Tag Archives: language

And Then Suddenly Life Changes

Life has, quite suddenly, taken a dramatic turn.  Over the weekend I finally came to the decision that I cannot keep my business AND finish this book I’m writing AND work with Emma AND have the time to study this method of helping her, so that I can help others help her.  This feels like a good decision, the right decision, one I’ve been struggling with since last fall, but finally feel ready to take the actions to make this happen. So this morning as I looked around my studio, wondering how I was going to sort through everything and begin the process of dismantling a business and a working studio, I received a call from Emma’s school.  They are putting on a show next week and there have been some issues that required my presence.  As I’ve been going to her school every Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to teach some of the staff how to support her so she can write with them too, I left a little earlier than usual.

After school we met with the principal who asked Emma what she did for mother’s day, Emma wrote, “Mom helped me talk to my brother.”

“Oh!  What did you talk about,” the principal asked.

“We talked about whether Truman should have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Emma wrote.  Then she stood up and ran across the room, whipping her arms around like windmills before settling back in her chair.

It was decided that Emma needs to be in a classroom where she is being taught the same curriculum as her same age non autistic peers.  Except that she is not yet able to write with anyone at her school the way she can with me, so I volunteered to come in until someone can be trained.  It makes perfect sense.  But as Emma and I left her school yesterday, I thought to myself – what did I just agree to? It was one of those moments when the full weight of what you’ve committed to hits you and you think – am I going to be able to do this?  Really?  Can I do this?

Well, I guess we’ll see.  And for the next ten days I will get an interesting view into how her school does things.  And here’s the other thing…   There is nothing I could do that comes even close to being as important as finding a way for my daughter to communicate in a way that gives her greater access to this “awkward world” as she wrote the other day.  No book I might write, no piece of jewelry I might design, nothing comes close.

My life is suddenly no longer what it was.  I am nervous about going to her school with her and essentially being her one on one aide, but I am also really curious to see how it goes and I’m excited to see her in a class where, I’m hoping, she will be challenged.

Before we left school yesterday, the principal asked Emma whether she preferred being referred to as a young lady with autism or an Autistic young lady, Emma wrote, “I am an Autistic girl and proud of it.”

The principal smiled and asked, “Why do you prefer being called Autistic?”

“Because autism is part of me and can’t be removed,” Emma wrote.

“That makes sense,” her principal said.

I told the principal and assistant principal how fortunate we are that I have a number of friends who are Autistic, one of whom is like a sister to me.  And then Emma wrote, “They are my Autistic family.”

How lucky are we?

The journey continues…

Emma and Me

Emma and Me

Education

Yesterday I wrote a post, Your Child’s Been Diagnosed.  Now What?  There are so many things to add.  But something I wondered often during those early years was  – what good is a diagnosis if the “interventions” the professionals suggest and say will help, do not?  Now this is not everyone’s story, but it is ours.  All the recommended “interventions” did little, if anything, to actually help her.  In fact, I would argue that some of the interventions we agreed to, actually harmed her self-esteem.  And the general rhetoric, disguised as factual information, surrounding autism, encouraged her to feel damaged and at fault for the suffering of others.  No child should feel they are the cause of other’s pain and suffering.  And yet, so many do.

Once we began looking for schools that might be a good fit, we were even more horrified.  The choices were not – which one is best? – but became – which one will not harm her?  This shouldn’t be a parent’s guiding question when looking at schools, but for us, it was.  Will the staff be kind to her?  Will they be patient?  Questions like – will she learn?  Will she be taught science, math, english, social studies?  Those questions quickly gave way to – will she be harmed?  Are cameras monitoring what goes on in the classrooms and hallways?   Do they use isolation rooms?  Do they allow teachers to use restraints?  The best case scenario became less about education and more about physical safety and finding a place that did not harm or try to force compliance.

Academics were stripped down as it was “shown” that she could not understand basic concepts.  Because she could not read aloud, she was given picture books.  Because she could not answer the questions asked, the questions were simplified and simplified more and more and more until it was concluded she didn’t understand.  Because it was determined she could not understand a simple story about a boy and his dog going on a trip to visit his Grandmother, she was given less “complex” stories.  She was given “sight” words that were repeated for months and months, even years.  Billy Goat’s Gruff became the center piece for a curriculum that continued for three years, despite our disbelief and protests.  “Oh but we examine all the various characters in the story,” we were assured.  “THREE YEARS??” we responded.  “For three years?”  “Yes,” we were told with pitying looks and the hubris and bravado I’ve come to recognize from those who are convinced they “know” and understand “autism” and therefore my daughter.

Some of the worst offenders are those who have dedicated their lives to autism.  Those who are so sure they know, and as a result are no longer curious or interested in learning more.  Those are the people who are asked to give presentations at Autism Conferences, they are the ones who write books, that parents, not knowing any better, buy.  They are the ones we listen to and slowly as their voices are the loudest and most plentiful, we begin to doubt our instincts, we begin to soften our protests, we begin, slowly, slowly over time, to believe them.  Our ideas about our child are whittled away.  Our instincts are pushed aside to allow for those who know better, who have been doing this for “twenty years,” who have worked with “this population” and who, from having spent decades among children just like mine, know things I cannot possibly grasp or understand.  (This, by no means, describes everyone, but it does accurately describe a great many, and sadly, often those who were in a position with the most power.)

We parents are told to see our children for what they are: Intellectually impaired, socially inept, incapable, lacking and unable to understand the most basic concepts.  My child, as a result was shuttled off to learn how to tie her shoe laces and wash her face and hands.  While life skills are certainly important they should not take the place of academics.  So many of us are consoled with the idea that at least our child will be able to dress themselves, or not…  in which case we envy those parents who have children who can.  Our focus turns from philosophy, an exchange of ideas, history, english, poetry, literature, science, social studies, math and geography, to making sure our child can brush their teeth.  Until one is accomplished, it is thought, the other cannot be introduced.  A child who cannot dress themselves, surely cannot be introduced to Kant or Socrates or a poem by Yeats.

“Hey Emma, I’m curious, how is it that you know about WWII and Nazi Germany?”

“I hear you, Nic, and Daddy discussing,” Emma wrote over the weekend.

“Do you think it was right for Harry Truman to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?” my son asked.

“I have to learn more to say one way or the other,” Emma responded.

“Do you want to hear some arguments for and against the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima?” N. asked.

“Yes, I can better understand using the bomb if you tell me more,” Emma wrote.

There is so much more to say…

Emma struck this pose while waiting for the school bus - May, 2014

Emma struck this pose while waiting for the school bus – May, 2014

The Value of Words

Awhile ago Emma wrote, “Talking is hard because I like to say silly things that people take seriously and that is why I am misunderstood.”

Yesterday Richard referenced Emma’s “silly things” but without the full quote and I think some may have read his words and thought he was suggesting her spoken words were silly, when he was actually quoting Emma.  But the context is everything and when Emma wrote the above, it was about written language versus spoken. I was reminded of my friend, Leah Kelley who has a blog, Thirty Days of Autism.  About a year ago, Leah posted a video that I thought so hysterical, I had to share it and have since watched it many times.  It’s called Bulbous Bouffant.

I dare anyone to watch this video and not smile.  Me?  I laughed out loud. Did any of you join in, saying the words out loud?  I did.  Was this silly of me?  YES!  I love silly.  Silly is way under rated.  How much more fun would we all have if we could engage in conversations like this one?  Those of you who hate clicking on links, you’re going to have to… go on, just do it.  It’s hilarious.

We live in a world where this sort of conversation is not exactly encouraged.  In fact, most people, if they encountered such a person while waiting for the bus or subway would probably try to politely extricate themselves from such a conversation.  Someone who spoke, as the person in the video does, would be thought odd and would be avoided.  He might even frighten people.

A few months ago, Emma wrote,  I am intelligent and cannot speak with the same brilliant words that are in my mind.”  And I understood completely what she was saying.  We need to show that we are intelligent before we can lapse into the silliness of enjoying the sounds of a word, simply because it’s fun, or admit that a word makes us happy, not because of its meaning, but just because of the way it feels and sounds while saying it.  Intelligence first and then silliness can ensue, but if intelligence isn’t proven, then silliness becomes “inappropriate” or “weird” or any number of other words we use when we think someone is not like us and less than.

Yesterday Emma wrote, “I troubled you when I intended to talk and words told different tales than I thought.”  I have to say it made me sad to read her words because she’s right, it did trouble me, and had I known how bright she was, I would not have been so troubled.  But this is also a problematic statement because it’s focused on perceived intelligence and shows a definite prejudice towards those who are defined as “intelligent” versus those who are not.  That actually goes against everything I believe.   ALL human beings should be treated equally, with respect, love and kindness, no matter what their perceived intelligence is.  And yet, my obvious prejudice is there and so this is something I will look at and be more aware of.  Without awareness, I cannot change.

So when Emma then wrote, “I realize any words are valued more than silence” I understood her to mean her “written words” because those are the words we applaud her for, those are the words we quote and talk about, those are the words we say, “Here!  Read this!”  Partly because they are so insightful and wonderfully wise, but also because they prove, beyond a doubt, how very bright she is.  But also there’s a hierarchy in our culture –  the more spoken language an Autistic child has, the “higher” functioning they are deemed.  Spoken language in our culture is everything.

Except what about all those people who have not found a way to express themselves? What about those who cannot express “profound insights”?  Are they less important?  Are they somehow less human?  Are they not deserving of the same respect and treatment we so easily and readily give to those who speak eloquently and brilliantly?

“I realize any words are valued more than silence.”

Silence

Silence

 

“It’s Important That Other Parents Understand.”

Written by Emma Zurcher-Long

“I will talk about the upheaval from last night”

“I toyed with downward feelings of rage then

as bountiful memories seeped into my raging mind

I surrendered to purposeful sleep

my screaming mind is momentarily spared from stormy thoughts

piercing my being

threatening no kindness

patience is ground down til pounding terror is all that remains.

Only the dedicated few

talk about love during episodes of furious pain

their love is rejuvenative and restores faith in this awkward world.”

 

From Ariane:

Emma wrote this after having a very rough night over the weekend.  I asked her if it was okay to post her beautiful words here and she agreed.  I asked because there was a time before we had found a way to support Emma’s outpouring of words, before she was able to write, before we were able to understand, before we understood…  those were the times when nights such as the one she is referring to were even more devastating for all of us and our assumptions about what might be going on were so often wrong.  Emma agreed to post this because, “It’s important that other parents understand.”  The problem with the assumptions we made was that they often led us to then behave accordingly, even without meaning to, they affected how we responded to her.

We might have thought – this is a manipulation, she is doing this to us.  We are being held hostage to her screams.  We would mistake her terror for manipulation.  We might withhold our love in anger.  We might assume that to not do so was giving in or condoning the “behavior”.  We might do any number of things to “show” her that this way of being was unacceptable.  Except that this “way of being” was so beyond the scope of our experiences, so beyond what we could make sense of.

“Pounding terror is all that remains.”

And so I remembered afterward the comments from this post, “What Others Had to Say: Love, Overwhelm, Violence” and all the people who so generously opened up their lives and wrote about their experiences with being overwhelmed and no longer able to cope.  That point when feelings completely take over and all we can do is weather the storm.  Emily K. wrote: “Remove yourself from “their” space but do not leave. Defend yourself but do not leave. Let your child Leave/ escape and do not block his/her path. Follow but do not intrude. Allow space and time do not react but respond in the opposite, we need peaceful and loving parents.”

And Autisticook who wrote:  “It will get better.”

And she also wrote this:  “Teach me how to be upset. Show me there are other ways of being upset, instead of only telling me the way I have chosen is wrong and leaving it at that.”

And this:  “You’re the adult, so I’m depending on you to explain to me what I’m doing and why. I won’t be able to correct you on your assumptions until I’m an adult myself. So please be careful in learning my behaviour and don’t label it until you’re absolutely sure. It’s also OK to ask my input on this when I’m calm and happy.”

And this:  “Allow me a way out. If my self-regulating isn’t allowed, I can guarantee you I will get a meltdown. And once I am in that space, all I can think of is making the thing stop that made me go into meltdown. I only have short term memory and very limited reasoning power when I go into meltdown, so I will latch onto whatever trigger I see in front of me.”

And this:  “I will keep triggering until the world is empty of triggers or until I am utterly exhausted. So if you hold me down, you’re actually keeping me in the world of triggers. I need a different world that is practically triggerless. But I’m too young to know this, which is why I will sometimes keep following you and hitting you even though you try to remove yourself. Because I want the upset feeling to stop and the only way I know how to stop something is to hit it until it stops moving.”

And THIS.  This is SO important:  “Don’t ask me questions.  If you want to know how I’m feeling, please ask me afterwards, when I have calmed down and can find my words again.

And this: “Don’t try to distract me.”

And this:  “Once I’m in my safe space and I know people will no longer ask me questions and I can block out the noises and lights and stim to my heart’s content without someone telling me it’s wrong, I usually calm down within an hour or two.”

And finally, this:  “Please give me time to process.”

I would like to report here that I remembered each and every one of these things and that I put them all into action, but I didn’t.  What I did do was try to remain calm and loving.  And when my calm began to fray, I tried to remove myself, while reminding her of my love.  I did a number of things right, and I made a number of mistakes.   We are all learning here.  When calm was restored Emma said she wanted to write about “the upheaval from last night.”  This was in response to my question, “Is there something in particular you want to talk about this morning or would you prefer we discuss an article from the New York Times?

I was surprised she wanted to talk about it.  And then she wrote those beautiful words, which I can only describe as less prose and more poetry, a song, really.  A song borne of experience, despair, and transformed into a thing of beauty.

The beauty of Emma.

Emma ~ 2012

Emma ~ 2012

 

The Dreaded IEP Meeting

Those annual IEP (Individualized Education Plans) meetings all parents of children with “special needs” attend are something I used to dread.  Meant to ensure our children are given the supports and accommodations they need, I went to our first meeting with eager anticipation.  This was where, I thought, we would be able to work with a team of people all of whom had the same goal for our child – getting and giving her the best supports and accommodations available so that she could flourish.

What quickly became apparent however was that this was when her team would write a series of bullet points describing all that was wrong with her.  All the ways in which she fell short, all the ways she demonstrated how incapable she was, were described in detail, documented and added to her growing file.  This was the time, once a year, when I would sit and listen to that itemization, fighting back my tears.  The few things said during that first IEP meeting that were supposedly positive regarding spoken language, were written as a criticism, “…uses gestures to whine or protest.  She is described as shouting or vocalizing to gain attention.”   I would leave these meetings feeling hopeless and filled with the sort of despair I described in yesterday’s post, Dare to Hope.

Today, almost ten years after that first IEP was written, Emma writes by pointing to letters on a letter board and more recently with both her RPM teacher and me, she is typing on a bluetooth keyboard attached to an iPad.  No one touches her as she writes.  Emma has written before about the words that come out of her mouth.  I will quote her, since the way she describes what happens to her when she speaks is far more descriptive and eloquent than anything I might write.  Emma wrote yesterday in her IEP meeting, “I try to talk, but the words just come out wrong.”  A few months ago she wrote how she wished people would, “listen to my writing voice, but they listen to my talking voice instead.”

As always, I asked Emma if I could write this post about her first IEP, as an example of the assumptions made and how far off we were in our thinking as well as a document for those of you who are at the beginning of all of this.  Emma generously agreed that this was a good idea and wrote, “know that just because a kid doesn’t talk or talks like me, doesn’t mean the words that come out are the same words that are in their mind.”  Regarding her so-called “behaviors” which Emma describes as a body/mind disconnection, she wrote,”I hope to better control my misbehaving body, but sometimes it won’t obey.”

A few weeks ago I asked Emma if she could remember when she was very young.  She wrote, “Yes, my body could not behave because I was not able to cope… too many competing sensations.  I couldn’t make sense of everything that did not connect me with my irritable body.”  Now keeping her words in mind, read these words taken from her IEP, dated 2005 (Emma was three years old):

Emma avoids “looking others in the eye, does not answer when people talk to her, does not get along with other children, seems unresponsive to affection and shows little affection towards people, withdrawn…”

“The skills that she does not show evidence of include:  does not yet engage in make believe play, does not yet match objects, complete interlocking puzzles, repeat digit sequences, identify body parts or show understanding of number concepts.  She does not yet point to body parts, clothing items, prepositional commands, or know size.  She does not participate in story telling or give her full name or use pronouns… and shows limited interest in other children.”

The report goes on to say:

  “She does not vocalize when another person calls her name.  She produces a variety of consonant sounds.”

When I read Emma’s words and the way she describes some of what was going on for her and compare her words to the words written on her IEP, it is impossible not to see the massive disconnect between what was actually going on and what all of us assumed was going on.  It is from those assumptions that her goals were then created.  Goals such as:  “Emma will increase communicative intent via word and/or gesture to consistently request object article/toy/food (8/10) trials.”  “Emma will maintain eye contact and prompt (8/10) trials.” “Emma will use at least 10 objects functionally, 4/5x”  “Emma will imitate 1-2 word utterances during play, 4/5x” the list goes on, but the goals are all either regarding compliance and/or acting according to non autistic standards of behavior using spoken language.

In contrast, yesterday we went to Emma’s IEP meeting with Emma, who contributed her own thoughts and opinions about the goals that were set by writing on the keyboard I held for her.   At one point she wrote, “it’s very good having time to go over goals.”  And when asked about the efficacy of being asked to use a mood chart, she wrote, “Sometimes I feel many things at once.  Would the mood chart work for you?”

Can I just say how proud I am that my daughter asked this question?  And by the way – No, Emma, being asked to chart my moods or anticipate what my mood might be would not work for me.  I think it would actually really piss me off if I was asked, while feeling both upset, sad, frustrated, maybe a little frightened and annoyed  to use one word to describe what I was feeling and then was asked, “What’s wrong?” when I could not rely on spoken language to adequately express myself and no one could support me in the way I needed, so that I could write either.

What was wonderful about yesterday’s IEP meeting was that her staff is dedicated and completely committed to listening to Emma and learning from her what it is that she needs and wants.  Everyone was kind, thoughtful and patient and in the end we have an IEP that reflects our goals for Emma, but more importantly it is a reflection of her goals for herself.

Emma the year before that first IEP

Emma ~ 2004, the year before that first IEP

 

A Living Amends & the Ripple Effect

Last night I was on Marc Rosen, Nick Hale and James P. Wagner’s blog talk radio show Human Potential.  You can listen to the show by clicking on the link provided.  The show focused on “The Importance of Allies.”  I was really honored to have been asked on the show, particularly given my past and the things I once believed about autism and my daughter.  I certainly did not begin this journey as an ally and so I am filled with a great deal of gratitude when told there are those who think of me as one now.

One of the things I forgot to mention last night as we talked, was this idea I’ve had ever since that day when I found Julia Bascom’s blog, Just Stimming, and specifically her post “The Obsessive Joy of Autism.”  It’s an idea I’ve tried hard to put into practice these past few years. The idea is that because I made so many really awful decisions about my daughter, I needed to make a “living amends” to her.

The idea of a living amends is that as long as I am alive the only true amends I can make that will have any lasting impact, that has any chance at countering at least some of the bad choices I made, is to do everything in my power now to live my life differently.  A living amends is different from an apology no matter how heartfelt that apology may be.  It is an ongoing commitment to change, to be open, to be willing, to have humility, to learn, and to behave differently as a result of this new-found awareness and commitment.  This is what I promised myself and my daughter just over two years ago when Julia’s blog opened my eyes to a different way of viewing my daughter’s neurology.

Since then I’ve had time to contemplate all of this and believe my role as Emma’s parent is to support her, encourage her, cheer her on and do everything in my power to make sure she feels empowered and supported to be all that she can be.  I do not ever want either of my children to be who they think I want them to be, or who anyone wants them to be, for that matter.  My job is to help them figure out who they want to be and then give them the support to help them be that person.

It is also this thinking that continues to drive me to do all I can to change how the world views autism.  I don’t mean that to sound as egotistical as some might take it. I do not expect, nor do I believe I have the power to change the world’s view, but I do believe each one of us can and does make change happen one person at a time.  There is a ripple effect that then occurs and that ripple effect repeated many times over does have the power to change what no single one of us can.  There is a saying – together we can do what neither one of us can do alone.  Or as Helen Keller is quoted as saying, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

Julia Bascom’s blog is a perfect example of this.  How many, like me, were radically changed as a result of her words?  How many people then took her words and began to live their life differently?  How many then altered the lives of their children because they now presumed them competent?  How many?  I’m guessing the answer is more than just a few…  that’s the ripple effect in action!

Em & Ariane on New Year's Eve ~ 2013

Em & Ariane on New Year’s Eve ~ 2013

“Self-Knowledge Avails Us Nothing”

There are things I forget to talk about with my daughter.  Things that someone will mention or I’m reminded of in some other context and suddenly I’ll think – Gosh, why haven’t I discussed this with her?  These are things a parent would typically talk to their child about, but that because my daughter cannot easily communicate her thoughts I, without meaning to, do not immediately think to talk about with her.  This is the impact my limiting ideas about language and not being able to communicate through spoken language have on my daughter.  It doesn’t always occur to me to discuss with her a great many things until I am reminded.   Out of respect for my daughter I am keeping this post purposefully vague.

I am moving along here, learning as I go and continue to make a great many mistakes.  I have never deluded myself into believing the – making mistakes – part will end, the most I can hope for is that I won’t continue to make the same mistakes, but even so, I do.  I seem to need to repeat the same lesson many times before I am able to make lasting change.  It is a mistake to believe non Autistic neurology does not have trouble with transitions, generalizing information, learning something taught and immediately changing behavior to demonstrate this knowledge.  I will often know something, yet it will take many attempts before I am able to put that knowledge into practice.  You could say that my actions lag way behind what I know or believe.

In the 12 step rooms there is a saying – “self-knowledge avails us nothing.”  What is meant by this is that we can intellectually know something and yet that knowledge does not produce a change in the way we behave.  The only way to change is by doing something differently.  How easy that sounds and yet, look around, people have struggled with this since the beginning of mankind.  Addiction is the obvious example, but there are other, far more subtle things that are great examples of how we want to do something – eat better, exercise, be polite, more friendly, etc –  we know it would be better if we did whatever it was, only to find ourselves unable to do it.  Behavior modification, were it as helpful as many seem to believe, should have helped anyone who has ever attempted to “just stop” and yet it has shown itself as useless.  Unless behavior modification is used in its most extreme form, which I would argue is not dissimilar to torture, in which case it will and does produce short-term change, though at a terrible cost to the person being “treated”, it does not help those of us who are trying hard to change our less than ideal ways of coping with discomfort, fear, pain, and suffering.

Change is hard.  Changing the way we act is even harder than changing a belief.  Yet, we expect and ask children to change all the time.  We tell them something and then when they do exactly what we’ve asked them not to do, we wonder why.  Except that they are behaving the way most of us behave.  Adults are no exception to this.  Now add a neurology that makes communicating more complicated and all kinds of misunderstandings develop.  Conclusions are drawn, ideas and theories are created to explain, and yet…

Recently Emma was asked about something that happened at school.  She wrote, “if every time you tried to speak, the wrong things came out of your mouth, how would you feel?”  We live in a society where people knowingly say and do hurtful things all the time, yet those people are not put in institutions, given random medications against their will, labeled as “low functioning, ostracized, given electric shocks, condemned and treated as though they were criminals.  I’m thinking of a number of radio and talk show hosts whose ratings soar the more outrageous and venomous they are.  These people are rewarded for such behavior!  I’ve never met a parent who said, “I want my child to grow up to be rude, disrespectful and a bigot.”  And yet…

Today I will suggest a few topics and ask both my children what they’d like to discuss.

Em & N. ~ 2010

Em & N. ~ 2010

And the Winners Are…

Emma randomly chooses the winners...

Emma randomly chooses the winners…

This morning  I placed all the names of those who commented on yesterday’s post into a bowl and Emma randomly chose five names to win Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky’s hard cover book, I Might Be You

Be prepared to be blown away.  This book is absolutely wonderful.

To all the winners – Julie L., Edie, Kathy Quoyerser, Corinne Joly and Jill – I will be contacting you by email. Your book will be sent via United States Postal Service after I’ve received your address.

And for those who want to read it, but didn’t win, please consider purchasing this terrific book either as a hard cover or as an ebook available for all eReaders, or the audiobook, which I had the honor of recording with Barb and Lois in New York City last year.  I am the “voice of Barb” and documented that amazing experience ‘here‘, ‘here‘, ‘here‘ and ‘here‘.

2

without looking…

And the winners are...

And the winners are…

Respectful Engagement

Respect.  I think about this word a great deal.  There are things I do, things I think in any given moment are examples of me teaching respect and yet in the teaching I am not modeling the respect I am trying to teach.  Here’s an example of what I mean –  (this example is fairly mundane, but it serves my purpose because it’s something that most of us can relate to.)

Let’s say Emma and I are in a new place.   Somewhere, perhaps like the place we recently went to give a talk on Autism Acceptance, where most or all of the people are strangers.  As we enter the room I notice someone I do know and they walk over to say hello.  My upbringing dictates that I introduce this person to my husband and daughter.  I do this by saying, “Hello _______, this is my husband, Richard, and my daughter, Emma.”  The person nods and says hello, maybe they even extend their hand.  My husband without thinking, says something along the lines of “Hello _______, it’s nice to meet you.”  Maybe they shake hands.  My daughter turns away saying nothing.  I am aware that this is not the conventional way (polite) to greet someone so I, without thinking, direct her, “Emma say hello to _________.”

I know enough not to ask her to touch the other person, even if they’ve extended their hand, but I forget that there may be a good reason for her non-greeting.  Perhaps the lights are too bright, or all these strangers are too much, perhaps she is overwhelmed, or the noise is making it difficult for her to concentrate on any one thing.  Perhaps she senses this person is not someone she gets a good vibe from, perhaps the person is standing too close to her.   Regardless of whether I know what could be causing her not to say hello, demanding that she do so, is not the best thing for me to do.

Instead, I might lean down and whisper in her ear, “Do you want to try saying hello to _____?”  If she does decide she’d like to and can, fine and if she cannot, for whatever reason, then that’s fine too.  But before I say something like this I will want to have done a lesson plan around “social niceties” or the things people say to each other and why they do so.  This is the ideal.  However this is not what I always do, because I forget, but these are the little things I constantly think about.  How can I parent better?  How could I have approached that situation more respectfully?  How can I use this as a teaching moment, not just for my daughter, but for myself?

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that kindness, directed toward myself and others is the single best way most of us learn.  When someone yells at me, I don’t learn, in fact, I shut down.  Even if the person does not yell, but criticizes me, scolds me, directs me to do something without explanation, I feel myself becoming self-conscious or worse, shutting down.  I close in on myself.  I can’t hear what the other person is saying.  I become engaged in an internal battle.  When someone is respectful and kind, I am open and much more likely to listen to them.

People say things like – “oh but that takes such patience,” or “who has the time to do all that?”  I understand.  But I know that the other way, while easy and perhaps quick, is nothing more than a quick fix, if that.  The person may say the words I’ve just directed them to say, but the next time I will go through the same process.  But there’s an even more important piece to all of this, because one can argue, who cares about social convention?  Why should any of us care?  Why should we say hello to one another?  None of this matters.  And I agree, none of this is really the point, the bigger point is that I want my children to understand that we live in a world filled with other people who may or may not share their neurology and that many of those people when met for the first time may offer their hand, if in the United States, and say hello.  I want my children to not be put off by this, but know that they have the option to say hello if they are able to, or not and that I will be respectful of them no matter what their response is.

Directing my daughter to say words that I give her, is not being respectful of her and it also is not presuming competence.  When I give her words to say, I am allowing my issues around social convention to take precedence over respect for my daughter and her sensitivities to her environment.  I want to do better than that.

*I purposely have used the present tense, as this is something I continue to explore and am trying to do things differently.  This is very much a work in progress!

Dressed for spring rain - April 8th, 2014

Dressed for spring rain – April 8th, 2014

Thoughts On Thinking

Friday evening I asked Emma whether she wanted to use the laminated letter board or a qwerty, bluetooth keyboard connected to the iPad.  She told me she wanted to write using the keyboard.  Emma has written on the keyboard during her RPM sessions with B., but this is not something I’ve attempted.  I have been reluctant to use the keyboard because Emma has done so well using the laminated letter board with me and I’m always worried about changing something that’s working well.  But when using the letter board I have to transcribe as she writes or hope that I’ll remember what she’s written, whereas with the keyboard it automatically types directly onto a document within the iPad.  Often I can’t remember what she’s written, or think I have remembered correctly, only to find out later I did not.

This was the case Wednesday night when Emma wrote in front of an audience at CoNGO.  I hadn’t stopped to transcribe her words as she wrote them, thinking I’d be able to remember, but once she’d finished the sentence, I couldn’t remember.  Afterward, when we thought we hadn’t recorded our presentation, I tried to remember what I thought she’d said – “Autism is not what parents want to hear, but I hope that will change as more people meet someone like me.”  What she actually wrote, once we found the video recording, I was disconcerted to learn, was – “Autism is not what parents want to hear, but I hope that will change as more people get to know someone like me.”  That is a subtle, yet significant difference.  I’m so sorry Emma for getting your words wrong.

Our goal has always been for Emma to write on a keyboard and eventually be able to write with the keyboard resting on the table, so that no one need hold it.  That she wrote both Friday evening and over the weekend on the keyboard is a huge leap forward and very exciting!!

So.  Friday evening Richard asked Emma for permission to ask her a few questions about thinking.  Now for those of you who know Richard, you will smile as you know this topic is one of his favorites.  He loves nothing more than to read and discuss thinking, consciousness, dreams, reality, and anything remotely related.  These are the topics Richard explores in his writing and the things he is fascinated with.  Richard wrote on Emma’s Hope Book FaceBook page – I “think” of “thinking” as my constantly chattering internal dialog.  I have long suspected that Emma has either NO internal dialog, or very little, and that what she “thinks” of as “thinking” must be very different from what I “think.”

Emma generously agreed to allow her dad to ask her a few questions though she did remind him that she had the timer on.

*I need to interject here that the following conversation is representative of Richard’s “thinking” and Emma’s as she describes it.  No one is suggesting that ALL people, either autistic or non autistic think as either of them do.  It would be a mistake to assume Richard is somehow representative of ALL non autistic people, though many may relate, or that Emma is representative of ALL Autistic people.

Richard:  Mom and I have this internal dialog going on all the time and that’s what we call “thinking”. How does this differ from the way you think?

Emma: I only think in voices when I am working with you (Ariane).

Ariane: Is this also true when you write with others?

Emma: Yes.

Richard: Do you see our internal dialog as an advantage or disadvantage compared to your own way of thinking?

Emma: It is more distracting than the way I think.

Richard: Tell us more about how you think. If it’s not with an internal dialogue, what is it like?

Emma: Know that I am almost always happy and take great pleasure in sounds, color, fabric.  Everything in life is beautiful if you are able to be here.

*Whoa!  “Everything in life is beautiful if you are able to be here.”  

Richard: I’m so used to thinking with an internal dialogue. It’s hard to imagine thinking without talking to myself.

Emma: Have you felt this always?

Richard: When I was a kid I didn’t talk to myself all the time. I was probably a lot happier. As I grew older, my internal dialog became stronger and now it’s there most of the time. I have to meditate or concentrate to temper it.

Emma: It’s too bad that you have difficulty.

Richard and I looked at each other and shook our heads in amazement.  Then Emma began to laugh and we joined her.

*The keyboard we are using is a Kensington Keyboard.

**A brief update on Emma and Ari Ne’eman’s presentation at CoNGO last week that we video taped, thought we hadn’t then found we had.  We have not had time to upload it and we haven’t received approval from Ari yet, so it may take a few more days before we can post all or part of it here.  Bear with us.

Emma types on a qwerty keyboard

Emma types on a qwerty keyboard

How Do We Put A Price on Communication?

As I was downloading a couple of photographs just now, I found the video we took of Ari and Emma’s presentation Wednesday evening.  Intact.  We’ve got it all!!  Woot!  Woot!  But before I put the video on here, I have to get permission from Ari and Emma.  So let me do that and then, if both agree, you should be able to view it next week.  I’m hoping by Monday.

In the meantime, there’s something else I want to talk about.  And that is the experience of hearing your child’s thoughts and opinions, interests, questions, and desires, when you weren’t sure you would ever be able to do so.  Now this is a little loaded because there are some who believe it’s wrong to suggest all Autistic people will be able to express themselves.  Those people believe there are some who cannot and it is creating false hope to suggest otherwise.  There are still others who feel that communication comes in myriad forms and we must stop insisting one way (speech) is the only way. They believe we should honor all methods of communication, whether that’s through words, sounds, body language, or silence and using our other senses.   Those people believe, and I am one of them, that we all have the wish to connect with our fellow humans in some capacity, at least some of the time, and it is incumbent upon all of us to figure out how we can support each other so that all have the opportunity to do so.

When Emma first wrote an unexpected sentence, described in detail ‘here‘ it was the beginning of what would turn out to be nothing short of an odyssey for all of us.  From that moment, on November 25th, 2012, we have experienced what can only be described as a dream-like adventure with Emma leading the way.  The degree to which she was underestimated by almost everyone who met her, including us, is beyond my ability to describe.  I say “almost” because there were a few people who met her who were not fooled.  It is interesting to note that those few were Autistic.  My friend Ibby was the first and we’ve written a little about this in two pieces she and I wrote featured in Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance’s first addition of their terrific new magazine, which you can read ‘here‘ (It begins with a piece by Ibby on page 17 and then ends with my companion piece beginning on page 21.)  By the way, the entire magazine is filled with wonderful pieces by Beth Ryan, Nick Walker, Cynthia Kim, Amy Sequenzia, Renee Salas, Sharon davenport, Alyssa Hillary, Kimberly F. Steiner, Juniper Russo, Amy Caraballo, Jane Strauss, Kelly Green, Steve Summers, Leslie Rice, Zita Dube-Lockhart, Leah Kelley, Lei Wiley Mydske and others who donated their art work.

When someone sees Emma, who now communicates by pointing to letters on a letter board, (which is different from when she wrote that first sentence a year and a half ago) I sometimes hear the following comments – “I just don’t see how this can translate to a school setting” or “It takes too long” or  “economically it’s not feasible because it requires a one on one ratio that most schools won’t be able to pay for.”  Except here’s the thing…  The way Emma communicates is tailored for an academic setting.  Just as in any classroom, a student is called upon to give an answer or thought, about any given topic, so could Emma be given the opportunity.  All it requires is for the teacher to say, “Emma when you’re ready just signal and you’ll be next.”  The aide can then raise their hand when Emma has finished writing.  This would also deal with the comment that it “takes too long” and I’ll just add that our society’s increasing desire, that everything be reduced to a sound bite, should be tempered, and having someone like Emma in a classroom, would be beneficial to all, by the very fact that we all need to slow the f*ck down.

As far as what this means economically, I argue that there is a great deal of money being spent on a great many things that are NOT working.  Things like trainings for methods that do not produce the type of complex and nuanced language we are seeing.  How do we put a price on communication?  How can anyone suggest that having someone who was thought to be unable, or worse, incapable of expressing their thoughts, not be supported to do so because of the cost associated with it?  How can any of us seriously object?  And yet… people do all the time.  And it catches me by surprise every, single time when they do.

To see your child express their thoughts, as we have had the opportunity to do, is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.  It has changed everything.  Literally everything.  Some people have said to me, “Oh you’re so patient.”  No.  I’m not.  When Emma is writing something, I am filled with eager anticipation for what she’ll say.  Patience?  No.  Ecstatic is a better way to describe my feelings as I witness the outpouring of her words.

How we engage with our daughter, how we speak to her, what we think and now believe, all of it has dramatically changed as a direct result of her communication.  I haven’t even begun to discuss what this has meant to Emma.  And here’s just one more massive difference between then and now.  Instead of me guessing or making assumptions about what this means to Emma, she can now tell us.

“I want to tell you that I am capable.  Daring massively, eager to prove my intelligence, I will work tirelessly so that Autistic children younger than me won’t be doubted the way I am.”                                         By Emma Zurcher-Long

How does anyone put a price tag on this?

Emma Wears A Pretty Dress To School ~ April 4th, 2014

Emma Wears A Pretty Dress To School ~ April 4th, 2014

Emma Presents At CoNGo With Ari Ne’eman

Tuesday night I received a message from Jess of the blog  – Diary of a Mom – telling me she wasn’t feeling great, was supposed to get on an airplane the next morning to come to New York City to give a presentation, along with Ari Ne’eman, co-founder of ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) at CoNGO (Conference of NGO’s) in consultative relationship with the UN.  She asked me if I’d be able to step in if she still felt awful Wednesday morning.  I told her, not to worry, “we’ve got this,” urged her to drink liquids and get lots of rest, but that I fully expected her to wake feeling much better and that none of this would be necessary.

Fade to the following day.

Jess texts me to say she’s feeling wretched, definitely has the flu, there’s no way she’s going anywhere and has contacted the person who invited her to speak to tell him she can’t make it, but that she’s asked me and is hoping he’s okay with this change in plans.  So we wait to hear from him and I go about my day, trying as best I can to not think about it.

Three hours before the event I was able to check my email and see that I’d been given the green light.  I had a few things I needed to do before I could even think about what I would say, but because of an earlier conversation I’d had with Erich who organized the event, I felt I had a pretty good idea.  Basically I intended to introduce Emma and begin by reading her A Letter to the World followed by Emma Discusses Awareness, a quote from something Emma wrote about Acceptance just a few hours before and ending with a question to Emma, “would you like to add anything?”  An hour before the event I was in a panic, while Emma was cheerfully singing and dancing to Donna Summers, wearing her pretty party dress which she chose specifically for the presentation.

We arrived and Ari gave a terrific speech about autism, acceptance, the reason calling a group of people “burdensome” and an “epidemic” is hurtful and problematic and then it was Emma’s turn.  After I read Emma’s words about “Awareness” I said, “I asked Emma earlier today what she thought about awareness versus acceptance.  Emma wrote, “I am aware of many things, and so are you.  Acceptance takes more dedication.”  I paused and then turned to Emma and said, “Do you have anything else you’d like to add?”  I held her stencil board and gave her a pencil.  Emma wrote, saying each letter as it was pointed to, “Yes.  Autism was not something parents wanted to hear, but I hope that will change when more people meet someone like me.”

Applause.

I intended to post the video of the whole thing here, but our camera had a different idea and when we returned home, excited to see the footage, nothing had been recorded.  And because we thought the whole thing was being recorded we didn’t bother taking any still shots either.  So other than a few photographs of Ari, we got nothing.  (Insert sad emoticon.)

Regardless, Ari and Emma rocked and I’m guessing at least a few people came away with a very different idea of what autism is and isn’t.  And if I’m right then it was worth every second.

PS  Jess, I’m hoping you’re feeling better.

Ari Ne'eman

Ari Ne’eman

 

 

 

Emma Discusses – Awareness

“Awareness is deciding something is worth your time and attention.  It is not necessarily good.  Real awareness needs to be balanced.” ~ Emma Zurcher-Long

I asked Emma whether she wanted to write something about autism awareness since April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, designated by the UN in 1989.  Emma wrote,

“Autism awareness really does me very little.  It is not honoring or making my life easier.  So many believe I am unintelligent even though I write well.  Until they see me writing, it is not what they assume.  What good is awareness if it doesn’t tell people the truth?”

Ariane:  “What is the truth?”

“The truth is, so much of what we perceive compared to another, isn’t known.  People see me, but don’t understand what they are seeing.  I want people to know what it is like to have smart thoughts, but not be able to prove it.

“No one wants to be treated with impatience.  I am happy when people are aware of how bright I am.  Maybe they have a special light bulb for that.  Shine some awareness on those of us who can’t talk the way we think.”

Texas ~ September, 2013

Texas ~ September, 2013

Seeing Others Write To Communicate

I often think about that first time I saw someone who was unable to express themselves through spoken language, but who spoke through writing.  There is nothing quite like seeing to believe or at least to begin to believe what many of us have been told is impossible.   So I’ve compiled a few Youtube videos of different people who communicate the way Emma does.  A couple of them show people who have graduated from the laminated letter board and now type independently on a stationary keyboard.  This is our goal and what Emma is working toward.   For those who may feel someone holding a laminated letter board is cumbersome and suspect, please keep in mind the letter board is a stepping stone, which all hope will eventually lead to full independence.

The first video is of Ido who now types independently on a keyboard.  Ido’s blog is Ido in Autismland where, in a recent post, A Challenge to Autism Professionals, he wrote:

“The theories regarding autism have been based on observation of our odd behaviors. Lists of these behaviors make a diagnosis. I have limited independence in selfcare. I have limited eye contact. I have flat affect often. I can’t express my ideas verbally. I have poor fine motor control. I have impaired initiation. I have impaired gross motor control. I have difficulty controlling intense emotions. I have impulse control challenges and self stimulatory behavior.”

At the end of this terrific post he writes:

“Thousands of autistic people like me live life in isolation and loneliness, denied education, condemned to baby talk and high fives, and never able to express a thought. The price of assuming that nonverbal people with autism have impaired thinking is a high one to families and to people who live in solitary confinement within their own bodies. It is high time professionals rethought their theories.”

Ido wrote a book with the same title as his blog – Ido in Autismland.  I cannot recommend this book enough and have written about it before ‘here‘ and ‘here.’   It should be required reading for all parents with an Autistic child as well as anyone who is considering entering or is already in the field of special education and/or autism.

This second Youtube video is of a boy who writes a letter to his church.

Jackie Dorhurst is a speech/language pathologist shown here working with Gavin.  Jackie has an organization called RPM+ located in Wisconsin.

This next video is of my friend Sue Finnes’s son Chris.  Sue has a wealth of videos that she’s posted on Youtube over the years of Chris working with a number of people whom she’s trained to work with him.

And finally this video is of another independent typer, Mitch Helt who writes a letter to his aide.

This post was inspired by a comment from Ari,  who has a wonderful blog, Pixie Perceptions.  You are not alone Ari.  Doing all I can to make sure others realize this…

Talking By Writing

*Emma gave me permission to write about the following…*

Every Tuesday afternoon I go to Emma’s school where Emma and I do a sample lesson, or Emma answers questions from staff or sometimes someone wants to share what they worked on with her and what her answer was.  As Emma “talks” by pointing with a pencil to the letters on a laminated letter board she twirls her string, and often, while she is “talking” by writing, she is also talking, as she describes it, “with my mouth” at the same time.  When I mentioned this to her at our last training session she smiled and wrote, “It is hard for non autistic people to multitask as well as I can.”  Which was one of those frequent – oh-my-gosh-Emma-you-are-so-fabulous – moments, because, really, not only does she have a wickedly wonderful sense of humor, but whoa(!) how right she is!

Later Emma wrote in answer to the question, “Is it problematic for you to switch from the letter board to a qwerty board, she wrote, “No.  It’s not a problem.  Is it hard for you?”  I was so taken aback by her response, because, honestly I had not ever considered that it isn’t a problem for me, so why did I assume it would be for her?  And yet, I have.   This was yet another reminder to me of how I presume competence as best I can with all that I know and yet, am humbled by constant little nudges urging me to go farther.  How beautiful is that?  Seriously?!

When I began witnessing people who use spoken language like my daughter does or who do not speak at all, but write, often poetically, often beautifully, I was astonished.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  It’s been close to two years now since that first time I witnessed in real life someone communicating this way.  At first I was so incredulous, all I could do was watch and try to take in what I was witnessing.  After many encounters, repeated by so many people, men, women, teenagers, boys and girls as young as seven or eight I went from shocked amazement to a more calm feeling of  excitement, but even now, having spent nearly every day watching my daughter write this way, I often still feel like I’m in a dream.   It is as though I have been allowed into another dimension, and it is more beautiful than anything I ever believed possible.

"Talking" with the letter board

“Talking” to Soma using the letter board