Disney Characters No More

Below is a brief memoir I wrote for Edlyn Pena’s new book of short memoirs by autistic typers called Leaders Around Me.

My story is probably similar to many in this book. I was not able to demonstrate my intelligence for many years in spite of extensive therapies of the usual sort, primarily ABA, speech and OT. I have written a great deal in my books and my blog about how awful these years were in so many ways. The issue was not kindliness or earnestness because the many therapists and behaviorists who entered my life were usually chipper and cheerful, like a bunch of Disney characters. It was part of the therapy, to be perfectly honest. They were chipper and cheery while flipping flashcards in repetitive drills that numbed my brain with boredom.

It is recommended in ABA to give 40 hours a week of this stuff. “Touch your nose!” “Touch table!” “Touch apple!” “No, try again!” “High five!” The artificial simplified speech, plus the boredom made me terribly frustrated, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that these drills were a waste of time, effort and emotional energy, not to mention money. I started just before my third birthday and finished when my team refused to believe I could understand and communicate at the age of seven. That is a lot of “Touch your nose!” commands.

The problem was that my earnest educators taught me like I was kind of a thick toddler who didn’t understand words. They were totally wrong in every respect. My disability is not a receptive language problem nor a cognition problem, which all my instruction was designed to fix in tiny increments. Rather, my understanding was excellent and my intelligence I hope is above average. I know you have read this on page after page already. It’s not cognitive. It’s motor. I couldn’t show my intelligence because I was internally trapped by a motor system that had trouble getting messages from my brain. To be drilled endlessly like I described was psychologically harmful, especially during the circus of supervision when I performed my drills like a trained dog.

The big day came when I was seven when my mom learned to trust her own observations and ignore the ABA geniuses who figured “Touch your nose!” was good enough for me. I have written much about how she realized I could communicate in my first book, Ido in Autismland. But let’s just say that her determination and decision to fight on, though the experts thought she was nuts, changed my destiny. My father changed it further by insisting my skills had to be independent. And somehow we found Soma Mukhopadhyay, mom of Tito and inventor of RPM.

To make it clear, the process of learning to motor plan for communication is hard work and requires skilled instruction. Only fools and ideologues believe otherwise. Gradually I learned to type my thoughts independently on a letter board, keyboard or tablet. This means I express my own thoughts and move my own arm without being touched. It does not mean I need to be alone. The presence of a good communication partner helps us to organize our motor systems. It is pretty obvious to those who understand motor system challenges but utterly baffling to experts who deny motor issues and persist in telling people with autism that they don’t understand words.

By middle school I was a full time general education student. I was still autistic but I heard normal lectures and I did the same schoolwork as everyone else, earning excellent grades. I had my aide to go with me and with her help I accessed the general education world. In this way I graduated high school with honors, the first, but not the last, autistic student in my middle and high school to do so. I felt like I was an ambassador showing what is the potential of nonspeaking autistic people.

But I suppose my true impact is in advocacy. I have written two books on autism, contributed to others, blogged, delivered speeches and been featured in the media. My goal is to spread the truth. I wrote Ido in Autismland in middle school and high school. I had to correct the misconceptions about autism, to explain the symptoms, to speak out. And the book has surpassed my dreams. It is used in university classes, sells throughout the world, has inspired others to communicate and has been translated into several other languages.

I recently published my second book, a novel called In Two Worlds. It is a work of fiction based on true life and I hope will reach an audience beyond the autism world. It tells the story of Anthony, a boy with autism who can’t talk or show his intelligence. The reader is invited to experience his two worlds, his inner thoughts and sensory experiences, and his outer world of therapies and frustrating misunderstandings. But it is more than that. Anthony learns to communicate at 16 but his professionals don’t welcome the change with open arms, to put it mildly. The book invites the reader to get into the experience of living in Autismland.

My mission and projects are still unfolding. The future chapters of my advocacy and educational work yet to be determined. Thanks to communication, I will be the one to choose what they will be.

For Russian Speakers

Excited to announce that Ido in Autismland is now available in Russian!

Silent Advocates

I am happy to let you know about two new books that rely on the writings of autistic typers to understand autism. Professor Edlyn Pena of Cal Lutheran University has edited two compilations of essays, one more scholarly and in-depth, the other using more contributors, but briefer. I have contributed my two cents to both books.
Last weekend people came to Cal Lutheran University for a conference celebrating the books’ publications and met with eight of the ten contributors to Communication Alternatives. It was a happy day seeing the changes in attitude and recognition since I started on my typing journey.
I hope this film from the conference will move you. Our messages are honest and truthful. They are also messages from autistic people themselves.

I hate to be a pain, but I felt I must juxtapose the last film with this one. This is what we are up against. Who do you trust to understand autism better?

No more talking about us without us.

Civil Rights for Nonspeakers

The traditional term for not speaking is ‘dumb.’ That says it all. If someone can’t talk then they are ‘dumb.’ I am dumb, apparently.

The thesaurus offers these synonyms for dumb: among them mute, speechless, silent, and then fifty additional synonyms for stupidity, including the colorful pinheaded and dim-witted. The bias equating intelligence with speech stacks the deck against those with limited speaking ability.

People who are unable to speak are among the most maligned of all people. Treated as stupid. Under-educated. Far too often mistreated with no recourse.

No one has ever spoken up for the civil rights of the non speaking in a systemic, legal way. Until now.

Communication First is the only civil rights organization that advocates for the legal rights and the human rights of non speakers or those with unintelligible speech.

Please check out this brand new formidable organization as it makes its debut as a 501(c)3 organization.

I am proud to serve on its Board of Directors.

We will be loud in silence.

The Autism Experience Challenge

You work with autistic people.
You have an autistic relative.
You are adventurous and into new experiences.

If you fall into any of these groups, my Autism Experience Challenge is for you.
Of course, I specifically invite the participation of the experts of ASHA and other organizations that have so strongly made statements about the inner experiences of nonspeakers, yet have never experienced the state of being nonspeaking themselves. Certainly, to claim to have an understanding into nonspeakers, it helps to walk in their shoes- even if just briefly, to avoid the appearance of presumptuousness.

If you are brave, let’s give it a go.

Step 1

Mark out a period of time- anywhere from 3 hours for a shortened version to 3 days for the fuller experience. You will not be allowed to speak verbally during this time, no matter how much you want to.
You must designate this time to take place when you will be around people. There is no benefit to this exercise if you will be alone the whole time. Your friends and relatives should know what you are doing prior to the exercise so they aren’t worried and can do their part in the challenge.

To be authentically true to the autistic experience I need to deny you alternative means of communication. You cannot gesture, point, write, type or show ideas on your face. To have an authentic experience, people will have to guess your needs and wants. Maybe their guesses will be wrong.
You cannot correct them. You must live with the results of their guesses.

To experience this kind of frustration and loneliness is important. You must eat with people and be physically together with people but you cannot join in their conversation at all.
You are near others, and may lean on them or hug them, but you are not part of the social interaction.

Step 2

Some of you may be ready to quit right here, but for those ready to forge on, let’s make it a bit harder.
You can start this any time by prearrangement.
Ask your friends or relatives to discuss you, your behavior and difficulties, in front of you, as if you don’t understand. They can say whatever they want, whether true or outlandishly wrong, and you can’t correct them. You must stay silent. No gestures or facial responses are permitted to show your feelings.

You should take note of how you feel.

Step 3

Every time you feel upset, maybe, for example, after hearing people discuss your behavior, or you feel excited, or perhaps bored, you must flap your hands, stomp your feet or jump up and down. These responses should begin after approximately five or more hours of just experiencing living in silence.
Tell your friends or relatives to respond each time you flap, stomp or jump with any of the following types of phrases:
All done
Hands down
Hands quiet
or
Quiet hands
No jump
Feet quiet.

Step 4

After a minimum of 6 hours, your friends or relatives should begin, at a prearranged time, to talk to you in ABA English. That is, no more normal speech aimed directly to you.
They may speak normally near you when talking to each other in lively and interesting conversations and you may listen but not participate in any way in those conversations. They may speak about you in normal speech.
But if someone speaks directly to you it must now be in simplified speech and command oriented.
Wash hands
Go car
All done
Turn off

Etc.

No articles or grammar for you! This must continue until the challenge ends.

Step 5 (for the very daring, only)

I can’t induce sensory highs but I can help you simulate overloaded or intoxicated senses. Prior to the challenge, you can make a recording of intermittent noises, such as a leaf blower, a siren, a baby crying, and listen to these through headphones while you walk through a crowded mall or market. The sounds pop up randomly and unexpectedly. Several may occur in succession, or you may have none for many minutes. They can be quite loud. They may be very brief or last for several minutes.

Remember, you still can’t talk, gesture, communicate your ideas, discomfort or feelings. You can cover your ears, flap your hands or jump in public.
I grant you temporary permission.
You will be aware of the stares.

When you get home, stare at a lava lamp or another interesting undulating visual pattern for about ten minutes. Allow yourself to get intoxicated by it.
You may remove the headphones while you do that.

Step 6

Point to letters, very slowly, on a letterboard, keyboard or tablet to communicate your thoughts to someone for your final half hour of the Challenge.

Step 7

Go back to normal and think about your experiences.

In this Autism Experience Challenge I do assume that like me, and so many others with nonspeaking autism, you understand words and that the trap is your motor system.

How long could you tolerate it? Did you have to stop early? What were the hardest aspects? What new insights did you gain?

Step 8

Now for your final challenge:

Imagine your whole life like this.
Imagine never being given a means to communicate.
Imagine experts speaking out, denying your rights and invalidating your potential.
Imagine being talked to like a child.
Imagine breaking through this and then hearing experts say that what you communicate are actually someone else’s thoughts.

I invite my readers to try my Autism Experience Challenge. Let me know how it goes.

The Anniversary of “In Two Worlds”

It is the anniversary of the publication of my greatest achievement, my novel, In Two Worlds. Why do I say my greatest achievement? After all, my first book, Ido in Autismland, is better known. The answer covers many things.

I know many typers with autism who have written books. They are all nonfiction memoirs or essays, as is Ido in Autismland. To my knowledge, In Two Worlds is the first, and only, novel of fiction, narrative and dialogue ever written by a nonspeaking autistic person about the autistic experience.

It is for this reason that I brag a bit. I understand autism. I understand my inner world and I understand the inner experience of In Two Worlds’ wonderful hero, Anthony. You, the reader, experience autism through his eyes. You experience the visual sensory kaleidoscope that overwhelms him time and again. You experience his anguish at being motor trapped in his body unable to show anyone he understands.

That is, anyone except you, the reader, because you hear his thoughts. Only Anthony and the reader are privy to his mind. Everyone else in his life misses his interior because his exterior is so compromised.

In Two Worlds, a BookLife Prize quarterfinalist in fiction, has been compared by readers to important past works of fiction that shed light on other mistreated or misunderstood peoples, and whose plight once depicted in these novels inspired societal change for the better.

And who is more misunderstood by others than a person who can’t speak or communicate thoughts? Who is more misunderstood than a person who cannot show he is intelligent and is physically controlled by motor compulsions that appear nonsensical?

The first part of the novel is devoted to Anthony’s life before he can communicate. He is frustrated, lonely, and underestimated by everybody, family and professionals, and bored of baby talk and baby lessons. He lives his life waiting, hoping, stimming, and finally he gives up because year after year nothing changes for him. Until one day he finally meets his liberator, Marina, who teaches him at 16 how to type to communicate and from this his entire life changes.

The world of autism, as anyone familiar with my blog knows, is filled with powerful opinionated educators, specialists and dolts. They do not take challenges to their theories lightly. Anthony is liberated by being able to communicate, but many new struggles are just beginning for him as he now must fight for his right to an education and to be recognized as a sentient being. It is not an easy journey.

I invite you to read In Two Worlds if you haven’t already. I invite you to review In Two Worlds and would be grateful if you did. It is a book for everyone. Not just for those of us inundated by Autismland. I did not write the book for us. I wrote it for the world to understand us. I wrote it for book clubs, libraries, and teenagers, to give to friends, to open eyes, to open minds, and to open hearts.

Brain Alive in a Vegetative State?

How much do we assume because of appearances?
A stroke patient may not be speaking. Is the mind empty?
An autistic person may not be speaking and does odd things. Is the mind empty?
A person with locked-in syndrome can’t move. Is the mind empty?

Who gets to decide if a person who is locked internally is thinking or not? Is it the geniuses at ASHA or the Lovaas Institute or in the university or clinics? How can a trapped mind communicate intelligence if the presumption is that the intelligence is compromised?

And what about the “brain dead” in vegetative states? Now new evidence indicates that 1 in 10 have consciousness. It’s my opinion that the brain is vast and its thoughts unknowable by mere external observation.
Not talking is not the same as not thinking.

Assume Competence

The current debate in autism education is between those who assume competence, have expectations of intelligence, and as a result, frequently discover minds that think behind the autistic mask. The other school of thought is reflected in this statement by ASHA. That is, to assume competence is abusive somehow. I know what presuming incompetence does. It deadens hope and kills expectation. It makes seeing the ability impossible.

No one is claiming everyone is brilliant, just that fewer nonspeakers than the experts believe, are dumb. I prefer to believe that nonspeakers may have intellectual skills not immediately evident for a variety of reasons. See here for some reasons.

Look for intelligence and you discover more. Look for disability and you get stuck in limitations.

Please enjoy this Ted Talk on finding competence by Vaish Sarathy.

Breaking Barriers at UCB

This moving radio story is one too familiar to me. Hari Srinivasan is a kind of fellow traveller in two worlds. I congratulate him for his huge accomplishments. I have known the reporter Lee Romney my entire life and I guess you can tell she gets it. She actually edited both my books so by now she understands the challenges of nonspeaking autistic people remarkably well and it shows. The difference between Hari’s current life and his former training in ABA is stark. It is incredible how offensive I found it listening to the jolly infantile voices its practitioners used in the brief segment that described ABA in the program. Ugh. But it is important to show that popular treatment that so misses the mark in order to compare it to the great success of Hari once he found another way.

Please be sure to listen and not just read!

I’m Feeling Snarky

I might be autistic, but they understand the disability better.

I have to give credit to those experts in the noble field of autism treatment who bravely stand up for the rights of nonspeaking autistic people to be limited to a few unintelligible words and pictogram systems. It is the obligation of all honorable professionals to fight for the right of trapped people to have their communication limited so expertly. Moreover, by never letting observation of a typing nonspeaking, autistic person interfere with certainty, they demonstrate real commitment to best practice, in the most scientific way possible. In conclusion, I’d like to congratulate those experts in autism for sticking to their beliefs no matter how unhappy a kid is being flashcarded and high-fived year after year. A little misery shouldn’t alter treatment that’s scientific and evidence-based.