Tag Archives: non speaking autistics

Demanding Speech

Over the weekend I witnessed a young man who did not easily speak and when he did say a word, it was clear how hard he was having to work for that one syllable.  Yet the people around him bombarded him with questions.   Questions he could not answer with spoken language, but that did not stop them from asking.  When he managed to make a sound resembling the answer they wanted, they would pause for a moment before asking him another question.  After about ten minutes of this he retreated into what looked like a sensory friendly room, where he rocked gently back and forth, holding his hands over his ears.  Even so, the questions continued.  

Another boy who was having his lunch was told during a ten minute time period to “look at me” more than a dozen times.  He too could not easily speak and was asked a great many questions.  Things like, “Is that good?” When he said, what sounded like, “Yes,” the other person said, “Look at me.  Stop.  Put down your fork.  Look at me.  Is it very good?”  When he again said, “Yes,” he was allowed to eat his lunch for a few seconds in peace before the next question came.

People often ask me why I object to ABA therapy.  It is not only ABA therapy that I object to.  It is ANY therapy that treats another human being as these very well-intentioned people were treating these young people, all of whom were teenagers.  I object to the way so many, who are in the field of autism are trained and how that training  affects how they speak to and interact with people who are autistic.   I do not, for a moment, doubt that they believed that what they were doing was good and ultimately helpful to the kids they were working with.  Yet each one of them was unconsciously or not, treating those kids as though they could not and did not understand what was being said to and about them.  The kids were not being treated as one would treat their same age non autistic peers.

On the Presume Competence – What Does That Mean Exactly – post I wrote, “What I have come to understand, is that a presumption of competence is much more than a set of beliefs, it is a way of interacting with another human being who is seen as a true equal and as having the same basic human rights as I have.”

What I saw was fairly typical of what I see often – well-meaning people who are working with autistic people, but who do NOT presume them competent, not really.  Had I said something to any of these people, I’m sure they would have expressed surprise with my observations of what they were doing and how they were interacting.  I would even guess that they would have told me that they were presuming them competent.  These were not mean people, they were not sadistic people, these were people who believed in the training they’ve been given and believed this was the best way to interact with these teenagers.

At one point the young man who was trying to eat his lunch, looked over at me and my son.  My son, smiled at him and I did a little wave and said, “hi.” He nodded his head ever so slightly at us and then the person who was paid to sit with him, asked him another question.  I do not doubt for a second that all the kids there were competent.  In fact I am convinced of it.  I know it to the core of my being as I have been around so many people who cannot speak, or who can speak, but not easily or naturally and who are all competent.  But this was not how they were being treated.  This idea, which is popular with a number of therapies, not just ABA, that we withhold desirable things until the person speaks as demanded, is not something I agree with because it is based in a presumption that wanting something is equated with ability and this is incorrect, even if it obtains the desired result – a verbal utterance.

Until Emma began to write, using her letter board, I had a great many thoughts about her that have proven incorrect.  Until she began to express herself through those words she painstakingly spells out, I was not treating her as the exceedingly  competent human being that she is, even though I often thought I was.  Even now, on any given day, I do not do this as well as I’d like to.  All those years of ingrained thinking are extremely difficult to change.  But change I must…

A Renassaince Princess

A Renassaince Princess

Discrimination

In Emma’s RPM session yesterday with B. on the topic of discrimination, Emma wrote, “Autism voices have been silent.” (Emma initially typed “silenct and then she edited that to “silent”.)   B. encouraged her to write more, asking her what she suggested.  Emma wrote, “take time to try and learn from us instead of staring at us like we are garbage.”

When she wrote the word “garbage” I felt sick to my stomach. This, from my twelve-year-old daughter.

I remember when my father would call me into his home office to scold me for my latest infraction.  I remember the shame I felt.  I still remember the tingling feeling of rebellion mixed with self-doubt when I noticed the disapproving stare of a stranger upon seeing my outfit – a crop top and pair of cut-offs that I’d smuggled into my backpack to wear to go shopping with a friend after school.   There was shame then too.  But stares like I’m garbage?  No.  I don’t know what that’s like and yet, my twelve-year-old daughter does.  Twelve years old.  Evidently she knows this feeling all too well, as there was no hesitation when she wrote that sentence yesterday.  It wasn’t like she had to stop and think about her answer.  She didn’t pause before pointing to the letter “g”.

take time to try and learn from us instead of staring at us like we are garbage.”

B. had been talking about Martin Luther King.  She had spoken of the civil rights movement and quoted a few things Martin Luther King said.  Emma immediately wrote about autism.  No hesitation there.  I can’t really console myself with the idea that racism and discrimination are no longer an issue in the United States and therefore the prejudice Autistic people encounter will change any time soon as well.  The language has been cleaned up, people know not to use certain words, but the feelings, the feelings of bias, the violence that prejudice and oppression encourage continues.

“take time to try and learn from us instead of staring at us like we are garbage.”

Emma ~ 2010

Emma ~ 2010

Emma’s “Folk Tale”

*Emma worked on this story for a week and it took many 45 minute sessions to complete.

“Once upon a time there was a duck and she bought a gorgeous pair of shoes.  She could not force her webbed feet into the lovely shoes, so she fell into a terrible depression.

“Oh what is the matter with me?” she cried.

“Her once beautiful feet now disgusted her.  The new shoes languished in her closet.  Golden hopes for her acting debut were dashed.  Without her new shoes she believed she would not be as highly regarded as she would be while wearing them.  Delightful she once was, but now no longer.

“Dawn arose like a spring crocus and she decided matters could only improve if only her feet were dainty.  Seeking the advice of an aged, old, spotted owl, she wondered if her feet could be changed.

“The ancient bird asked, “Have you always hated your feet this way?”

“No,” she said, “I have always enjoyed my wonderfully webbed feet.”

“Then, ” asked the sage, “why do you dislike them so, now?”

“Because,” she replied, “my new shoes do not fit and they are so pretty.  Could they be changed so I may wear them?”

“Yes.” Owl smiled.

Relieved to be in the company of one so wise, Duck had seen the failure of her ways.  It was not her feet needing amendment, it was her perception.

Duck's Lovely Webbed Feet

Duck’s Lovely Webbed Feet

Today is Emma’s birthday.  She turns 12.  Happy Birthday to my beautiful girl!!

The Conversation That Isn’t

The biggest problem with the conversation regarding autism and Autistic people is that it is largely had without the inclusion of those who are being discussed.  When Autistic people attempt to join the conversation they are often told – the very fact you can speak removes you from the conversation because you are not representative of those who cannot and those who cannot speak are believed to have little if nothing to say.

When someone who is Autistic and does not speak, types to communicate, they are often discounted as not really being able to type, even when they are able to do so independently.  One of the many google search terms that come up repeatedly, leading people to this blog is “Carly Fleischmann fake.”  I continue to find people’s adamant disbelief, even when shown clear evidence of ability, baffling.    For those who do not know who Carly Fleischmann is, please go to her website and Facebook page.  She is a non speaking Autistic teenager who defies all the stereotypes about what it means to be non speaking and Autistic.  People insist that she is an anomaly, but go to a conference like TASH, Autcom, the ICI Conference or go to the resources page on this blog and read the many blogs and written works by non speaking Autistic people and you will quickly see that not only is Carly not a “fake” or a “hoax”, she is not an anomaly; she is in good company and one of many.

“…. a tendency among professionals to band together when their expertise is challenged and to deny resolutely the existence of evidence which, if admitted, would force a reevaluation of established practice.” ~ Speechless by Rosemary Crossley

Rosemary Crossley on the topic of IQ tests, writes, “Tests of intelligence purport to assess how well you take information in, and what you are able to do with it, on the basis of what comes out.  If nothing quantifiable comes out you are untestable.”  She then goes on to say, “What is surprising is that the results are assumed to reflect what the child and teenager are thinking and what they are able to learn, and are used as a basis of making decisions about their futures.

So we continue to have a conversation about Autistic people, yet when those who can speak do so, they are discounted as not representative of those who cannot, and when those who cannot speak, type, they are doubted, believed to be a hoax or an anomaly and not representative of others who share their inability to speak.

Does anyone else see a problem with all of this?  Anyone?

Me and Em at the ICI Conference in July, 2013

Me & Em

Seeing But Unable to Believe

When some people hear that my daughter is Autistic they see a beautiful blonde haired girl with no noticeable physical impairments.  They see a pre-teen who has terrific eye contact.  They see someone who is happy and playful and who laughs often and with abandon.  They see someone who loves loud music, a good party and will grab hold of a microphone if given the opportunity.  They see someone who obviously loves to perform in front of an audience.  She doesn’t fit their concept of autism so they assume the diagnosis must be wrong.  They say things like,  “But I never would have known if you hadn’t said something.”

When it becomes clear that she cannot carry on a conversation with them, but demonstrates her intelligence by typing something with lots of insights and wisdom, they see a doting mother who is supporting her daughter’s arm or holding on to the other end of a pole and they assume it is all a manipulation.  They decide it is me who is writing these things, “putting words into her mouth”.  After all my daughter cannot carry on a conversation, how could she possibly be writing such beautiful words?  Later, when I am no longer present they might say, “Poor thing, she’s deluding herself about her daughter, of course she would, how could she not?  It would be giving up all hope to do otherwise.”

In our field, assumptions about labeled people are so deeply rooted that we tend to think they are facts.  They are not – they are only shared beliefs.” ~ Autism: Sensory-Movement Differences and Diversity by Martha R. Leary and Anne M. Donnellan

I explain that my daughter is typing these things, but needs support to do so, without that support, which is in the form of resistance, she will impulsively revert to her favorite scripts, and they think to themselves – that doesn’t make sense.  How is that possible?  She can type independently now, why don’t they just leave her alone and let her type what she wants?  If she can’t type these things independently, it must not be coming from her.  Her mom must be writing those things for her daughter.

I then talk about how my daughter is doing math, multiplication and division (in her head) without any formal training and they think – well, that simply isn’t  possible.  That can’t be.  They look to see if my daughter is somehow being manipulated, prompted, even though she is not being touched.  When I state that my daughter is reading faster than I can, they wonder – but how can she really know that for sure?  When Emma then obviously passes reading comprehension multiple choice tests, they think – well, but it’s just a coincidence, after all it IS multiple choice, that’s much easier than if she had to write an essay.  Those who do believe, assume she must be the exception.  They say things like, “But my child/the child I work with can’t possibly do that. You’re so lucky.  Your daughter is very, very special.”  They place my child into a little file in their mind.  A file entitled –  anomaly.

When you have enough exceptions you have to start questioning the legitimacy of the rule, the assumptions, and the paradigm.” ~ Speechless by Rosemary Crossley.

I have interviewed  a great many non-speaking Autistic people and published our conversations here and on the Huffington Post.  I have an entire page on this blog devoted to Resources, the first list is of all the blogs and writings of non-speaking Autistics that I know of, but there are a great many more that I do not know about.  Even so, people will write about how those non-speakers didn’t really write their own words or, conversely, they say –  isn’t it wonderful that these individuals are so amazing and an inspiration, but they are exceptional, they are not like my non-speaking child, or the children I teach, or the children I work with or…  Perhaps they are right, but what if they are wrong?

I would rather have my daughter surrounded by people who believe her capable than around those who do not.

Ariane Zurcher, Amy Sequenzia and Ibby Grace at the ICI Conference ~ A conference dedicated to accommodating those who do not speak

Me, Amy & Ib

Giving Hope…

During those first few years of Emma’s life, when we were so exhausted and everything was confusing, well-meaning people made pronouncements about Emma’s future.  If I had to choose one emotion to describe my feelings during those early years, it would be terror…  I was terrified.  The kind of terror that keeps you up at night and then, once you’ve managed to lose yourself in the welcome relief of sleep, you dream about elevators swinging in midair, doors that open up to emptiness, running to places only to find you keep ending up where you began…  and then… and then you wake up with a jolt of optimism, for a brief, few seconds you have forgotten your terror, only to have it come surging back, dispersing any wisps of residual optimism from days now gone…  You’re left bereft, empty, alone and yes, grieving… Grieving for that time when terror wasn’t something you were intimate with…

What I wanted during those early years, what I wanted later when Emma grew beyond toddlerhood, when she entered adolescence, all I wanted was for someone, anyone to say –  Don’t believe any of these people.  They have no idea what they’re talking about.  Don’t spend your time on the internet researching autism.  Don’t listen to organizations with Autism in their title, but that have few or no Autistic people occupying prominent positions in their organization.  Don’t believe any of those people who talk about “recovery” and liken your daughter’s neurology to disease or buy into therapies whose main goal is to make your daughter indistinguishable from her non Autistic peers.  Reject ALL of that.  Being able to speak isn’t the only way to communicate.  An Autism diagnosis isn’t a metaphoric nail in a coffin.  

I imagine those years of terror and how different our lives would have been had I met some of the people I now know.  People I have met on the internet, through their blogs, at conferences such as AutCom and the ICI Conference in Syracuse.  Conferences where I left feeling elated and euphoric because I witnessed all that was possible and not all that wasn’t.  How can we move beyond the current conveyor belt of fear that only serves to pad the pockets of Autism businesses run and created by non Autistic people, who do not seek out the active involvement of those very people they insist they are dedicated to help?  How do we dispense hope and what is possible amidst the maelström of deficit thinking?  How do we care for families new to all of this, those families whose children will be greatly affected by their parent’s terror?

We have to give eye-witness accounts of what is possible.  We must have resources available to families that will counter the predominantly negative views of autism.  Resources that do not condemn the parent or the child.  Resources that do not encourage terror, but offer hope and possibility.  Ideally I would have been given the list of books  I have on my “Resources” page and actual copies of these four books:  Autism and Representation Edited by Mark Osteen, Autism and The Myth of the Person Alone Edited by Douglas Biklen, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States by James W. Trent Jr.  and Representing Autism by Stuart Murray.

Parents need support so they have the energy, patience and optimism to give their child the support and encouragement they need.  Therapists, professionals, educators, experts who are making a living working in the field of Autism must understand the importance of offering hope.  Hope based in possibility and reality.  No one is served by being terrified.  The only people who will be adversely affected if we stop the terror surrounding autism are those whose businesses thrive on such beliefs.  And to all those businesses – I say – Good riddance.

LifeThe possibilities are endless… 

Why Wretches And Jabberers Is Essential Viewing

Wretches and Jabberers.  I have written before about this documentary, but I’ve never fully explained why this movie had such a profound impact on me, on my thinking and subsequently on my family.  I will attempt to do that now.

I watched Wretches and Jabberers at the urging of my friend, Ibby last summer.  If a person’s life can be seen as a series of lights, indicating special influencers, Wretches and Jabberers was a beacon.   I knew nothing about supported typing, in fact, I’d never heard of it, so I watched in fascination as both Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher (who are mostly non-speakers and Autistic) typed with their support persons, Pascal Cheng and Harvey Lavoy.  And I wondered whether my daughter might find communicating easier if she typed, instead of being expected to speak.

Larry is a painter, lives with his sister and was institutionalized as a teenager.  He shouts out things like “Bad boy!”  Tracy hits himself in the head when frustrated and has nowhere he can call “home”.  The documentary follows Larry and Tracy as they travel the world meeting other non speaking Autistics.  Again and again the viewer is shown a mostly non speaking Autistic person who has been deemed intellectually incapable by society, only to witness their intelligence and humor break through the silence by typing on a voice activated keyboard or iPad.  And again I thought about my daughter.

It is impossible to watch the film and believe these two men are isolated cases.  One cannot view this documentary and not question one’s preconceived beliefs about intelligence. The film defies the accepted and common non Autistic assumptions about Autism and what it means to be Autistic.  And for me, anyway, it made me question everything I thought I “knew” about my daughter.  All the things I had begun to question, whispering doubts about my thinking that I was no longer able to ignore because of the blogs I was reading written by Autistic people, were now amplified.

I have been interviewing Tracy Thresher for a piece I’m working on that I intend to submit to Huffingtion Post.  In answer to my question about what it meant to him making the film he wrote, “Our film catapulted me to realize my dream of traveling the world to educate, learn and change old attitudes of discrimination toward people of varying abilities. The Larry and Tracy duo illustrates how intelligence is often worked out in a much different way.”

Later in my interview he wrote, “…my mission to show kids and their supports that putting communication to the top of their list of priorities is vitally cleansing to the mind. Releasing deep thoughts is the key to alleviating anxiety. Frustration leads the body to unproductive anger. Being able to show intelligent thought is the path to happier futures and true quality of life, leading to purpose. That is what I sought and found with typing.”

Once again I thought about my daughter and her difficulty with oral language and the frustration that causes her.

Wretches and Jabberers was like an enormous, day glo green, neon sign saying “follow me” on it.  Powerful, funny, poignant, Wretches and Jabberers is essential viewing for all human beings, not just those interested in Autism and parents of Autistic children.  It rattles our unexamined biases, our beliefs, our perceptions and everything we are being “told” about autism, our children and what is and isn’t possible.  And if you are like me, you will think about your child and the world differently as a result of watching it.

One of my all time favorite photographs of Larry Bissonnette taking Emma’s photograph in Tampa, Florida ~ April 2013  (Amy Sequenzia is in the background)

Larry takes Em's photograph