Category Archives: presumption of competence

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.

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.

Musical Neurological Mysteries

I have been listening a lot to Beethoven recently. My passion for different composers goes through phases. I have had a Bach phase, a Gershwin phase, a Prokofiev phase. I love their distinct styles and utter genius and originality. Each one was a profoundly transformative composer who also created incredibly poignant and beautiful music. Because I have synesthesia, I hear and see my music. To be honest, some music is visually beautiful and some is harsh and hideous to me. Beethoven has music that is like a visual poem. His melodies are like flowing waves of lights when they come together perfectly.

Neurologists might want to ponder the mystery of Beethoven a bit. For a huge portion of his composing career he was either losing his hearing or was totally deaf. How did his brain do the things it did missing a sense- the essential sense it required? I have been learning a bit about art history recently too. Can you imagine a genius like Van Gogh painting blind, remembering how to paint somehow? My mind cannot comprehend how Beethoven wrote his music, orchestrated it, created mood, emotion and phrasing- and all without hearing it. Even an experienced chef likes to taste their food.

The human brain is a mystery. Beethoven wrote some of the most sublime music ever written and he did it as a non-hearing person. Generally that would end a musical career, but he had inner music. He remembered sounds from when he heard. Did he hear them in his head the way we do? Who knows? But we do know he was able to tap into this ability somehow.

I tend to turn subjects back to autism. We don’t understand the brain well. By any logic, a deaf man should not be considered one of the world’s greatest composers. But he is. So once again I caution experts to have a little humility and not presume to think they have a clue about how a nonspeaking autistic person perceives and understands. The brain has so many unknowns, and people who by logic shouldn’t have an ability may have it, and sometimes at a profound level. I shouldn’t be processing human speech, according to some. I shouldn’t be writing my thoughts. I shouldn’t even have thoughts. Well, I say, go listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and imagine writing it deaf and try to be a little humble about the brain’s unknown capacities.

The 3 P’s of Communication Skeptics

Nonspeaking does not mean non-thinking. That’s my mantra. Nonspeaking may be caused by motor issues. That’s my message. Motor issues do not cause stupidity. That’s my point.
Being locked internally because of motor issues is not the same as a language processing problem and should not be treated as such.

There is an overwhelming need for professionals to learn about autism from those who live it and can describe it in words. I am referring to the nonspeaking typer who tries to explain autism from the inside out. There are now quite a few of us, and the number is growing. Our messages are always the same. Intact mind/disobeying body. Smart head/dumb body. Thinking mind/non-thinking motor system. Not speaking is not the same as not thinking.

In the six years since my first book, Ido in Autismland, was published, only one researcher ever contacted me to learn about autism from me. That’s kind of pathetic, if you think about it. I’d like to help guide their research based on my real symptoms to help improve treatments and theories. A fair skeptic and an inquiring scientific thinker might take the time to meet a proficient typer, to ask questions, to learn about their journey to increasing fluency. But they don’t, for some reason.

All this is due to the 3 P’s that preoccupy the skeptics. Proofs, prompts and presumption of competence (or lack thereof).

Proof

In ASHA’s response to my editorial, they say they need testing proof before they can entertain the possibility that RPM might have any validity. This intrigues me for a couple of reasons. There is a need to validate claims and I think we all recognize that, but there is more than a single way to get data. Observational data and longitudinal studies, including film, would be one way. Another would be well-designed studies that factor in the motor and anxiety issues people with autism describe. Without doing so, there is a significant chance of a poorly designed study producing skewed or incorrect results.

Have there been studies and internal reviews in the so-called “evidence-based” autism treatments, such as ABA and speech therapy, as to why a significant number of nonspeaking people struggle to progress using these evidence-based methods? It is too easy an out to say progress doesn’t occur because the person is “low-functioning.” If that’s the case, it doesn’t take ten years of costly treatment to find out. On the other hand, some so-called “failures” of evidence-based treatments go on to become successes, as I did, when the treatment adequately addresses the motor issues impeding performance.

Prompts

In ABA the prompts are constant, duly noted in logbooks. In speech therapy the prompts are constant too. There are prompts in PECS, Adaptive PE, in school, in every moment, in every treatment, every day of an autistic kid’s life.

RPM uses prompts too. No surprise really. The acronym stands for Rapid Prompting Method. But the prompts do not consist of motoring someone. People are moving their own arm independently. The prompts are to look, to scan an array of letters, to reach far enough, to help someone gain skills in motor precision and in hands and eyes synchronizing for the purposes of communication. Beginners get lots of prompts. Fluent people get few, and mostly just type, though someone may say “keep going,” or someone may hold a letter board steady. As skills improve, prompts go down. Why are prompts acceptable in every autism treatment except touching letters for the purposes of communication? It’s illogical. And it’s all due to this issue:

Presumption of Competence

Well, you can either presume I’m incompetent or competent. I prefer the latter.

There are two philosophies guiding much of autism theories and education. In one there is no presumption of competence. Rather, the nonspeaking individual is determined to be low-functioning intellectually and not properly processing human speech, thus requiring simplified lessons and constant drilling. This is the prevailing theory.

In the other, there is a presumption of competence— that is, an intact mind may be buried behind a messed up motor system caused by neurological factors. Therefore, if the person is taught to move properly to point and spell words, that person may learn to express thoughts and potentially get a more normal education. Many, once thought to be hopeless cases, have proven that, like books, they shouldn’t be judged entirely by their cover.

That has been true for me and for many, many others. That is why I wrote my editorial, my blog and books. The professionals who insist they speak for science too often ignore evidence that may intrude on their theories, but facts will out. There are more typers each day, and once someone has a voice, he or she wants to speak out.