My Message to the 4th Graders

This is a post I’ve been wanting to type up for over a year now.  In 2015, I was working with an autistic boy for the third year in a row.  I was a TSS (therapeutic support staff), which meant I spent a lot of time with him both at his school and his house, working on behavioral interventions and doing lots of documentation. (For a little more detail about my job as a TSS, see the post “Crisis of Faith.”)  He had a LOT of hours.  Over those three years I not only got to know him and his family and nurses well, but I came to know and love a lot of his classmates.

His classmates were, for the most part, awesome.  This was a kid who would have super-scary aggressive meltdowns, but after it was over his classmates would still invite him to play at recess or help him follow instructions in the classroom.

Friends on a field trip

Friends on a field trip

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In the middle of those years, I had another client, up at the middle school.  In his classroom, there was a boy I’ll call “Hunter.” On my very first day, I suspected that Hunter was on the spectrum, too.  (My gay sister has excellent gaydar. . . do we have an accepted made-up word yet for autism-radar?)  Hunter was the kind of kid who had a lot of trouble socially, and unlike my little client at the elementary school, it wasn’t obvious to his peers that he was struggling.  They just sensed Hunter was different, and got annoyed when he’d be bossy or a “know it all,” and socially ostracized him.  It was difficult for me to watch, especially since I was still in that first year of my self-diagnosis, and I was reflecting so much on my own childhood.

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Back to that first client’s class.  I had seen first sparks of middle-school-girl drama forming as these fourth graders headed towards adolescence.  I had seen how the older students were treating one another.  I had watched these little kids be so considerate of my client and the other “different” kids in their classroom, and felt the hope it gave me for the future.  I didn’t want them to lose that.

So, I did something that is entirely out of character for me, and volunteered myself for public speaking.  I must have been inspired by the guidance counselor’s weekly lessons that were supposed to teach the kids emotional intelligence skills (identifying and handling their emotions, showing empathy, stopping bullying, etc.).  She was occasionally busy and couldn’t come do the lesson, which meant the classroom teacher lost that hour of prep time she had been depending on.  One of those days, I suggested I could teach the kids about autism.  Mrs. C loved that idea, so I let the ideas run repeatedly through my head and wrote my main points out on note cards.  I kept those cards in my bag, and the next time the guidance counselor cancelled, I was ready.  Or, as ready as I ever am to talk in front of people.

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It’s been a long time since that day, so I won’t be able to remember it word-for-word, or remember the excellent comments that Mrs. C and the students shared during our discussion.  I wish I had taken notes on those, because the kids really interacted with me.  But here is what I’ve reconstructed from those note cards.

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At my house, we have a Wii, and we have a PlayStation 3.  If I put my MarioKart disc in the PlayStation, will it work?

“No!”

So, my PlayStation is broken?  Or the disc is broken?

“No.”

[I explained that the two game systems have different operating systems.  I tried also making the Windows/Mac comparison that I originally saw explaining this idea, but they weren’t as familiar with computer systems.]

A lot of you have seen me wear earplugs in the cafeteria.  Why do I do that?

“Because it’s too loud.”

But wait. . . if it’s “too loud,” why isn’t everyone wearing earplugs?

[discussion]

So, do you mean we each have our own “too loud”?  We can experience the same thing in different ways?

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In my psychology classes, we were warned that sometimes you learn about something and start diagnosing all of the people around you with that thing – don’t do that!

[I projected the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD on the board, and tried to give a quick 4th-grade-level explanation of each section, with examples]

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Where does autism come from?

I know that you guys have been learning about “traits” in your science class.

We know that autism can be inherited.  It runs in my family.

Our environment is also going to play a part in how people with autism develop, how bad some behaviors are, how they learn to cope.

Just like every kid.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Some of you are awesome at basketball, but not soccer.  Some of you are bad at memorizing multiplication facts, but awesome at geometry.  Some of you are awesome at understanding what others are feeling, and being kind when they need it.

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“Different operating system” does not equal “broken.”

That’s what I want you guys to understand about autism.

It doesn’t mean he’s sick.  It doesn’t mean she’s stupid.  It doesn’t mean he’s broken.

He or she has a different operating system than most people.  The way they experience the world can be different, and so they may react differently.

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You guys have been learning about empathy, and how it’s so important.

When you have a different operating system, it makes it harder to understand how another person is thinking and feeling.  Because if you were in their situation, you would not be thinking and feeling that way.

What are some of your favorite smells?

If you see me at a seafood restaurant, I’m going to look disgusted and unhappy.  You might not be able to figure out why – because to you, the place smells awesome and you can’t wait to eat.  But I hate the smell of seafood.

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In my kitchen at home, my mom has always had a little sign by our kitchen sink.  I see it every day.  It says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle.”

I’ve been so impressed with you guys and the other kids in this grade who I’ve gotten to observe and know these three years.  You do so much to be kind and include other kids.  That is really special.  Not all kids are like that.  And I don’t want you to lose that.

Stay kind.

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When I was growing up, I had a really hard time reading other people, and they had a hard time understanding what I was thinking.  I’d feel happy but wouldn’t look it.  I didn’t make a lot of eye contact.  I was obsessed with dinosaurs, Ghostbusters, and Ninja Turtles.  I couldn’t color until all 96 crayons were in meticulous rainbow order.  Before I could read, my mom had to read my favorite TV show’s episode title when it came on the screen, or my day would be ruined.  She was really happy when I learned how to read!  I wore my socks inside-out because the seam bothered me, and I hated most clothing.  Some of these things got in the way of relationships, and made school hard.

Sound familiar?

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I’m 30.

I still wear some of my socks inside out.  I’m a lot better at understanding what other people are feeling.  I still like things to be organized.  I still have a hard time making new friends.

One reason I wanted to talk to you guys about this is that one day you will be 30.  You’ll meet people who have different operating systems.  Be kind.  Give them a chance.  They might make your life more interesting.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

Cards I gave the class on my last day as a TSS.

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Acceptance, Not Awareness

This past Friday I had my mid-year review at work, the first such meeting since I was hired full-time a few months ago. It was a much more in-depth evaluation than the little “here’s a paper with all 10’s circled on it, let me know if you have questions, sign here” I had at my last job.  My manager was very positive and complimentary, gently providing “growth areas”  rather than “weaknesses” or criticism.  My peers also provided a few positive comments for him to share with me.  In a summary section, he wrote something like, “She is different, and that’s a good thing.”  He does not yet know that I am autistic, but since I work in IT now, I’ve been able to be a little more authentically me than at past positions.

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This weekend I was continuing my way through the book Neurotribes, which is excellent.  The problem is, it jumps between stories so cool that I excitedly read them aloud to unwilling victims, to parts so heartbreaking that I have to put it down for a while.  I was reading the section on Lovaas and the early days of ABA, and researchers’ use of punishment.  It was so upsetting that I was stimming (a lateral hand-flapping movement) and engaging in self-injurious behavior (biting my hand) – two of the very behaviors that were physically punished in these early studies.

I talked to a person about this right after setting the book aside (I will use “they” as a gender-neutral singular here). I was so worked up after talking to them that I was still doing a lot of the rapid hand-shaking while I was preparing some coffee.  They then said, “You’d better get that out of your system by Monday if you want them to still think you’re ‘different in a good way.'”

That bothered me.  But I didn’t have the words to express to them why it hurt so much.  First, it was just the latest in a long line of comments like that throughout my life – those, “I hope you don’t do that in public,” or, “Are you going to shower before you go out?” or, “You don’t say that at school/work, do you?” kind of comments.  The ones that insinuate I haven’t yet learned how to behave “properly” around normal people, out in public.

Second, and this is very much related to that category of comment, I only engaged in that behavior because I felt safe to do so.  In my own home, with people I trust, I’m going to feel freer to behave in ways that are not seen as “acceptable” in other settings.  I’m going to complain about tasks I’ve been assigned at work, but I’m NOT going to have a bad attitude about them around my manager and coworkers.  I’m going to skip a shower when I’m staying in, but I’m NOT going to go to class with greasy hair.  I’m going to release extreme emotion nonverbally through self-stimulatory behaviors, but I’m NOT going to be as obviously autistic in the behaviors I select when I’m around people I don’t trust with that.

Third, they used something that was an extremely positive, affirming, and accepting comment about me to shame me for my autistic behavior.

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I was recently talking to another Aspie-girl about how hard it can be, living with neurotypicals.   We talked about how sometimes we trust someone with an explanation for our behaviors, or explain how we feel about something, and they end up using it against us later – even if it’s just what they see as a friendly teasing comment, it still hurts, and makes us less likely to trust again.

So, if you love someone on the spectrum, please recognize that often those “socially-unacceptable behaviors” you see are indications that the person feels safe with you.  Especially if you only see the behaviors in a “safe” setting, like the person’s home.  And please, if we trust you with an explanation of how we think and feel, don’t use it against us.

And for you autistic people reading. . . what advice should I give?  Be more careful whom you trust?  Don’t let your guard down and be so “autistic” around people?  No.  On my drive home today, Jars of Clay’s song “Inland” came on my shuffle.  The song I named this blog after. I was thinking about how even though another song on the album is my favorite, I was glad I got an “Inland” lyric inscribed on the ring I wear every day.  The words “you keep walking inland” are a constant reminder to me that I must press on, I must engage in community and relationships, I must keep trying.  I must keep walking inland – “where no man is an island.”  And so must you.  Don’t give up explaining, expressing yourself, and teaching.  Learn to live among people who are not like you, learn to communicate with them, and treat everyone with the respect and kindness you want yourself.   Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.

 

It’s the only way we will gain more acceptance. 

Inland Ring

 

Rallying

A few weeks ago, I had a really long weekend.  Work that week had been stressful.  I traveled to see friends after work on Friday, but it was an emotionally draining visit.  The next day, I spent at least 8 hours at a small gathering. . . again, it was lovely to spend time with these friends, but socializing with more than one or two people is going to wear me out.  I drove home that evening, and since I had coffee to stay alert on the road, I wasn’t able to get to sleep for a while.  I was emotionally exhausted and ended up crying in bed, and the next morning I woke up with a headache (from the too-short sleep and the crying).  I couldn’t sleep in, because my family was going to a gathering, where I would again be socializing and listening to people talk about things I don’t have (wedding plans, babies).  As I stumbled around like a grumpy zombie trying to get ready to go, I was told I needed “to rally” because it was important.

 

I’m not still curled up in bed under my weighted blanket.

This is me rallying.

I put on clothes that aren’t a t-shirt and pajama pants.

This is me rallying.

I’m responding with nods, grunts, and short exasperated sentences instead of snapping at the upbeat attempts to get me to join in the chatting.

This is me rallying.

I’m allowing my picture to be taken and trying to smile.

This is me rallying.

I’m getting in the car again, even though I just traveled from the other side of the state a few hours ago.

This is me rallying.

I’m strategically isolating in the car to simultaneously recover and prepare for more socializing – hooded sweatshirt to block the sun, squishy pillow to try to sleep, noise-blocking headphones; then, when sleep fails me, escaping into an episode of a TV show streamed onto my phone.

This is me rallying.

I’m getting out of the car instead of staying in here and sobbing or sleeping.

This is me rallying.

When told, “I need you to rally,” one more time, I respond,

“This IS me rallying.”

and I walk into the house, projecting the friendly persona expected of me.

 

 

Bullying

I have been wanting to share thoughts on this topic, but it’s just so massive and painful.

Today I saw this link shared on Facebook.

Aren’t You A Little Short To Be A Stormtrooper? The Passing of the Armor to A Bullied Little Girl

She writes, “Allison is eleven years old.  She loves Spiderman and Star Wars.  The other kids mock her for carrying a Spiderman lunch box.   Allison is taunted, ostracized, and even physically attacked by her peers.”

Seriously?  Seriously?  This is still happening? I mean, it was bad enough that the little boy was bullied for bringing a My Little Pony lunchbox to school, but that one didn’t surprise me (as much as it angered me).

*sigh*

I’ve heard people say these kids shouldn’t be allowed to have/do certain things because it makes them targets.  Because bullying is inevitable and they should be taught to fit in more.  “They’re just asking for trouble.”

NO.

Why can’t a boy use a “girly” lunchbox?  Why can’t a girl have a geeky lunchbox?  Why can’t an autistic child flap his hands in public?  Why can’t a girl walk down the street holding hands with another girl?

Because other people are going to laugh or think they’re weird or tease them or physically assault them?

HOW IS THIS THE VICTIMS’ FAULTS?

No.  I’ve had enough.  We need to be teaching the PERPETRATORS, not the victims.  We need to be changing THEIR behavior.  Making THEM act more appropriately to fit in with society.

Bullying is not okay.  I don’t care how “weird” a kid looks.  I don’t care how unique or unusual they are.  Because you know what?  We are all unique individuals.  And that should be celebrated, not squelched.

And you know what we call it when it happens outside of school? Hate crimes.   People are even killed.  This is serious stuff, people.

And you know what?  I’m sick of the nonsense coming out of my own “Christian camp.”  I’m all for respecting the fact that God created men and women to be different in some ways. But these “differences” the kids are being bullied for?  Those are cultural gender norms, not God’s.   Like Sunnie, the little girl who got kicked out of her Christian school for being a tomboy.  The school told her grandparents that they can refuse students who are, “Condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”  Because she’s causing confusion amongst students as to whether she’s a girl or boy.  By the way, Sunnie says she knows she’s a girl.  We’re not even talking about a transgender child here.  Just one who was told that “her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity.” (Quotes and info from this Daily Mail article)  (OH, and the thing that really drove me mad?  I read that she originally cut off her long hair when she was three to donate it to cancer patients.)  I’ll tell you what, me and my two close friends are some of the biggest tomboys I’ve ever met.  And I can assure you that all three of us are very much heterosexual.  We respect that God made us women, but we don’t feel the need to be “girly” in the way our society expects of us.

No princess dresses for me.  I was Peter Venkman.

No princess dresses for me. I was Peter Venkman.

In my field, people talk a lot about getting autistic kids to have more “age-appropriate” interests.  They would say that my 10-year-old client shouldn’t be watching videos aimed at preschoolers and playing with his Thomas trains all afternoon.   I agree that developing “age-appropriate” interests makes it a heck of a lot easier to relate to peers and make friends.  But trying to take away these special interests is cruel.  This is a great time for you to go read this blog post, “The Obsessive Joy of Autism.”

So yeah, if I had a kid who was doing something that made him or her a target, I might even encourage them to tone it down if it was a matter of safety and the thing itself wasn’t huge to them.  But that’s like putting a  band-aid on a very huge, infected wound.  It’s only temporary.

We need to be teaching children to respect and love diversity.  To understand that not everyone is just like them, and to realize that this is what makes the world so darn cool.  To treat every human being they meet with respect.  I know it’s not easy.  It’s easier to try to make quirky kids fit in.

Recently I read this blog post and I wanted to share it here.  This should be required reading for all children:

A Bully’s Story: An Open Letter to the Middle Schoolers that Called my Son with Autism a “Faggot”

While you’re off reading that, I’ll be returning my attention to the feminine art of quilting.  I’m currently working on the Shredder, from the 80’s Ninja Turtles cartoon.

The Shredder quilt block

Crisis of Faith

For the last several months I’ve been experiencing a deep crisis of faith.  Not my Christian faith, but rather my faith in what I do as a TSS.  For those of you unfamiliar with the TSS position, it stands for Therapeutic Support Staff.  Most of the children served by my agency (and all the kids that I have worked with) are on the autism spectrum, though there are other diagnoses/issues that can cause a recommendation for services.  Here’s how it works: after an intake evaluation, a child may get a BSC, who is a master’s level clinician.  The BSC consults with the caregivers and school (if relevant) and develops a treatment plan full of objectives and interventions.  Then the TSS, a bachelor’s level therapist, implements the interventions (while teaching caregivers/teachers to use them) and collects data and documentation (the bane of my existence).

Some tools of the trade - computer for documentation, a variety of ear protection, visuals, fidget toys, a pencil for writing a flexible visual schedule, highlighter to color in a smiley chart.

Some tools of the trade – computer for documentation, a variety of ear protection, visuals, fidget toys, a pencil for writing a flexible visual schedule, highlighter to color in a smiley chart.

I worked for another agency for a year and nine months before reaching burnout point and moving home, and I have worked for this agency just as long.  I’ve always been really good at my job – at least, especially good at the working-with-the-kids part, because I *get* them and can tell what’s going on with them before most other adults in their lives.  I always figured it was because I have empathy for autistic kids because of my cousins, and because I’m a highly sensitive person myself, and because I’ve studied a lot about autism.  But last summer when I realized I have Asperger’s, I started to not only empathize with and understand the kids but also identify with them.  And in many ways that has made my job much harder.  One day I exclaimed in frustration, “I feel like I’m disguised, helping those adults to oppress my people!”  My mom chuckled, but it’s a real feeling.

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A big component in the development of my Crisis of Faith was reading a few blog posts as I was exploring my own self-diagnosis.

 

[Warning – this post is going to involve a lot of “recommended reading.”  I’ll try to summarize the key idea of each link I post, but they are all worth reading.]
One of the first was “Quiet Hands.”  As I read this post, my heart sank.  How many times have I, following the leads of the adults in charge at school, tried to suppress my clients’ stims?  Sure, I’ve suggested things like fidget toys as alternatives; and sure, most of my main client’s hand movements are accompanied by disruptive sound effects (think Angry Birds; that’s the game he’s usually playing in his head while stimming with his hands).  But I’ve also used this visual:

Which brings me to the next blog, which I think is actually where I saw the previous link.  “On Failing Kindergarten,” by Alyssa on Yes, That Too. I spent all last year, and most of this one, watching the staff in autism support rooms trying to make kids follow these rules.  I’ve felt frustrated with them making a kid sit with his feet on the floor in front of him, when the kid is trying to sit on his foot or sit cross-legged in the chair- like I do.  I’m so uncomfortable with conflict and speaking up. . . if I’m in a situation where I don’t think my advice will be heeded I am unlikely to offer it.  But I’ve tried to muster courage to be a sort of advocate when I can.  In that specific example I did finally say, “I have trouble sitting on these hard chairs; have you tried one of those squishy things they can sit on?”  (I’ve seen them at the school.)  The teacher shrugged it off with a, “We’ve tried everything” (not true) and resumed firmly demanding he sit “right” in the chair, threatening him with the weighted lap pad instead of offering it as a good thing.

Situations like that are difficult, because I am a guest in these classrooms and it is not my place to tell the teachers what they’re doing wrong. . . I’m there to explain interventions that work for my client and model them.   And like I said, I am uncomfortable.  I’m too afraid to say things that will cause discord or bad feelings, since I have to be around these people every day.  I was yelled at once at work while trying to implement an intervention and nearly cried; I was terrified of seeing the person again.  Although I tried to act normally around them I was also very wary.  So I have the internal conflict of watching treatment I strongly disagree with but being afraid of trying to change it.

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Here is an example of what it’s like to *see* what the people in charge do not see when an autistic student is acting out.  Her writing powerfully conveys the feeling of heartbreak and helplessness I often feel in such situations. – “What I Saw” by AutisticChick

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Alyssa
Alyssa
Alyssa
On Failing Kindergarten

I’ve only read a few of Matt Walsh’s posts and I don’t agree with everything he says. But I really liked most of what he says in, “Help, doc, I’m bored by boring things. I think I’ve got the ADHD!”  I agree that medication is over-prescribed, but I think he’s a little too strongly anti-meds (for an example of a family who dramatically benefits from meds, check out the BBC documentary Living with ADHD).
Here’s the main point of this post summed up in two quotes:

What if — this is a big IF — what if people are all, like, different?

Hold on.

Don’t stop reading yet. Seriously, think about it. What if there ISN’T actually some preordained mold of behavior and thought in which we’re all supposed to fit? What if it’s OK for some people to be a certain way, while others are another way, and still others are an entirely different way? What if some people are active, and some people aren’t; some people are creative, and some people aren’t; some people have a lot of energy, and some people don’t; some people are daydreamers, and some people aren’t? What if — again, HUGE if — but what if we tried to find a place for the unique qualities of all men and women, rather than attempting to chemically eradicate entire personality types simply because they don’t gel with our artificial societal constructs?

What if we stopped trying to make our kids “normal,” and instead encouraged them to be exceptional?

and:

Could it be that our kids are distracted because they’re surrounded by distractions? Could they be overstimulated because they’re surrounded by stimulation? Could they have trouble paying attention in school because school is tedious and boring?

I really loved that second quote.

I also read one of his rants about public schooling and homeschooling; again, I don’t agree with everything he says, but he made points that resonated and further weakened my already shaky faith in the public school system.  And let me tell you, I have had the privilege of working with some amazingly wonderful educators.  Ever since I was a child I have had respect and affection for good teachers, and it continues to this day.  From what I’ve seen, the school I mostly work in right now is a great school, at least by the standards of the schools I have seen or attended.  However. . . more and more I’m seeing how it really doesn’t work for everyone.  I see kids falling through the cracks, because even the best teachers are only human and have too much on their plates (crowded classes, heavy workloads, lack of parental involvement, etc).  I cannot emphasize enough how much I respect most of these teachers; I honestly cannot think of a single negative thing to say about my client’s second grade teacher, for example.  But when I’m sitting there trying to get this kid to stop his noisy stimming while the class is taking turns reading, I have to wonder, “Why are we here?”  He pretty much never gets anything out of the lessons in the gen-ed classroom; he learns and works much better one-on-one.  Most of our time in the gen-ed room is spent trying to keep him quiet and on task; if he doesn’t have a specific task in front of him like a worksheet it’s rough.  So why is he there?  To try to learn how to sit still and quiet and listen to group instruction?  That leads to the next question – Why?  Does he really need those skills?  I mean, what kind of additional education is he going to seek in the future, and what kind of job?  When I think about it, most jobs don’t involve the kind of “skills” he’s supposed to be learning in school.  I am all for him spending time with the gen-ed kids, not only for his benefit but for theirs.  We didn’t have any kids like him in my class growing up.  In fact, I have so little exposure to individuals who have labels like ID that when I first started going to a Life Skills classroom with another client I felt VERY uncomfortable around those kids, much to my shame.  But the kids in my younger client’s class – they accept him.  They are willing to help and prompt him and pester him for high-fives.  I’ve seen bright and social young boys give up doing something “normal” with their friends at recess to interact with my client and help him practice things like tossing and kicking a ball – and this without any adults suggesting they do so.  In those moments I feel hope for the future.

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So, what are the next steps?  Well, my first personal step is switching gears and going back to college to study Information Sciences and Technology.  After we discovered my place on the spectrum, my mom encouraged me to look at career fields that would be a better fit for someone with Asperger’s.  I start classes next month and will continue working as a TSS part-time for as long as I can manage doing both.  Another step has been slowly “coming out” at work.  I didn’t make a big formal announcement, but if I’m chatting with someone about a student’s specific behavior I will say something like, “I can really understand why he has a hard time with the noise in the cafeteria.  I started wearing earplugs in there!  I’ve come to realize that if there had been more awareness when I was a kid I would have been diagnosed, myself.  Loud noises like that are overstimulating to me and make me feel really anxious.  Do you think he’d tolerate some kind of ear protection for in there?”  I don’t make a big deal about it, but I want them to know I’m giving advice not just as a trained TSS but as an autistic person.  An also-autistic person speaking for and defending the rights of these autistic kids who don’t yet know how to speak up for themselves.  Which leads me to a third step – promoting true “Autism awareness” by encouraging autistics to raise their voices and NTs to start listening.

 

 

 

Combat This

Musings of an Aspie

The Combating Autism Act (CAA) is up for re-authorization in the US Congress and ASAN is asking autistic people and their families to let Congress know that the CAA needs to be reformed. If you can want to know more, you can read ASAN’s message. There is a Twitter campaign taking place today and a flash blog next week to raise awareness and encourage people to contact their congresspersons in Washington.

Because I’m a bit of a wonk, I read the CAA last night and then I read the GAO’s report on the CAA. Fun times. One thing that struck me is how autistic adults, if they’re mentioned at all, always come last. When it comes to autism policy and research, we’re barely an afterthought.

But that’s not really what this post is about. The theme of the actions around the CAA is #stopcombatingme, a reference to how damaging…

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