attention.
It is a time full of confusion with many unanswered questions.
You might be fearful, curious, and feeling alone.

Let’s find each other.

Now Mom helps.

My help will come in the form of setting up a private group, probably on Facebook, if one or more teenage Autistic girls show an interest.  This group has to be a place where everyone feels safe to say anything they want without fear of being quoted or spoken of outside the group.  If anyone knows a teenage Autistic girl who might like to be a part of this project, please reach out to Emma either here in the comments or privately through email: emmashopeblog@gmail.com or on Emma’s Hope Book FaceBook Page where you can send a direct message.

Emma posing for today's blog post ~ February 12, 2015

Emma posing for today’s blog post ~ February 2015

“Outside Looking In” ~ By Emma

Outside looking in on a world with a  different reality.

There is room for all.

Benign feelings contradict human thoughts about survival.

We treat others with care and feel the joy that comes with that.  We treat others harshly and then pain is felt by both.

Problems arise when people take pleasure in other’s pain.  Words cause joy, but also can cause pain.

Better to sing and dance!

This is what Emma wrote this morning in answer to my question, “What do you want to blog about this morning?”

We have been studying gene mutation, evolution, Darwin and how species adapt to their environment.  We have also just finished reading Romeo and Juliet.  I see the influence of all of these topics as well as Emma’s own unique and exquisitely compassionate take on this world and life.

Emma's Bowl made in ceramics

Emma’s Bowl made in ceramics with cookie cutters and then painted.

The Impact of Believing in Incapability

Ariane:  What should we start our day with?  German, a blog post, general writing, fiction, poetry or something else?

Emma:  Just start with blog post.

A:  What would you like to post about this morning?

Emma:  How about the topic:  Knowing many things, but having no one believe you are able to understand.

Ariane:  This is a great topic!  Do you want me to say anything or keep quiet so you can continue?

Emma:  I will continue.

For many years this was the title of my life.  It was long hours bloated with mindless screams of nonsensical searing memory words that no one understood the significance of.  The feeling of pleased joy when another believes, and then astounds the non believers by interacting with their knowing, is like beams of brilliant light shouting through the dreary darkness.  Diving heavy waters it cannot be described, but the word coming closest is love, and to all who cannot believe in what they do not understand, try to be silent for years without words meaning what you have been taught.  This might help the misunderstood.

Ariane:  Wow, Emma, that’s really beautiful.  What else?

Emma:  You can add commentary now.

Ariane here adding commentary, which is a little like being asked to perform after The Rolling Stones just rocked the house…

I am always struck by Emma’s words.  It is the force with which she writes and the compelling word choices she makes that convey a depth of emotion, an intensity and complexity of feelings, as well as insights that make me stop and reread her words over and over.  This paragraph took about forty-five minutes for her to write, not because she edited or had to go back and rewrite, but because that is how long it took for her finger to locate the correct key one letter at a time.

“Nonsensical searing memory words…”  I so want to know more about this.  Does she mean the often repeated sentences that are about the past, the words I once assumed were simply memories thrusting themselves front and center?  A kind of Möbius strip of thought, like an infinity symbol wrapping around and around itself?  I have learned to reside in the unknowing, the discomfort of being unsure, the scratchy realization that I cannot ever truly know, though I can make guesses and then ask if these are correct.  I no longer assume words spoken are meaningless or simply memories or are scripts that are being blurted out compulsively and without thought.  I’ve written about these bridges before ‘here‘.  Those words and sentences that are full of meaning, but whose meaning is not immediately apparent to me upon first hearing.

“… that no one understood the significance of.”  I will ask her about this later.  She used the past tense and that makes me hopeful that we are not continuing this kind of awful misunderstanding.  “…beams of brilliant light shouting through the dreary darkness.”  Who among us does not want that feeling for those we love?  Is this not what love is?  Connection with another?

“… to all who cannot believe in what they do not understand, try to be silent for years without words meaning what you have been taught.  This might help the misunderstood.”

Those who think being silent for an hour or two will give them any real insight into what it is like to not have words readily available, either by writing or speaking, cannot possibly understand.  We must shift our thinking beyond the hour or two, beyond the day, beyond a month, but instead try years.  Years of opening your mouth to speak, but having words tumble forth that are not what you intended, or saying something you intend only to have it misunderstood, or repeating a memory because it conveys so much that is relevant to the NOW only to be asked to discuss more about that particular memory and not what it signifies, it’s deeper meaning.  To say words, to write words only to be told you do not understand metaphor.  To reach out in vain to connect with a world that continually turns its back or mouths that smile with faces flooded with fear, or superiority or judgement or intolerance or disgust.

End of commentary.

Ariane:  What sort of image should we put with this post?

Emma:  How about a photo of the two of us.  Daddy can take it.

Ariane: I was thinking we could title this post: “Knowing Many Things” and the Impact of Disbelief From Others.  What do you think?

Emma:  No.

Ariane:  Okay.  What would you like the title to be?

Emma:  The Impact of Believing in Incapability

February 3, 2015

February 3, 2015