Literal Language, Again 

September 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Anecdote from today. I was out walking with a teenage client and her BI. We’re working on teaching her to cross the street safely– stop, look, then walk. She’s not particularly interested in learning this. She’s used to having someone else take care of it for her, and she’s generally unenthusiastic about any task that requires her visual attention.

We reach an intersection, and stop. The BI prompts her to look to one side and then the other.

“Any cars?” She asks the client.

“Yes,” the client answers, although the street is completely devoid of traffic.

Now, this may well have been sheer laziness on our client’s part. “Yes” is often her default answer, and she tends to be a bit lax about yes/no questions. I have a hunch that the reason for this careless approach is that it only ever takes two tries to get a yes/no question correct, so why bother thinking about it too much? You say”yes” and then you get told “good job” or “try again.” Big deal. 

(I also suspect this client of deliberately answering wrong at times during easy tasks in order to spend more time on those tasks rather than harder ones– a metaphorical “dragging her feet” tactic. So far, I seem to be the only person who has noticed this. On the other hand, she’s tricked me a number of times into helping her with a task that I later find out she’s perfectly capable of doing on her own.)
Returning from my tangent here: there is another possible explanation for her wrong answer today, and it goes back to what I said last time about precise language. Language has a lot of subtext and context, and we process them so automatically that we don’t even consider the possibility that our assumptions may not be obvious to someone else. The BI asked the client if she saw any cars. And there were plenty of cars– parked alongside the road. Is it possible that our client simply didn’t think about the purpose of the question and so misinterpreted the connotation?

“Are there any cars coming towards us?” I clarified. The BI laughed as she realized the possible misunderstanding. Unfortunately, our client’s attention had already moved on to other things, so I didn’t get a chance to find out if my rephrasing of the question was useful. 

This is one of many reasons that I really wish ABA practitioners would give their clients brief explanations of tasks and their purposes before starting each task. It doesn’t do much good to teach someone to look both ways and report on the presence or absence of cars if they don’t understand that the purpose of this activity is to decide whether or not it’s safe to cross the street. 

I might as well take a moment to point out that there are valid arguments on both sides here. Reasons to explain a task briefly beforehand include: 

  • The client might be able to judge how important this particular activity is for them (eg., they might be more attentive if they understand that the purpose is to keep them safe); 
  • The client might be less frustrated with a seemingly meaningless task if they can see that it is a step towards a larger goal;
  • Offering an explanation is a form of courtesy and respect, of treating the client as an intelligent human being and presuming competence. If they can’t understand the explanation, there’s really no harm done, while if they can understand it, it seems rather rude not to offer one.

Reasons against include:

  • Letting the client decide how important they consider a task can backfire, as children’s priorities are not always the most sensible;
  • There is the possibility that the way the explanation is phrased will create misunderstandings that interfere with learning the task;
  • On a related note, having the end goal in mind from the beginning might lead to the client skipping important steps in their haste to reach the result;
  • Caregivers and therapists have to be more vigilant about laying blame on a client who fails at a task despite having had it explained. It’s very hard to remember that understanding the rules/steps and following them are separate skills. Also that being able to repeat the reason for something doesn’t necessarily mean understanding that reason. (I am reminded here of an anecdote in the memoir “Following Ezra” that goes something like this: the boy steals something from a classmate. To discourage this, his father tells him that when he steals, he disappoints both his father and God. The boy memorizes this lesson… and comes home the next day to cheerfully report, “Hey Dad, guess what? Today I disappointed you and God!” He had learned the words of the lesson but not the meaning, or at least not the implication, obvious to most people, that disappointing dad and God is not a good thing. He wasn’t a malicious kid, just an oblivious one. Fortunately, his father understood this and tried explaining it a different way.)

So, this post got a lot longer than I intended, and now I can’t think of a clever way to wrap it up. I hope I’ve given you something to laugh about and something to think about.

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We Need to Talk About Appropriate Language

September 7, 2016 1 comment

This paragraph was originally at the end of the post, but I think I should start with it instead. The purpose of this essay isn’t to “dump on” ABA people, teachers, or anyone else who has a disabled child in their lives. I’ve made dozens of mistakes I know about, and even more that I don’t, and I suspect I will continue to make mistakes. That’s why I want to remind you all to think critically about what you do and say and how you do and say it. Think about the words you use and the messages you give without words. Try to imagine the perspective of your students or clients or children, and if you can’t imagine it, read more stuff written by adults with disabilities.

***

It was a minor thing that got me thinking about language. I was watching a middle-school level nutrition lesson for a profoundly autistic boy, and overall it was a good lesson. But it contained the following line: “I am lactose intolerant, so I should stay away from dairy.” Although I  understand figures of speech very easily, I also often notice when the logical meaning of words is not the same as the intended meaning. So I thought, “No, he doesn’t need to ‘stay away from’ dairy, he needs to not eat it.”  There’s a difference. This isn’t a food he has a contact allergy to; it’s just something that will upset his digestion.

I’m sure this strikes most people as a ridiculously small thing to fuss over. But so often, even non-autistic children misunderstand what adults tell them. Most of us can remember being unreasonably afraid of something– or hoping for something impossible — because an adult said something we misinterpreted, took too literally, or didn’t realize was a joke. Sometimes we hold these misconceptions for years. For an autistic child, who tends to take language very literally, this probably happens far more often. Even the phrase I just used — to “take language” a certain way — can be confusing, as it uses the verb “take” in a sense that only exists in idioms (I am indebted to Judy Endow’s book “Make Lemonade” for this particular example, although in her case she was confused by the phrase “take care”). Often, the context corrects the confusion, and academic misunderstandings are rarely critical. But when a child is learning about their own healthcare, the language must be as accurate and precise as possible.

***

I’m also not sure how I feel about lessons given in the first person. When a client or student reads a social story designed to give instructions, it makes sense to think this way, as in: “I will put on my shoes before going outside,” or “When I have a question for the teacher, I raise my hand and wait until the teacher says my name.” Non-autistic people also use these kind of internal instructions. Examples include internal “pep talks,” meditation mantras, and self-reminders during a busy day (e.g. reciting “I have to go to the bank and then buy cat food”).

But it often feels weird to me when teachers or therapists write and read these sorts of instructions. Perhaps some of my objection comes from the fact that these writings often make statements about the client/student’s feelings or thoughts in a way that an outside observer cannot possibly know. Or they try to tell the student/client how to feel.

I ran into trouble with this recently. A preteen client was having difficulty waiting in line for the slide at the playground. If other children were ahead of him, he would often shove them roughly aside, and then had to be removed from the situation. Having witnessed this several times, I developed some thoughts about why this particular circumstance was so hard for him.

First, the playground we always went to was usually quiet, so there was rarely a need to wait for the slide. He didn’t expect the waiting, so he didn’t handle it well. The other problem was a conflict with another social rule he knew: saying “excuse me” when he needed to walk past someone.  This skill had been very heavily reinforced at home, where he otherwise tended to crash into people while running around the house. Generally, when he said “excuse me,” someone would step aside and let him pass. At the slide, however, he would say “excuse me” to the child in front of him, but they would not let him pass, and he would become upset. I suspect that he was angry: as far as he was concerned, he was doing the right thing, and it was the other kids who weren’t following the rules.

I brought these points up to his ABA team and suggested that he needed a social script about waiting for the slide (and then had to explain that a “social script” wasn’t necessarily a verbal script but could also mean an internal set of rules for handling a situation). I was happy to see, next time I arrived, that they had put together a little social story for him. I half-listened to them read it to him before one playground trip, and planned to read it to him myself next time. When I did, however, I discovered a few problems. The script went something like this:

“My name is Joshua. I love to go to the playground and go down the slide. The slide is my favorite thing at the playground. Sometimes I have to wait for my turn at the slide. Sometimes there are other kids waiting ahead of me, and they won’t let me pass them. That is ok. It’s important to wait for my turn even if I am excited. I will wait for my turn nicely. Here are some things I can do while I wait:

I can have quiet hands

I can count to 100

I can leave the line and come back later

When I wait nicely, my mommy and daddy will be so happy. I like making mommy and daddy happy. The other kids will be happy, and I will be happy, too! I am a big boy who knows how to wait for the slide!”

Yeesh. “Quiet hands” is the first problem, but I won’t dwell on it, as others have critiqued it far better than I can (and at least in this family I’ve only ever heard it as a response to hitting or pushing people). The counting idea is an excellent one. But when I got to the last paragraph, I couldn’t bring myself to read past the first sentence. What is this, “Brave New World”? It’s one thing to point out that waiting nicely pleases people; it’s another thing entirely to tell someone how they feel about this. And “I’m a big boy” — Seriously?? He may have a moderate-to-severe cognitive disability, but he’s still almost 13, not almost 3. This kind of language is downright insulting.

When his BI (ABA person) first read it to him, I didn’t pay much attention to the words, but was bothered by the sing-songy overly cheerful voice she used– again, appropriate only for an infant or very young child. I should mention that, on the whole, I love his ABA team. They are flexible, patient, focused largely on practical skills, and generally sensible. He adores them, adores his sessions, and is learning skills that make his life easier and more independent. They are also very fond of the term “age appropriate.” They want him to have “age appropriate” self-care skills, do “age appropriate” chores around the home, and be able to participate in “age appropriate” social activities (he is a very social person, and loves to be included in games and outings, so I’m not against this goal, although I do point out that he also has the right to play in a more “babyish” way when he wants to). They even talk about getting the rest of the family to treat him more like someone his age!

So, with all this focus on age appropriate everything, how about using age appropriate language and tone of voice with him? I use simple sentences and a limited vocabulary, and sometimes I use funny voices for his amusement, but I sure hope I never talk to him like he’s in preschool. So I go off-script and finish his social story with “When you wait nicely, we’ll all be proud of you, and you can be proud of yourself.” And I say it just like I’m talking to any other person.

I have no way of knowing whether this particular client is sensitive to these nuances of language and tone. For all I know, he may be perfectly ok with it. But I’ve heard from enough adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities to know that some disabled kids will definitely notice being talked down to. And that means it’s not ok to do it to anyone.

On the Subject of Weight Loss 

This is a little outside the realm of my usual topics, but it’s come up enough times now in conversations that I want to write about it.

There is a lot of heated debate right now about obesity: how it affects health, whether it is the result of moral failings, who should have the right to comment on it or define it, what to do about it, and on and on.

Disclaimer first:

I am not a healthcare professional or a professional biologist. At this time, I am relying on my memory for much of this information rather than doing due diligence and looking up the relevant studies, although I certainly encourage others to do so. All numbers given in this essay are for the purpose of illustration only: they are not based on any actual data. Also, please excuse my tendency to anthropomorphise biological processes: your internal components obviously don’t actually “think” or “want” things, but it’s a convenient way to describe what occurs.

All that being said, let’s see if I can address one of the most common misconceptions about calorie intake and body weight: the idea that there is a direct, linear relationship between these two things. There is not. I commonly run across the argument that anyone can lose weight by reducing the amount of calories they ingest. Some people claim that exercise is also necessary, but the general point always comes down to the idea that fat is caused and maintained by eating more calories than one uses, and can be reduced by reversing this behavior. But biological systems are a lot more complicated than that.

First, it is a mistake to consider calories fungible (or equal or interchangeable). Our bodies may process the same number of calories very differently depending on the form of those calories, which is why we have terms like “empty calories” (calories that don’t have much nutritional value) and “good” or “bad” carbs and fats (based on how we digest them and what their health effects tend to be).

More importantly, though, there’s also an incorrect understanding of what it means to need a certain number of calories per day. I often hear people say things along the lines of “Well, just figure out how many calories you use per day and don’t eat more than that.”

Problem #1:
What do we count as “using” calories? We don’t just burn calories when we engage in deliberate physical activities. Energy consumption is involved in everything we do– breathing, moving, thinking, growing. We use calories to repair injuries, replace damaged cells, increase muscle mass, go for a walk, digest our food, maintain our fat reserves, and to perform all mental activity, from deliberate problem-solving to emotional regulation to sensory processing. And it’s not easy to determine how many calories are needed for optimal performance of all these tasks.

Problem #2:
Your body doesn’t necessarily prioritize calorie allocation in the order that you’d like. In fact, one of the first things that gets cut back in a calorie shortage is brain-power. Your brain is a massive energy-hog, and evolutionarily speaking, we don’t need to spend much time on math and science and history and office politics and romantic relationships and social activism and keeping our temper when our boss is being a twit. We can pretty much get away with: Find food, find mate, don’t get eaten.

So when you have fewer calories to work with, the cutbacks start in the brain. You may have noticed this personally. When we’re hungry, we’re often grouchy and easily frustrated and have a harder time focusing and thinking clearly. But don’t take your own experience’s word for it. There’s a lot of research evidence on this– comparing test scores of students who have and haven’t skipped breakfast, impulse control in hungry versus sated people, and so on.

Problem #3:
Your body has its own internal settings– what temperature it wants to be, how much sleep it needs, and so on. And your body is willing to put a lot of resources towards keeping things the way they are. These settings include an approximate set point for weight, which is why there are people who remain skinny regardless of consumption and people who remain fat even with healthy diets and high activity levels. And why medications, illness, age, and other factors can drastically alter a person’s weight even if the person’s diet and habits remain fairly constant. Lasting weight change requires changing your body’s set point, and some bodies make this change more easily than others.

Generally speaking, it is hard to get your body to change the set point to a lower one… and relatively easy to get your body convinced that it should have more fat reserves. Excess consumption obviously has this effect– the body says “hey, let’s store some of this extra for later!.” However, cutting back dramatically on calories can also increase weight, because your body thinks “huh– I’m getting fewer calories than usual. We may be preparing for a drought, lean harvest, or other time of scarcity, and we don’t know how long it will last. We’d better save up as much as possible now.” Your body then boosts your hunger signals and again starts cutting calories from other areas of functioning. This is one reason why drastic calorie restriction diets do far more harm than good.

As I understand it, body weight maintenance is highly prioritized by our physiology– pretty much right after critical systems like circulation and digestion. And I suspect one of the reasons exercise is so important to weight-loss is not just how many calories it burns, but that muscle-building is one of the few causes your body ranks highly enough to actually prioritize over maintaining fat reserves.

Let’s look at a couple fictional scenarios illustrating the ramifications of all this. Imagine you consume an average of 2000 calories per day (the numbers and proportions here are completely fictional). Let’s say you spend 300 of those calories (about 1/7) on basic internal maintenance tasks, including maintaining your current body weight. Maybe 1000 calories go to mental activity, and the remaining 700 to physical activity.

You want to lose some weight, so you cut down to 1500 calories daily. There are several possibilities for how your body can react.

1) Your body keeps the ratios the same: 1/7 to keeping your body as it is, about half your calories for the brain, slightly less for voluntary movement. This isn’t too bad– you’ll lose weight slowly and have to put up with being a bit more tired than usual for a while.

2) Your body keeps putting those 300 calories per day towards homeostasis (including body weight), leaving you with only 1200 calories to be split between physical and mental activity rather than 1700.

3) Your body decides you may be facing a calorie shortage and increases the percentage of calories it turns into body weight, at an even higher cost to other functions.

4) Ideally, your body would trim fat without making any significant cutbacks in other areas, resulting in weight loss with no negative side effects. This is certainly possible, but it is far from being the only, or even the most likely, result of cutting calories.

In short, reducing intake alone is a pretty poor gamble to take if you’re trying to lose weight. The real trick is to get your body to change its ideas about how to allot your calories, and that’s a lot more complicated. Excercise can help, but isn’t necessarily sufficient. A more complete answer involves eating more nutritious food, increasing both physical and mental activity levels, and a bunch of other subtle epigentic factors that we’re far from understanding. We know that stress and general happiness have a huge impact, and so do sleep schedules. And there’s compelling evidence that eating a diet closer to the traditional diet for wherever your people came from can be a huge help regardless of calorie count. And so on and so forth.

It’s even harder to study all this than it sounds, since people who make significant body weight changes often have many of these factors involved, and the factors themselves can interact. When people get into exciting new relationships or more high-pressure jobs or experience other major life events, their stress levels change, their priorities change, their personal habits change, their mental health changes, other medical factors change… and it’s nearly impossible to untangle the order and magnitude of all these changes. Similar factors are involved in quitting smoking and other such things that require a fair bit of wrestling against the instinctual reactions of one’s own mind/body. So chances are good that the person who just “up and decided to lose weight one day” had life circumstances that played into making that decision, being able to stick to all the lifestyle changes necessary, and having their own biology respond in the way they wanted. 

This certainly isn’t to discourage anyone who wants to lose weight from trying; rather, people who want to lose weight and have failed with only diet and exercise may simply need to take a more holistic approach that prioritizes improving general wellbeing rather than merely reducing waist size. But it’s also important to acknowledge that we are very complicated systems, both physically and mentally, and some of the factors that affect our systems are generally beyond our awareness, much less our control. 

Categories: Disability Rights

Beach Days

It’s something of a cliche that autistic kids adore water, but you know what they say: a cliche is a cliche because it’s true.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten to join several families on beach outings, and it’s always a wonderful experience. It’s fun to compare the experience of two clients in particular — two nonverbal autistic 9-year-old boys with very different personalities. 

The Flapmaster General is a “hummingbird” child — always in motion, full of energy, exuberance, curiosity, and, often, frustration with the rest of us who obviously can’t keep up with the world as he experiences it. He is desperate to communicate with the people around him, too. He uses a handful of spoken words now, clumsily and inconsistently, and is rather more capable with a speech device, although still only with very straightforward requests.
Flapmaster can spend hours happily playing keep-away with the waves, darting and dashing, giggling and shrieking, following each receeding wave down as close as possible before scampering back to dry sand just barely ahead of the incoming surf. It’s one of the few situations in which he can truly run as much and as quickly as he likes. 

I run with him, giving him his space but staying near enough to grab him if he tries to go into the water, or seems likely to crash into other people, or takes it into his head to go jump on someone else’s sand castle or steal their toys. (This particular day, he actually approaches another child and asks for “my turn” with the kid’s bucket and shovel. I am pretty impressed by this. However, since I can’t always just ask strangers to give him things, I take him to go fetch his own toys instead, and he seems happy with this solution.)

It’s a blazing hot day, and the Flapmaster scorches his feet on the hot sand when I take him to the bathroom. I should have thought to go find his shoes first. He firmly declines to step back onto the beach after this, so I, feeling guilty for my part in getting his feet hurt, offer to carry him instead, to much laughter and eye-rolling from the rest of his family, who think I spoil him. Which I do, whenever I get the chance, because he is an awesome kid who deserves to be treated like royalty on occasion.

On the boardwalk, he flaps excitedly at the seagulls for a long time, jumping and fluttering as though he too might take to the air at any moment. And then, to my great surprise, he selects a nice park bench and sits, just sits with me, holding my hand, for the longest time I’ve ever seen him be still. He is so relaxed, so happy.

Lest you think it’s all idyllic, I will mention that there was a fair bit of stress and drama on the long ride home, but what do you expect on a day trip with 4 kids in one car? In the end, tears were dried, spills were mopped, and various stops were made to solve various other problems, and all was well if rather behind schedule.

The trip to the beach with the boy I call Soundtrack was a very difficult experience. Just me and him and his mother on a grey and somewhat chilly day at a local beach. Soundtrack is even less verbal than Flapmaster, but a good deal more vocal, with loud exclamations amidst his verbal stimming, in addition to whistling, humming, and occasionally imitating bird calls. He isn’t as fond of direct interaction with people, either, but he’s affectionate in his own way.

​While his mother rests, Soundtrack and I play in the surf. Loud cries of joy burst forth amidst his usual humming as the waves crash. I encourage him to yell as much as he wants here where the wind and water scream with him. (He gets shushed a lot at home, understandably given that there’s a baby in the household). He has a strong voice, and people occasionally look over at him in surprise when he hollers. One girl about his age looks at him nervously. “Don’t worry,” I call over to her cheerfully, “he’s just excited!” Her frown clears and she goes back to playing.

To the dismay of many parents, a recent change to my company’s respite care rules states that I cannot be responsible for a client in water more than a few inches deep (ie, the shallowest possible wading). The liability concern makes sense, of course, and the ocean here is a very different one from the sheltered bays I swam in as a child. Most of these kids, in my experience, have a healthy respect for that danger, and aren’t actually likely to go in deep enough to get into trouble… but that’s somewhat beside the point. 
Soundtrack loves to jump in the wet sand. He often prefers me to stand behind him holding both his hands, as he plays. What he actually wants, really, is for me to wrap my arms around under his and lift him, “jumping” him over the waves as you would do with a small child. He is not, however, a small child — he’s quite a solid and large child and I could barely do this with him when I  met him a year-and-a-half ago. I make various attempts to explain this, but that doesn’t stop him from jumping up and expecting me to take his weight on the way back down. I do my best not to drop him too hard or pull any muscles… but I also try to do what he wants to the best of my ability, because he’s smiling, and that’s something I don’t get to see very often. 

As for being restricted to wading, clever kids know how to find loopholes in any rule, and Soundtrack is no exception. And he plans on getting the full ocean experience even if he isn’t allowed in any deeper than his ankles. First, he drops to his knees in the shallow surf so that he can see the waves at eye level. Then he lies on his belly in the “seal” position and does “the worm,” rippling his body up and down so that the incoming waves can wash under and over his body. Lastly, he turns about so that his feet face the ocean, and lies there kicking, “swimming,” as it were, in water 3 inches deep. I can’t help but laugh… but I’m impressed as well.

Later, his mother joins us in the water in order to take him a little bit deeper. With the water at our knees, she and I hold him between us, and finally he can pull his feet up and float on the waves. Next time she says she might try teaching him to boogie board, because I pointed out to her that he spent quite a while watching another kid on a board– and Soundtrack doesn’t look at people very often, much less watch them as though they interest him!

These experiences make me smile. I may come home exhausted, sore, sunburnt, or having been kicked and pinched multiple times… but when you come right down to it, I got paid to go to the beach, get some nice healthy exercise, and watch kids I care about enjoying themselves. Sometimes, this job just plain rocks.

Categories: Disability Rights

A Word on “Warrior Moms”

July 22, 2016 12 comments

Warrior Mom: it’s a title many parents claim proudly, and a term most autistic people react to with horror and fury. Why?

Well, let’s start with the dislike. Many in the autistic community associate this term with a particular (and largely American) parent community that refuses any concept of autism acceptance. In this model, mothers are waging war against autism itself, avidly seeking cures and preventions, viewing their children’s condition as tragic and wholly undesirable. Autistic people, understandably, view this as a war against them, their very existence. It hurts to think that their own parents wish that they had been born different… even if it is only to spare them the struggles they face. They hate the implication that parenting autistic children is inherently a struggle, because that makes autism itself seem like a horrible thing. There has been a lot written about this elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point.

But there’s another interpretation of the term “warrior mom” as well, and I think it’s a valid one. The distinction is crucial: both see themselves as fighting for their children, but while one type is fighting to “fix” what is “wrong” with their children, the other is fighting for their children’s right to exist as they are and have the best possible autistic life.

And it is a fight, make no mistake. It’s hard enough to give any child a good life, but parents of disabled children must go far above and beyond. I see many of my clients’ families waging this war constantly — and yes, usually it’s the mothers who are on the front line. This is a war against the judgment of strangers and family members alike, against school systems that drag their feet on providing reasonable accommodations, against professionals skeptical of these kids’ talents and potential, against bullies of all ages.

These moms are warriors because they make millions of phone calls trying to get through to someone who can actually make a positive difference in their kids’ lives. They are the ones calling for IEP meeting after IEP meeting, just trying to get their child into a classroom that doesn’t make them miserable. I see mothers who don’t speak English as their primary language struggling through legal papers trying to make sure they don’t miss a single accommodation their child has the right to have. They take time off work for classroom visits to make sure their kid is being taught at an appropriate academic level. 

These moms are tenacious. They spend years clawing their way up waiting lists for the best PTs and OTs and accessible summer camps and the teachers that other families love. They drive for hours to visit the one provider who is actually helping their kid’s digestive problems, then spending another two hours on hold trying to convince their insurance company to cover the visit. They fight their homeowners association or landlord’s rules so that their kid can have a trampoline or kiddie pool or companion animal or whatever they need. 

These moms endure a lot. People yell at them for not “controlling” their child, kick them out of places for being disruptive, and deluge them with well-meant but infuriating advice. They often have to fight against their own personality or their own cultural norms in order to advocate for their children. The work is, of course, worth it — but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting, intimidating, or overwhelming.

So this is why, unlike many in the autistic rights community, I don’t automatically get angry when I hear terms like “warrior mom” or “super-mom.”  Because plenty of mothers truly deserve those titles, for reasons that don’t reflect negatively on autism at all. So let’s put the blame where it belongs: on the society and systems that make life harder on all of us, autistic people and parents alike. And let’s work to change it. Because no mother should have to become a superwoman just to get their children’s needs met.

Categories: Disability Rights

Brief note on the events of the past week 

​I don’t often get around to posting about current events, but this time I will. 

Those were human beings, every one. 

Every Black victim, every cop, every protester, and even the shooter. Those were people. Every single one was somebody’s baby once upon a time. Every one of them laughed and played as a child. Every one of them has loved someone — a parent, a friend, a mentor, a lover, or a child of their own — at some point in their lives. No matter what else those people did and thought and believed during their lives, they were humans, one and all. 

Every death was a tragedy.

Categories: Disability Rights

I Know It Was Meant Well….

July 3, 2016 4 comments

I’d like to start off by saying I’m sorry for calling out a total stranger in this post.

I know there are parents out there who will wonder why I’m picking on a mother whose intentions were obviously good. And there are autistic people who will think I should be much harsher in my judgement, who will want to remind me that good intentions are not enough to excuse hurtful words.

But this isn’t about a person. It’s about an action. You could even call it a behavior. This mother did something hurtful without being aware of it, and I had to bring it up, to caution others against the same mistake.

It’s a chilly day, but my client’s grandfather takes us to the beach anyway. She loves swimming, but also enjoys just playing in the sand. This is one of my “severely autistic” clients– 9 years old and completely nonverbal– no speech, no sign, very occasional use of a handful of words via iPad. She’s clever, though. But then, I think all my kids are brilliant 🙂

We put out a picnic blanket, and we play. We make a big pile of sand and take it down again. She rocks and flaps and squeals with delight. Because she’s generally very sensitive to touch, it’s never occurred to me to offer her any physical contact besides the basics– holding her hand, helping her dress, that kind of thing. But her grandpa comes over to tickle her, and to my amazement, she loves it. So I tickle her too, and the three of us laugh.

It’s a late autumn day in San Diego, and there are plenty of people in the water despite the cold: surfers and boogie boarders in wetsuits, a handful of children playing in the shallows. A boy about the same age as my client has finished swimming and sits a few yards from us with his mother, wrapped in a towel.

His mother comes over, and I’m a little surprised when she speaks to me.

“Hi! I’ve been watching you playing with your daughter, and I just wanted to tell you that you’re doing a wonderful job,” she says, “My son is like her, and I know that it can be so hard. But you’re doing great.”

I know. She meant it as a compliment, and as a moment of parental solidarity. She was thinking that I probably get a lot of weird looks or glares or criticism from other parents, and she wanted to offer me something different. And I appreciate that.

But there’s one problem, and you may have missed it.

She said that it was “so hard,” obviously referring to raising an autistic child. That’s unfortunate, but understandable. Raising any child is hard, and raising one with disabilities is often harder. Or maybe she didn’t even think it was that hard, but assumed I did.

That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that she said it right in front of the child she was referring to.

In front of a child who cannot speak in her own defense, cannot ask for reassurance that she’s loved, cannot ask “what did that woman mean when she said…?” A child who has probably overheard a million times that she is difficult, or a problem, or heartbreaking, or any number of other variations on the same theme.

And that is unacceptable.

I know it wasn’t meant that way, that the mother had no intention of hurting the girl’s feelings. She probably didn’t realize even it could hurt the girl’s feelings, and that speaks to an even bigger problem.

She just assumed that the child in front of us couldn’t understand, or wasn’t paying attention. Maybe the girl was looking into the distance and humming, which typical kids do when they are not paying attention. But most likely, it was just the fact that the girl was obviously autistic. That alone was enough to make this mother fail to notice that she was saying something hurtful in front of the person she was talking about.

This tendency to talk about children in front of them isn’t limited to autistic kids, I know. Plenty of adults talk about neurotypical kids, too, and say unkind things in their hearing. That isn’t right either. But disabled children are so much more vulnerable, so much more likely to overhear that they are a burden, a tragedy, a hopeless case. That parenting them is so hard. And they take it to heart.

I suspect most of us remember how awful it felt to disappoint our parents, or make them sad, or believe that we made life harder for them. Do you also remember how easy it was to get that impression from a single sigh of frustration, a shaken head, a few snappish words? How long did you worry and fret over a single criticism or an argument you overheard your parents having? What if people often said you were so hard to raise?

How often does my client hear that? How much does she understand? I have no idea. But I’m pretty sure it’s more than most people think. And because she has no way to tell me, I must assume she is understanding, paying attention to, and worrying about everything.

I wasn’t about to get into all this while babysitting, especially since that conversation might also hurt my client. So I did what I always do at times like this. I did my best to counteract any possible negative effects. I gave my client a huge hug and a big smile.

“Actually,” I told her, “I’m not her Mom, I’m her aide. And she is the best kid ever! I adore getting to spend time with her. My clients are all wonderful kids and I’m very lucky to have them in my life.” There was a brief pause, as (I suspect) each of us considered our own surprise at the other’s words.

We exchanged another pleasantry or two about how much the kids love the beach, how soothing the water is for them, then said goodbye. But the experience left me feeling shaken. Shaken by how easy it is to overlook something like this, how often our words have impacts we never consider.

So please, pay close attention to your words. Assume your children, your clients, your students are always listening. Assume they understand everything you say. Think about how you, as a child, would feel if someone spoke those words in front of you. Around nonverbal kids in particular, be vigilant. Someone’s self-image may depend on it.