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.
This post, from 2014, remains one of my most viewed.
The Reason I Jump, the book, has inspired The Reason I Jump, the documentary. The words of Naoki Higashida provide a kind of narration as the film follows the stories of five autistic young adults around the world, in the UK, Sierra Leona, India and the United States. The film is artistically rendered. It portrays the highly focused sensory experience of autistic people through close camera shots, examining water droplets and movements. It shows the autistic individuals and their families in life, and the overwhelmed emotions of autistic people in their effort to cope with sensory bombardment and frustration. The parents are wonderful. Only one of the autistic individuals is able to speak but his speech is not indicative of his ideas, in my opinion. He gets words out, but I suspect much more is trapped within. The young artist from India expresses herself through her art, but she has not been given a means to communicate through words. Still, she is conquering life through painting her ideas and feelings. The hardest life is in Sierra Leone. There, poverty and old superstitions make having a disability terrible for a family. One brave family started a school for autistic children and the happiness on the faces of the students was lovely to see. Their journey is long, but now they don’t need to be hidden by their families anymore.
The two Americans are able to communicate on letter boards. They learned this skill after years of silence, but they are now able to share their ideas with teachers and family, and they have a lot of feelings. I believe the others depicted in the film would benefit from communicating too. While the sensory system of people with autism is heightened, their need to be seen and heard as a person with ideas is equally high.
I had the opportunity to preview this film, soon to be released. People curious about autism should see it. It assumes competence, looks beyond odd behavior to see human beings struggling to deal with challenges and to cope with their messed up neurology. I was pleased with its honest but respectful portrayal. I send my good wishes to all who appeared in the film and hope this is the beginning of many changes for the silent warriors in this world.
In the olden days, Deaf Education tried to make the deaf look hearing. Deaf children had to learn lip reading and speech. The use of sign language was prohibited in schools. In those days many deaf people were born hearing so they knew what speech sounded like and what it felt like to talk before they were deafened by illness. Those children did pretty well speaking and lip reading as a result, and phenomenally better when compared to born deaf people who had never had the sound of speech to guide them. The schools touted their successful speakers as proof of their methods, and the so-called failures, un-touted, had to be stuck without sign language, the ability to speak clearly or the ability to read silent lips.
There is an obvious parallel to autism now. The successes of ABA have typically been children like the character, Peter, in my novel, In Two Worlds. For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel’s protagonist, Anthony has nonspeaking autism and is considered by professionals to be “low-functioning.” Peter, a boy his same age, is talking verbally and is considered to be “high-functioning.” But they are actually lumped as identical in terms of diagnosis. Moreover, they receive identical therapies. Peter is successful because of the methods, they say. Anthony is a failure because his autism is too severe, they also say.
Though the born hearing child and the born deaf child were both not able to hear, their situations simply were not the same. One had a distinct advantage with the educational methods provided because of those years having heard and having produced speech. So too, Peter is not the same as Anthony. His motor system performs more reliably. He is able to show many more skills. Their differing responses to the discrete trials does not take into account how different their symptoms are nor how one child may thrive with a treatment that fails another.
Anthony is bright but is severely trapped behind an uncooperative motor system that makes him appear foolish. He might get drills and flashcards to his dying day but it won’t give him the ability to show his intelligence. To do that he must be able to communicate in an accessible modality, by pointing to letters, and not by speech. When the deaf community insisted that they needed sign language in order to live fully and to not miss out on real communication, educational change happened. The deaf finally got a say in how deaf people were educated. I believe change in autism education and treatment will finally come when limited and nonspeaking autistic people demand a say in their education and mode of communication too.
Below is an excerpt from In Two Worlds from the chapter in which you meet Peter.
From Chapter 11: Peter, Autistic Superstar
Peter was the same age as Anthony. He had the same diagnosis. He also worked with Natasha, Nina, Charlotte and Alyssa in the ABA program, and Anthony and Peter also shared the same speech therapist. In fact, Peter was her star pupil. Their lives were practically parallel, but in every professional comparison with Peter, Anthony came out looking bad. Peter learned his drills faster. He learned to follow instructions quickly. He spoke with clear articulation and he looked fairly normal. He occasionally had temper tantrums, but otherwise Peter was the dream student.
To Anthony, Peter seemed to be the luckiest autistic guy in the universe. On the journey they shared, Peter was nearing the finish line and Anthony was barely out of the gates. The ABA data showed Peter learning new words rapidly, so rapidly he was doing the most advanced drills out there. Dr. Hagerty loved to remind people that he helped make some autistic kids lose their diagnosis. They may have been born impaired, but hard work, dogged perseverance and a little luck made a boy like Peter succeed. A case like Peter was the reason Dr. Hagerty had his reputation. He had many such cases, proof of the efficacy of his methods. Peter was an autism success story.
A stubborn case like Anthony confounded Hagerty, and everyone else. After years of intensive ABA, Anthony had progressed in his drills, but in no way was he looking even remotely close to normal. He had reached the point that many professionals believed to be virtually hopeless. They might help mitigate his symptoms but he would never “recover,” in the jargon of the trade. So, Anthony knew he was an autistic failure. He could not prove his intelligence, like lucky Peter. He knew that, because Nina and Natasha and everyone else also worked with Peter, they could not help but compare the boys. Anthony prayed inside to be like Peter. If only he could make his body obey him he could perform perfectly on his discrete trials too. But instead he was one of those frustrating kids who made Natasha and his team carry on with false optimism.
(I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from In Two Worlds. If you did, please consider reading the whole thing!)
(Also available as an ebook on Smashwords as well as kindle)
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.
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).
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.
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.
Welcome to WSJ readers! I am honored you took the time to check out my blog.
Here is a link to my opinion piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. (Apologies- it is behind a paywall).
Not talking is not the same as not thinking.
The converse is also true.
The American Speech Language Hearing Association, or ASHA, insists that the true voice of nonspeaking autistic people is best left to pictogram systems and garbled speech.
Here is their brief video statement.
Here are films of people with autism who have broken free by learning the methods ASHA disdains. Please note, there are motor challenges in autism, as evident in the films.
Here is a link to an organization of professionals, autistic people, families and others who dispute this harsh judgment and believe the communication of these individuals is their “true voice.” Take a look at the different films and decide for yourselves which seems more logical- a mistaken autistic person not understanding his own disability, or a potentially mistaken professional.
In this video is a friend I have mentioned in previous essays. He has also posted here as a guest author. He is a few years younger than me and we have known each other many years. Our moms are friends and talk to each other about autism (what else?). His name is Dillan Barmache.
Dillan is going to my old high school and he is going to graduate with a diploma in a year. Then he will take on the world.
He has been infected by the same bug I have been — a need to educate and change the way professionals look at our type of autism. I am proud to share his presentation at Stanford University to medical professionals.
His message is identical to mine. Open your minds. Let us out of our prisons.
I’m thrilled to see so many people with autism be heard, be advocates and educate.
The post you will read by guest bloggers, Laurence Le Blet and Karen Hatungimana, and a linked essay by Nicolas Joncour, are about the situation for nonverbal autistic people in France currently. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn how behind France is in educating people who have autism or in supporting children and families. I have many complaints about the system here in my own community but I know that I have been very lucky too. While an unwelcoming school or an incompetent aide has been part of my experience and has negatively impacted me, it has not been my entire experience. The opportunities I have been given to get a normal education, to have a trained aide with me in school, to have the chance to get a college degree and even to become an advocate for people with autism has been a blessing I cannot take for granted. It is time to change the paradigm about autism in France.
by Laurence Le Blet and Karen Hatungimana
The situation in France for autistic people has progressed very little for many years. The professional orientation of case-managing organizations, medical-social institutions and specialist doctors is still largely psychoanalytic. The National Health Authority, (HAS), does not recommend psychoanalysis, and specifically condemns the “ le packing” treatment (in which a patient, wearing only underclothes, or naked in the case of small children, is wrapped in towels and soaked in cold water for the stated goal of enabling the child to rid himself of “pathological defense mechanisms.”
Despite these recommendations, these treatments remain widely present and the national institutions have not caught up with new recommendations for autism treatment. These archaic and outmoded approaches are found in all institutions: justice, health, schools and in society in general. In fact, societal ignorance regarding autism is so pervasive that reports made on parents and subsequent social placements are many; children are always at risk of being removed from their parents custody.
Although autism has been officially recognized as a disability since 1996, the training of nurses and special educators is still mostly based on psychoanalysis and autism is widely seen as a psychosis. Consequently, children with autism are not encouraged to attend regular schools with their same age peers. Despite the legislative Act of 11 February 2005 on Equal Rights and Opportunities, Participation and Citizenship of Persons with Disabilities, the educational situation for autistic children has barely changed. Only 20% of autistic people are enrolled in regular schools, mostly not full time, and parents have to fight for their children to be and remain in ordinary primary school. Most autistic kids are referred to medical educational institutes or day care hospitals at a very early age (from kindergarten), where the right to schooling and the ability to participate in society is limited. Medical-educational institutes and day hospitals are supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health )
Another factor negatively affecting the ability of autistic children to attend regular school is due to the fact that many children do not have the necessary trained support. Children may wait a long time to obtain a personal assistant and until then, must remain at home. However, many assistants are not adequately trained nor do they have a good understanding about autism. Additionally, most schoolteachers believe that students with autism suffer when they attend a regular school and they believe the child should be removed from the school and referred to specialized institutions. When parents are not well informed of their child’s potential to learn, as well as their basic rights, (and most of the parents are not), they are pressured to enroll their kids in medical-social institutes. Those parents who believe in their kid’s potential and capabilities are accused of making their child suffer in a regular school, or are told that his presence in a regular school makes the teacher and other students suffer. Thus inclusion is strongly discouraged. There have been a few lawsuits by parents, however this is rare.
There is a lack of understanding of integration and inclusion concepts. Parents of children with autism who strive for inclusion have to overcome innumerable obstacles including: delayed or obsolete diagnosis, absence of proper care advice, fighting for financial support, and most significantly, the permanent anxiety of the psychiatric hospitalization of their children after their death because nobody would be there anymore to fight for them.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNO) has issued its conclusions on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Here is an excerpt:
“The Committee urges the State party to take immediate steps to ensure that the rights of children with autism, , And that these programs are in conformity with the recommendations of the High Authority are authorized and reimbursed. The State party should also ensure that children with autism are not subjected to forced institutionalization or administrative placement and that the parents are no longer subjected to reprisals when refusing the institutionalization of their children. “
In France, despite there being laws and recommendations for good autism treatment, most are not widely known and they are not consistently implemented throughout society. Money that is designated to medical-social institutions would be better applied to education. Inclusion should be effective throughout the entire life of a person with autism.
France ‘s motto « liberté , egalité , fraternité » should be for all.
Guest post by Tracy Kedar
I have been asked many times by parents how to develop resources to support their children with autism who communicate by typing in order to access a regular education, or how to find supportive agencies or how to create other services where they live. I wish there was an easy answer. Each resource we have out here took legwork and advocacy work by someone, as I’m sure so many of you have already experienced and accomplished, and we have a long way to go! Based on the kinds of questions I often receive, what I can offer are some tips that hopefully will help parents in developing resources where they live.
The general education system is still not set up for typers. By and large, unless you encounter an extremely rare and open-minded individual in your school, or others have blazed the trail before you, you will virtually never walk into a school that is familiar with autism or ready to integrate autistic students into general education classes Thus, parents are, as always, thrust into the role of advocate for their child and become de facto outreach educators regarding autism to the schools. Since so many special educators have been taught that students with autism have low cognition, parents of autistic children who have broken through the communication barrier and who are trying to get their children into general education, must come to IEP meetings armed with evidence of their child’s ability. Often times those early meetings are emotionally challenging for parents because panels may be biased or even hostile. However, films of their child typing, reports and assessments from private, preferably school-district-recognized, augmentative communication specialists, psychologists, and others, which show their child’s true capacity, may help.
Beyond this, parents may need to be ready to explain that their child has a legal right to be educated, according to federal law, in the least restrictive environment, despite communicating in a different modality and sometimes displaying odd behavior. Since many people have never even heard that a nonverbal autistic person can communicate by typing, parents can help the IEP team by reassuring them that with a trained aide for behavioral support and as a communication partner, autistic people have successfully been integrated into general education and have done well.
With luck, there will be in attendance at the IEP meeting someone from the school who recognizes that the child is truly communicating and who consequently recommends allowing the child to enter regular classes, but this may not be the case. If it seems necessary, parents may want to invite independent professionals to the IEP as well, such as augmentative communication specialists, educational psychologists, and so on, who can help advocate on behalf of your child’s abilities. Though there may be no one in your area specializing in, or even familiar with testing autistic kids who use typing to communicate, just finding someone open-minded may be good enough.
From our own experience, when Ido was young and I was trying to get him out of autism class, I searched for an educational psychologist who was willing to let him be tested while he answered questions via letter board. I found someone who was willing to try. She carefully observed throughout the testing to make sure he was communicating without being manipulated or prompted, however, she had no prior experience testing a child who communicated in this modality. Other parents looking for someone to do an assessment are eager to hear who can do a fair or adequate job and word may spread among parents that this person is capable of testing a nonverbal typer.
Should a school refuse to allow an autistic student to be integrated in spite of educational psychological evaluations and films demonstrating ability and aptitude at age appropriate level, then in some instances parents may be compelled to seek additional support. It is generally better to not have legal professionals (lawyers, paralegals) in the room in the introductory meetings since at that early stage you are trying to educate school personnel and forge a partnership. However, if you determine that it is necessary, it may be helpful to convey that you are consulting with a legal professional and are aware of your child’s legal rights. A lawyer’s presence may be useful in future meetings but is certainly not the place to start as teamwork and a non-adversarial relationship is always best, if possible.
Once a child is out of the autism class and mainstreamed, the student often finds the academics to be an easier hurdle than the learning to sit still and control his body, emotions and impulses all day. Because these are self-control skills, many students begin mainstreaming gradually, perhaps leaving an autism classroom for only a few periods a day until the self-control improves. For example, in Ido’s middle school there was a self-contained autism class where he sat when not in general education classes, though he did independent study there for the other academic classes he was missing. His integration began gradually. In 6th grade he went only to two general education classes, math and science, and as he learned how to function in a regular class he was able to last longer and longer. By 7th grade he was mainstreamed for three classes and by 8th grade the school recommended that he be on a full general education schedule, which he maintained throughout high school.
Another strategy we found useful was to hire a private tutor to work on grade level material not taught in the autism class before Ido was mainstreamed into general education so that he could get used to do doing regular coursework. He was sitting in the remedial autism class at school all day, but we hired a graduate student in education (not special education) with no prior exposure to autism, whose lesson plans no doubt helped ready Ido for general education. Another advantage is that each of these people, formerly unfamiliar with nonverbal autism and typing to communicate, becomes part of a wider network of support and may in turn provide support to other parents and students.
It is important to note that for most of the typers we know, they didn’t walk into a school that had a program ready to mainstream an autistic student. Since Ido was the first mainstreamed, nonverbal autistic student in every school he attended, this was a completely new experience for teachers and administrators. It is important to know that individual people can make a huge difference. We were helped enormously in middle school by an open-minded administrator, an assistant principal, who was willing to work with us and be supportive to Ido in the school setting. As he told me, “I always just assumed he was smart and just communicated in a different way.” By presuming competence he helped forge a path for success. This was a pleasant surprise. We saw how, by his lead, he influenced others in the school to be receptive to having a student with autism in regular classes.
To help smooth out potential obstacles, prior to the beginning of the school year I met with the administrators to explain who Ido was, how he communicated, his abilities and challenges, and I did the same with all of his teachers after contacting them by email. Ido came to these introductions and introduced himself to the teachers. This is an essential step. Many teachers have never met a person with autism before. They may know nothing about autism. They have huge classes and they already feel overwhelmed and harried, so they need to know that they have someone to bring their questions to, whether it’s the parent, aide, administrator or inclusion teacher. With a good collaborative relationship, supportive administrators can help place the child with teachers they know will be the most open and capable. Many teachers rise to the challenge admirably and really embrace educating the student with autism. They are great gifts to our children. Other teachers accept the presence of our kids with no special passion for reaching out. No problem. They educate them and accept them as they do any other student. Each of these teachers becomes a resource for those students with autism who follow.
There are, however, some teachers who are a terrible fit. They may resent the child’s presence, do not know how to deal with autistic behavior including disruptive noises, outbursts or poor impulse control, be poor teachers in general, or they may exhibit hostile skepticism. In certain instances, finding a different teacher may be warranted. Teachers should be encouraged to observe the child communicating and answering questions to put their mind at ease and to reassure them that the student is doing his own work. From our experience, the more independently the child is able to communicate, the more receptive the response. In our experience, the majority of teachers I met were cooperative and some were outstanding. .However, in spite of all your efforts, you may still encounter people in the schools who are less open-minded, or who are convinced a nonverbal, autistic child does not belong in general education. It is never easy being a pioneer, and unfortunately, both parents and the student have to be ready for these challenges and for the difficult people who make the process tougher, whether teacher or administrator.
Parents may find that certain systems are unfixable. When Ido started high school, after a successful middle school experience, he initially went to our local high school hoping to continue his positive experience. This school proved to be a bad fit. A few administrators created a hostile climate for disabled students. Since it is hard enough having autism, no student deserves to be bullied by administrators and made to feel unwelcome at school, in addition to their everyday challenges. I concluded that the administrators of this school were not reasonable or compassionate people who were willing to work with me, but rather, were obstructionist and mean-spirited. I realized that because of this, the environment could not be changed for the better for Ido. I felt that the hostile climate was sufficiently bad that I had to remove him from the school and find another high school with a more welcoming attitude that would be willing to enroll him midyear.
The second nearby high school I found did not have any experience mainstreaming autistic students into the general education classes. Ido was the first. But they had a different attitude of, “let’s try,” “let’s make it work,” and significantly, they had respect for the student. This enabled him to thrive. What happens without planning, then, is that word of mouth spreads among parents to avoid the first school and to look into the second, and so perhaps more typers enroll in the second school and none into the first. But, it is not as if a program of integration, training, or special services for the students with autism existed or exists in that school. Rather, it is a school with some kind people willing to give a student with autism who types a chance to be educated and it becomes an option for parents looking for resources.
One friend of mine was having terrible experiences with a teacher/administrator in her son’s elementary school. The mom is a strong advocate but it became clear that she was dealing with a closed-system, much like Ido’s first high school, which didn’t want things to work out. Staying in schools like this is actually harmful to our kids. She was struggling to cooperate with an individual who had strong negative biases toward her son’s abilities and who would not, and possibly could not, change. As painful as it may be to see people who reject or underestimate our children, sometimes we simply have to recognize a hostile system and not continue to bang our heads against the wall trying to fix things. It becomes essential in these circumstances to look for greener pastures elsewhere. After changing schools, this little boy is now thriving in his new school where he is fully integrated and welcomed. Once again, this life-changing experience was made possible simply thanks to a few open-minded individuals in the new school who his mom reached out to and who were willing to listen and learn and the negative experience was shaped by one powerful individual in the first school.
The bottom line is that a successful general education school experience is created one teacher, one counselor, and one administrator at a time and parents must reach out to all of them. One of our most successful collaborative relationships was with a teacher who initially was skeptical of Ido’s abilities. To her great credit, she came to our home, observed Ido typing and changed from being someone I feared might impede his progress to an indispensable ally and supporter who has since helped other students with autism who type in the school setting. Outreach is incredibly important. Some people are open to change and some are not. One individual, like this wonderful teacher, can help foster a successful experience for your child, and for those who follow, at school by influencing other staff.
Beyond schools, our children get help from autism agencies, which provide their aides, adaptive skills training, and other services. There are only a few agencies in our area that are eager to support kids with autism who type. They do not specialize in this population, though they are interested in exploring it more. They became enthusiastic after they got a client who was a student with autism who typed and who had a parent who educated and advocated to the agency staff or supervisor. 100% of the agency staff did not get behind the concept. Rather, once again, a few individuals got on board. In many instances, these are individuals who have no particular expertise or training in typers or typing to communicate, nor did they know initially how to support the children and their communication. However, significantly, certain individuals on their staff showed a willingness to listen to parents, to observe how the students learned, and finally, an openness to learning more. I know several parents who even trained agency staff who were working with their kids on communication techniques and strategies, planting a seed of interest and helping their own children as well. Once again, parent led and parent generated advocacy coupled with a few open-minded individuals in an agency, can begin to make a systemic change. Families that follow will enter into an agency that is more receptive, thanks to the efforts of these motivated parents. I will confess that I stayed on far too long with an agency that had a very inconsistent ability to support Ido. I urge you not to make the same mistake!
As you look for the supports your child needs, it may take some time to find the right match. When we wanted someone to help Ido with fitness, he worked with three trainers over the span of a few years. The first did a very good job but had no interest in specializing in autism and moved on to other things. Still, he was able to help Ido with fitness and it was a positive experience for both. The trainer who followed him was clearly not excited about trying to help a person with autism get fit, so the search continued. We found Ido’s third trainer, Mike Ramirez, through a friend, a mother of a child with autism. She said Mike had worked with her son through an autism agency for years but on a personal level was a Cross-Fit devotee and fitness buff. For Mike, putting these two hats together, autism and fitness, was ideal and he decided that what he wanted to do professionally was to concentrate on the fitness of kids with special needs. Ultimately, he created his own company to do so. What I am saying is that if no Mike exists where you are now, remember, Mike’s program didn’t exist here either when we started! Ido was the first kid he trained, but from word of mouth other parents began to request a service that he was good at and interested in providing. As Mike says, his services are parent driven and the parents, in many instances, are driven by the demands of their kids who type. Once our kids can communicate, they can tell us what they want to learn and then motivation is much higher.
Whether the person is a tutor, a running coach, a fitness trainer, a piano teacher, an art teacher or any of the many talented professionals who may not have originally been familiar with autism, or who may be familiar with autism but never thought to teach these particular skills, resources can be created for your children and community in this way. Once our kids type they can let us know what they want or need.
Finally, finding like-minded parents is crucial. I can’t begin to list the good tips I got from other parents and hope that I have been able to do the same for them.
Creating options, advocating and being brave pioneers walking into the unknown is what the reality is for those of us now on the forefront of creating educational opportunities for our kids with autism who type. Our children bravely walk into the classroom ready to take on those opportunities in spite of the challenges they face, but change is still one child, one parent and one educator at a time. One by one, with each person forging a path for those who follow, we can move mountains.
Good luck to all pioneers!