April, Autism, Awareness, and Acceptance

Unfortunately, the autism community is polarized (and therefore paralyzed) on many issues. It’s fairly divisive (go figure in these days and times!), and people have widely differing views on everything from person-first language to vaccines. We can’t even agree on what to do with our little month of April. For most, “awareness” of autism doesn’t cut it, and we should be seeking “acceptance” of our kiddos and their behaviors, needs, and neurology from the general populace. Some (myself included) feel like awareness is a necessary first step that leads to acceptance, but others are not content to be patient with the rest of the world.

I get it.

But if we as a community continue to argue about every issue that exists, the result could be worse than a lack of awareness. If the message is muddled or unclear, no one hears it.

We need to agree to disagree on the issues that divide us. Table them until we can tackle each in its own time. Focus on one thing that will do the most good for those on the spectrum.

In my humble opinion, this one thing would be autism awareness and competence of our nation’s educators.

It is unfathomable to me that teachers across the country are still unaware of the core deficits of autism. They are as of yet unaware that an IEP is a federal document, and a binding agreement to which they are held accountable. They do not know how to make simple modifications and accommodations for a growing segment of their student population. And of course I do not mean all, or even most teachers in this country. But our special ed teachers need help, folks. If our kiddos have a right to the least restrictive environment, we want them in general ed classrooms with teachers who have a clue. Because let’s face it – our kids are at school each day much longer than they are at home. And if they are met with adults who see them as a “problem” or ” more work” or are just clueless in general about how they work, how devastating is that to this entire generation?

If the community could just get behind one urgent issue, this would get my vote, and I don’t think we’re very divided on this one.

This would be my wish for April and the autism community at large.

Dear Autism Community

Taking Things and Autism

Last week, I went to pick up The Boy at Grammy’s, and found him playing with his iPad, and pretending to use a TI84 calculator as a game controller. “Funny, that,” I thought. “We don’t own a fancy graphing calculator…”

Because I know better, I didn’t make a big thing of it, instead casually asking where it came from. “I don’t know!” The Boy responded, happy as a clam.  You see, a few years back, he had learned from somewhere that these fancy graphing calculators (that also cost around $80) had the capability of playing games, and you could even download a Mario game on them…  At the time, I said what any self-respecting parent would say.  “No.  You can play Mario on your Wii, on your DS, and even on the computer.  You do not need a graphing calculator for the sole purpose of playing Mario.”  We took a picture of it at the store, and that was that.

Until now.  The calculator clearly belonged to either another student or the school.  The question was, was it borrowed or taken?

Do Not DisturbThe Boy has picked up a few items over the years that have to belonged to him.  We have discussed these items and returned them, sometimes stealthily, without The Boy’s knowledge.  He seems to understand in each case that it isn’t right to have things that belong to other people, but does’t completely grasp why.

So, I looked it up, and found this, which explains that lack of impulse control is a core deficit of autism, and if a kiddo on the spectrum sees something that they want and it doesn’t appear to belong to anyone, in their minds, it can be theirs.  Along with that, ownership and theft are largely social constructs, and recognizing those is a core deficit of autism, as well.

I enlisted the help of his AS teacher, and put the calculator in his backpack so that they could return it to the rightful owner tomorrow (and so his teacher could find out what had actually happened).  In the meantime, The Boy’s neighborhood friend came over and they played quietly with legos until it was time for supper.  When his friend left, The Boy could not find the blue car they had made and immediately pronounced that his little friend had stolen it. A-ha! Teachable Moment! We located the car within a few moments, and after supper talked about how he had felt when he thought his friend had taken it, and didn’t he think that might be how the owner of the calculator was feeling… He seemed to understand, and knew it had to be returned the next day.

It turned out the calculator had been left in band by an 8th grader, and The Boy had found it and made it his.  It was returned, and all was well.  By no means do I think this will be the last time something like this will happen, but this is yet another commonplace occurrence for those on the spectrum, one that could easily be misinterpreted by neurotypical peers and authority figures who don’t understand about impulse control and ownership as a social construct.  Yes, we still need awareness about all the facets of autism, so that others can use these as teachable moments, as well, and not just be met with punishment and misunderstanding.

How Do You Know?

I saw a tshirt advertised on facebook the other day that read in big block letters, “I AM A MOM OF A CHILD WITH AUTISM,” and I thought, “Hm.  Don’t need that!” And then I thought about how quickly I assumed others know that about me, about us, about The Boy.

The Boy doesn’t flap much, doesn’t stim much when we’re out and about.  He saves it primarily for when he takes long walks outside, back and forth either in front of our house, or in front of Grammy’s.  Sometimes, he does it in his room, or from the kitchen to his room.  His stimming looks like an uncoordinated gallop with a sound like a voice-cracking “giggle” that could attract some stares from the un-initiated.  But I can’t recall seeing him do this at the grocery store or at a restaurant, where others may have cause to stare.

I’ll tell you when they do know.  They know about 2 seconds after they ask him a direct question.  They know when he bumps into them and keeps right on walking.  They know when he walks directly between two people that are together.

Every once in awhile, we come across some old, uppity lady who takes affront, but in general people don’t do much more than notice and go about their own lives.  So no, I don’t need a T-shirt.  Whatever people may assume, or learn after a brief encounter with us – it doesn’t much matter to me. As long as they are tolerant and kind, the rest doesn’t matter.  The tolerance and kindness will not be created by a T-shirt, but through hard work, writing, speaking, spreading the word, creating as many programs for NT kids about acceptance as there are for spectrum kids about how to fit in, volunteering, and sharing, sharing, sharing… That begins with us. Ready?

Don’t Knock Awareness

autism awareness ribbon

I keep seeing facebook and blog posts, and tweets stating that awareness is just not enough.

Of course awareness is not enough. Acceptance would be lovely, access to therapies, respite care and services would be grand, assurances that my child will be cared for after I am gone would be divine.  And of course, those of us who have the energy will continue our fight for these basic needs (and yes, they are basic needs, as any family touched by autism can attest).

But, we can’t do it alone.  We need armies of people to help us demand that these basic needs be met.  And we don’t have armies, yet.  We can’t even get our own rag-tag assemblage to march under the same banner — we can’t even decide what our banner should say!

So I say we continue with awareness, and not just some event with a puzzle piece on a poster that says “Autism Awareness Night”.  Puzzle pieces, posters, literature, and every autism family in a 50 mile radius in attendance, so those NT attendees can glimpse the spectrum in all its glory: the sweet smiles, the small victories, the hand-flapping, the meltdowns — all of it.  We cannot rely on large national nonprofits to do the work for us.  We have to get our kids out there.  We have to make our presence the norm.  We have to be unapologetic.  We have to use every teachable moment.

Doing all of that creates awareness.  And awareness is where armies are born.