My Photo
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza  

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


What Do We Think We Know?

Okay, you are at your computer now. Read this first, then without looking, go away. I mean it -- don't look after you read this:

It's a qwerty board question. What symbol comes after L? What symbol comes after U?

If you are like me, you can't answer the question. You can't SEE the symbols in your head (did you know the typewriter was invented first for blind people?). But I can type without looking. My fingers, taught how to type in grade eleven, learned where to go quickly without having to look. Yet, when my mother asked me the question recently, I was stumped. I couldn't answer without typing and especially without looking.

How is it that my fingers know while neither my brain nor my mouth can respond with the right answer?? Okay, when I learned to type, I had to learn deliberately. Yet for over thirty years now, I simply take the process for granted. I don't have to think about it anymore.

I got to thinking how much that might be like the way Adam might know things-- how he seems to just know, but can't always answer. I mean, if I had to think about breathing, I would be as sure as dead. Not responding or being unable to respond does not necessarily mean Adam is not aware and does not understand things. It also doesn't mean that Adam, like all children, isn't taught deliberately, either. Still, watching him over the years I have come to observe that he learns about things on his own in a variety of forms that are innate to him, and I suppose we all do come to know the world and experience it differently.

So, before judging an autistic person, really ask yourself about what you think you know. For if there is one thing I've learned is that what I think I understand, I really don't know at all.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Friendship and Phone Calls

I kid you not that I write this immediately after the event itself.

Today was the last day at camp for Adam. I was told, no exaggeration, (like my post earlier this week) that Adam was declared the most popular kid at camp. Okay, I bet most of you are thinking, yeah, sure... a non verbal kid (for the most part as Adam can barely speak but can on rare occasions say a phrase or a word) making friends, eh? I bet you are thinking that Adam's assistant fostered that, or that maybe it was just the kids feeling sorry for Adam that they spent time with him.

Apparently not. (Please read previous post to this one)

Adam was on his own in fostering his own friendships. Today, all the counselors came and lined up at the bus -- JUST TO SAY GOODBYE TO ADAM. He had, as I've been told, created so much connection between him and others that he brought out the luv. And please don't say it's because he's autistic. That would just be sugar-coated prejudice.

Today, I have been dog-tired so much so, that I did not pick up the telephone for two calls where I did not recognize the names. After crashing to my dose of supper-time news, I decided to pick up the messages.

Message One: "Hi Adam, it's Dylan from Camp. I really want to talk to you."

Message Two: "Hi Adam." And then I heard some shuffling and muffled sweet child-talk I could not understand, "I really want to play with you... call me back."

We called Message One back first as I asked Adam to dial. We reach Dylan's mom and I introduce myself, stating that Adam is there, listening. Adam is smiling. The other mom is surprised, "Dylan called? Really? I didn't know that. I saw him with the phone and a piece of paper in his hand...isn't that funny... so wait, I'll get him.." Dylan is apparently getting tired in the background. There is shuffling against the phone. It's 7:15 and almost bedtime. I hear from a more mature male voice that it's rude not to take the phone after he has called and then,

"hi adam."

"hi di-wan," Adam says in return as I prompt him in his ear. Adam is beaming.

"hi adam."

"hi di-wan."

Then there is some more shuffling and muffled sound of the phone rubbling against something.

"bye Adam."

"bye bye Di-wan."

I ended speaking with the mom as she stated that Dylan wants to play with Adam. Adam is still beaming, cooing, and ready for the next call.

He dials Message Two where mother also answers curiously. I find out the child whose articulation I could not recognize is Noah who is getting read for bed but who really wants to play with Adam next week.

I am thrilled. I did not have to "arrange" a play-date. I just let it be and Adam has made his own friends which we hope to nurture and keep.

How can I not relish Adam's very first unprompted, unsolicited phone calls from his friends. It is a joyous evening.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Bottle That!

School is on the horizon -- for Adam and myself. Adam is beginning Grade One and I am starting Graduate School in Critical Disability Studies. Some people have written that they miss my blog and hearing about Adam, but I must admit, it's been nice to get busy with some other things that needed attention. Most importantly, a good dose of summer fun after months of health issues.

Since Adam was diagnosed with autism at 19 months of age, I had grappled with how much one-to-one "therapy" he needed. I thought, in the beginning, that perhaps our summers would be full of work, trying to "get Adam up to speed," whatever that means. I thought that for Adam's sake, maybe we would have to give up many programs and vacations in order that he wouldn't miss out on needed "therapy." I became familiar with putting him in programs, only to pull him out early for some one-to-one instruction at home. Did "getting him up to speed" mean getting him to talk, to respond, to understand?? If I was to accept Adam and autism, what was I doing, really? Were the ideas not in direct contradiction to each other? Of course, support isn't the same thing as "getting someone up to speed," because many of us have realized that we all travel at our own speeds, and let's face it, when it's over, we all end up at the same place. Supporting someone means enabling participation and contribution -- whatever that takes. It is more successful when we put forth a variety of efforts including individual support, constructing supportive environments, working towards societal understanding, and fostering diverse and inclusive communities.

It was only when I realized that Adam was understanding and then some, that I began to let go of some of the currently popular therapies, and sought out supports -- and suppoters -- where he truly benefited. I also began to learn that my perception of his understanding or what others believed lack thereof, was the result of his mode of expression rather than his understanding. I also learned that even the ways he comes to understand the world is often different than my pathway to understanding, but no less sophisticated. When I came to entertain all these possibilities: that he could go to school with his assistant and succeed even while expressing his autistic manner and needs, that others would learn from Adam and realize what a great person he was, that Adam has his own way of learning about the world, that I REALLY began to relax. Okay, sure, I always have that normal dose of parental worry -- no parent would be responsible without it.

At camp this year, a fully inclusive camp, Adam was declared the most popular kid -- tomorrow is Adam's last day at camp. Even among the male counselors, so young and unsure of themselves and how to deal with Adam at first, Adam brought a love out of them that everyone acknowledged as quite special. Kids recognized his intelligence, and everyone wanted to be with Adam, take turns with him, to be his partner in activities. Adam is no jock yet, believe me. His motor coordination has taken time. He is a careful observer, rather than an active participant in sports, but he is coming around. Counselors come over to Adam's cabin just to see him. His cousin -- who happens to be working at camp -- had reported the same claim. I thought, these people must be exaggerating, but I keep hearing it over and over again from a variety of sources regarding Adam's popularity. What parent wouldn't be happy about this? Can I bottle all of these positive experiences as Adam continues to grow into the world?

"If happiness could be bottled," said one of the counselors, "it would be all Adam." Now, while I like to think that maybe I had a small part in that, in reality, I have to say it's all Adam indeed. I think he's a special person, not because of autism, but because that's just the kind of person he is. Autism doesn't make him special. He is just a special kid. Maybe because he has difficulty talking, this affection might be his way to adapt and to create connection for himself with others. For certain, Adam wipes out every stereotype out there about autism, affection and connection.


Adam came home always with a smile and a certain strut. I witnessed his confidence soar -- exactly what camp should do to kids. He is still a child who cannot talk, but in so many ways he can communicate fantastically. I am relieved that he did not attend a place where is LACK of ability would be the centre of attention at camp. I hear of way too many places that do. Of course, I would never send him to such a place, either. I have come to understand that a big part of my job as Adam's parent is to find supportive environments for Adam to be himself and grow.

So nearly five years have passed since those more worried days, but only this summer would we let go so completely while still offering support and enrichment as I enrolled Adam in his first full days at camp -- no real one-to-one at home, but instead, everything at camp, as we discovered that he likes to learn and be with kids. No more "therapists. No, we asked them to call themselves "Adam's Assistants," in order that Adam begin to understand that they were there for his needs, not there to remediate him. It is important for Adam and I to encourage others to support him and his right to communicate, and to help others understand and interact with Adam on their own terms without "helping" him. I thought that if Adam would need assistants on and off or always throughout his life, then Adam has to learn how to self-advocate now and learn how to employ assistants for his needs. Similarly, the peer-to-peer relationship and nurturing goes both ways. It does not seek to remediate the autistic person in order to have a relationship with others, as often so many autism social groups are conducted, but also helps others to interact and understand Adam in equal terms which is managed by some kind of subtle, personal negotiation between them. It discourages the helper-helpee dynamic and encourages respectful and equal relationships.

Back in the day of the Joy of Autism: Redefining Ability and Quality of Life event that TAAProject put on and popular in the press, I was constantly attacked by Canadian ABA advocates. "It's okay if she wants to let her son stay up until two in the morning," said Brenda Deskin, an ABA advocate here in Ontario who ambushed me on CFRB and falsely claimed her husband was a doctor on radio, insinuating therefore, she had more expertise than I (he is, in fact, a dentist). She would enmesh the word cure with therapy -- implying that I was doing nothing to help Adam while insinuating my negligence of him -- which was not only an assumption, but came off as a planted lie to influence others to her way of thinking in order that the Canadian Government reimburse her ABA expenses and allow ABA to be funded by Medicare in Canada. I am not one to endorse assumptions -- even of those who prefer ABA therapy in order to influence opinion, and I am most definitely not against support, as so many ABA advocates in the past have stated. I am an advocate of support of all kinds that works for autistic people and helps families understand autism, but I am also a supporter of choice for families. I have nothing against this individual and her efforts and cannot comment on how difficult her life is or isn't. Yet, I've always had big issues with the way in which parents "advocate," because my son will hear it. There is a way to express difficulty that doesn't put the blame solely on our children -- maintaining their dignity and also saving ours. I do not wish for Adam or any other disabled person to hear it, and yet that kind of "burden" talk will go on. No, Adam must learn how to maintain his dignity and poise in a sea of ignorance.

I took a trip this summer with some friends for Henry's fiftieth birthday.
A very good friend of mine who has two disabled children, one with Downs syndrome. Around the table was a genetics counselor and other friends who do not have disabled children. For some reason, the way my friend tried to convey difficulty was different than mine and the dialogue became progressively emotional with every sip of wine. When I try to explain difficulty, I explain it not as the result of the child, but as a result of a world that is still ignorant of disability and does not yet understand the debilitating nature of pity conveyed in a media-driven world that plays commercials every half-hour or less on curing something to raise money for some kind of charity in support of research. The idea of being less-than-"perfect" seems to be quite a despicable state in our age, if you believe many of these commercials.

My friend was saying the same thing as I was, except that it seemed to me, what was inadvertently expressed, was that our children's disabilities was the source of the difficulty. Of course, a result of my nature and an awareness of disability representations on the popular psyche regarding disabled individuals and their value in society, I couldn't help but to debate the perception, in fear that that's how those without a disabled child might think she was saying (which she wasn't but the complexity of communication is very difficult to maneuver. I must admit that I have difficulty letting such topics just go, not because of my friend, with whom we share many similar opinions, but, as I said already, by the way the rest of the table may have perceived the discussion and the nature of disability).

In the midst of the conversation talking about genetic counseling, I had noted that 80-90 percent of fetus' identified with Downs are currently aborted, while also pointing out the lack of advocacy from parents in that counseling room, like my friend and I, on the great lives we live with disability, at which point, my friend broke down. To make a long story short, we both ended up outside hugging each other. She felt destroyed by the statistic. She said, "when you said that percentage, I lost it. That means there will be no more D's (her son's name) in the world..." and noted how it was so unfair. We acknowledged how much we love our children AS THEY ARE and we very much respect each other and our children. While she felt distraught that societal ignorance will always exist, it further strengthens my resolve to be involved with inclusive initiatives, no matter how long it takes. We are, as friends and parents of disabled children, working together in our own community regarding attitudinal change, family and person-centred support, and a more inclusive community. In my view, such an event demonstrated how parents CAN come and work together.

If I could put my summer experiences in a bottle, or in fact my experience from this year alone, this might be the year of learning valuable lessons, of accepting many views, many parents, many people, and figuring out how we must all work together.

Adam, thankfully, is happiness, personified. He is still young, and happiness may grow with a tinge of frustration, maybe even sadness, but it will hopefully strengthen his resolve to maintain a strong view of himself, and continue the work that still needs to be done.