Here is an eleven year old post that I wrote when I was fourteen years old.
*A happy footnote is that I now know of three of my former classmates from elementary school who are now fluently typing to communicate. I hope there are even more.
Here is an eleven year old post that I wrote when I was fourteen years old.
*A happy footnote is that I now know of three of my former classmates from elementary school who are now fluently typing to communicate. I hope there are even more.
I am introducing a new feature to my blog. I will regularly be posting some of my greatest hits from years past.
I believe it is time to look at severe autism in a new way. The theories that determine treatment for young children are based on long held beliefs that autism is a processing problem of language and conceptual thinking.According to some theories we cannot recognize emotions, we cannot visually distinguish relatives and friends from other faces, or know right from wrong. Some have even declared that we even cannot recognize a human being from an object.That’s pretty bad, huh.
Is this iPad living, or an object? Maybe incessant drills on flashcards will clear that up. Perhaps I have been introduced to all of you by an object, not a person. How can I tell that a person is not a machine? The same way that all of you can tell.
I guess the solution for decades has been flashcard drills to drill on nouns, verbs, people’s names, commands, and on and on. It is a familiar start in life for a lot of us. But why should I be drilled on what I already know as well as everyone else? From my point of view, it’s a pretty insulting premise.
To base a person’s education on these assumptions is risky because a boring day of ‘what is the weather?’ drills, or touch your nose lessons, does not teach what one needs to learn. I suppose if people really don’t understand, or cannot recognize the difference between mom and dad, or mom and a table, these common methods might help.
But autism is not that disorder.
The autism I have is not a language processing problem or a lack of understanding anything. I want this point crystal clear. My mind is fully, totally intact. In fact, my experience is that most nonverbal autistic people have intact minds too.
Here is your challenge. Stop looking at our weird movements, blank faces, lack of speech, trouble handwriting, poor self control, and on and on, as proof of intellectual delay. It may look like it, but I think looks here deceive. Believe me when I tell you that if I could look normal on the outside I would do it immediately. I am normal on the inside.
That’s different than what people with Asperger’s say, or what Temple Grandin writes in her books. But that’s because Asperger’s Syndrome in severe form is not what I have.
I hope that’s clear because it confuses many professionals. Different neurological problems have the same DSM diagnosis. That’s confusing. I think it would be like putting AIDS and head colds under the same heading because they’re both viruses. Too much is covered under the heading, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this misleads an understanding of what I have.
So now, let me tell you what I have. Autism for me is a severe problem.
How would you like it if your thoughts didn’t reach your body consistently? What I mean is that your thoughts are intact but internally neurological forces block them from your motor system so that messages get messed up, or ignored, or occasionally they get through. That can resemble not understanding, but it is not.
Nevertheless, the person cannot necessarily demonstrate intact thinking due to the motor issues that block speaking, handwriting, gestures, facial expressions, initiating actions, and more. So, smart intact people may spend years, or even their whole lives, in a body that traps them behind weird movements and unreliable, inconsistent responses. More than that, neurological forces may affect the sensory system, making sounds too loud or visual stimulation overwhelming. The frustration is compounded by autism experts who dumb down learning because of their belief that autism is a language processing problem.
When I was young I did ABA. No offense to any ABA people here, but for me it was a horrid experience. I found those early years of drills and reinforcements an exercise in boredom because I already knew the vocabulary they taught. I just had unreliable hands to point to the flashcards accurately. The baby talk, and most frustrating, the supervision sessions that never worked on my real challenges, made me feel frustrated and angry. Worse, the theories probably delayed my mom’s ability to recognize my true potential by several years, at least.
No offense to any Floortime people here, but I never got much out of my sessions because my play was so delayed when I was small. I craved more than the games I got. But my Floortime was minimal. I was drowning in ABA drills instead.
No offense to OT people here, but what I desperately needed was motor control and physical fitness, and I never got that. I got swings that spun me. Once until I barfed.
No offense to special ed teachers, but when I couldn’t show my intelligence, I still was thinking. But all I got was one plus one, ABC and the weather. My recommendation is to teach at least some age appropriate lessons and books, even before the student can express his thoughts. Who knows how much is locked inside?
My helpers were kind and well meaning, but the way I was taught missed my real needs for communication and motor control simply because the methods assumed I did not understand spoken language and therefore needed a rudimentary lifestyle.
What helped? Soma did. She gave me the ability to type on a letter board when I was seven through her method, Rapid Prompt Method, or RPM. This has progressed to a keyboard and ipad. Because of this, I am a general education student, college bound, on the high honor roll in AP classes and even learning a foreign language. I work out with a trainer and I hike and run and row on a machine at home. I also took piano lessons. These things helped me.
To all the professionals I offended earlier, sorry. I admire your devotion, compassion and caring. I challenge you to see your nonverbal autistic students differently and with high expectations for learning.
Parents, don’t give up hope. If you see intelligence, even if brief, then intelligence is there. It’s most likely inconsistent because of those frustrating neurological forces I mentioned.
Communication is a blessing. Lack of communication is a curse. Let’s give kids the blessing of communication and a real hope for tomorrow.
I wanted to share this article I wrote. Hope you enjoy it.
I notice the media is suddenly writing about typers. See here in USA Today and here in the Chicago Tribune. I am pleased to see the attention, but curious too, though the trend is definitely interesting. More and more autistic people are communicating daily. The status quo is slowly moving in the right direction.
I know we are a long way from a new way of educating people with autism. ABA is still the default “gold standard” but despite this, somehow our silent voices are starting to be heard.
In terms of advocacy, some people are starting organizations. One family has started a new organization called Point to Freedom. They want to be loud and proud about their son’s success in learning to type to communicate and with his journey, to hopefully inspire other families to realize that typing to communicate may be possible for them too. I am proud of the son’s accomplishments expressing his lovely and powerful thoughts and also proud of my mom who taught him to communicate. May he go far with this freedom.
Finally, as I have written about previously, the civil rights of nonspeaking and limited speaking people is at last being addressed by the important new civil rights organization, Communication First.
Though there remains much to do, change is afoot. I believe the trend is toward liberation. In time the truth will prevail.
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.
From Australia, this seven part podcast and labor of love by journalist parents Travis Saunders and Fiona Churchman. It discusses autism in its many permutations and throughout the lifespan. You can find my interview in Episode Seven. I am grateful for the increasing interest in understanding nonspeaking autism and to those, like Fiona and Travis, who interview nonspeakers to get to the truth.
I write because it’s my mission. I still have to deal with my own autistic struggles. But I know my words are heard and I feel blessed to learn how they have helped to liberate my autistic peers from silence, given hope to families and changed the minds of professionals. I value whenever someone takes the time to share because I know that stories can be painful or slow to communicate.
This article is from Ireland, written by mother, Adrienne Murphy and her son, Caoimh (pronounced Keev). I share the whole story below and the link to the paper. Together mother and son are on a journey to help others in Ireland. I feel deeply honored to know that my books helped them on their way. Caoimh writes about “stone people” and “right people,” to represent those trapped in Autismland and those representing normalcy. On the side of Autismland there is a familiar resignation to stims. To step into normalcy requires a huge effort. One must be motivated. The experts have a bad tendency to diminish motivation and Autismland has a tendency to seduce with magic distractions. So every escape to communication is a victory, even as it is a struggle. Thank you to Adrienne and Caoimh for fighting on and for sharing my message in Dublin, Ireland.
Autism Turned Inside Out
by Adrienne Murphy
What do the statements below have in common, and which is the odd-one-out?
1. The sun rotates around the earth.
2. Deaf people have low intelligence.
3. Autism is an emotional disorder caused by cold mothers.
4. Severe non-speaking autism involves an inability to understand language; and an intellectual disability, ie, a low IQ.
Answer: All four statements – once accepted as fact – have been proven to be incorrect. Statement 4 is the odd-one-out, because it’s still widely believed. But we know it’s false, because more and more non-speaking autistic people are acquiring age-appropriate communication – for the first time in history – through learning to point at letters.
What these historically misunderstood people say about their condition is overthrowing the prevailing dogma, which equates non-speaking with a failure to understand. (‘Non-speaking’ here includes minimal, non-reliable and nonsensical speech.)
The most famous severely autistic non-speaking person is Japan’s Naoki Higashida, who communicated his memoir when he was 13 by pointing at an alphabet board. His book was translated and published in 2013 by KA Yoshida and her husband, the author David Mitchell, as the bestselling The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism.
A film version, due out next year, will add momentum to the Copernican revolution required in our understanding of severe autism, if we are to get to the truth of this perplexing, complex, neurological condition, which expresses itself differently in every individual who has it.
Also leading the charge in this new, from-the-inside-out understanding of severe autism, is 22-year-old non-speaking American, Ido Kedar. Kedar’s memoir Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison, written between the age of 13 and 15; and his work of fiction from last year, In Two Worlds, the first novel ever published by a severely autistic non-speaking person – are revolutionary.
Severe autism is an extreme disability. People with Asperger’s Syndrome and ‘high-functioning’ autism have far greater potential to live independent lives than severely autistic people, who are an entirely different subset on the spectrum.
Alongside having restricted, or non-existent, communication through speech, severely autistic people often need help performing the simplest of practical life skills. Their tendency to erratic, impulsive and uncontrollable body movements and behaviours, and their extreme sensory sensitivity and concomitant stress reactions to their environment, necessitate 24-hour supervision. (There is no question of a severely autistic adult being capable of taking a bus and safely heading off on their own into town for the day.)
The prevailing theory is that severe autism entails not only intellectual disability (major cognitive impairment and low IQs), but also a language processing disorder. In other words, the widespread view is that severely autistic people can’t understand what’s said to them, let alone read. Entire professions – including psychiatry, psychology, speech and language therapy, and special education – base their interventions on this theory of severe autism.
Caoimh, my non-speaking 15-year-old son, is amongst the first Irish pioneers to dig their way out from the buried world of severe autism, into full communication through the use of a letter-pointing finger.
Caoimh is so severely disabled in terms of his care needs, that by the time he turned 14 – when adolescent anxiety tipped him into dangerous self-injury and violence – I had no other choice, as a single parent with another son called Fiach, but to battle publicly with the HSE until they provided residential care for Caoimh.
Caoimh has settled greatly over the last year with the help of the many therapists and social care staff who work with him. The process of moving into care was made infinitely easier by the fact that he, before leaving home, had learned to communicate by pointing at letters.
On admission into his residential service, Caoimh underwent yet another psychological assessment (he has had many down the years). Currently, more and more professional question marks are being raised over the accuracy of the tools used to measure IQ in severe autism, with large numbers of psychologists now conceding that we are probably drastically underestimating intelligence. Caoimh’s new psychologist agreed to let him use his letter board to spell out answers to her questions.
In doing this, she presumed cognitive competence instead of intellectual disability, and used a testing tool that is normally reserved for people who can answer questions through speech.
Caoimh is not able yet to hold his letter board himself. It must be held for him, at a particular angle. Since he can’t cross his midline with his right hand, and since he has difficulty raising his hand high, his board must be held quite low, and over to his right; if it is put directly in front of him, or too high up, he is incapable of accessing the letters on the left or at the top of the board.
Despite Caoimh’s need for a person, trained in his letter-pointing method, to hold his letter board for him, the psychologist was easily able to see that it was definitively Caoimh answering the increasingly difficult questions that she put to him, not his assistant.
The upshot is that it is now professionally verified that Caoimh can communicate at a highly intelligent, self-aware level. Caoimh’s therapists and social care staff communicate with Caoimh in this way. He fills out his own questionnaires, and describes the nature of his multiple disabilities. The guess work has largely been taken out of his case. At school, Caoimh is now also typing, to show his comprehension of honours-level Junior Cert subjects.
Until Caoimh acquired letter-pointing skills at age 12, his communication was limited to expressing basic needs and wants through the use of pictures. He was ‘locked in’. No one knew Caoimh’s true intelligence; he had no way of showing it; and he was kept at remedial level education.
In the 18 months previous to Caoimh achieving, at last, a way to communicate all of his thoughts, I taught him, almost daily, to incrementally develop control over his hand and arm movements, until he had mastered the ability to accurately point to letters on a large metal stencil. I didn’t have to teach Caoimh how to spell: he already had advanced literacy and vocabulary, which was all self-taught, since no one had deemed him sufficiently intellectually equipped to be taught to read.
In deciding to talk to Caoimh, when he was 10, as though he had the understanding of a non-disabled 10-year-old; and in committing to help him learn the movement control necessary to point at letters, I was going against what professionals had been telling me for years about Caoimh’s type of autism – that it was ‘low-functioning’, and that Caoimh would always have the comprehension of a young toddler. The process of teaching my son to letter point involved me looking beyond the judgments about his observable behaviour, and turning the theories I’d been steeped in, inside out.
It involved me acting on my hunches about the intelligence that I’d been catching glimmers of for years in Caoimh – beneath his frantic pacing and vocal droning, his bizarre repetitive movements, his glazed-over eyes, his tantrumming and bolting, his incapacity to consistently follow instructions, to write, brush his teeth, fasten zips and buttons. I got Caoimh on the letter board using the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) by developer Soma Mukhopadhyay.
Tito Mukhopadhyay – Soma’s 30-year-old son – was one of the first severely autistic speech-disabled people to have his high intelligence and spelling-to-communicate ability definitively proven. The name of Tito’s book, How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move? conveys the trap imposed on the severely autistic by the erroneous theory of intellectual disability/language processing disorder.
That old theory – imposed from the outside by non-autistic professionals, via their interpretations of severely autistic behaviours – is on the tipping point of being ousted by descriptions of severe autism from the severely autistic.
Pointing at letter boards and typing, these trailblazers proclaim that the professionals have got it catastrophically wrong. They insist that average to high intelligence in severe autism is the norm, not the exception; and that the professional misunderstanding of severe autism is having tragic and tortuous consequences. It is consigning millions of individuals to the lifelong, isolating, ‘locked-in’ state of having no means to show their real intelligence.
As more and more severely autistic non-speaking people acquire communication, their sensory and neurological differences to ‘neurotypical’ people are becoming clear. For example, synaesthesia seems to be far more prevalent in the severely autistic than the neurotypical population. In this state, the senses merge, allowing highly sensitive autistic individuals to ‘smell’ words, ‘taste’ emotions, and even see what the rest of us can’t – such as the patterns created by the vibrations of music.
This tendency, combined with the habit of linguistic compression – shaped by how slow and painstaking letter pointing is for Caoimh – results in enigmatic writing, such as this: “Stone people intuit mist easier than right people. Visions are dancing amongst us. Mist permeates even minds that are really closed.”
By ‘stone people’, Caoimh means severely autistic people like himself. By ‘right people’, he means neurotypicals. He’s describing the sensory wonders of the place that Kedar calls Autismland: the world that the severely autistic person must struggle to get at least one foot out of, in order to be able to participate in our world, and so learn to navigate two worlds.
Kedar calls the withholding of communication “a crime against humanity”. Let’s hope we heed the clarion call of these previously trapped trailblazers; and do our utmost to liberate severely autistic people into real communication.
In their own words…
“I’m awestruck by Ido Kedar’s books. Hope presents its bright face on every page. Hope sometimes leaves stone [severely autistic] children, making us despairing. How amazing to find an autistic, chinwagging, non-speaking author!
“Stone children rot because meaning rots. Meaning, not sorrow, calms autistic people. Ido’s writing has the power to make real the stone mechanisms that govern us. Ido murmurs mostly about worn-out theories that hold us in prison; in dark nets, in always hoping for our escape. In too many ‘nots’ we fight to have acknowledgement of our intelligence. Hope has movement, to ease repeating answers to my roaring knowledge.
“My hope dapples wondrously. Ido cares about his fellow worried autistic prisoners. That is why I admire him so much.”
Caoimh Connolly, age 15.
“It is a weird illness and symptoms are easily read as poor receptive language but it is poor body control, I am sure.
“We think. We understand. We know. We have to sit and flap and make gibberish and then we are seen as retarded. Maybe there are some retarded autistic people but not as many as you think. We fail intelligence tests because we are suffering from an output disorder. We are in there, but so blocked, and only a few of us have been shown the way out.”
Ido Kedar, from Ido in Autismland
World Autism Awareness Day is on Tuesday
For more information on the campaign by families to help disabled people communicate, see Unitedforcommunicationchoice.org.
I belatedly heard about Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay’s newest book, Plankton Dreams: What I Learned in Special-Ed, which he wrote in 2015, so my review here is two years late. In my opinion, that’s no sin. We authors get lots of reviews in the beginning, but few later on. Since this book deserves your attention, it’s good to write about it later on too.
For those who have not heard of Tito, he is Soma’s son, the first recipient of RPM, or however she referred to teaching her son how to communicate at the time. While everyone else with autism got 1+1 and play-doh, he got physics and Socrates and a true classical education. This is home-schooling Soma style. When scientists heard about Tito and his erudition and independent skills typing in a very autistic looking exterior, they wanted to study him, test him, and so on. I first heard of him just before I learned to type. My experts said he was “one in a million,” and my ABA supervisor said he wasn’t really autistic because his typing proved he had been misdiagnosed. In other words, he has been knocking down their doors for a long time and each book pushes a bit harder.
This memoir “novella,” (it is a short book), is sad, funny and biting satire. When Soma and Tito moved to Austin, Texas from India so she could teach communication to autistic kids, Tito had to go someplace during the day while she worked. The system being what it is, this brilliant, educated young man who moved autistically, got sent to a special day low expectation autism class. He used this time to analyze, like an anthropologist or social scientist, the absurdity of his situation. He studies “scientifically,” how people react to him sniffing their heads, rummaging in their purses and spinning their chairs. All for the sake of science! He savages the system.
“I created my own learning goals…” he writes. “I analyzed the responses of people to these situations—what I call my social experiments. I became an empiricist. Why shouldn’t the autist study the neurotypical?”
Here he conducts a head sniffing experiment on his teacher, among others.“Mr. Gardener…did not want me to sniff his head. He would rather dodge my approaching nose or stand on his toes so that my nose could not do what it longed to do. Mr. Gardener was bending over his desk, providing a rather complete view of his head.” And like a scientist, he collected data. “He jumped higher than the bus attendant—I could tell. It was a perfect jump, his star like head antigravitating away from Planet Earth.”
He describes the people in his world in special-ed: the students, the teacher, the aide, the teaching assistant, the administrators, the bus driver, the do-gooders (“Mr. Goodness Gracious”), and also his own boredom in this environment. Tito conveys his surreal existence, bored and analyzing his boredom through his sensory lens of highly educated philosophy. Sometimes the book is laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it is tragic-comedy. This book is unique because Tito is fully into Autismland perspective as he writes.
Here is proof that learning to communicate changes lives. I get thrilled every time I hear how my book has helped others move to communication. Life misunderstood, isolated and silent is not an adequate result for years of therapy and a parade of specialists who marched through this family’s house.
There are stubborn people who have to listen to us, but they won’t, I’m afraid. But there are open people who have listened.
Things are improving, little by little. Here is one family’s story.
I am truly honored to be standing here tonight receiving this recognition. I am honored to be here with our District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, too. It is a reminder that advocates can be high school students or politicians, or anyone else. We just need to care deeply about a cause.
As you look at me, some of you must be wondering if I really wrote my speech.
After all, you’ve probably heard that most nonverbal autistic people have low cognition, no insight, no theory of mind, no inner world and poor receptive language.
Guess who told you that? It wasn’t people with autism, that’s for sure.
I have a very misunderstood condition. My disability is caused by my brain’s faulty linkage to my motor system. So truly, I think and understand though I may look like I don’t. Add to that a sensory system that is malfunctioning, and you have an idea how tough it can be.
The truth is, autism itself is easier than the incorrect assumptions by the so-called experts and specialists out there. A locked-in, motor impaired, sensory overwhelmed child cannot escape this on his own. Consequently, few nonverbal autistic people learn to communicate. Experts comfort themselves that we can’t communicate because we don’t understand.
I got fed up with this, because all around me are smart autistic people dying of boredom and loneliness, not able to communicate one idea more sophisticated than a basic need.
My decision at twelve was to speak out and correct this misinformation.
I was denied an education in elementary school because of the expert opinion that an academic curriculum was beyond my intellectual abilities. Now I am an AP student in 12th grade, ready to go to college next year. If my parents had listened to my experts I would still be stagnating in 1+2=3 expectations.
Things are changing gradually. Other autistic typers are speaking out too. We face resistance by people who believe theories over truth. But in time I know that the current paradigm will be discarded, like so many other incorrect theories, and the nonverbal will at last have a voice in their futures.