Tag Archives: non-speaking

Have Your Voice Heard!

For my Research and Writing English class this year I have to write a paper on a topic of my choice that weaves data and data analysis with factually based interpretation of that data. My research question for this paper is:  To what extent is it possible to compare the ways in which methods of communication are being taught to autistic students who cannot use spoken language to communicate their complex ideas?

Because many existing communication methods are underrepresented in most schools, I created a survey to find out what methods students use, what they are being taught to use and how successful each is.  Additionally I am curious to know whether a student’s school allows the communication method chosen by each student to be the most beneficial, and if not, how the student then communicates their complex thinking and knowledge.

This survey uses a google form and is completely anonymous.  You will not be asked for any contact information, your name or the name of your school.

Who I’m hoping will participate:

  • Anyone, anywhere in the world, who cannot use spoken language to convey their complex thoughts.
  • Anyone who cannot rely on spoken language most of the time.
  • If you are no longer in school you can fill the survey out by remembering your experience when in school.
  • If you are homeschooled or are doing a combination of online, non-traditional-school or other learning experiences, please consider participating.
  • Parents whose child/offspring fits the description above can fill out all factual questions and those questions that are subjective can choose “other” and explain you are a parent or give your opinion and explain that it is yours.

This is the link to my survey:  Survey

I hope you will add your voice and experience by participating in my survey.  I am glad if you do.

Have your voice heard!

Banding together with our typed words,

Emma NYC

emmaschool

That’s me, Emma, at school this morning.  Photo credit: Mom aka Ariane Zurcher

 

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

A Language I am Fluent in

Gazing hungrily at the docking station that cradles my iPhone, I can already hear in my head the first song I will play.

It is a charge surging through my body.

It’s electric.

It’s stars that shower down.

It is invigorating, a power drink transforming lethargy into intensity.

Pounding beats, it’s Jessie’s Bang Bang, Lily’s Smile, Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love and the crazy pre-rap rap of the Talking Heads.

It tastes like an explosion of chocolate hazelnut, a glop of Nutella hitting your tongue before you’ve even swallowed.

Understanding the notes is a full body experience.  It’s a world where I can be me, unedited, pure and perfect.

This is a language I am fluent in.

*Emma*

Poetry is Ballet in Words

Poetry is ballet in words.

Graceful, agile words, yawning and leaping while whispering and shouting all at once.

The ending is the beginning

like water colors

I had no access to any of it

no way to share the beauty

alone

the dance

with no one to answer or interact

I was alone in the intense happiness

but now

I can choose to dance with others

when I want.

Poetry is Ballet in Words

“Let’s Pretend You Are the Autistic One”

(A note on Emma’s post.  Because this is a fictitious dialogue that Emma wrote, for clarity’s sake, I asked her if it was okay to put the Autistic person’s words and thoughts in italics and the non autistic’s words in quotation marks.  She agreed.  My part of the conversation is in parentheses.)

For today’s blog post, let’s pretend you are the Autistic one and I should be the non autistic.

“Oh dear!  Why are you hurting yourself?”

(I asked Emma whether the Autistic person could use spoken language to speak.)

You can’t speak and I will talk for both of us, it will be more authentic that way.  Maybe you talk, but not with the words that best describe what’s in your mind.

“I don’t understand, do you want to go outside?  Why are you biting yourself?  Does that mean you do?”

You are thinking about expectations and how hitting yourself takes away the pain of not being understood and unable to say the words that will help.

“Here!  We will go outside.  It’s a beautiful day.”

I don’t want to go outside.  I want to read a story.

Pointless bottling emotions of endless frustration cause words to wither in the recesses of the mind.  Biting becomes the only way to stay rooted, but causes everyone watching to respond in loud voices of angry fear.  Until there is understanding, you are alone in the terrible confusion of other people’s voices that are louder than yours.

Caution is needed whenever we decide we know what is in the mind of another human being.

Emma's Ceramic Dish of Hope

Ceramic Dish of Hope ~ Made by Emma

“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

Friendships

“Both of us writing this post is fine.  We are working together,”  Emma typed just now.

But first a short explanation is needed:  Twice a week Emma has an in person typed “chat” with her friend, Joey.  Yesterday’s chat was a little different because the person Joey usually writes with on Mondays was ill, so I asked Joey if he’d be okay with me holding the keyboard for both him and Emma.  He gave me the go-ahead and so I alternated between them, each taking a turn to type.

During their chat, Emma did what she often does, which is talk out loud.   Often she will talk about things that happened in the past, as in, “Maddy needs to sit down.  Maddy wasn’t nice to Emma” or it can be about the future as in, “chat with Joey,  get groceries, German, Math, Skype call with Granma, see Daddy, have dinner, sleep, wake-up, Skype call with Dr. C….” Emma wrote, “When my brain gets busy it remembers things that have been said to me or what I have heard.”  I wrote about this recently – Scripts – A Communication Bridge

As Emma and Joey typed with each other, Emma said aloud her nickname for Joey – JoeyAllison.  This is a nickname Emma came up with a few months ago when Joey unexpectedly appeared in the same place that someone named Allison had been, the last time we were in the building.

What follows is their chat, which they both agreed to share on this blog (I added punctuation to clarify with Emma’s approval):

J:  I begin this, you go next, not Monday schedule threw me.

(J. has a daily schedule and his and Emma’s “chat” wasn’t listed for Monday.)

E:  How was your thanksgiving?

J:  Good food I like, how about yours?

E:   Thanksgiving in two parts is the best way to celebrate holiday of gratitude.

(Emma kept saying out loud “JoeyAllison”)

J:  Liking nickname not much, but tolerating since hoping you will find another more likable.

E:   Joeyallison is etched into my brain, so hard to overwrite, but I will try.

J:   Knowing you make an effort helps, thanks.

E:  I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.   It’s meant in friendship.

Later Joey’s mom told me Joey’s middle name, which is oddly similar to the name Emma has taken to calling him.  I told Emma what his middle name was and she said it out loud several times, as though she were trying it out and then said, “good.”  Then she typed, “I will call Joey by his first and middle name to his face, if my mouth obeys, because he’s my friend while secretly saying JoeyAllison to myself.”

Friendship

Autism ≠ Developmental Delay

There were few things that led us more astray than the idea of autism being a developmental delay.  Last week Emma wrote, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely.” I was reminded of this last night as I watched a video from 2006 when we took Emma, who was then four-years old, to meet the late Stanley Greenspan.  (This post is not about Stanley Greenspan or his method.  His name is brought up only because of the video that inspired this post.)

Watching that video last night was brutal.  The private hell of regret is a cruel place to linger.  Emma described her experience of watching the video last night as “wading into the marsh of worry and fear, but quiet love was there even when the days were dark.”   In typical Emma-fashion she generously and compassionately reminded me that it was not all an unmitigated hell.  Unable to communicate her complex and insightful thoughts with spoken language, she languished for years in an abyss of being constantly underestimated and misunderstood.  Because people assumed  she spoke what she intended and meant, she was penalized for the words she managed to utter.  “Do you want to go fast or slow?”  “Do you want to stop or go?”  “Do you want to open the door or close it?”

Again and again the video shows us making assumptions about her actions.  We assume she has no interest in engaging.  We assume she doesn’t want to spend time with us.  We assume she is “in her own world.”  We make assumptions and we behave according to those mistaken beliefs.  We believed each word was a milestone, paving the way for more language acquisition.  We believed it made sense.  Lay the foundation, create a strong base of words for more to follow…  Use your words, use your words, use your words…

The assumption that her spoken language represented her comprehension and intelligence and therefore we needed to push for more was never disputed.  This idea of a developmental delay bled into every single aspect of her being.  It was believed that her speech was delayed, as were her fine and gross motor skills.  Therapies were structured around this concept.  All held the promise that if we did intensive, ongoing therapy she would one day, catch up, particularly if we did this during that brief window of opportunity, before she turned three, and then four, maybe if we were lucky, we hoped, the window would still remain open at five, what about six?  At the time we didn’t question any of this.  Had we known then that she probably already knew how to read, had we understood that what she said, was not representative of her intelligence or indicative of what she understood or knew, if we’d known that autism was not a developmental delay, but rather a “different road entirely”, it would have changed the path we proceeded down.

As it was, we did not know.  We listened to the many professionals we consulted.  Well meaning professionals, often incredibly kind and thoughtful, a few even brilliant, but none, not a single one ever mentioned the concept of a body/mind disconnect or how that might apply to our daughter.  It never once occurred to me that maybe, just maybe what she said was not what she intended to say.  It did not enter my mind that when she didn’t answer a question it was because she knew the answer, but couldn’t say the words, this thought, this idea was not something I even knew to consider.  We would learn about all of this much, much later and when we did hear these ideas, it came from the most unexpected source – our own daughter, Emma.  Not only was she the person we least expected to enlighten us, but she did so, not through spoken language, but by typing.  Eight years ago, I don’t know that I would have believed any of this, let alone that Emma would write about all of this in such detail, as she has in these posts:

Emma’s Presentation

Tomorrow’s Presentation

“Rethinking Your Beliefs About Autism”

When the Body Does not Obey the Mind

Parents who are just getting a diagnosis for their young children have so many more resources available to them than we had in 2004.  The most important being, blogs written by Autistic people of all ages, non-speakers, speakers, semi-speakers and everyone in between.  It is the writings and friendships I now am fortunate enough to enjoy, that have helped me more than anything else.  One day I hope the professionals parents are introduced to will be Autistic professionals.

My friend Bridget of the blog, It’s Bridget’s Word said to me, “The ‘delay’ concept is a trap. Development is not linear no matter how many folk whose livelihood depends on timetables try to make it.”

Cynthia Kim, author of Nerdy, Shy and Socially Inappropriate ,  I Think I Might be Autistic, the blog Musings of An Aspie and owner of StimTastic said, “That waiting to catch up feeling is so insidious and one that I subconsciously lived with for a long time.”

My friend Ibby, educator and author of the blog, Tiny Grace Notes, who is like family to me, said, “Speaking now as an education professor: “developmental delay” is an actual category under the IDEA which is not allowed to be used after the age of eight. The purpose of it was to give people with conditions in which they might “catch up” a chance to do so, and the doctors more time to pinpoint their diagnostics if not. If you look at the lists for most states of what conditions might cause “developmental delay” to be diagnosed before age 5 (as it has to be in most states) it makes some sense as being this sort of thing. Autism is not a “delay” but a condition causing atypical (as opposed to delayed but still on the same track of typical) development.”

Ibby added, “In short, this is not only dangerous and unhelpful but technically ignorant even if separated from the consequences.”

So what are the consequences of believing autism is a developmental delay?

Well, for us it meant constantly comparing our daughter to her non autistic peers (using their development, and not hers, as the ideal).  It meant pursuing all kinds of therapies that never questioned the push for spoken language.  It meant not considering AAC devices, because she “had language.”  It meant encouraging my daughter to “use your words.”  It meant asking her to focus on things that made it impossible for her to concentrate on what was being taught.  It meant looking at her through the lens of deficits, so much so that they became blinders shutting out everything else.

There are so many things Emma can do, that I cannot.  Her mind, as she so beautifully described it, is a “wonder, channel changing, multi-screened on fast forward” thing of beauty that defies all limits placed upon it.  My daughter amazes me every, single day.  As always, Emma said it best and it bears repeating, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely” and what an amazing road it is!

Emma - 2006

Emma – 2006

Ideas, Insights and Discovery

This morning I had an idea, which turned out to be something I thought was a good idea, only to find that what might seem like a good idea to me, is not necessarily a good idea to my daughter, and the reasons why were not something that ever occurred to me.

I am continually surprised by the insights Emma, so patiently, gives me and am reminded again and again that my assumptions limit my views.  Thank you Emma for giving me permission to post our conversation.

Ariane:  I thought we could begin the day by discussing who you might like to interview and about what topic?

Emma:  Is the way here, thinking, knowing, and asking about another, helpful?

Ariane:  I think it’s interesting and certainly can be helpful to get to know other people’s experiences of life.  Asking is a great way to understand another’s perspective.  Who would you like to interview?

Emma: Using questions to sing truths meaningfully speaks to all.

Ariane:  That’s so true!  Music is a universal language that can transcend words.

Emma:  What did those we cannot ask, say?

Ariane:  Who are you thinking of, Emma?

Emma:  Those who cannot speak and have no one who believes in their ability to communicate in other ways.

Ariane:  Here’s the thing though, we can ask.  We may not get an answer we understand, but we can still ask and I think that’s the beginning, right?  We ask anyway and then do everything we can to understand the answer, even if it’s not in spoken language or in ways we understand at first.

Emma:  Understanding that all human beings want connection is natural and fundamentally human.

Ariane:  I agree.  So Em, what was it like before you were able to type?

Emma:  Days bloated with tears, frustration, anxiety and raging questions that only made daily living harder.

Ariane:  Ah…  can you tell me more?

Emma:  Thinking and wanting to ask questions, but knowing the words would come out wrong was too painful, best to silence asking than to be in the smothering feelings of tremendous frustration.

Ariane:  I imagine interviewing someone must be hard, even now that you can type.  Would you say that’s true?

Emma:  Sometimes ease is not an option.

Ariane:  You do not need to ask any questions unless you choose to, Emma, I wasn’t considering any of this when I first introduced the idea.  I’m sorry.  What else should we do right now?

Emma:  How about a conversation using music and no words?

Ariane:  Great idea!

Some of the instruments Emma chose for us to use in our "conversation."

Some of the instruments Emma chose for us to use in our “conversation.”

“Mistaken Beliefs People Have”

I asked Emma what she wanted to write about this afternoon during her writing session.  She typed, “Deconstructing the mistaken beliefs people have.”

I encouraged her to continue and asked what she was thinking of specifically.  She typed, “Mostly what people think they understand there cannot be, when talking about autism, creating lots of bad ideas that attract unoriginal therapies we must put up with.”

“Wow!  Keep going,” I urged.

“Actors playing roles the audience greets with enthusiasm, but an autistic person who doesn’t speak as expected, or at all, is booed off stages throughout the world.”

“Such a great point,” I said.

Emma typed, “The people of this world need to be exposed to difference and then shown compassion for their ignorance and limited thinking.”

She smiled and then typed, “Put it on the blog!”

And so I am.

Austin1

Scripts – A Communication Bridge

Something happened yesterday that was hugely helpful and gave me some staggering new insights.  I’m hoping this might be helpful to others as well…  The details do not matter, so don’t get caught up in them.

Em and I do the same thing every Wednesday morning, we go visit B. whom Emma loves and also types with.  But this time someone else asked to join us and when I asked Emma what she thought, she said out loud, “Yes!”  She said it with a great deal of enthusiasm, as though she liked the idea.  However I have learned to always verify any spoken words with some other type of confirmation so I held my two index fingers up and said, while indicating the left one, “Yes” or, and then indicated the right finger “no”.  Emma repeated “Yes!” and pointed to my left finger.  Satisfied, we joined the third person and made our way up the street.

A few blocks from our destination, Emma began saying out loud, “City tree house.”  This is a place for small children and it has been the cause of a great deal of anxiety.  I could see, by both the expression on her face and her tone that she was becoming increasingly upset.  By the time we arrived at B.’s Emma was really worried, anxious and very unhappy.   I was doing my best to talk to her about city tree house and how it is one of those places that caters to very small children when  Emma sat down next to B and typed, “You did not listen to my words last time.”  I, thinking she was referring to another conversation we’d had the week before asked if she was referring to that conversation, but she said she wasn’t.  She said that she did not want this other person, who was now sitting in the room, there.  The person said not to worry and immediately got up and left the room

After they left I said, “But I asked you before we left Emma, so I’m confused,” Emma then wrote, “If anxiety rises after choices are made then it may be inaccurate.”

What followed was an incredible conversation about how a decision can be made only to realize that it is the wrong one.  When this happens, go to scripts that are based in memories of anxiety begin.  As we talked I suddenly remembered a conversation I had several years ago with my friend Ibby.  This was a time before Emma was typing with us and I was asking Ibby for her thoughts about some of the things Emma would say out loud that I found baffling.  Ibby told me that I mustn’t try to do a word for word translation, but needed to feel the emotion behind the words and try to understand the context that way.  I remember being utterly confused by Ibby’s explanation and suggestion, but now, today, I get it, in a way I have not understood until now.

I asked Emma to verify all of this before writing about it and she affirmed that I am understanding it correctly.  In the past I would have gotten all tangled up in the specifics of what she was saying.  I would have sought to reassure her about whatever it was.  But now, I understand that these scripts can serve as so much  more.  They can serve another purpose.  They are less about the words spoken and more about the emotions that are attached to them.  So when Em is happy she will often speak of some of her favorite people.  She might reference something that happened more than eight years ago, but that made her feel safe, or a specific time when she was really happy.  I’ve always thought these memories were nothing more than that.  Memories she enjoyed voicing out loud, but nothing more.  But now.  Now, from what she typed, I understand that they are much, much more than random memories.  They are a kind of communication bridge.  A way of saying, I’m happy!  Or I’m feeling really sad, or this is causing me terrible anxiety, but it’s more than just a vague statement about a feeling, it’s actually a brilliant way of trying to convey much more.  It’s a way to communicate a whole series of feelings.

The more I think about the conversation we had, the more I feel I am understanding.  Those scripts are like flashbacks in a movie.  They give us a tremendous amount of information and are symbolic of so much.

Emma ~ 2012

Emma ~ 2012 

Cynthia Kim of Musings of an Aspie wrote about scripting too – Echolalia and Scripting:  Straddling the Border of Functional Language (funnily enough Cynthia and I have done this before, written about the exact same topic on the same day!)

The Assumptions We Make

When I first heard the words “presume competence” I had no idea what that meant.  I cobbled together some ideas of what I’d read and thought it meant and did my best to put them into action.  I did a great deal of “acting as if” and reminded myself, when my daughter wandered off in the middle of my explaining something to her, to keep talking anyway.  When she didn’t seem to look at whatever it was I was showing her I pretended that I knew she was taking it all in.  I pretended I believed, even when I didn’t.  And when my energy was depleted I would not place demands on either of us.  If I wasn’t able to take actions that were centered in presuming competence then I tried not to take any actions at all.

In the beginning the best I could do to show a presumption of competence was to read age appropriate books to her.  This was when Emma was eight years old.  I still remember the first book I read that wasn’t considered “young” for her age.  It was a biography of Balto, the Siberian Husky who raced through a blizzard in whiteout conditions delivering a much needed serum saving countless people sick with diphtheria in Alaska.  After Balto, I read a biography of Helen Keller specifically for children and then, because Emma seemed to enjoy it so much, we read the autobiography of Helen Keller, all the Mary Poppins books, followed by The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Tale of Despereaux, Winn Dixie, Bridge to Terabithia,  Little Women and on and on we went.

At first I was unsure whether she was even listening, let alone enjoying any of these books.  But one night as she settled into bed, and when I didn’t pull out a book, Emma sat up and said very clearly and distinctly, “Helen Keller.”  Emma was not typing yet, so I wasn’t completely sure she really wanted me to read Helen Keller or if she was just saying the name because it was what I’d been reading.  I distinctly remember questioning whether she really wanted me to read the book because it interested her or because this was just part of an established routine and then I had a moment of guilt for doubting her.

As I said, Emma wasn’t typing yet, so there was little we could point to that backed up our decision to presume competence.  There was no “evidence” to suggest what we were doing had anything to do with anything other than a hope and a wish.  As presuming competence is not typically done in the general population or at any of the schools she went to, we were definitely doing things differently.  There were times when I doubted what we were doing. There were times I didn’t believe.  There were times I wondered – what if we’re wrong about all of this.  What if what everyone says is true, really is?  What if?  What if?

In the end I just kept coming back to the thought that presuming competence harmed no one, but to not presume competence and to be wrong would do tremendous damage.   As time went on and it became clear just how many mistakes we had made, I became more determined than ever to err on the side of support, encouragement and believing in her rather than the other way around.  It is strange that the focus is so often on all that is challenging, rather than encouraging all that is not.  Often that thought was the only thought that kept me moving forward.  Sometimes one idea, just a single idea is all it takes.

To presume competence became a living amends and a way of life.  At the very least it is something I can do that is not going to add another item to that lengthy list of mistakes made.

Emma and Balto ~ 2010

Emma and Balto ~ 2010

Question for Non Word Based Thinkers

Four mornings a week Emma begins the day with a Skype call with a professor in New England who is a bio-chemist.  We call him Dr. C on this blog.  They have a close relationship and their conversations flow easily between them.  I am very much the observer most of the time.

This is a sample of one of their more typical exchanges:

Dr. C:  So if water were linear and not bent what effect would this have on life on Earth?

Emma:  Hydrogen would not be able to find connections to create networks, life as we know it could not be.

Dr. C:  Right, so there would be no dipole or tiny magnet, thus water would not align with a + or – side….

The session before this one, Dr. C asked Emma, as a homework project, to construct a Benzene (C6H6) model, which Emma then did.  It looks like this:

Benzene

Benzene

The final piece of the homework assignment was to draw the corresponding Lewis Bond Structure.  This proved much more difficult and took about five attempts before she drew the structure below. (It is awesome and fabulously impressive!)

Lewis Bond Structure

Lewis Bond Structure

The Lewis Bond Structure is basically a replica of the actual three-dimensional model, so much so that you can literally place the model on top of it and it will pair up.  While making the molecular models of things like water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide are now fairly easy for Emma, drawing the Lewis Bond Structures are not and it reminds me of a similar problem that writing, handwriting and to a lesser degree typing presents.

I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on why this might be so, but watching Emma cheerfully putting together these models is absolutely fascinating.  And it makes me wonder if this isn’t a key to better understanding how teaching methods might take a page from organic chemistry…

If one thinks in a more three-dimensional way, does it then follow that trying to write, formulate the words to correspond with the thoughts, would present a whole series of challenges?  Doesn’t it suggest that this is more than a “word retrieval” issue?  I’m wondering if there even IS a word retrieval issue, (I plan to ask Emma later) but instead there’s a spatial issue presenting itself as non word based and therefore very difficult to transcribe.

Thoughts?