How Do We Learn if We Don’t Make the Effort ?

Let’s talk about when doctors’ ideas have been wrong. Bloodletting was once the norm. Sick people were thought to have tainted blood so they were bled into cups, making them weaker, of course, and increasing the likelihood of infection due to open wounds.

Did you know that many deaf people who couldn’t speak, or people with cerebral palsy or others with communication problems, were  deemed to be incapacitated and were sent to institutions where they were stuck  for decades.

Eggs were demonized. Now they are thought to be healthy. All fats were demonized. Now studies show that our bodies need certain fats. Red wine and dark chocolate are now heart healthy. Our beliefs regarding nutrition and diet change all the time. We learn and make necessary changes.

I have decided to become a French expert. I will learn all about “Frenchism” by watching French people.  I will make theories about their habits. I will train them to be less French. But I will never teach them English or learn French myself. Then I will claim to understand Frenchism though I never consulted a French person. The world will recognize me as the leading expert in French habits.

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Some Thoughts to a Thought Provoking Post

This post from Emma’s Hope Book blog indicates the stress of parents by a system that makes it harder for them to relate to their child. In my opinion, the list of symptoms reduces people to behaviors and makes it harder to see the person’s personhood. It is ironic because a symptom of autism is to play with part of a toy, but what about professionals who focus on part of a person? If I liked to look at letters it was bad. If they like to look at only symptoms, it’s treatment. This is hard on parents because, “Hands down,” “Hands quiet,” and on and on, become the key of interacting.

I remember hugging my mom when I was young and an expert remarked, “Wow, he sure stims on you a lot.” So in the symptom-based worldview even hugging my mom was a sign of my inability. Of course, if I didn’t hug I would have been declared distant and disinterested in people. Experts should be really wary of assuming they know, when they really don’t know yet, what is in the heads of severely autistic kids. In these cases it is like putting words into someone’s mouth–all ten of them.

The point Ariane makes of seeing the child less pathologized is spot on. Let’s listen to people with autism who can communicate to be partners, guides, teachers, role models and proof that though we may look or act autistic because of having autism, we are fully human, fully intelligent and deserving of peoples’ respect.

Scientific Un-Query

I have only met a rare few neuro-researchers and other autism specialists, representing the scientific study of autism, who consult with me for my insights. I have noticed that though more and more of us nonverbal autistic people can type now I have not seen an increase in scientists trying to meet us. My book was sent to many neuro-scientists when it was first published, but few answered, and none met me. The puzzling thing for me is why this is.

If I were a scientist researching autism, or a specialist treating autistic kids, or running a program for autistic students, and nonverbal autistic people who  could communicate by typing began to emerge, I think I’d make an effort to meet them. I understand there are skeptics. I understand there is doubt, but I also know that ignoring things doesn’t change reality. I know that for those skeptics who attack as fake every autistic communicator who appears in the news, that it is also impossible for them to be certain of a person’s skills and abilities without seeing the person.

So many of us now type without any tactile support. Many of us are eager to collaborate and guide research ideas, but only a rare few researchers  ask.

I have three dogs and if they go to the veterinarian with symptoms the vet must guess what is wrong because the dog can’t tell him. Many times we wished the dog could elaborate so the vet wouldn’t need to guess, occasionally incorrectly. Autistic people who are nonverbal have faced guesses too because of their long-time inability to communicate. Now many can explain symptoms but the “vet” doesn’t seem to be interested in asking.

I believe our explanations for our symptoms are important in informing researchers in where to look for answers and how to better educate us.

What explains this un-query?

Out of the Closet

 

Every day I meet new communicators. Not babies, but kids in elementary school, teens and young adults. Their lives had been limited in one way communication for way too many years. They listened but they had no way to answer. In any case, they heard people. Many of them heard their parents moan and groan and say comments like, “I don’t know how much intelligence is there. I don’t think he understands much.” They listened to their teachers say things like, “He isn’t aware of right from wrong. He isn’t aware of his surroundings. He is oppositional today.” They listened to ABA specialists tell them, “No, try again,” “No, try again,” “No, try again,” and “High five. Good job.” They heard a world that thought they were dumb. But the world in this case was wrong.

It isn’t a lack of intelligence to be able to think but to not be able to get your body to show it. It is being trapped. If I put your hands into baseball mitts and your tongue was trapped in gooey sludge and couldn’t move right and I bombarded you with questions, I think you would agree you would have a hard time showing that you had an intact mind, especially if those baseball mitt hands moved differently to your thoughts and wishes sometimes, and everyone assumed that people with sludge tongues and baseball mitt hands were intellectually low.

I know the way to escape this isolation is not to tell sludge tongues and baseball mitt hands to move in ways they can’t. It is to teach those hands to point to letters, to type with one finger and to communicate. There is now a steady tide of people, once thought to be dumb, once thought to need baby lessons and baby talk who are mastering communication on letter board and typing. And voila! Not dumb!

More than anything they find relief being recognized as intelligent. And some find even more; a mission, friendship, a life of meaning. But none will go back into the closet of silence.

I wonder if you are a parent, teacher or professional and you have seen a “dumb” kid prove himself smart, how do you react with other kids? How long should they wait for you?

A Favor

It has been several years since Facebook has linked to my blog. We found out all the 3rd party companies that Facebook uses to determine which sites to blacklist (Mcafee, MicroTrend, Web of Trust, a few more..) and we have contacted them all individually about the site and every one has come back with a completely safe report regarding the site. As far as they are concerned, the site is perfectly clean. The problem is Facebook doesn’t seem to be listening.

It is ridiculous and limits my ability to share my thoughts with others.

I am asking a favor of you. each time you try to link to my blog on Facebook, you should immediately get a pop-up that says something to the effect of ‘your link was blocked because… and then a line that says ” if you think you are receiving this message in error, click here” (or something close to that). If you could click the link they will ask you why you think it’s an error. If you could say something simple like “there is no reason for this link to be blocked….” and hit submit I would greatly appreciate it. I am hoping that if they many complaints it might make them finally move on this.
Many thanks in advance.

On Education and Communication; A Message to Parents, Professionals and People with Autism

School is finished at last. The year was tough but I learned a lot. I read great literature. I loved US history and understand my wonderful nation better. Chemistry was fascinating too. Learning how our universe is composed is thrilling to me. Me gusta aprender español también. I learned a lot about math and animal science too. All this is thanks to my index finger and typing my thoughts.

I have the desire to pursue a college degree. One more year of high school and this dream will be a reality. Over spring break I visited many colleges with my parents. It will be different than all day, every day, of high school in one place going room to room. But I will have the opportunity to get more education in biology, neuroscience and other fields, and maybe I can help improve our understanding of autism in more ways.

I push myself to get good grades. It matters to me that my grades show my intelligence. My teachers were great. They pretty easily adjusted to my mode of communication and welcomed me warmly. My life is so rich now. I have friends in school. I love to go.

My message is to parents who wonder if their child can learn. Only the most determined parents will find out. If you are working with experts like those from my early life, they limit your child in low expectations. They tell you that being impaired in body is being impaired in mind. They let you work on skills that barely progress and tell you that your child isn’t advanced enough to write.

If you keep on listening to them they will keep low expectations for a lifetime. I know it is hard to be the parent who disagrees. I watched my mom try to deal with my ABA team when I began to communicate at seven. I have  watched our friends fight school district attitudes. They went through a big hard slog. They also got their kids typing and into general education. More than anything else, the parents believed in the possibility that their child had more in them than they were told. Parents, you have to trust your guts. You see your kid all day in real life. They see a drill or a lesson, and these moments where the motor issues of severe autism are at their worst.

Professionals, I have a message for you too. I used to think you were all clueless and control freaks. This is not to say that people were not warm or kind because I liked my clueless teachers as people but resented their attitude of certainty. If you work with autism, be prepared to accept that a degree in psychology or sociology or speech pathology or occupational therapy isn’t giving an insight into more than symptoms. My brain and how it’s impaired is a guessing game, even for neurologists, so I think the certainty that many practitioners have when it comes to autism is really puzzling. Being open-minded and admitting that the brain is vast and mysterious is required, in my opinion, by anyone who works with severely autistic people.

Now I have a message for people with autism who can’t yet communicate, and I ask parents to read my essay to their kids, Have hope. More than anything, have determination. Life outside your head and stims is really worth striving for. I believe soon there will be too many people with autism who type to keep insisting we are one in a million. I am fighting for your freedom and so are others. Hang in there.

Ido in Italiano

For those who speak Italian, here is Ido on Swiss news.

 

A Challenge to Autism Professionals


The theories regarding autism have been based on observation of our odd behaviors. Lists of these behaviors make a diagnosis. I have limited independence in selfcare. I have limited eye contact. I have flat affect often. I can’t express my ideas verbally. I have poor fine motor control. I have impaired initiation. I have impaired gross motor control. I have difficulty controlling intense emotions. I have impulse control challenges and self stimulatory behavior.
Whew. When I write that it sounds pretty bad, but I function adequately in this world. I am now 17 and I am a fulltime high school student in a general education program. I am in Honors Chemistry, Honors US History and Honors English. I am in Algebra 2, Spanish and Animal Sciences. I get straight As. I work out with a trainer 2 or 3 times a week to get fit. I study piano. I hike, cook, and help take care of a horse. I am invited to speak at universities and autism agencies. I am the author of Ido in Autismland, and a blogger as well. I have friends.
I say this, not to brag, but to let you know that people like me, with severe autism, who act weirdly and who can’t speak, are not less human, as Dr. Lovaas suggested, and are not doomed to live lives of rudimentary information and bored isolation.( “You have a person in a physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense,” the late Ivar Lovaas, a UCLA researcher, said in a 1974 interview with Psychology Today).

I communicate by typing on an iPad with an app that has both word prediction and voice output. I also  communicate by using good, old-fashioned letterboard pointing. If I had not been taught to point to letters or to type without tactile support, many people would never have realized that my mind was intact.
My childhood was not easy because I had no means to communicate at all, despite my 40 hours a week of intensive ABA therapy. I pointed to flashcards and I touched my nose, but I had no means to convey that I thought deeply, understood everything, but was locked internally. Meticulously collected data showed my incorrect answers to flashcard drills, but the limitations of theory are in the interpretations.
My mistakes were proof to my instructors of my lack of comprehension or intelligence, so we did the same boring, baby lessons year after boring year. How I dreamed of being able to communicate the truth then to my instructors and my family too, but I had no way to express my ideas. All they gave me was the ability to request foods and basic needs.
Here is what I would have told them if I could have when I was small. My body isn’t under my mind’s complete control. I know the right answer to these thrilling flashcards, unfortunately my hand isn’t fully under my control either. My body is often ignoring my thoughts. I look at my flashcards. You ask me to touch ‘tree,’ for example, and though I can clearly differentiate between tree, house, boy and whatever cards you have arrayed, my hand doesn’t consistently obey me. My mind is screaming, “Don’t touch house!” It goes to house. Your notes say, “Ido is frustrated in session today.” Yes, frustration often occurs when you can’t show your intelligence and neurological forces impede communication between mind and body and experts then conclude that you are not cognitively processing human speech.
In my childhood I feared I would remain stuck forever in this horrible trap, but I was truly fortunate to be freed when I was 7 when my mother realized my mind was intact, and both my parents searched to find a way to help me communicate without tactile support.
Thousands of autistic people like me live life in isolation and loneliness, denied education, condemned to baby talk and high fives, and never able to express a thought. The price of assuming that nonverbal people with autism have impaired thinking is a high one to families and to people who live in solitary confinement within their own bodies. It is high time professionals rethought their theories.

Challenging and Changing Perspectives

By Edlyn Pena, guest blogger
As a researcher who studies ways to support the access and success of students with autism in higher education and a mom to a handsome six-year old son who uses an iPad to communicate, I aim to help Ido advance his message to educators, professionals, and caregivers. My objective here is to provide context and encourage you to learn more about approaches that enable nonverbal individuals to spell and type to communicate. I’ve received criticism for endorsing approaches like Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) because they are not evidence-based. There is still much speculation in the autism community about the legitimacy of RPM and other approaches that teach pointing to letters and typing. Research on these methods are lacking. I understand that professionals will continue to question these methods until they are rigorously studied and published in peer reviewed journals. I am the first to believe in well-designed research studies. As an academic, I also believe in being open to new possibilities, ideas, and presuming competence in individuals on the spectrum. Without this openness, I would have never exposed my own son, Diego, to RPM. He would not be where he is today with regard to sharing how autism affects him daily (e.g. “Paying attention is tiring”) and to articulating unusual ideas (e.g. “Eight elephants play in a new kind of ecosystem”). I would not know the level of depth of thought and curiosity hidden in his mind. Diego’s voice is now being heard.

Ido is a pioneer in advancing our knowledge about autism and people with complex communication challenges. Ido’s book, Ido in Autismland, is by far the most powerful book I have read about autism. Other authors write compelling books about autism, prompting us to think about those on the autism spectrum. But Ido is different. He is extraordinary because he changes the way we think about autism. He disrupts our misguided notions that lack of speech equates to lack of intelligence; that students with autism are impoverished of expressing or recognizing emotions; and that all students who are non-verbal belong in special day classes without the opportunity for inclusion. Contrary to many of the messages the world receives on a daily basis about people with autism, Ido’s book tells us that the minds of people with autism are as complex, creative, and intelligent as yours and mine.

On a personal level, reading Ido’s book was transformative and allowed my relationship with my son to turn a corner. I now talk to Diego like I would any other smart and capable 6-year-old. I make efforts to talk to Diego, not about him, when he’s in the room. Ido, Diego, and children like them are nonverbal, affected by autism, and brilliant. By typing to communicate, they blow us away with their complex insights, imaginative ideas, and witty humor.

If you are a professional in the autism field, I invite you to think outside of the box about what “conventional wisdom” on autism tells us. Without doubt, this takes courage. It means acknowledging that we do not know everything about autism. You might learn, as I did, that our perceptions about the capabilities of non-verbal individuals are wrong. Rather than dismiss RPM or other approaches to support typing, I encourage you to educate yourself about the approaches. Interact with individuals who have learned to type. Read Ido’s book or watch videos of children and teenagers who point to letter boards or type independently. For example,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvn7kYJyOFM

And, of course, Ido has posted great video clips of him typing on this website. For example,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLtQWXdDCFo

From one professional to another and from one parent to another, I urge you to take a chance to learn more before dismissing approaches to support our children who otherwise have limited means to communicate. We have the power to make real change by enabling the individuals we care for and serve to communicate in rich and meaningful ways.

-Edlyn Vallejo Peña, Ph.D.

www.EdlynPena.com
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Education California Lutheran University

Autism and the Challenge of Rapid Motor Planning and Initiation in New Situations


My high school has an old farm because it has a magnet program for intensive studies in veterinary science and agriculture. It is really nice because the students care for the animals. Over vacation we have to feed them. There are rabbits, hens, sheep, goats, a horse and a llama. The goats are intelligent and eager to escape to eat leaves. They have the same lock the sheep have on their pen. The sheep can’t open it but the goats open it with ease. To stay in, they require an additional chain and clasp lock and if it isn’t on just right, they escape.
Today was my turn to feed, water, clean and exercise the animals (that is, I exercise and clean the horse and feed and water the rest). We went to give the goats fresh water and in a flash they opened the gate and rushed out to eat leaves. They group up and run away and resist you too so it can be a struggle to get them back in, and the first ones you catch only want to escape to get back to the leaves and their friends.
I was watching this because I was with my mom who asked me to help her with the gate. I am able to do everything I need to do, more or less, but it felt frustrating today because I saw that I still react so slowly in a moment that required speed. I knew I needed to move fast because she had a goat at the gate and didn’t want to lock up the gate completely since there were more she had to put back in the pen. They struggle to get back to their leaves with great intensity and it is a pain to hold a struggling goat with one hand and fumble with a lock with the other.
Autism is an initiation disorder too. I see where I should go and I stay frozen. Doing new tasks is tough because our bodies need to learn the steps. The steps in this moment would be clear to a neuro-typical body, but not to mine. Though my mind knew what to do, it just wasn’t ready to react in time. This is frustrating personally, but perhaps even worse is that our difficulty initiating certain responses confuses many specialists who then assume we don’t understand logic and basic problem solving.
It isn’t the thinking that’s the problem. It is the ability to react and follow our thoughts that we struggle with. I see my skills have improved, because eventually I got to the gate and held it against goats pushing with all their might to escape again. In the end, we got them all back in. Maybe next time we should let them out on purpose so I can get more practice reacting to emergency situations more quickly.