On Therapy and Shame

We are looking for a new behaviour interventionist.  I think I may have found one.  I am hopeful.

We are taking a break from ABA therapy.

I am incredibly thankful for the interventionists who have come and worked with Jake and our family over the past two years.  They have been professional and kind, respectful and wise, and have taught Jake and me so much.  Now we are ready to move on.

I want Jake to learn more in-moment strategies and skills.  I want to avoid tiring him out further and adding to his stress.  I want to see him actually apply some better behaviour skills, rather that learning them, practicing them, and then forgetting or refusing to use them.  My plan is to have someone come and work with us twice a week for a while, once during the day for a few hours and once during the evening.  I want them to integrate and join with us in whatever we are doing that day, and help us negotiate the trouble spots.  I want them to slow us down, so that we have an outsider voice breaking the tension.  I want them to work with Aiden, my husband, and me as much as with Jake, so that we are all learning together how to function better as a family.

I am hopeful.

Really, I want to better support Jake when he is struggling.  I want to slow down my reactions so that I can think clearly and see what is triggering him.  I want to be able to think about autism and what I know about how he works instead of getting frustrated about the behavior and never dealing with the root of the issue.

I want to model for Aiden how to be a friend to Jake.  I want to model for Jake how to relate to his brother and parents.

I read this amazing blog recently.  AMAZING.  I took so much out of it.  She writes about everything I feel and articulates situations I completely relate to.  Her big point, however, is that our medical culture and history treats mental health as something to be cured.  This is not always in the patient’s best interest, as truly, many mental health conditions can never be cured.  Rather, we focus on therapy as a way to deal with, cover up, and mask the underlying condition.

I think that therapy can be incredibly helpful.

We will most likely do more therapy in the future.

However, I believe that therapy has to be done very, very carefully.  The goal of any intervention needs to be helping the person learn a skill that will make their quality of life better without demeaning or attacking their self-esteem or self-value.  Learning ways to communicate is so important.  Forcing children to repeat words that don’t empower them and leave them still unable to explain their intelligence does not help.

The adult autistic community has written much on this subject.  They have totally convinced me that one does not need to be verbal to be intelligent and one can be disabled and still be incredibly valuable in society.  However, when I encounter real life scenarios with other parents at a playground, for example, stigma, judgment, and ableism are prevalent in my town.

Just the thought of talking about autism with other parents is scary.  How do you say, my child is on the autism spectrum, I can see similarities in your child, can we talk about that?  I can’t.  I just can’t.  I can’t even say, I know that there are so many kids these days, with everything from autism to ADHD and everything in between.  What makes your kid special?

What I have learned about autism makes me want to change my community.  We are a lovely community.  Small, but not too small; Christian, but not overly religious; helpful but not too nosy.  And yet, we struggle to change.  I would like to see parents who step up to each other and encourage each other even when they don’t know each other.  I would like to see parents who can say, my child is autistic, it’s nice to see him playing with yours.  Instead of, why don’t you teach that kid some manners?

We need to change the way we look at each other on Facebook.  I know from experience, I have been in tears, and not known how to get help, and posted a status update that says something inane like, “so tired of cleaning, why do they make so much mess when they play.”  If I had actually been on the phone with someone, I would have been crying, explaining what went down that day, how my heart aches and I doubt my parenting, how I love my kids but feel like I’m failing.  We would have cried together, then shared a story, made plans to have coffee or wine sometime soon, and ended the phone call laughing and being made a little stronger.  Brene Brown talks about this idea in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, when she describes how being vulnerable creates real relationships and conquers shame.

I would like to see dads who listen to moms when they say, “I think there is something going on with our child and I want to have them assessed by a pediatrician.”  I would like to see moms who say, “I can see you are grocery shopping with a child who struggles in busy stores, I get that and you are rocking this.”  I would love it if I could see friends be honest with each other and say, “I can see that your child is showing some autistic traits, you need to talk to someone about it and have your child assessed.  It does not mean you have done anything wrong, there is nothing wrong with getting support, and I will be here to go through it with you.”

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Line up of stuffed animals and toys on a couch. They are happy toys, ready for the day’s events.

I am trying to work all of these ideas together into some sort of presentation I can give to parents of autistic children or even parents in general in my hometown.  I don’t know how to go about it.  Ideas are welcome.  I want to help parents move past shame and fear, get the point that disability and differences aren’t things that change the value of our children.  Parents need to have that point so that we can teach it to our children.  I want Jake to know that being autistic is nothing bad, it’s part of his character, his struggle, that makes him who he is.  I want him to be able to ask for support and be himself without being ashamed or judged.

 

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On Teaching and Encouraging Acceptance, Not Judgment

Parents of disabled children have to make a lot of choices.  Choices like whether to take your kids out to the playground or to a Strong Start class, or whether to attempt preschool with your child who is atypical, are serious, heavy questions that require much consideration.  It’s a scary thing, to be that parent, to be watching your child like a hawk, to see if they are going to bolt, racing across the grass, straight towards the road, eyes on some speck in the sky or a truck in a parking lot down the road.  To watch them, waiting for that moment when they shove another child who didn’t realize they were in the way of an inexplicable game that is known only to one, or for those tears to fall when that nice orderly lineup of pebbles is upset when some toddler meanders through it.  You watch, to see if your child notices others, if they want to join in a game, if they need space, quiet, shade, a safe refuge, if they are becoming ashamed or nervous, or if they are courageous and actually enjoying themselves.

And on top of that, you wonder about the other parents.  What will they think when my son runs away screaming.  Will they think I can’t control him?  I can’t.  Will they even realize I’m his parent?  What will they say when he pushes their princess off the play structure?  Clearly, that’s not okay, but what do they think?  What should I say when my friends, kindly, say, gee, he sure does keep you busy.  Or worse, when a strange dad snaps at me: “Teach him some manners!”

These things have all happened to me with Jake.  Every one of them.

But not today.  Today I took all three of my kids to the playground.  They had a great time.  Jake went down the slide three times with Penny, holding her hand, side-by-side.  They both loved it.  He climbed the structure and watched out for everyone else.  He always knew exactly where Penny and Aiden were.  He watched some older kids come and start a game of grounders.  I could see that he really wanted to join in, but he didn’t say anything to them.  After a while of playing around them, he moved on and played with his almost two-year-old sister.  It was a great day.

I watched.  The same as always.

I saw another little boy come up to the playground with his dad.  He was wearing a teddy bear back-pack/leash that I would totally have judged as terrible before I had children.  He seemed to like it.  Once they got up to the playground his dad unhooked the leash and off he went.  On tiptoe.  Through the gravel.  Then once he reached the shade, he just sat down and started playing with the pebbles.  None of the other kids gave him a second glance.  No one came over and said hi.  No one was at all bothered by him.

I smiled at his dad.

My son is almost seven.  This little boy looked to be about three.  I wanted to go say something.  Like, hi.  Looks like you are doing awesome.  I’m so glad you brought your son to the playground.  Would you like me to introduce him to Aiden and Jake?

I could not figure out what to say without sounding or feeling totally awkward.  But I have been thinking about it all day since.

The internet is really wonderful.  Without it I would feel quite isolated, I think, in the autism world.  I have read extensively online and found it incredibly valuable.  However, the lightning fast spread of ideas has also been hurtful.  Recently there have been terrible tragedies where young children have died or been injured in incredibly unusual circumstances, and the reaction online has been so harsh, judgmental, and hateful.  There have been neighbours who have called in authorities when children are playing in their own backyard.  People are so quick to turn on each other, to call out the faults in each other’s parenting.  It has led to a culture of fear in parenting.  It has led to second-guessing and doubting my instincts.

I don’t even know how to say hi to a stranger in a park.

We have this ideal of what parenting should look like.  What children should look like and play like.  We have averages and standards and graphs and handouts suggesting strategies.  It all adds up to feelings of inadequacy and striving to meet that ideal of normal.

And then something comes along and stirs it all up like an autism diagnosis in the family.

All of the research and money and support says: here are ways to help your autistic child strive to appear normal.  Best results if you do all the work yourself.  Best results if you put in 40 or more hours a week before they reach age five.  Then, you might be able to pass off your child as typical by the time they reach high school.  You might be able to hope and dream for them to achieve a position on a sports team, or a date for the prom.  Maybe one day they might get employment.  The whole world will cheer for them then when you share it online.  Don’t think past that.

This is very harmful thinking.

It creates impossible standards.  Which lead to failure, which leads to depression, self-loathing, and anxiety.  And that is just thinking selfishly about the parent.  On a child with autism, this creates a pressure to conform.  A pressure to live up to the insane effort mom and dad are putting in, to not let us down, to learn to pass as normal so that we can be proud of you.

As if losing what makes you autistic is what you need to do to be loved.

Now, I know those ideas seem exaggerated and that regular people think that they don’t actually do that, they are not actually perpetuating that, and being unique and individual is okay.  But what about that dad who snapped at me at the playground years ago? What about my friends, who don’t have any idea what to say or do with me when I “meet” them at a playground and spend an hour chasing my son away from the road?

It’s complicated.  While I get that safety is the most important, we need to change the way we respond to people.  We need to change the way we create safe places.  We need to change the way we react to other people and their kids.  We need to fence our playgrounds already.

I want to teach my kids to reach out to and play with other kids who appear different.  I really wish I had said something to them today, like, look Aiden.  That little boy likes playing with rocks.  Why don’t you go play with him?  I want to teach my kids to notice when someone clearly wishes to join in the game.  So kids like Jake don’t have to spend 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get involved only to give up.

As a response to the racial tensions in the USA, I saw a meme of two children playing.  One was white and one black, and it read, Children will play with anyone until someone tells them not to.  The truth of it struck me deeply, but I can see how it applies not only to racism but to ableism as well.  Somehow, we teach our children to judge, to fear, and to avoid that which is different from themselves.  They learn it from their parents and other adults.

Here in our house we are working on trying to avoid calling each other names.  Jake recently has called Aiden, smelly, stupid, fat, dumb, and various other insults.  We are really trying to explain that those names mean things that are not okay.  That we don’t think about other people in those negative terms.  If we are angry, we can say, I’m mad at you!  Or I don’t want to play!  When I was little I remember using the r-word regularly.  Times have changed, and I feel that to say someone is dumb or stupid is just about as terrible.  My kids are going to learn that intelligence is varied, people are varied, abilities are varied, and that everyone is valuable and worthy of friendship.

 

Thoughts on Celebrating Autism

Amythest Schaber is quickly becoming one of my heros.  She is incredible, Autistic, and well spoken.  Even cooler, she is from my province and there is a remote chance that one day I might actually get to meet her and thank her.  Yesterday I had the chance finally to watch her keynote address, The Celebration of Autism, at the Richmond Autism Resource Fair 2015.  I knew it would be good.  It’s long, 21 minutes, so I had to wait until I had time to watch and listen undisturbed, but it is incredible.  If you would, if you could, please watch it.

I want especially to share some of what she said with you, as it resonated so strongly with me.

You have to watch out for tolerance.  It’s not love or understanding that most of us learn for people who are different, it’s tolerance. Not how to accept, but how to put-up-with. There is no love in tolerance. Tolerance is inequality. Tolerance says, “Who you are is different and wrong, but I, as the right majority, will conditionally allow your unpleasant existence to go on”.

It’s important because I have been raised on tolerance.  I have been educated with tolerance.  Tolerance is so tricky and it is wrong.  I have taught in classrooms where I worked with tolerance as part of my foundation.  It was out of ignorance and misunderstanding, not because that is what I wanted to do.  Tolerance looks at what is wrong with a person, their situation, their behaviours, their choices, and looks away.  It doesn’t understand, care for, or love anyone.

For many, the concept of Autism acceptance is a stretch out of their bubble of privilege that they are not willing to make. The thought of accepting Autistic people exactly where we are, as we are, disabled and human, challenges and joys alike, is too much. They are too deeply entrenched in the culture of cure and its panic-perpetuating tragedy rhetoric. To these people, to these people who try in vain to separate the person from the neurotype, to cut out the Autism, to mould a non-autistic child from an autistic one- the idea of accepting Autistic people as we are is outlandish to them. To these people then, to celebrate Autistic people, and even Autism as a neurotype, is disturbing…

The celebration of Autism transcends the shadows of ableism and the silence of tolerance. Celebration pulls first-person autistic experience and joy into the limelight. The celebration of Autism is the most powerful tool we have to hold back the dark of indignity, and to spread our message. In a world dark with pity, fear, and hatred for people with disabilities, celebration gets people’s attention. Celebration is radical.

This is radical.  And I can see it.  Celebrating with Jake when he is celebrating is enough to convince me.  There are a few things here that I haven’t written about on this blog before that I want to address quickly.  First is ableism.  This is the idea that being disabled or able-bodied is somehow a difference that should be exploited, the same way that sexism, racism, or ageism separate humans into classes that have different worth.  It is a term that I had never encountered before I dove into Autistic culture and started reading.  Certainly, I have been guilty of ableism.  Learning about it is opening my eyes to the prejudice that exists, even within myself.

The other thing is this idea of changing an Autistic child into on that blends in, that is non-Autistic in any noticeable way.  It is an idea that is entrenched, promoted, and wrestled with in Autistic writing.  I am now firmly in the camp of ‘that’s a terrible idea,’ with the caveat that any strategies that help Jake cope and succeed are worth learning and fighting for.  The motivation always needs to be his happiness, esteem, and personhood, not my comfort or embarrassment.

To many of us, our disabilities are vital and intrinsic parts of ourselves, of our identities, the importance and meaningfulness of which cannot be denied. For many of us, disability is as an important aspect of our self as our race, religion, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. But for too many people, disability is the last holdout of shame, of intolerance, of outright hate. Some of those people are disabled themselves and have internalized a lifetime of ableism.

I do not, nor will I ever, expose Jake to the public as a disabled person.  I do not want to hold him up as inspirational, nor do I want to embarrass him.  However, his struggles are real and if or when he wants to share them, I will support and stand beside him.  Right now, my motivation is to help change culture and tolerance into something more meaningful; acceptance and a truly inclusive culture.  Difference and disabilities are real, and they continue to be a source of bullying and negative self esteem, as well as the scary list Schaber has put together.  Dissolving these ideas in the public will make Jake’s future brighter and safer.

I am amazed, when I find people who should be like me, who are also parenting incredible Autistic children, they are quiet.  We talk quietly, about things that are a struggle and things that we have in common.  We don’t talk about ableism, about neurodivergence, or about acceptance.  It is so strange to me and quite frustrating.  There is a hesitance to say it out loud.

It is this hesitance that continues to hold up that last holdout Schaber mentions.  We have to push through our fear, our cautious quiet, and actually use positive words to expose the shame, intolerance, and hate.  I have a few friends who get it, who see what I’m seeing and hear what I’m saying.  They are a good, safe sounding board for me.  It’s a start.

Amythest Schaber’s blog is here.