I'm at the beginning of my journey into the world of autism. My son sees the world differently than typically developing people with so called typical minds, and I find it absolutely fascinating. This is all new to me, and I am no expert in Autism. I am just a mother on a mission to gain new knowledge and experience as I raise my child to be as happy and independent as possible.
“So how’s the little one?” a coworker asked at the beginning
of a slow morning. “I mean, how’s the whole
autism thing going? I didn’t know if, ya know, that was something that gets
better or whatever.”
I chuckled. Ignorance at its most honest is hardly
offensive, I think. Funny, though, coming from a coworker I have known for so
long, who knitted a lovely blanket for my son when I was still pregnant. Coming
from someone who has met my son several times over the years. But it’s good to
ask questions, and I was willing to answer, although the workload picked up
before I could get too far into an explanation.
Weeks later, on another shift, with another coworker, I
joked about my son’s silliness, pretty much at his expense, behind his back,
ha. He’s a quirky kid, to be sure.
“These imaginary friends, man!” I start ranting, shaking my
head. “Kinda freakin me out!”
She giggles a naughty school girl type giggle. “You leave
that baby alone!”
“He’ll be walking! And he acts like he bumps into something!
And he says, ‘Oh, sorry.’ And I’ll say ‘Who are you talking to??’ and he’ll
tell me ‘Everywhere.’”
“Sends chills down my spine, man. These imaginary friends
need to go home to their imaginary parents.”
“You stop teasing that baby!” she scolds, at least half serious. “Isn’t he,
like, borderline autistic?”
“BORDERLINE?!” I exclaim, feigning incredulousness.
She laughs. “I don’t know, what do they call it? Like,
Asperger’s? Or something?”
“I think they call it autism!”
“Well, there ya go! Don’t tease him for being different,
Ha. These are two people who know me and my family fairly
well, as far as co-workers go. We are a tight bunch, and we’ve all known each
other for several years. And, ya know, in these last few years, I probably had
many opportunities to teach them a thing or two about autism, and maybe if I
had taken the time, someone wouldn’t have asked if “autism is something that
gets better” or if my child was “borderline autistic.”
On the other hand, I think there is some benefit to being
exposed to autism somewhat “blind.” My coworkers knew about my son’s diagnosis.
We are a close enough group that they were a core part of my support system in
the midst of the diagnosis process. But I’m not much of a “sharer” in person,
you know. I tell cute, brief stories about my kid. N I don’t feel the need to “explain”
my son’s behavior. I don’t put any of it in context for them. My son’s a picky
eater. He talks to himself. He reads. I don’t understand wtf he’s saying half
the time. I could say all that, and add, “because he’s autistic,” but, why?
What’s it to ya?
One could argue, “Well, that’s a pretty shit job of an
awareness campaign. Maybe if you took the time to explain why he’s a picky
eater, or why he talks to himself, and really gave people a chance to learn
about autism, maybe people would be more educated!”
ORRRR. Ya know. Not. I don’t know, I don’t know for sure,
this is just a thought. It occurs to me that when you “explain away” behavior
by attributing it to autism, and turn an individual’s life into the sum of
their autism symptoms, and prioritize understanding the broad spectrum over
understanding real life people, then people just file it all away in their
brains, under “Too different, only understand on a superficial level.”
Because these people know my KID, ya know. And the more they
know my kid, I think the more they will be willing to open their minds to
really learn about disability, and different neurology.
See, to me, “person first,” in practice, isn’t about seeing “beyond”
one’s disability, really. It is just about challenging the notion that one
starts off as “the other” by virtue of being wired differently. De-legitimizing
preconceptions just by not being reactive to them. Screw it. Behavior has a function, ya know, and those
who learn about autism don’t always really understand this concept. Really. Why
does Johnny bash his head? Because he’s autistic. Why does Sally scream all day
and all night? Because she has autism. Why does Tommy flinch at his mother’s
touch? Because he has special needs. And if this is as far as one goes
regarding their level of understanding, it is going to be difficult for one to
see Johnny, Sally, and Tommy as real kids, with real needs, and real feelings,
and real reasons for doing the things that they do.
So I say, let people be a little confused. Let them
naturally challenge their own assumptions about ASD, or disability. Let them
ask “stupid questions,” because, there are no stupid questions if they are
sincere. Always show people over explaining to people, and, whenever possible,
lead by example, rather than teach. Not that I’m necessarily a good role model
for anything, but that’s just it—I have no answers for anyone, I can only show
you what I do, and how I do. Maybe my comfort with and acceptance of
differences will permeate. I mean, I’m pretty sure it will. Pretty sure it has.
We have been sorting through all the junk in our house,
organizing and tossing things. Today my son stumbled upon a DVD that
accompanied some dump truck toy he got the Christmas before he turned 2.
“Hey!” he exclaimed, his facing lighting up. “It’s my stinky
“Stinky movie??” I repeated, dubious. “What does it smell
“No, Stinky is the dump truck! Remember?”
Barely. I certainly didn’t remember his name was Stinky, but
sure enough, that is his name on the DVD. I was surprised my son could recall
this fact. His dump truck is in a toy box somewhere—he still has it. But that
DVD? We watched it once, when we opened the toy, over 2 years ago, and then
promptly discarded it. My son wasn’t calling me “mommy” at this point. He had,
like, a handful of words at the time. What the hell does he mean “Oh, mom, do
you remember Stinky??” Ha. Ridiculous.
He sure is good with names, though…
He has met several of my friends and coworkers, and never
forgets any of them. If he hears me mention them by name in a conversation, he
chimes in. “Oh, Samuel! I LIKE Samuel! Is he coming over?”
No doubt he is the Ultimate Power Rangers Trivia Master,
knowing every Ranger and every villain in every different Power Rangers show
existing—and there are a lot of different ones, now. There are unicorns and
dinosaurs and shit.
He DOES read. He was playing this first grade level reading
game on the computer, and flying through it with ease. “Well, I’ll be damned,
you really can read, huh, Son,” I said.
“Yeah. Don’t say ‘damn.’” He didn’t even look away from his
game. Cocky little bad-ass.
Parlor trick? I don’t know. What does it mean to be an early
reader with no story telling skills and so far no real expression of reading
comprehension? Does it have to mean something? Could it be a really cool thing
just because it is indicative of the awesome complexities of the human brain?
I am not sure. I have strong feelings that are more
instinctual than anything.
It is still really
hard to hold an actual conversation with my son. Our relationship doesn’t
suffer for it, but I think his peer relationships do, and sometimes I just
panic and start thinking he’s doomed if we don’t get him back into speech therapy.Although I know that he is a smart kid, I
worry that if he does not understand certain concepts verbally, he has no
chance of understanding them in some other context. Then I see his natural
ability to soak up facts, names, and information, and I am less worried about
the verbal skills.
I think I’ve pictured this smart, yet ignorant child, who is
“exposed” to less information than his peers because he can’t verbally keep up.
In reality, he is exposed to different
things, as well as the same things through different avenues. In reality, his
inability to express something in a way that I understand is just not related
at all to his actual level of comprehension. I know that on paper it seems I’m
talking about things I should have learned in Autism 101—common truths about
differences in learning styles, communication abilities, and neurology. I
think, however, that a deeper understanding of these simple truths is required
in order to face our own biases when it comes to what constitutes as
Application of Knowledge, and realize it is not to be confused with Expressions
of Knowledge Communicated towards Others. One can apply knowledge without
showing someone else how they are doing it. Just because my son didn’t call me “mommy”
until he was almost 3 doesn’t mean he didn’t know I was “mommy.” I assumed he
didn’t know. It’s possible he didn’t know. This whole Stinky the Dump Truck reminiscence
has me reconsidering my assumptions.
Um. Here's the deal about me. I have struggled with my own problems related to my neurology, my whole life. I searched for answers for a long time, theorizing about how I was brought up, heritable personality traits, socioeconomic factors. I had a pretty inflated sense of myself, maybe as some sort of coping mechanism to deal with my feelings of hurt, confusion, and injustice, so I didn't spend much time considering that it was my fault, heh.
I did not even consider neurological issues until well into treating my son's ASD. It started to occur to me that I fit the description for ADHD, but here I was, a fully functioning adult, learning new behavioral strategies every day. I didn't see an immediate need for an assessment or treatment. For the last few years, I've incorporated routines and behaviors that have compensated a little for my organizational problems.
And now I'm sort of at the point where I'm almost 30, and I don't know how much time I can devote to trying little behavioral strategies here and there for myself, without professional input and maybe even support. I've spent my whoooole life probably unreasonably skeptical of psychotropic drugs, and suddenly I find myself very intrigued by some promising medications.
Because I'm no longer sure I can easily say I'm "fully functioning."
A deficit model has opened my eyes.
I've LIVED without a deficit model. My parents were fairly accepting of a lot of my difficult traits, and they were quick to recognize any legitimate strength I had. I was impulsive, inattentional, forgetful, confrontational, uninhibited. This meant I made rash decisions and often acted before thinking. I was also the champion of performing under pressure, dealing cooly with overwhelming situations, and when there is an emergency in which time is of the essence. For a really long time, it never occured to me how neurologically related my strengths and my weaknesses are. I get lost in these conversations about "Autism as an identity." Too abstract, across the board. First you'd have to thoroughly explore the answers to the questions: What is Autism? What is Identity? But if I were to start taking straterra, and I became more mindful, would I freeze like all of the normals do when it *really* counts?
I'm impatient, ya know. I sometimes speak positively about my
impatience, either with some sarcastic bravado or some downright
justification. Haha. I like to act outraged that people waste my time,
although I'm chronically late, everywhere. Here I go again, all "haha."
It's not funny. It's fucking ugly. That's some diva ass shit right
there. And yet, it's my impatience that drives me forward. And never
knowing where to start and where I'm headed in life makes me aptly
suited for critical situations that sensible people are often completely
disabled by. When time is of the essence, and the perfect decision a
few seconds too late is worthless, I shine. I really shine. Like. Saving
the company from ruin. Saving the family dog from choking.
Single-handledly. That's what I do. I just DO the damn thing, because I
don't waste time thinking. Psssh.
I'm the hero. You know. That's my role in life that I am most proud of. It isn't all of who I am by a long shot, but it's something I hang a lot of my self worth on, because, it's all I really know that I'm definitely good for. Do you think I don't know what it's like to be made to feel inferior and deficient by unimaginitive and ignorant fucks who seem to think they accomplished something just by having some innate ability they didn't even work for? Seems kinda small minded in a world where progress depends on the presence of outliers. Comparitive advantage, and all that. The world has a lot of sensible people whose frontal lobes keep them nice and functionally stable. It needs a few heroes.
What a glamor skill, eh?? It's all for show. How often does that shit do ME any good? It's not a superior way of thinking, it's just adventageous, ya know, sometimes. Almost never. Heh. It looks real good, tho, when it happens...
Identity. The fuck is that, anyway. Jeez, what if there IS a pill to take it all away? I keep joking with my husband, "playing office" at home, fantasizing about Strattera making a nice conventional job bearable, so that people with shittier cars and shittier attitudes than mine can stop looking at me with contempt just because I can't sit on my ass bullshitting all day and call it a fucking workday, okay?! But just you wait, man. Just you wait.
I'm really starting to think this is a highly complicated issue. Strengths and weaknesses are often simply the same trait in a different context. I realize a lot of my admirable traits are directly related to my behavioral inhibition deficits. Had I been assessed in childhood, and my parents went "hardcore remediation," my whole life might have been different. Maybe I wouldn't have been such a mess. Maybe I wouldn't have even been a spunky, fearless, free spirit. Omg, but maybe I wouldn't be such a mess.
Here we are, another year. Ummmm. Let’s see. My son is four
years old now.
Haha. I usually do a yearly update post about where we are
right now. But now that my son is four years old, it seems a little impossible
to write a neat little narrative about what’s up in our lives.
Today he had his birthday party, and the turn out was, well,
pretty typical. If anything, the party flow was pretty enjoyable and seamless,
especially considering the professionals were teens working for minimum wage.
In so many instances, it is so obvious that my son is different, but I’m
actually a little taken aback by how well he fits in, playing with his
classmates at a party.
I’m pretty sure he’s pretty good at reading. Haha. It’s hard
to tell—I don’t know if he’s fucking with me. Sometimes I could see where he
could pick up some context clues and take a pretty good guess—sometimes he’s
clearly reading a word, with no information available other than text. Then
again, could he be reading small words like “red” and “purple” but memorizing
words like “microeconomics”? You never know because he’s a tricky bastard.
There ARE times when I get a little freaked out by his
behavior. Sometimes it really does seem like he is just in his own little
world. He talks to his finger like an imaginary friend and, heh, I don’t know.
It was cute, but it didn’t stop. And, then, I don’t know, his eyes will glaze
over and he will sound like he’s whispering to someone, like he’s having a
conversation with someone, and it’s really freaky. It SEEMS like he’s
completely losing touch with reality. I SUPPOSE it could be as simple as a
stim, a script, something I don’t recognize or understand, and so I just don’t
get it. Freaky, tho.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m too complacent, but it’s hard to
sweat the small stuff. Kid can’t put on his shoes without help. He only asks
questions he already knows the answers to. We are just starting to make
progress with verbal sequencing and telling a story. Sometimes I think he’s a
little lonely, and ultra sensitive. (Shrug) But he orders his own food at
restaurants. He’s a whiz on the computer.He’s excitable, and has a passion for life. He’s really fricken
hilarious, and has a smart mouth. He argues with me about who is better—Kesha or
Britney. He’s friggen WRONG, by the way. It’s Britney, bitch. I don’t know what
his problem with Kelly Clarkson is, he just don’t like her.
Ha. So, shit. I don’t know. Autism schmautism. Flippant,
right? Temporary. Hyperbolic. Maybe. Things just seem pretty, er, pleasantly
unremarkable right now. Hey, it happens sometimes. I’ll gladly take whatever
Easy the universe wants to send my way.
Haha, I just run my big ole mouth like I know something, or
you should care for my opinion, or something.
But I find the “myth” of the “formerly autistic” to be
pretty dang plausible.
So here’s the scoop: there were a couple news stories about
the possibility of “outgrowing” autism. The studies that were cited may have
been new, I’m not sure, but either way, they say about the same as any other
study has suggested- that there is a significant minority of autistic children
who grow up to be adults who don’t meet the criteria for autism.
Several influential bloggers reached out to counter the
sensationalism, and I don’t disagree with that. The headlines suggest that a
big ole chunk of people who are diagnosed just grow up to be normal by
adulthood. People are picturing nonverbal school age children spontaneously
catching up to their peers by the time they are leaving high school. Reality is
probably more like, mildly affected children with average IQs who go through
some sort of intensive treatment sometimes don’t seem very autistic later in
John Elder Robison suggests that this is pretty much
entirely due to coping strategies and the ability to compensate with other
skills and resources. He explains how he was definitely disabled as a child and
now he really isn’t disabled as an adult. He explains that many, many autistic
people reach independent functioning without any sort of accommodating support
necessary. It’s a myth that all autistic people experience lifelong disability.
Then he goes on to point out just how well these “formerly
autistic” individuals did in this study:
“I’ll offer another point of perspective.All the same tools used for the kids in this
study have been used on me. I’ve been tested repeatedly with the most recent
round being last August.In that ADOS
screening, I was still above the ASD diagnostic threshold.In the facial recognition tests, I was also
well above threshold.In the social
function, I was above threshold.
The thirty-four kids in the study therefore tested less
disabled than me, and I am not really disabled in daily life.But my differences still show up on the
His conclusion? “Some of us do an excellent job of masking
disability, especially in middle age.”
No. I could be wrong, and all. Robison is way smarter and more
successful than I. He knows more about autism. He’s actually autistic.
Still, as my son would say: “But, no!”
MANY, MANY, MANY, MANY autistic individuals gain enough
coping strategies and life skills to be functional, successful, and
independent. This isn’t news to anyone familiar with autism. Someone like John
Elder Robison is exceptionally successful, and one of the reasons he is so
influential is because he is so extraordinary. If you could guarantee that all
the newly diagnosed children right now would turn into John Elder Robison, I
think parents would be downright ecstatic.
Well. HE’S autistic! The adults in the study who didn’t meet the threshold were
waaaaay less autistic than he was.
And I think that’s my problem with this counter argument to
the sensational “It’s Possible to Outgrow Autism!” story. We are now arguing about
apples and oranges, here. We are arguing about the clinical diagnosis of autism
versus… gee, I dunno, being well rounded? Having a good head on your shoulders?
We’re back to making the same old stereotypes? “More Autism = Less Ability to
Function” “Less Autism = Wildly Successful”? Jeez. I’m not autistic. I haven’t
accomplished ANYTHING as cool as Temple Grandin, or John Elder Robison, or John
Hall. That’s not what we’re talking about, here. We’re talking about Autism,
and its symptoms.
I’m not an expert in neurology by a long shot, but my
limited understanding leads me to believe strongly in the power of
neuroplasticity. I think the emerging research from child development studies
suggest that our culture, lifestyle, and environment greatly affect our
neurological development. It seems our attention spans and working memories are
changing dramatically every generation, just because of changes in technology
and everyday life.
Apply that to autism, and early intervention, and it seems
possible to brain train some of the mildly affected children right out of their
autism by adulthood.
I’m honestly disappointed in the dialogue. It seems pretty
clear that Autism is just this word we use to describe a set of (mostly)
behavioral symptoms. By definition, some people that “are autistic,” “aren’t”
later in life. But even if you make the argument that behavior changes don’t
necessarily mean actual neurological wiring changes… it’s pretty clear that
sometimes, that’s exactly what they mean. The brain is pretty flexible like
that. So, both by clinical definition and by actual neurological wiring, it’s
possible to “recover” from autism, given certain circumstances.
And who cares?! Does this leave people vulnerable to false
hopes about the future? Um, why would it. The study definitely shows that most
autistic individuals remain autistic well into adulthood. Losing an autism
diagnosis isn’t a guarantee for a carefree, successful life. Keeping a
diagnosis for a lifetime doesn’t guarantee that your life will suck. Really. That’s
how life works—there are no guarantees about the challenges you’ll face. I’m a
parent, so I get that “no autism” sounds easier than “even a little tad bit of
autism” but then let’s talk about that as
opposed to this weird conversation about how autism is some intangible,
identifying characteristic, independent of disability, behavior, and brain
wiring. “Outgrowing Autism” is an oversimplification, but, uh, so is “Pffft, you
can’t stop being autistic, that’s silly.” There’s more to it than that.