Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Challenge to Autism Professionals

The theories regarding autism have been based on observation of our odd behaviors. Lists of these behaviors make a diagnosis. I have limited independence in selfcare. I have limited eye contact. I have flat affect often. I can’t express my ideas verbally. I have poor fine motor control. I have impaired initiation. I have impaired gross motor control. I have difficulty controlling intense emotions. I have impulse control challenges and self stimulatory behavior.

Whew. When I write that it sounds pretty bad, but I function adequately in this world. I am now 17 and I am a fulltime high school student in a general education program. I am in Honors Chemistry, Honors US History and Honors English. I am in Algebra 2, Spanish and Animal Sciences. I get straight As. I work out with a trainer 2 or 3 times a week to get fit. I study piano. I hike, cook, and help take care of a horse. I am invited to speak at universities and autism agencies. I am the author of Ido in Autismland, and a blogger as well. I have friends.

I say this, not to brag, but to let you know that people like me, with severe autism, who act weirdly and who can’t speak, are not less human, as Dr. Lovaas suggested, and are not doomed to live lives of rudimentary information and bored isolation.( “You have a person in a physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense,” the late Ivar Lovaas, a UCLA researcher, said in a 1974 interview with Psychology Today).

I communicate by typing on an iPad with an app that has both word prediction and voice output. I also  communicate by using good, old-fashioned letterboard pointing. If I had not been taught to point to letters or to type without tactile support, many people would never have realized that my mind was intact.

My childhood was not easy because I had no means to communicate at all, despite my 40 hours a week of intensive ABA therapy. I pointed to flashcards and I touched my nose, but I had no means to convey that I thought deeply, understood everything, but was locked internally. Meticulously collected data showed my incorrect answers to flashcard drills, but the limitations of theory are in the interpretations.

My mistakes were proof to my instructors of my lack of comprehension or intelligence, so we did the same boring, baby lessons year after boring year. How I dreamed of being able to communicate the truth then to my instructors and my family too, but I had no way to express my ideas. All they gave me was the ability to request foods and basic needs.

Here is what I would have told them if I could have when I was small. My body isn’t under my mind’s complete control. I know the right answer to these thrilling flashcards, unfortunately my hand isn’t fully under my control either. My body is often ignoring my thoughts. I look at my flashcards. You ask me to touch ‘tree,’ for example, and though I can clearly differentiate between tree, house, boy and whatever cards you have arrayed, my hand doesn’t consistently obey me. My mind is screaming, “Don’t touch house!” It goes to house. Your notes say, “Ido is frustrated in session today.” Yes, frustration often occurs when you can’t show your intelligence and neurological forces impede communication between mind and body and experts then conclude that you are not cognitively processing human speech.

In my childhood I feared I would remain stuck forever in this horrible trap, but I was truly fortunate to be freed when I was 7 when my mother realized my mind was intact, and both my parents searched to find a way to help me communicate without tactile support.

Thousands of autistic people like me live life in isolation and loneliness, denied education, condemned to baby talk and high fives, and never able to express a thought. The price of assuming that nonverbal people with autism have impaired thinking is a high one to families and to people who live in solitary confinement within their own bodies. It is high time professionals rethought their theories.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Challenging and Changing Perspectives

By Edlyn Pena, guest blogger

As a researcher who studies ways to support the access and success of students with autism in higher education and a mom to a handsome six-year old son who uses an iPad to communicate, I aim to help Ido advance his message to educators, professionals, and caregivers. My objective here is to provide context and encourage you to learn more about approaches that enable nonverbal individuals to spell and type to communicate. I’ve received criticism for endorsing approaches like Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) because they are not evidence-based. There is still much speculation in the autism community about the legitimacy of RPM and other approaches that teach pointing to letters and typing. Research on these methods are lacking. I understand that professionals will continue to question these methods until they are rigorously studied and published in peer reviewed journals. I am the first to believe in well-designed research studies. As an academic, I also believe in being open to new possibilities, ideas, and presuming competence in individuals on the spectrum. Without this openness, I would have never exposed my own son, Diego, to RPM. He would not be where he is today with regard to sharing how autism affects him daily (e.g. “Paying attention is tiring”) and to articulating unusual ideas (e.g. “Eight elephants play in a new kind of ecosystem”). I would not know the level of depth of thought and curiosity hidden in his mind. Diego’s voice is now being heard.

Ido is a pioneer in advancing our knowledge about autism and people with complex communication challenges. Ido's book, Ido in Autismland, is by far the most powerful book I have read about autism. Other authors write compelling books about autism, prompting us to think about those on the autism spectrum. But Ido is different. He is extraordinary because he changes the way we think about autism. He disrupts our misguided notions that lack of speech equates to lack of intelligence; that students with autism are impoverished of expressing or recognizing emotions; and that all students who are non-verbal belong in special day classes without the opportunity for inclusion. Contrary to many of the messages the world receives on a daily basis about people with autism, Ido’s book tells us that the minds of people with autism are as complex, creative, and intelligent as yours and mine.

On a personal level, reading Ido’s book was transformative and allowed my relationship with my son to turn a corner. I now talk to Diego like I would any other smart and capable 6-year-old. I make efforts to talk to Diego, not about him, when he’s in the room. Ido, Diego, and children like them are nonverbal, affected by autism, and brilliant. By typing to communicate, they blow us away with their complex insights, imaginative ideas, and witty humor.

If you are a professional in the autism field, I invite you to think outside of the box about what “conventional wisdom” on autism tells us. Without doubt, this takes courage. It means acknowledging that we do not know everything about autism. You might learn, as I did, that our perceptions about the capabilities of non-verbal individuals are wrong. Rather than dismiss RPM or other approaches to support typing, I encourage you to educate yourself about the approaches. Interact with individuals who have learned to type. Read Ido’s book or watch videos of children and teenagers who point to letter boards or type independently. For example,

And, of course, Ido has posted great video clips of him typing on this website. For example,

From one professional to another and from one parent to another, I urge you to take a chance to learn more before dismissing approaches to support our children who otherwise have limited means to communicate. We have the power to make real change by enabling the individuals we care for and serve to communicate in rich and meaningful ways.

-Edlyn Vallejo Peña, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Education California Lutheran University

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Autism and the Challenge of Rapid Motor Planning and Initiation in New Situations

My high school has an old farm because it has a magnet program for intensive studies in veterinary science and agriculture. It is really nice because the students care for the animals. Over vacation we have to feed them. There are rabbits, hens, sheep, goats, a horse and a llama. The goats are intelligent and eager to escape to eat leaves. They have the same lock the sheep have on their pen. The sheep can’t open it but the goats open it with ease. To stay in, they require an additional chain and clasp lock and if it isn’t on just right, they escape.

Today was my turn to feed, water, clean and exercise the animals (that is, I exercise and clean the horse and feed and water the rest). We went to give the goats fresh water and in a flash they opened the gate and rushed out to eat leaves. They group up and run away and resist you too so it can be a struggle to get them back in, and the first ones you catch only want to escape to get back to the leaves and their friends.

I was watching this because I was with my mom who asked me to help her with the gate. I am able to do everything I need to do, more or less, but it felt frustrating today because I saw that I still react so slowly in a moment that required speed. I knew I needed to move fast because she had a goat at the gate and didn’t want to lock up the gate completely since there were more she had to put back in the pen. They struggle to get back to their leaves with great intensity and it is a pain to hold a struggling goat with one hand and fumble with a lock with the other.

Autism is an initiation disorder too. I see where I should go and I stay frozen. Doing new tasks is tough because our bodies need to learn the steps. The steps in this moment would be clear to a neuro-typical body, but not to mine. Though my mind knew what to do, it just wasn’t ready to react in time. This is frustrating personally, but perhaps even worse is that our difficulty initiating certain responses confuses many specialists who then assume we don’t understand logic and basic problem solving.
It isn’t the thinking that’s the problem. It is the ability to react and follow our thoughts that we struggle with. I see my skills have improved, because eventually I got to the gate and held it against goats pushing with all their might to escape again. In the end, we got them all back in. Maybe next time we should let them out on purpose so I can get more practice reacting to emergency situations more quickly.

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