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.

False (Deprivation of) Hope

By guest blogger, Tracy Kedar

 A few weeks ago my friend’s elderly father was hospitalized. At the time he was confused, agitated and had worrisome physical symptoms. A doctor told my friend that she should place her father in a hospice, that his death was imminent. “What?” she responded, “He was driving just last week!” “Well,” said the doctor abruptly, “he isn’t now.”

Today he is back home, back on his feet, and more active than he has been in months following the correct treatment of his symptoms by a different doctor. “What that doctor did was rob me of my hope for my father. I was crushed by his verdict and he turned out to be completely wrong,” she told me.

How can we fight when we are told something is hopeless? When there is no point in hoping we must be resigned and accept. When Ido was around six a doctor we saw who specialized in autism said that over the next few years it would become obvious whether Ido would be able to improve or would spend his life as a “low functioning” autistic person. This was prior to him having any communication and his true potential was totally unknown to us. She was preparing us to accept the low remedial, low expectations prognosis she saw as inevitable at that point.

 I was thinking about these stories, and so many others, of professionals advising people to abandon what they saw as false hope, and then having their dire predictions turn out to be wrong. These professionals advised false deprivation of hope, in my opinion.

 I have heard a few people suggest that Ido’s book may cause disappointment to parents whose children with autism may not learn to type as he does. Perhaps they believe that people with autism who have the potential to learn how to communicate their ideas are such rare exceptions that it is better if they keep silent and not give parents a chance to dream that their child too might have that capacity. Better to have low expectations, this reasoning goes, than to strive for more and have hopes dashed. Keep expectations low like this and you guarantee disappointment.

 Every autistic person I know who now can express his or her ideas through typing was once thought to be receptive language impaired and low functioning intellectually. No teacher would have looked at them as children and said, “That one will be a fluent eloquent communicator.” That is because their outside appearance belied their inner capacity. Every parent of these children gambled and decided to pursue letterboard and typing without any guarantee of success.

 Since Ido began typing a number of children we know personally also began to get instruction in use of letterboard and typing on an iPad or other assistive technology, either by Soma Mukhopadhyay at halo.org or in another method. And every single one of them has proven themselves able to communicate. Some are more proficient than others, but none had zero capacity. (This is different than rote drills of typing and copying done in many schools. This is specialized training in typing as a form of communication).

 How would it have been compassionate to these children and their parents to lower their hope to the point that they would not even try these methods? Shakespeare said. “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In this case I would change it to, “Better to have tried and not succeeded than never to have tried at all,” because success may very well be the result.

 Ido describes his experience of autism as being trapped in his own body, with a mind that understands and a body that doesn’t obey. Every nonverbal autistic communicator that we know of has expressed the same thing. How many more are waiting to find a way to express their thoughts and receive an education? Diminished expectations helps no one. I do not believe hope in this case is false, but rather, the denial of hope through misunderstanding and low expectations is what is false.

The Courage to Hear, to Learn, to Change

Guts means the courage to change. My book, my speeches, and my efforts have challenged people who have gotten accustomed to seeing severe autism in a traditional way. We need rudimentary lessons. We need drills to learn words, understand emotions, recognize the people in our lives, notice gender. We need baby talk because we don’t understand English or speech. We need M&Ms because we have no motivation. It is an illusion to imagine we can be more.
So, I am honored and amazed when parents and educators write to me that my explanations changed this thinking after years of seeing it one way. One person said it “hit him like an anvil on the head.” One described how he was, “shaken to the core.” One mom wrote a long letter about how she had always believed that the potential for her son to type was “delusional,” but after reading my book she understood how he could be smart but trapped internally. Now she types with him freely. He is 20 and finally able to communicate his ideas and finally is seen as intelligent. Brave moms, Brave dads, because they now have to face systems that have to look at why their methods could not see this possibility in the person with autism.
“I now speak normally with my son and it has changed everything,” I hear over and over. “I see my students differently,” I hear as well. One brave teacher wrote that she now wonders if she has been going at it wrong for decades. Kudos to them for thinking openly. It is guts.
I will tell you one lady with guts is my old teacher from when I was small. I write in my book how I loved her in spite of my frustration and boredom in her class due to babyish lessons and repetition. Fate has plans and recently my mom ran into her many times after years of no contact. After several weeks she told my mom she would like to read my book. I knew it would be painful for her because I talk about her- not by name, but she would know. I wrote her a note. After reading my book she came to my mom with a letter for me. She wrote that she tried to read it through my eyes. She was powerfully impacted and was determined to teach differently, to see her students differently too. She has been teaching a long time. This is guts and I admire her.

Story in the Times

I have been cooperating with a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, Tom Curwen, and a photographer, Genaro Molina, since last April. It appears in today’s Sunday Times. Here is the story.

Turning the Titanic

Guest Post
By Tami Barmache
We live in an exciting time! A time when people are starting to think that maybe the children and adults that we were certain were receptively and cognitively challenged are actually bright, literate, capable, and gravely underestimated. As a mom of one of these underestimated children, it certainly feels like change is in the air. The tide is turning!

It may be like turning the Titanic, but maybe once we start to build momentum and inertia takes over, there will actually be a paradigm shift that will change the lives of countless incredible, bright and often misunderstood individuals. We are missing out on so many gifts and insights. If people only knew!

My heart is beating fast just thinking about how I feel every time my son, Dillan, shares his thoughts with me. Everything from simple opinions, to funny stories, and profound insights. It’s life changing for all of us. He feels like his life began when he started to communicate. That’s not an easy thing for a mother to hear, but it’s honest, and I can only imagine how limited his world was when he had no way to express himself. 

Dillan began his journey to communication when he was 10 years old. I fought hard within myself to dig deep and follow through with the practice, but Dillan’s resistance, and mine, often led us astray. We were fortunate to have Tracy and Ido to re-motivate and inspire us along the way. I remember sitting in the park with them one afternoon looking for some words to propel me forward again. Ido told me that “autism is a deep pit…don’t give up.” 
I never gave up. I urged his teachers and therapists to see who he truly was, to raise the bar, to give him the opportunities he deserved. I don’t know if my desperation was apparent from the outside, but inside I was screaming. “Don’t you see????” I showed video of him doing math and writing stories, explained the process, and tried so hard…so hard. But sometimes a journey has it’s pace, no matter your plan. It took several years and the right support in place to finally achieve the daily communication and learning opportunities that Dillan has now.

Today, things are finally moving in the right direction. I must admit that it is taking Dillan a bit longer to become fluid in his typing with me than it has with some others.  That being said, we are getting “our groove” and improving every day. We will have to work together to sort through the pain, frustration and hopelessness that Dillan experienced all of those years, but it’s never too late to find a voice…never too late! 

The documentary “Wretches and Jabberers” features two incredible men who began typing later in life, and I’m sure many other have been able to communicate after years of silence as well. It’s never too late. As parents, there are a lot of intense feelings to face in this process, but none of them compare to their sentence of silence, so we have to take a deep breath, support them, push for them, and celebrate who they are and have always been. It’s painful. But we can do it. We must do it…for them. But we don’t have to do it alone. We can build a community to support each other, and to provide opportunities for learning and practice.

We all need communication. Real communication.

As Larry Bissonnette (from “Wretches and Jabberers”) said so well at a recent event: “Operating pictures on a board brings you cheeseburger, typing lets you create the menu.”

How Do You Talk to a Nonverbal Person with Autism?


 Guest Post
By Tracy Kedar (my mom)
“High five, Ido,” the earnest young woman said, greeting my son for the first time as they were about to work together. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “bad start.” “Good job. High five,” she said to him over and over.
Ido has nonverbal autism and can’t speak. At that moment, due to the nature of the activity, he did not have immediate access to his letterboard or iPad, so he had no means to tell the nice, well-meaning young woman that he hates being told, “high five,” and “good job,” and that he hates being spoken to as if he were three (he is seventeen), and to please talk normally to him.
I thought, “Okay, say something now before this becomes a pattern and he becomes insulted.” As tactfully as I could, I mentioned to her that Ido doesn’t like “high five.” He wants to be spoken to normally. “But this is how I talk to everyone,” she replied.
Really? She goes to a party, walks up to her friend, or the attractive young man she wants to meet, lifts her palm and says, “high five” in that particular tone of voice?  She palm-slaps friends she passes at work, the cashier in the market, her doctor? I didn’t think so. Perhaps if she hung out exclusively with two year olds she talked to everyone like this. Otherwise, let’s assume she gives people with autism or other special needs, special communication. 
My son, Ido Kedar, is a high school junior, and despite his severe nonverbal autism, he is the author of a book, Ido in Autismland; Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison, is a blogger, is an honors fulltime general education high school student, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities and autism conferences. His vocabulary is huge, his intellect, fully intact.
Knowing this, or even a small bit of this, I had to wonder, why would anyone talk to Ido in this infantile manner? Why talk to anybodylike this? The answer is that many people with special education training have been programmed to believe that autistic people need speech broken down to simple components to help deal with the assumed receptive language or cognitive delay. Talking in this way is deeply habituated for many people who assume it is the right thing to do for every person with special needs. Otherwise, why say, “high five, good job,” instead of, “excellent effort. That was outstanding.” Hear the difference? Autistic people do too.
Recently, Ido had an unexpected encounter with a professional who spoke to him like this; “He knows I know he’s smart, right, bud? We’ve got a thing, right, bud?” Enduring a situation he found pointless and patronizing and which pulled him away from an academic class which mattered to him, Ido stewed and finally replied as an irate teenager would and typed, “F—  this.”
The question is, would this professional talk to any other high school student like this, let alone a high achieving honors student? We all know the answer is no. Professionals too often talk aboutthe person (“He knows…”) and not tothe person (“You know…”).  They talk in childish tones and reduced vocabulary. The message is, “I say I know you’re smart but I treat you like I think you’re not.” To which Ido says, “Enough!”
In his book, Ido inAutismland, Ido wrote in his essay, How I Would Have Liked to Have Been Taught,
If I could educate the specialists, the first thing I’d recommend is to talk normally to autistic kids. No more, “Go car,” “Close door,” “Hands quiet,” or the like. It’s stupid to talk this way. Some teachers used tones to make words more distinct or over-enunciated sounds, like “letter” made with a “t” sound, not a “d” sound like we use in America. They sounded so silly I often rolled my eyes inside. (p 55)
When Ido was little, before he could type and we didn’t know what was locked inside, we used to speak to him in this simplified way, as we had been instructed to by autism professionals. We went through a terrible episode when he was small when he grunted continuously every few seconds all day long. He couldn’t stop and we tried all the traditional behavioral techniques of extinction, or telling him, “no,” or “mouth quiet,” to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I told him in totally normal language before a car drive that his grunting was distracting to me while I drove and I told him that he needed to make every effort to not do it for the duration of the drive. To my amazement, he did. From that point on, even before he had communication output, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and the respect of normal communication input.
Regularly, Ido gets letters from parents telling him that they now speak normally to their child with autism, thanks to his advice, and that their child is responding positively. Ido has asked professionals to ponder, if you had duct tape over your mouth and around your hands, would that mean you couldn’t understand speech? How would you like people to talk to you if you were in that situation? How do you talk to a nonverbal autistic person?

Valuing Your Education


My Spanish teacher had a meltdown in class a few weeks ago. Lots of kids were rude and disrespectful to her. She said, “I quit,” sat down and did nothing. After that, until I got switched to another Spanish class, we had subs. I actually wanted to learn Spanish and she was nice to me so I felt disappointed when this happened. She burned out in front of us. 
I have been wondering why the students in that class had such terrible attitudes. I realize some have difficult home lives or have homes that don’t focus on learning, but to me the indifference to learning is puzzling. In my case, I fought so hard to be allowed to learn and to have a career one day. How come they waste their chance to get an education? It makes me very sad because the kids are decent people. They are nice to me and treat me with decency, but they are not nice to the teacher and don’t respect her. But I think even sadder is their lack of respect for their own futures. I think they can’t imagine that better things will come if they try.
I was imprisoned by my body and trapped with no education in school year after year when I was small. I know that an education is a gift, but they feel it is a prison. I wish I could help them to see how to value it.

Silent Fighters

Me, Carly, Tito, Elizabeth, Naoki.
Who are we? Silent fighters, that’s who. I love the flood of books by nonverbal autistic people. It is time to be advocating for ourselves. Why forever must the theories of scholars be listened to over the people with autism themselves?
Is it possible Ivar Lovaas or Bruno Bettelheim knows autism better than I do?
The momentum is beginning. Here we come!