Tag Archives: Neurodevelopmental

“Splinter Skills” and Other Words We Use

When Em was not yet three years old we received her diagnosis and began the long trek through, what appeared to us at the time to be, the treacherous terrain of autism.  All the things we admired, her various abilities, all those things I had identified as wonderfully “Emma” were now reduced to a single word “autism.”  I remember bragging about the fact that Emma, at the age of 18 months had taught herself how to pump her legs on a big kid’s swing, only to be told after her diagnosis that “kids with autism will often display splinter skills.” When I then commented that my daughter was extremely independent it was said that her autism caused her to shun other children and people, thus reducing her independence to nothing more than, yet another example of, her autism.

After awhile I felt I didn’t know who my daughter was, other than “autistic”.  That word seemed to so thoroughly obscure her in the minds of so many experts and people in the know.  Autism, it seemed, meant lacking and less than and not capable.   Whenever my daughter displayed things that could not be neatly placed in the deficit box, it was tossed into the “splinter skills” box.  It seemed no matter what she did it was viewed as “deficient” even when it wasn’t.  I remember feeling I finally understood what people meant when they talked about their child being imprisoned or all those awful images that abound of children silently, sadly, standing behind impenetrable walls of glass or behind bars of steel,  their small hands gripping the cold metal as they silently watch the world go by.  All of this, the words and images, showing us, telling us what we could and should expect were like seeing train tracks descending into hell.  Who knew it would take me eight years to understand that so many of those impenetrable walls of glass were constructs made by us.

If we did the same thing to those who are born without Autism, if we talked about our non-Autistic neurology as a deficit and identified all the ways in which it would cause us problems and difficulty, would we not despair when our non-autistic child was born as well?  Take your own life as an example and imagine that when you were born you were seen as a great disappointment.  Think about how each time you did something well it was dismissed as a “splinter skill” and was seen as yet another example of all that was “wrong” with you.  Think about what it would do to your self-esteem if your interests and passions were spoken of as “obsessions” or actively undermined and limited because they were seen as “unhealthy”.  It’s a double standard we have.  We non Autistics are praised, admired, given awards and accolades for our passions and obsessive interests.  People describe us as “driven”, “ambitious” or any number of other words used to describe the things that interest us.  But think if instead we were denigrated, ridiculed and scolded.  What does that do to a person?

The way we speak of and about our children, the way we think about their neurology, the way we attempt to “help” them “fit in”, these are the things I hope will change because it is not helping us parent our children, who need our help, it is not helping educators teach our children, who need to be taught, but mostly it is not helping our children be all that they can be.   My husband once said, “People spend all their time and energy trying to teach their Autistic kids to be something they’re not, when they should be spending all their time teaching their kids to be all they can be.”

Emma’s favorite work of art “Railroad Nostalgia” at the Scope Show in NYC.

Train tracks

Dreams of a New World…

Moral dilemmas continue to plague…  I have never seen myself as one of those mothers who poured all of her competitive spirit into shamelessly promoting her child.  A kind of stage mom gone rogue, using her kid’s exuberant charm and/or talents to gain recognition from thousands of strangers.  A kind of warped narcissistic mirror of neediness, an adult version of a child’s plea, Look at me!  Look at me!  Yet, in light of recent events with parents blogging about their children, posting photos, using their real names, telling excruciatingly personal stories, many not kind or endearing, while supposedly illuminating their child’s and their struggles for all the world to read, judge and comment on as a way to advocate for better services, it’s impossible for me not to reflect on what exactly am I doing here and how is what I’m doing so dissimilar?

I began this blog as a record, of what I hoped and expected would be, Em’s progress after a series of radical stem cell treatments.  I didn’t think or expect this would be read by anyone other than family and friends and those who might be thinking of embarking on similar radical treatments to “cure” their Autistic child.  At the time, April 2010, I wasn’t thinking ahead, I didn’t consider the broader implications, I thought of this space, this blank page, as a place I could come to record what I saw and hoped for, while believing that whatever it was, it would be “miraculous”.

What I didn’t know, couldn’t have known, was that the miracle that occurred ended up having nothing to do with stem cell treatments or any other treatment or therapy.  The miracle has been my own evolution, a kind of 180 degree turn from where I once was in my thinking, in my attitude and in my expectations about autism and what it means to be autistic.  And while there is no doubt that my daughter continues to make wonderful, steady progress, it is not as the result of various remedies and treatments we embarked upon, but rather as a direct result of NOT engaging in those various so-called “therapies”.   What harm we may have done to our daughter because of those treatments, bio-medical and otherwise, is something we will never know, but must live with the uncertainty for the rest of our lives.  

So why write about all of this?  Does the world really need another parent blog about their kid?  Probably not.  However, and here is where things get muddy for me, every time I think about ending this blog, every time I think I can’t keep doing this, it’s not right, it’s not fair to my daughter, it’s not for me to write about her, it’s not for me to broadcast what she says and/or does, it’s not for me to post photos of her, these are not my truths, they are hers to tell if and when she can, every time I think along these lines I wonder if I would have done things differently had I read a blog of someone’s journey that was similar to mine?  Would I have still gone to such drastic lengths?

Is it possible a child’s life might be made just a little easier because of something I write or say here?  Is that just ridiculously grandiose to even think in these terms?  And yet, I have to go back to my own history of having an eating disorder for more than 2o years and the help I was given from hearing others candid, uncensored stories of hope and recovery.  Those stories that resonated were the ones I clung to so desperately during those first painful and terrifying years as I tried to change my life.  Years when making it through a single day without binging and puking was considered a “good” day.  I needed those stories.  Had those people NOT told them I doubt very much I would have gotten through.  I don’t mean that to sound self-congratulatory, it’s actually the opposite, I could not have gotten to where I am without all those people, all those stories, all those people who reached out to me and said, “it’s okay, you can do this.  Here’s my number, give me a call if you’re in trouble.”  I learned to lean on people, I learned that I didn’t have all the answers, I learned that there were more things I couldn’t control than I could.  I learned what it meant to accept what is, the here and now.  I learned about being present and that I hold my breath when I’m fearful and I learned that I wasn’t alone.

So in the end, this blog is no longer a document of “my daughter’s journey through a childhood of autism” as I once described it.  This blog is a document of my journey as a parent and as a human being and how autism has changed my views.  It is a far more beautiful and complex world than I ever imagined or dreamed possible.  It is a world that is evolving, far too slowly for my taste, but I have seen glimmers of what is possible.  A world where we do not segregate, where ALL people are treated as equals, not just as an idea, but in reality, a world where everyone is fortunate enough to have an Autistic person in their life.  A world where autism is no longer feared, but is embraced.


It Finally Happened!

The word autism was mentioned during one of the presentations I attended. Patricia Kuhl, PhD presented on “The Child’s First 2000 Days” where she spoke of that critical period, those first 5 years of life, when the brain has its single biggest growth spurt.  She cited some studies done on tri-lingual and bi-lingual children, showing that critical period of growth is sustained for a longer period.  She spoke of how children respond to humans, the mother’s voice, and how technology should not be used in the first two years of life.

Patricia Kuhl

And then she said the word “autistic.”  She spoke about the need for more research, how in those children the mother’s voice was not sought, in fact it seemed to cause discomfort.  She spoke for about two or three minutes about studies being done with autistic children and then continued with the rest of her presentation before opening it up to questions from the packed room.  Hands flew up and suddenly there was the man with the autistic child asking for more information about technology’s role in teaching autistic children.  Then there was someone else with a question about language acquisition and autism.

I was sitting in the last row and usually do not ask questions during these discussions but wait until after the talk to approach the speaker.  But I couldn’t help myself.  Up went my hand, was she aware of Henry Markram and his Intense World Theory for Autism and if so, what did she think of it?

But though she’d heard of him, she wasn’t familiar with his theory.  Still, I was pleased that someone had included autism in the hundreds of discussions and presentations even if for just two minutes.  And it got me thinking…

If you could put together a series of discussions on Autism presented at a festival such as the Aspen Ideas Festival, attended by some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the country, where the mainstream press is well represented, who and what would you want to see and hear?  A couple of people wrote in the comments section yesterday and it was exciting to hear them.  I’d love to hear more from anyone who cares to weigh in.