Diagnosis Disruption: Debunking the Myths of Non-verbal Autism

Autistic individuals are the true autism experts. Matthew Lager’s TASH Talk debunking the myths of non-verbal autism is a must read for anyone who has an autistic child or works with autistic individuals. Matthew uses a letterboard and keyboard to spell to communicate. He prepared this presentation for the 2016 TASH conference with his mother over a several weeks. Due to the 10 minute time limit of the TASH Talk, Matthew’s speech was read aloud for the presentation with spelling closing remarks live. Matthew’s goal is to challenge people to rethink autism and understand the capabilities of people who have been labeled as “low functioning”.  ~Elizabeth & Matthew  

Matthew

Thanks for letting me speak today. Thanks to TASH for including me and for your commitment to advocating for an easily dismissed segment of society.

I am going to share my experience of being erroneously mislabeled as low functioning and of low intelligence. My story is representative of thousands of others labeled as low functioning. My life changed in ways most can not comprehend the summer of 2014 when my parents took me to Herndon, Virginia to see Elizabeth Vosseller. My hero, Elizabeth, introduced me to the letterboards. Through a letterboard and now keyboard I am able to communicate my true thoughts by spelling them one finger at a time.  I wrote this presentation on a key board tapping the letters one at a time.

The topic of my talk is:  Diagnosis Disruption: Debunking the myths of non-verbal autism.

Many people view me as being stupid, emotionless and without the ability to understand other people’s feelings. It is not a surprise because scientists describe autistics so inaccurately. I am here to tell you we are much more complex than you believe and also more ordinary than you realize. We are confusing and difficult to understand because our exterior doesn’t match our fully intact brain.  We have sensory problems that make us look out of control. Some of us have voices that don’t say what we mean. Others have motor planning impulse control issues that make us do things we didn’t mean to do.  In spite of the tremendous challenges we are all just like you with complex thoughts and feelings.

Scientists typically look at three key areas when determining whether someone fits the criteria for further screening for autism spectrum disorder.  The three areas are impaired social interaction, impaired communication and restricted or repetitive behavior.  They often assume that functional problems of speech, social interaction and unusual behavior are indicative of low intelligence and poor cognitive function. They create checklists to define the behavior we do that is not typical without understanding that many of these behaviors are in fact motor based rather than a cognitive deficit.

At my previous school, I was not allowed to spell to communicate and therefore was unable to change their incorrect assumptions of me.  They were unable to see beyond my atypical behavior. As a result, I was taught at the first grade level last year.  My new school was open to seeing me differently and allowing me to use the letterboard all day.  I am now taught at grade level which is eight grades higher than instruction at my previous schools. I wish they could see me today and perhaps treat others with so called low functioning autism differently.  This school move only occurred when a group of experts in the school system were willing to suspend their preconceived ideas about autism. I hope you are willing to do this also by hearing what my friends who are here and I have to say.

I am going to ask you to look at a few more examples from my perspective.

While on the surface these scientific descriptions seem accurate, I am going to describe how what you see in many autistics is not the full or true picture.

1)  Wild erratic movements without purpose: When I look most dysregulated I am reacting to overstimulation and sensory overflow. It is impossible for anyone to evaluate my internal state when just looking at my out of control body. For example I become very dysregulated, cover my ears and make an odd sounding noise when people sing happy birthday.  The out of tune singing, especially my mom’s voice (just kidding mom), makes me feel anxious and covering my ears and making noise muffles the sound. When people see my reaction they assume I don’t want to be part of the celebration and stop including me when in fact I love birthdays and just need a coping mechanism to participate.  When I appear totally out of control, I am internally trying to focus and calm myself during an overly sensory stimulated situation.

2) Inability to initiate or sustain a conversation: Experts claim low functioning autistics are unable to hold a conversation. It is true that I am unable to do it verbally. However I can have full and meaningful conversations with my friends and others if I am able to type my part of the discussion.  I have three friends in the room today who communicate the same way I do.  I wish scientists or disbelievers would watch our interactions and see firsthand the complexity of our discussions, the way we support each other and how emotionally connected we are to each other and the world.  One of my friends dreams of being a writer. Another really wants a girlfriend.  All are interested in a full life with the same opportunities for education, living arrangements, jobs and community that any other person wants.

3) Odd, repetitive behavior: My behavior that experts describe as repetitive and without purpose is actually very useful in calming a highly stressful situation. For example, I often ask repetitive questions when I am nervous about a transition or don’t know how to get the words I want to say out of my mouth.  I understand why experts think these behaviors are odd but understanding the reason we do them is crucial to understanding us.  A good example of this is my obsession with the Wiggles. I talk about them all the time but can’t stand them. As annoying as it is to be 15 and talking about a preschool music group, reciting their lyrics does calm me down when I am stressed.

4) Poorly developed imaginary play: I have been told those with autism have no imaginary play skills. If only someone could get inside my brain you would see how I am always creating stories to pass the time when I am being ignored. I create stories about people traveling around the world and meeting famous historical figures. One of my favorites is of my friends going to meet Abraham Lincoln and talking to him about emancipation of those in society who are disenfranchised. So, I will continue to fail the tests researchers use, like putting plastic figures in front of me and asking me to pretend some contrived story.  However, when I see the figures I’ll pretend in my mind the figures are Lincoln’s soldiers who may have lost this one battle but can still win the war.

5) No or limited interest in social interaction: I understand why someone thinks I’m a loner and prefer isolation. However this could not be further from the truth. In social situations I sometimes leave the room when others are trying to interact with me because i am so excited and my body experiences a rush of such intense happiness that I launch like a rocket out of the room.  When I come back unfortunately the social interaction is lost and even worse than losing that one opportunity I likely pushed the person away for good.  This is one of many examples of how my outward behavior doesn’t match my strong insatiable need to be with others and how researchers don’t understand me. I want friends more than anything. I am lucky that now for the first time I have a group of people who I feel close to and who I feel understand this.

Every time someone with autism is allowed to share what goes on in his mind it gives experts more information and insight into the complicated inner workings of those of us who are so misunderstood. Hearing from Autistic individuals is integral to scientists understanding us and our critical and empathetic thoughts. By doing so, they can study the huge gap between the vast amount of intelligent, intricate, and inventive thoughts that we have in our minds and our difficulty sharing them in a typical way.

In closing so called experts need to start by assuming that their patients with autism are truly thoughtful and intelligent. Entering the patient/clinician relationship with this shift in thinking is the most important first step. Allowing us alternative forms of communication combined with researchers commitment, dedication and hard work we can actually make changes to research protocols that will make a difference in my life and others like me.

So, death to the idea of the empty headed autistic. I hope that people will see me and my friends beyond our exterior and see us for the people we really are.

**Note: we had blue tooth connection issues with the keyboard during the presentation resulting in repeated letters.  We edited the additional letters below for readability. 

I am happy to be here and have a chance to tell our story. Please spread the word and let others know.

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Inclusion ~ Evan, Shine Your Light!

I wanted to finish off 2016 with one of our favorite moments of the year. Prepare for some guaranteed happiness as you witness what happened when one of our clients was given the opportunity to conduct his school choir. Evan is one feisty, adorable guy who never fails to make me laugh during our sessions together. His communication through spelling is strong – but Evan has a way of getting his point across with or without the letterboards! Evan’s video of his conducting debut went viral but when his mother told me the entire story,  I knew you all needed to hear it too!  Evan’s mom, Elizabeth Zielinski, agreed to share Evan’s story with us as today’s guest blogger.  Enjoy and kick off the New Year by sharing this story of joy!!  ~Elizabeth, Elizabeth & Evan 

My son, Evan, is 11 years old, autistic, and unreliably verbal. He is in fifth grade in public school, placed in a self-contained classroom, with various opportunities throughout the day where he is included with his neurotypical peers in the general education setting.

Some of Evan’s behaviors prevent him from being fully mainstreamed into general education classes for safety reasons. But with our insistence and with our school’s cooperation, he is included in many experiential learning opportunities and also in extracurricular events. One of those events was the recent fifth grade winter chorus.

His dad and I were told he would be included last Fall, and we hesitated to give permission because we didn’t know how well he would do with the sensory stimulation. But we had a lot of faith in our school’s remarkable music teacher, Mr. Charlie Ring, and trusted that he would ensure Evan’s experience was a good one.

Leading up to the event Evan grew excited and told us that he was going to be a guest conductor of one song. He showed us his plan for approaching the front and leading the chorus.  We were naturally entertained and thrilled to expect this.

When the afternoon school assembly performance arrived, I waited expectantly to see Evan’s debut as conductor. To my disappointment, it didn’t happen. I approached Mr. Ring to ask why, only to learn that it was never part of the program, but a way that Mr. Ring was helping Evan to participate in rehearsals. Evan didn’t seem to realize that it wasn’t going to happen for the actual performance, or if he did, his unreliable speech meant we didn’t know what he expected or hoped to have happen.

And that’s when the magic started. After I asked my question of Mr. Ring and we realized the misunderstanding, Mr. Ring only asked if I thought Evan would be able to do it without a formal rehearsal. I said I thought he would. Right then and there, Mr. Ring starting planning the changes to include Evan as guest conductor in the evening performance for the community.

Prior to the second and last performance, Mr. Ring explained to the rest of the fifth graders what the change to the evening program would include:

Missing from that video was the round of applause Evan got from his classmates before the announcement that he would be conducting, proving that acceptance comes naturally to kids when given the opportunity.

Evan waited patiently backstage, but you can see the anticipation on his face.

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And then, show time. It was the second performance of the day, he had been wearing his uncomfortable show clothes for hours, and he had to stand on risers and pay attention; even though singing along was not an option for him. Anyone who knows him would tell you, all of that alone was a lot to ask. But toward the end of the show, this happened:

No one had seen him do this before, but he showed us that it was worth the wait. As of this writing, the video has been viewed over 50,000 times on Facebook and another 1,300 times on YouTube; and has been shared hundreds of times worldwide. Based on the comments I’ve received; it has touched a lot of people.

What I love about this is not just that my son had a moment of joy and celebration. It’s also that everyone else shared in that with him. It wasn’t just the joy on his face in the video that touches me, it was the appreciation of his fellow fifth graders and the audience when they watched him have his starring moment. There are some chuckles, but not at Evan’s expense.  They are just seeing him have an entertaining experience.

The most important thing we have learned about inclusion through this experience is that it doesn’t mean building events around Evan’s needs, oversimplifying his experience, or putting him into a fully neurotypical environment and seeing how long he can last before extracting him. What it does mean is being open to and creative about those moments that allow him to learn and grow like any student wants to do. That requires seeing him with the best of expectations about what he can do, and trusting that no matter what happens, everyone will grow from it.

Finally, the awesome Mr. Ring sent Evan a celebratory gift after the fact: he now owns the conductor’s baton he used that evening as a reminder of his starring moment.

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Santa doesn’t need speech to understand

This holiday, our families from New Zealand decided to have holiday lesson swap. Each of the ten families contributed one holiday themed lesson and walked away with TEN LESSONS! Since I am no fool, I jumped right on this swap. All of the lessons have been fantastic but I have particularly enjoyed the lesson about Tinsel and the Christmas Spider, written by Kiwi mum, Jo Lussey.  In the spirit of the holidays, Jo has offered to share her lesson with all of you! I particularly enjoyed lesson because I had never heard this story before.  At the end of this lesson, I challenged my students to create a brand new Christmas story. My kids have come up with all kinds of fantastic stories but this one by friend Alex stole my heart!  ~Merry Christmas! Elizabeth & The GKTC Team

Alex decided to ride my style - tucking his pencil behind his ear!

Alex decided to ride my style – tucking his pencil behind his ear!

So many Christmases ago, there was a boy who did not have real communication. Realizing that he could not talk the way he wanted to, he could not ask Santa for communication. The boy was absolutely devastated.  However, Santa does not need speech to understand. He landed on the boy’s rooftop and slid down the chimney.  He placed a letter board in the boy’s stocking.  Wonder of wonders, the boy who could not communicate could spell. He loved to spell and share his words with the world.  This was the merriest Christmas in his life.

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The Value of Communication

Last week we promised more presentations by our students at the 2016 TASH Conference in St. Louis.  Ian Nordling is our next self advocate presenting his thoughts on the importance of communication in his TASH Talk.  Ian has been spelling on the letterboards and keyboards for over 2 years and is now beginning to type independently. He is a tenacious advocate for access to communication.  We are sure Ian’s message will resonate you just as they with the audience at TASH. ~Elizabeth

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Ian (center) poses with his cousin Kelsey Aughey (left), one of the fantastic ACTS Professionals in the GKTC Professional Network serving kids at the Hirsch Academy in Atlanta.  Ian and Elizabeth Vosseller (right) have worked together since 2001.

Thank you for being here today. I am Ian Nordling. I am here today to talk about the beauty of communication. I am uniquely qualified to talk about this because I did not have a way to talk until three years ago.

This might sound impossible but it is true. I could not communicate more than a few words. Then I learned to control my arm so I could spell my thoughts on a letterboard. These words took the world for me. I could finally express myself after all of these years. You cannot imagine a greater triumph! The world opened up for me through those words.

I have been pleased to gain entry to the world through the words that had been stuck in my head but are now free. Unless you have been without communication you have no idea how important it is. I really can’t tell you every way that it has changed my life but I can say that it has changed everything.

I now live in Virginia because I was able to tell my parents I wanted to move there so I could be close to GKTC and others like me who spell. I now have phenomenal friends like me who talk with letters. I am finally learning and my intellectual curiosity is satisfied at last. I am incredibly happy today because I can communicate.

*TASH Talks are limited to 8 minutes, so Ian wrote the beginning of his speech (above) prior to the conference and completed the part below live.  

Thank you for being here today. I want to echo Elizabeth, don’t judge me based on my motor. You can clap more for that. I am hungry to learn. I hunger for friends. This hunger can only be satisfied through communication, understanding and acceptance. Time to change beliefs.

Stop making assumptions of Ignorance – TASH 2016

This year, four of Growing Kids’ nonspeaking or unreliably speaking clients presented at the TASH 2016 conference in St. Louis! Each of our students gave a TASH Talk (in the style of a TED Talk) and participated together for a panel discussion on inclusion. We will be sharing their presentations with you over the next few weeks. First up is Tom Pruyn! Only 8 minutes are allotted for the TASH Talks, so Tom typed the first part of his speech (below in regular font) before the conference and then Tom typed the conclusion (presented in bold) live.  Enjoy! ~Elizabeth

I am so delighted to be here today. I am 18 and I love music, cute girls, technology and having friends. I am also autistic and have poor motor control. I am able to talk more than most of my autistic friends but this is not my best asset. My real thoughts are best expressed when I type. Really most of what comes out of my mouth is nonsense.

I talk almost nonstop silliness. Songs, lines from cartoons, credits from movies, and the same things over and over. This is not what I want to say but is what I am good at saying because I have said it over and over. This is incredibly frustrating for me because I know that I sound ridiculous. I don’t want to be judged by the words spewing from my mouth but instead I want to be valued for my true capabilities and the words that I can write.

This might disturb some of you who thought that speech is the ultimate goal. For me, speech has been my downfall. My teachers and many others have assumed that my speech reflects my purposeful thinking. The truth is that my speech reflects the random trash going through my brain. What I spell is what I think. However, I have not been allowed to communicate this way in school so no one was able to ever see my real capabilities. This is why I am talking to you today so you can spread my desire to rethink what you believe about autistics.

*Note: This portion below was typed live at the TASH presentation. We had technical issues with the blue tooth keyboard at the conference.  You can see the typing on the screen in the video.  We have corrected the stuck or repeated letters here for readability.

This is my request to you. Stop thinking that speech is a reflection of intelligence. The ability to learn does not depend on speech. The ability to learn depends on being given a chance to learn. Don’t limit those chances to those who speak reliably. Please give me and my friends a chance to learn. Thank you for listening.

Creating Social and Communication Opportunities

We are often inspired by the creative strategies our families find to make education and communication on the letter boards interesting and meaningful. During a Skype consult, Jasmin explained how she created social and communication opportunities between her son, who spells to communicate, and her nephew. Jasmin graciously agreed to share her fantastic strategies as today’s guest blogger!

Guest blogger bio: Jasmin Dutton is one of our GKTC moms from Quebec, Canada. She has been an avid homeschooler to both her sons for the past 7 years. After months of attempting to teach her son to point on her own, Jasmin and Wyatt took off on the boards after observing a GKTC workshop in March 2016. Jasmin enjoys gardening, and the outdoors in all seasons. She likes to emphasize a love of nature, curiosity and social contribution in her teachings.

Beyond the Boards

What has always attracted me most to Growing Kids Therapy Center is the emphasis Elizabeth and her team places on community building and collaboration amongst their students. This is something I’ve always wanted for my son but due to so many challenges, have struggled to create.

This past summer I have been determined to make it happen. So I took everything I have learned from coaching my son on the boards and put it into helping him connect socially.

Tolerance – for socializing: not outside the house, zero with strangers, tricky with same aged peers, and requiring structure and support. So it would have to be at home, someone older and familiar and well planned. There was also no way Wyatt would tolerate being left alone with anyone. This was not going to be respite. I would have to be present and directing the engagement.  Luckily, my 17 year old nephew lives nearby so I got in touch with him and made arrangements for him to come by for an hour a week to “hang out” with Wyatt and me.

Skill Goal – the challenge here was socializing so it would be over the top to work simultaneously on learning new physical skills. We’ve stuck to familiar activities that Wyatt excels at, such as cooking and swimming and have participated in them as a team, with me coaching both guys in the activity and creating opportunity for them to work together.  I was able to model for my nephew how to interact with Wyatt

Cognitive Goal – having always homeschooled my son, conversation can get pretty stale around here. I wanted my nephew to bring in conversation that would expose Wyatt to what teens are up to; the music, hobbies, and interests. Conversations were started around where my nephew was going to college in the fall, what his course load looked like and what he had to accomplish to be accepted into his program.

Response Level – well, response level wasn’t something I had thought too much of in the beginning, hoping really, that Wyatt would just stick around, but it was something that developed organically over time.  During one occasion, I came up with an activity Wyatt and his cousin could do together.  I would ask his cousin questions regarding his interests, he would then write his answer in invisible ink and Wyatt would use a developer pen to reveal the answer (we have linked two cool options if you want to try this at home!). Wyatt was pretty enthusiastic about the activity and I asked if he wanted me to ask him questions as well, and he agreed. So I quickly ran to get his board and took turns asking the guys each a personal interest question, trying my darndest not to cry at what I was witnessing.

This has been such a huge success for Wyatt that I have recently hired another teen (still familiar but less so) to come by during the week, and am using the same goals with her as I do with my nephew. I still need to remain present and help guide the interactions but my son now has the opportunity to collaborate. This fall, I will definitely be planning out more ways to use the boards during their times together. The experience has given me a burst of confidence and motivation to look closely at the opportunities I want for my son, envision what that could look like for him and make it happen.

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Jasmin, thank you for sharing your fantastic ideas for developing new relationships for your son! For many of our kids, building in opportunities for peer communication requires creativity, I know so many families will benefit from these great strategies!

~Elizabeth and Jasmin

The ABC’s of Inclusion

Last month we were delighted to participate in the Institute of Communication and Inclusion held in Columbia, Maryland. We presented to a great audience of people who are dedicated to serving nonspeaking and minimally speaking individuals. We got to collaborate with so many progressive thinkers and meet some of our inclusion super heroes, Cheryl Jorgeson and Paula Kluth! Our own Meghann Parkinson and skilled Atlanta practitioner, Kelsey Aughey joined me as we held daily skill building workshops for 20 plus spellers and their communication partners to help practice new skills. Since the focus of the conference was on inclusion, we decided to put our groups of subject matter experts to work!

Practicing independent typing with Philip!

Practicing independent typing with Philip!

One of our groups focused on typing skills. This group was challenged to come up with the ABC’s of inclusion!  Each student, Philip, Mike, Camille and Matthew took turns writing a sentence for each letter with the keyboard held for them.  After typing their sentence, each practiced typing one or more of the words independently. All made fantastic progress!  Our friend, Philip Reyes, reported that this was one of his favorite parts of the conference and wrote about his experience in his blog, Faith, Hope, Love and Autism.  

Actual inclusion opens doors.
Be patient with us.
Caring people make it successful.
Don’t give up.
Excellent expectations.
Friends, need I say more?
Give us lots of patient encouragement.
Hear us when we spell.
In day, talking to friends opens my world.
Just like typically functioning,need support.
Keep believing in us.
Learn challenging subjects.
Must be proud.
No baby talk.
Open hearts please us.
Praise our achievements as they are yours as well.
Question your assumptions.
Remember we are just like you.
Spelling is our way out.
Treat us with respect.
Understand totally intelligent and eager to learn.
Voices must be heard.
Wait for us to finish our thoughts.
Xylophone can’t make open words and it still is in the orchestra.
You are needed for our success.

Zero tolerance for non believers.

One of our other groups was tasked with giving advising educators on inclusive practice. Not only did the come up with some great tips, they also collaborated on an acrostic poem!

Huan: INCLUSION IS LIKE ACCESSING ALL FACILITIES AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE. THERE IS A NEED FOR SPACE WHERE EVERYONE FEELS PROTECTED. CAN I SHARE MY SPACE WITH EVERYONE? YES. LEARNING TO SHARE MEANS KEEPING TALKERS ENGAGED IN MY TYPING.

Nadia: BE ALL CARING, DO NOT YELL

Harry:  BE OPEN TO RECREATE INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES…SOME NEED CERTAIN ACCOMMODATION.

I think everyone should be included.
No one should miss each opportunity.
Children all deserve a good start.
Learn to share with all others.
Understand strengths.
See the intelligence underneath.
Instead of treating me like not smart, treat me like smart.
Obstacles may come, they make us stronger.

No child left behind!

Finally, we finished our third day of skill practice by creating a Pokemon Go inspired game to take our skills out in the community in our own game of Communication Go! The object was to “capture” (by snapping a picture) an introduction, a conversation, sensory aids, a story ~ any form of communication or comfort! The more you communicate, the more “experience points” you gain!  We all had a blast meeting folks all over the conference center and loved sharing our finds!
Lucas and his mom capture a sensory soft t-shirt AND an introduction! Bonus Points!

Lucas and his mom capture a sensory soft t-shirt AND an introduction! Bonus Points!

Once again, we find our students are our very best educators! So inspired by their messages of inclusion and we can’t wait to put them into practice. Feel free to share their great tips for inclusion – just in time for back to school!
~Elizabeth, Meghann, Kelsey and our friends at the ICI