Tag Archives: Nonverbal communication

But What About Alex?

Another Autistic child has died… stabbed… multiple times, in the chest, by his mother. Alex Spourdalakis was 14 years old.

The mother of a 14-year-old with severe autism who was found stabbed to death…” ~ Daily Herald.com

But what about Alex?

The mother of a 14-year-old with severe autism…” ~ Pantagraph.com

But what about Alex?

First degree murder charges have been filed against Dorothy Spourdalakis, the mother of a teen with severe autism…” ~ abclocal.go.com

But what about Alex?

A young man. Stabbed. Not once. Multiple times.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” The United States Declaration of Independence – 1776

But what about Alex?

In the 237 years since those words were first written we have failed miserably at putting this idea into practice. All human life is not treated as equal; apparently it is not “self-evident”. We continue to live in a world where equality is still desperately sought by a great many.

For those who are born unable to speak and Autistic, those among us, who are given the label “severe”, their lives matter even less. We not only think of ourselves, (those of us who are able to speak and whose neurology is not Autistic) as superior, our lives deemed more worthwhile, but we are reminded of our superiority every single day of our existence, just as those who are born unlike us are told in myriad ways how they are not.

Autistic people, particularly those with multiple physical challenges, are spoken of as “burdens” to society, they are talked about as though none who are Autistic are capable of understanding the words being used to describe them. They are not consulted. They are not listened to. For the most part they are being ignored. And those who are raising their voices in protest, who dare to speak out against the crimes committed against them, they are met with resistance, anger, indignation. They are often ridiculed, dismissed, silenced or simply ignored.

When a parent murders their child, we cringe in horror. When that child is disabled we sympathize. The media brings in psychologists to help us understand. We dissect the child’s history, we look for clues, what could have provoked a parent to do such a thing? Sometimes we conclude the parent was crazy and unfit, but not before we make sure there was nothing unusual about the child. As we rally around, trying to distance or identify with the parent, Alex and those like him are all but forgotten. His life is seen as an example of what some must endure. His life becomes an illustration of that burden on society that everyone wishes would just go away.

But what about Alex?

What about what Alex had to endure? What about what it must have been like to live his life for those 14 years? Where are the news articles discussing who this young man was? What did he love? What were his passions? What made him happy? What must it be like to not be able to speak? Did he communicate through typing?  Did he read and write and if so what did he like to read?   What was his favorite subject?  Did he love music?   Did he like animals?  Was there something special he enjoyed doing?

What about Alex?

Alex

 

The Complexity of Life and Change

*Emma gave me her permission to write about this.

Yesterday Em was having a tough time.  She has been talking about an indoor playground that closed some six years ago, expressing her upset that it’s now a store and asking that we build a new indoor playground exactly like it.  We have discussed the idea that places go out of business and that we can’t bring them back, we’ve talked about what is required to build an indoor playground, but that it will not be exactly like the one that closed.  We’ve discussed the concept of same and different.  We’ve gone over the preliminary steps needed to be taken in creating any sort of space.  Joe even thought she might like to build a model playground, complete with running water and electricity, but none of this has helped.  She remains very upset.  So much so that I began to feel certain her upset was not actually about this specific playground, but that this playground has come to symbolize loss.

“I want playground.  I want to build it.   Will take out the store and build a different playground has slides and a bouncy castle.”

I explained again that we couldn’t do that.  Em then repeated how she wanted to build a playground and then said, “Bertie kitty can’t eat pancakes.  Bertie kitty, the animal vet doctor, says no.  Might get sick.  Bertie kitty died.”

I nodded my head and said, “Bertie was old, Em.  He didn’t die from eating pancakes.  He died because he was very old.”

“I want to take it out!” Em pulled at the palate expander in her mouth and began to cry.

“I know you do, Em.  But we can’t take it out yet.  The orthodontist will take it out eventually.”

“Soon.  I want to take it out now.  I want to build it.  I want to build new playground.”

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the literalness of Emma’s words.  To get swept up in each upset individually, as it shows itself, veering from the closing of a playground, to the death of my cat, to the desire to have her palate expander removed.  If I take each of these concerns separately and at face value, I can quickly become lost in each one.  This is something I continually struggle with, not just with my daughter, but in life.  I take things pretty literally and often try to compartmentalize each thing so as not to get overwhelmed.  So in instances when Emma seems to be racing from one upsetting thought to the next, it isn’t my first thought to look for the common thread.  But I am fairly certain I’m correct about my interpretation of what’s going on here.  I think Emma is working through a number of difficult concepts that in her mind are all related.  The playground closing and being replaced by a store that holds no interest for her, the death of my elderly cat Bertie, whom she loved, and the palate expander that she dislikes and wishes would be removed.  I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me they are all connected.  They all fall under the heading of permanence and impermanence, or death.

As Emma learns to communicate better through both typing and verbally, we become better at listening and understanding her, her anxieties are becoming more obvious to us.  As her communication skills increase, so does her obsessive compulsiveness, or so it seems to us.  It’s entirely possible that Em has always had this degree of anxiety, obsessiveness, coupled with compulsivity, but we are only now becoming aware of just how difficult it is and how often it overwhelms her.  Leaping from one upsetting scenario to the next is something I do too, particularly when I am tired.  With Emma it’s all about things that are impossible to have, things that are gone and won’t come back or, as is the case with the palate expander, about change, literally physical change as she looses the last of her baby teeth and her permanent teeth appear.

As we continue to support Emma with her typing, we have noticed she is becoming more verbal.  As she becomes more verbal she is expressing her anxieties, her concerns, as well as her desire to be heard.  The more we listen, the more she has to say.  Yesterday as we worked on her typing, I asked, “Em tell me two things you like doing and one thing that’s hard.”

Em typed, with my hand barely touching her forearm, “I like to bounce on the trampoline.  I like to bounce on the bouncy castle.  It is hard for me to work with mommy.  You could help them work with mommy.”

“Thank you for telling me that, Em.  Who should help me so it’s easier for you to work with me?”

“Pascal.”

Emma and Pascal take each other’s photographs  – April, 2013

*Pascal

The Joy Of Communicating Without Words

This morning it was 17 degrees fahrenheit, but with the wind chill it felt as though it were 5 here in Manhattan, this was according to my “The Weather Channel” iPhone app.  Because of the ongoing New York City school bus strike and because my husband is SuperDad minus the voluminous cape and lycra tights, Richard has been taking Emma to school each morning for the past ten days.  But this morning it was my turn to step up to the plate.

7:30AM this morning

Me:  Okay Em.  So here’s the deal.  I’m going to take you to school today, but Daddy told me it’s tough getting a cab, so we may have to walk.

Em:  Take taxi with Mommy to school.

Me:  Well, we’ll try to get a taxi outside our building, but if we can’t get one right away, we’re going to walk.

Em:  No, I don’t want to walk.  Take taxi.  Just you and me.

Me:  Em, we’re going to try to get one, but if we can’t we’re going to walk.

Em:  Nodding her head.  Together.

8:15AM

After trying for several futile minutes to hail a taxi we began to walk to Emma’s school.  The sidewalks were crowded with parents and children.  As Emma and I made our way in the cold, Emma began to make a loud singing like sound.  It wasn’t a song, more like one line of a song, sung loudly.  People turned to look at her.  At first I just continued to walk next to her, my hands tucked into the pockets of my coat for added warmth while Emma repeated the same song-like refrain loudly.  A few people stared.  Em linked her arm through mine and sang again.  I looked over at her, ignoring the curious looks from those we passed and sang back, but in a slightly different pitch.  She smiled and did it again.  I echoed her.  She laughed.  As we continued along toward her school in this way I noticed a few people smiling as they walked by us.  Once at an intersection Emma stopped “singing” and instead winked at me.  I winked back.  When we eventually arrived at her school, Emma turned to me and said, “Bye bye Mommy.  Had so much fun walking to school with Mommy!”

Yup.  Me too.

Emma – 2003

Em2003