A Mother’s Hopes for her Sons

Aaron watching Tommy play Nintendo

Aaron watching Tommy play Nintendo

Summer Activities| A Mother’s Hope for Her Sons with and without disabilities

NOTE: This is when Tommy was 13 and Aaron 14 years old.

Is summer different for kids with and without disabilities?

This summer Tommy, my 13 year old son, …

• Went to 2 weeks of Boy Scout camp, an experience which included a hike on the Appalachian Trail.

• Had to choose between participating in baseball or soccer. In August, however, he began training for the school cross-country team.

• Was active in a neighborhood network of five boys who decided to start a Nintendo Gaming Exchange Club. His friends called him the minute he arrived home from activities, played games until supper.

* Was invited to stay overnight with a friend or cousin.

• Had a season’s pass to a nearby amusement park, and because he can use public transportation independently, spent at least one day there each week with friends.

The days of summer flew by for Tommy. He had individual activities with friends, but also family activities which included a camping vacation and travel to a National Park. His major frustrations were either the lack of time for pursuing all of his interests, or his Mom’s suggesting he do something “dumb” like reading a book or practicing his clarinet.

Our family on a camping trip

Our Family Camping Trip

Tommy’s brother, Aaron, age 14.

Aaron went to two weeks of special camp this summer.

Aaron’s major summer/weekend/vacation activity is watching Tommy play baseball, play Nintendo games…and riding to drop Tommy and his friends off.

Aaron also has a pass to the amusement park, but can only go with an adult (who so far is his mother).

Aaron spends every morning saying, “bus, bus…ready, set, go.” When the school bus doesn’t come, he sometimes licks on the front window, bites his hands and puts on his coat and backpack. He can’t figure out why his routine is different.

Aaron also can’t figure out why we spend all winter telling him to keep the front door shut, and all summer telling him to keep the front door open (but that’s another story.) *smile*

Aaron was on the waiting list for a short Easter Seals sponsored program in August, the only other community recreation opportunity available to him in our county.

What’s the Difference?

As I contrast the lives of my two boys, I can’t help thinking…

• …perhaps I wouldn’t feel Aaron’s isolation and lack of contact with any friends or same-age peers if Tommy had fewer friends.

• …perhaps I wouldn’t worry about Aaron’s behaviors, physical condition, weight and stamina if he were occasionally an active participant, rather than always an observer.

• …perhaps the hours and hours of inaction would not occur if Aaron had better skills or could entertain himself.

• …perhaps our family will adjust eventually to the sadness (and stress) we feel knowing Aaron’s only opportunities come from mom, dad or brother…and realizing it may always be that way.

* …perhaps we would feel so trapped if we could get respite regularly.

* …perhaps we’ll become accustomed to wearing a key around our necks so that the door can be locked with a deadbolt every time someone goes out or comes in (otherwise Aaron will run into the street or enter neighbors’ homes).

* …perhaps we’ll resign ourselves to our community’s “special” camps and “special” recreation programs, which effectively exclude Aaron from almost everything that is typical, regular, easily available and low cost. Perhaps hope will sustain us that someday a “community support” agency professional from somewhere, anywhere, could adapt, modify and begin to open community activities for Aaron and others.

* …perhaps our prayer will be answered that some child around Aaron’s age will care enough to help him join a circle of friends. Just once, even once.

* …perhaps/…oh perhaps…some wonderful person will believe that a community is more that a group of houses, businesses and people. Agency professionals must become bridge builders in the community. Families in which a child has a disability need the same support regular families have.

Summary: Separate is inherently Unequal.

The tragedy of having a child with a disability has nothing to do with a syndrome, impairment or disease. Words such as autism, CP, and intellectual disabilities are just descriptors the same way hair color, height, race, sex and personality are descriptors. Children don’t start out life knowing they are different. The tragedy is the reaction of families, neighbors and society, which emphasize differences.

The conflict for people with disabilities and for their families comes when the community limits opportunities, segregates and restricts individuals’ choices (e.g. Handicap swim is Tuesday; 1:30-2:30 p.m. and General swim is Monday to Friday 8:00–5:00).

It doesn’t matter that the limiting of opportunities appears, to have a good rationale or charitable intentions. Segregation limits freedom, limits choices, and limits development. “Special” means segregated.

Our Olympic Moment of Inclusion

One hot July day last summer, Tommy and his friends stopped by our house to make some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a picnic.

Unexpectedly, one of the boys asked if Aaron wanted to come along.

Five minutes later, all the kids were laughing, talking and riding their bikes to the park. One red-haired kid named Aaron was riding on a bike in tandem.

In about one-half hour the picnic ended and they brought Aaron back; that was the highlight of Aaron’s whole summer.

That moment for Aaron was sort of like the experience of a serious ice skater. Olympic gymnast, actor, or musician who practices day after day hoping to “bring it all together” for one magic performance or “big break” It was a “victory” –a spontaneous, normalized recreation experience, without his mom! Ahhh (smile-sigh). And now…back to work. But, perhaps, just perhaps…those wonderful, typical neighborhood kids will grow up more fully with the vision for and the experi3nce of community integration and freedom. They are the next generation of soccer coaches, swim instructors, church/synagogue group and scout learners.

The change of inclusion has begun.

Related Stories: (Click on title)

On the last day of Junior High School.

Dream Plan for Aaron–14 yrs old (Part 2).

America the Beautiful: A Family Vacation Plus

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

“When we stop to lift one another up on the climb, we all reach a higher place.”
All my best,

Mary

Comment:

What were your summer vacations like? Would they have been different if you had a label of autism or disability? If you were a parent of a child with a disability what would you be thinking? dreaming? Are summers different for kids with and without disabilities? Can you think of anything you could do to help?

What is Charity and Love?

I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up
Creative Commons License photo credit: djwhelan

Every day we read about good people planning charity events for people with disabilities.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

Wait! You are wondering how I can be an advocate for people with disabilities and not just jump up and down when two caring people are trying to raise funds for people with disabilities?

Let’s just say, “It’s complicated.”

My first fundraiser was when Tommy was an infant, Aaron was 20 months old and still not sleeping through the night. Two hours a day, I would drive them across town to Stepping Stones Center for the Handicapped. Perfect time for me to volunteer to lead the fundraiser, eh?

What pushed me into action was there were about 30 babies in the Stepping Stones program and no teacher. Sure there were amazing volunteers. But these children, who needed so much help, did not have a qualified teacher. I found that unacceptable. I could sleep in a couple years.

Community Fundraisers

The local shopping center was having their annual charity craft show. At the organizational meeting, I gave my impassioned speech, we were chosen the “designated charity” and then for the next month all the parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors of the “Tiny Tots Program” spent our free time making items for our booth. We raised about $3,000 which was then matched by the organization and an official “teacher” was hired.

Special Fundraisers

After that there were the fundraisers for The Mother’s of Special Children and the Arc (formerly known as the Association for Retarded Children), and TASH (formerly known as The Association for People with Severe Handicaps) and on and on.

I met other mothers (mostly) and we had many good times, but I started asking why we had to have charity drives to fund important services other children in the community took for granted.

Regular Inclusive Fundraisers

After our court case and Aaron was finally allowed to go to public school, I got involved in the regular school PTO fundraisers. There were spaghetti dinners, White Elephant sales, Dances, Raffles, Magic Shows, Motorcycle Rides, Bake Sales, Races for… and saving boxtops, cans… It goes on and on.

I learned about inclusion (click here) and realized we didn’t need a “special track team” we only needed an extra support person to help Aaron to participate in the track team events.

“Disability World” Fundraisers

This led to more committees, grant writing, working for levy’s for the County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities as well as the regular local school district.

Other parents got to have jobs and earn money to help their families. I got to be the only non-paid person at numerous committee meetings.

Now, we did some great things that wouldn’t have happened without the volunteer parents. We began an after-school club and a summer school program so our children would have something to do and not lose all the skills they gained during the school year. We started four non-profit groups and incorporated. Yes, indeedy, sleep would have to wait.

But it never ends.

It is my feeling many of these organizations spend their energy insuring their own jobs and pay and giving lip service to the support of people they are supposed to be serving.

Autism Speaks, March of Dimes… are currently under fire because one of their main reasons for existence is to raise money to wipe out people with autism and developmental disabilities. They want a cure and spend much of their funds on sending Medical Doctors to conferences and conducting research.

But what about the people who are here now? These professionals, who make good salaries, have their way paid to conferences. Parents, who volunteer, not only pay our own way–we are supposed to donate to send the doctors? Plus, their executive directors make big big bucks. When I learned what some of the executives of these charities were making–that was it.

When it is all about charity, then it is all about the person who is giving the money. When it is about a person’s life and rights, it is about the person with the disabilities.

There are some large organizations who understand this, but most don’t. Here’s a post on my experience outside my grocery store (click here).

Everyone wants to help babies and young children

I know Aaron’s life was more interesting because of my leadership and volunteer work. But now he is an adult, and there are even fewer opportunities. Babies are cute and helpless and of course we want to help. But the majority of our lives we are adults. That’s 20 years as a young person and maybe 50-60 years as an adult.

So, I don’t do much volunteering for charitable organizations any more.

I spend every moment of my life working directly with the people with disabilities or the caregivers on the front lines. The ones who make little more than minimum wage. The people who take Aaron to the bathroom and clean up his messes. The people who celebrate Aaron’s diversity and think he’s a pretty neat guy. There is no tax write-off, no non-profits. Just people who care and need resources.

Segregated Charity–charity gone wrong

I don’t believe in onetime events like, “People with Disabilities Come to Church Sunday” where the church rents a ramp for the weekend (I couldn’t make this up). I don’t believe in Special Olympic Golf Fundraisers, when they won’t let Aaron even ride in the golf cart (“Oh, honey we just raise money for these poor children, we don’t actually want them on the course.”–couldn’t make that up either.) I don’t want Girl Scouts showing up at my door saying they want to play with my child because it is Lent and they have to do penance (some day I’ll share the details on that one.)

Rights–not Pity

As Joe Shapiro wrote in his classic book, “NO PITY.” People with disabilities don’t want to be the object of other’s charity. People with disabilities have needs, but they are citizens with rights. They don’t want the handicapped parking place because you are having pity on them. They want the handicapped parking place because as a citizen and consumer, they need the extra wide space so they can get out of their car. And, as an American, I’m proud our country recognizes that right to equal access.

If we really want to help people with disabilities–don’t give them your dimes. Instead make room in your lives and give your love..and your friendship. That is the best gift and, I believe, closer to the Biblical definition of “charity.”

Like I said, this is complicated.

Thoughts?

What are your experiences with charity models? With helping people with disabilities? What does it feel like when you are the giver? When you are the receiver? When do you feel pity? Charitable?

I love Aaron| I hate Autism

Aaron and his family

Our Family 1980

Aaron at piano

Aaron at Piano 2011

Proust says, “The real voyage of discovery is not in seeing new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

Can I love Aaron and hate autism?

If I say, “I love my child, but hate cancer or heart disease…” many people would say that is okay.

If I say, “I love my son, Aaron. I hate autism.” some people say that is NOT okay.

So, call me a villain, ignorant, hypocrite, politically incorrect, or whatever–but I refuse to celebrate autism–I refuse to give autism that power.

I gladly celebrate the diversity of individuals. This diversity makes our world stronger and a more interesting place to live.

I love individuals who have autism, just the way they are.

But–I will not celebrate autism like it is a good thing.

World Autism Awareness Day April 2

The United Nations designated April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day. April 2nd next year is already designated too.

Are you going to wear blue? Will blue lights in the Empire State Building, or on the Jesus statue in Rio, or the top of a pyramid in Egypt really mean anything?

Is this like a birthday party? Something we celebrate every year? Send up the blue balloons? Paint your face blue?

I found some of the World Awareness Day press curious: “In fact a world without Autism would be a lesser world.” New Zealand: United Nations declare day to celebrate autism

I think wearing black would send a better message. Autism Awareness should send a plea for action NOW. We need help and resources NOW.

So, the United Nations has established April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day. Great! Let’s talk about autism.

What causes Autism?

Well, no one knows for sure. The “experts” have narrowed the cause down to: environmental, biological, sensory, abuse and neglect, genetic, chemical, neurological, food…and the ever popular–it’s the parent’s fault.

So the short answer is, who knows?

Yesterday someone told me our children have autism because they don’t get enough eggs. Just add that to the list. They might be right.

I recently read a study (2013) that blames the grandparents. They conceived the parents late in life.

Don’t you love scientists–probably funded with the autism awareness fundraising, eh?

Dr. Anne Donnellan spent her career working with families and people with autism. She often says, “The more theories, the more proof that we don’t know.” She also gives her version of circular logic in Disability World.

Circular Logic

Parent: My child keeps flapping their hands.

Doctor: Ah, that is because your child has autism.

Parent: How do you know?

Doctor: Because your child flaps their hands.

Is Autism the Greatest Gift?

Some advocates want you to think autism is the greatest thing ever. They talk about the special abilities of people on the autism spectrum and say it is only because of autism they have these talents.

Hummmm. Is that so?

Sure Temple Grandin, with a glance, can tell how many nails are needed to build a livestock yard–but is that only possible because of her autism?

Rainman could count the number of toothpicks on the floor. Is it possible there is someone else in the history of the world that could also do that?

Are we again caught in circular logic?

Parent: My child can count the number of nails or toothpicks.

Doctor: Ah, that is because your child has autism.

Parent: How do you know?

Doctor: Because your child can count the number of nails or toothpicks.

There are some people with the label of autism who can tell you the day of the week for every calendar year in recorded time.

I can’t. Probably you can’t. But, is it possible there is at least one other human being without the label of autism who can?

The Guiness Record books are full of typical folks who can do all sorts of incredible tasks.

Hurry, quick. Do we now need to give those persons the label of autism?

There are some who are going back to past genius’ and claiming they must have been autistic…Mozart must have had autism. Disney perserverated on those mouse pictures–he must have had autism….

Couldn’t Temple Grandin and Donna Williams just talented people? Isn’t it demeaning to say, “No, the individual Temple Grandin has nothing to do with it, it is only because she has autism.”

Is it possible the statistical increases in the number of people with autism is partly due to our current scientific paradigm of labeling and sorting people? And some people promoting “autistic envy”? The new figures are 1-50. One child in every fifty–and all we are doing is having Autism Awareness Day at the Philadelphia Zoo?

What is normal?

Well, turns out we don’t really know that either. Plus, we could say “normal” changes every year in every culture.

Sure we have tests, but anyone who studies IQ or other quantitative or quantitative measures will point out the flaws.

Multiple Intelligences| Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner, studied people with autism who were labeled as autistic savants (actually “idiot savants” was the term used at the time). He was able to identify at least eight different kinds of “gifts or intelligences.” Now, in every school in the world (that uses best practice) his theory of multiple intelligences helps all children learn. Gardner says each of us has all these eight intelligences, some are just more developed than others.

This is one of the side benefits of autism. Without the diagnosis of autism, the scientific community might have had a harder time making this discovery. Science needs large groups.

Could it be we all have gifts and traits of genius, gifts and traits that could be labeled as autistic? Are we all a little autistic? Are none of us “autistic” in the pure definition of wanting to be apart.

Stinkin’ Thinkin’

So, what’s the deal about autism? Can’t we just celebrate individual diversity?

If we really believe autism is a tremendous gift, then it would be logical for each parent to wish their child would have autism. Right?

I once went to a conference for people with Down syndrome. Everyone kept talking about how people with Down syndrome were the happiest people in the world–how glad they were to have their child in their family. They used examples like, “They will always believe in Santa.” “They are pleased when I fix them chocolate milk.”…

Using circular logic:

Parent: I want my child to be happy.

Doctor: Children with Down syndrome are happy.

Parent: Then I want my child to have Down syndrome.

So, if we want our children to be happy maybe we should try to figure out how to add an extra chromosome to every baby’s DNA.

If autism makes us gifted, maybe we should be researching how to make 100% of the population have autism–add autism magic to our babies’ lives.

This kind of thinking is just nuts, yet it is common in each area of disability. Stick around Disability World and you will hear people yearn to have the courage of people with cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, be sexy like people with cerebral palsy….

Okay, I understand some advocates are probably hyperventilating at this point. How dare I talk this way about people with autism and Down syndrome?

The person who gets joy in Santa, or in having chocolate milk is an individual. Each individual person–even if they have a label– is different.

We can love the individual–not the disability.

As family members, friends and as self-advocates, we can value the individual person’s talents, gifts, joys and sorrows. We can see them in the context of their environments–but, we don’t have to give all the power and credit to the label of disability. The individual should get the power and credit. They are the ones who are who they are.

I can love my Aaron–I don’t have to love autism.

I can see Aaron’s gifts and talents–I don’t have to think they are only because he has the label of autism.

Aaron is a loving person who makes kissing noises as I turn out the light. He smiles when I pull on the toes of his socks. He gives me hugs when I walk past him. He is patient as I try to figure out what he wants. He concentrates on his books and loves pictures. He gets excited when I come in a room. I love when he relaxes in his bath. I love when he initiates a song or going to the bathroom. I love when he figures out how to eat the cheese off my sandwich….

Aaron is unique. He adds his own version of diversity to the human family. He is a great son, brother, uncle, friend… just the way he is.

Autism sucks. Aaron doesn’t.

Autism affects each person differently.

In Aaron’s case, Autism means he can’t talk with words. It means he is 38 years old and can’t always tell when he needs to go to the bathroom. It means he has trouble making friends. It means he yells in public restaurants. It means he chews on his clothes and books and the car seats. It means he has motor difficulties and has trouble walking–crossing from the rug to a tile floor. It means he is always afraid of falling and losing his balance. It means he bites his hand to calm himself. It means it takes him a long time to learn things. It means he will forget them if he doesn’t practice them every day. It means he likes music, but not loud noises. It means he likes to be moving (in cars, buses, boats, planes…) It means he likes to swim, but not bend over. It means he can’t tie his shoes or dress himself independently…it means he cannot be left unsupervised even for a minute.

That all sucks.

I wish it was easier for him. I wish it were easier for me to help him.

But all those difficulties don’t mean I don’t love Aaron with every fiber of my being.

Each day for the last 38 years, I work to get Aaron the support he needs to live, work and recreate in his community. To allow him to be the best person he can be–For him to be able to make choices and have opportunities he wants.

There is a difference.

Dream Plans for Aaron Ulrich

I am adding our dream plan for Aaron. You can click on each of them and see I am NOT trying to cure Aaron. I am NOT trying to make him a different person. I love and respect him as the person he is.

I am NOT trying to make him the person I want him to be.

The first one we wrote in 1981 when he was 6 years old. Dream 2: 1989 The next Dream 3: 1998. And, Dream 4: 2010.

Every day Aaron teaches me about courage, love, and tolerance. But he knows he can count on me, my husband, and his brother. He knows Annie, his caregiver will do her best to look out for him. He wants a new housemate, like his former housemate Jack who will be there for him. He knows his grandma and extended family including Ana and his niece love him just the way he is.

And until our dying breaths, we will do our best to make his life happy.

No, I’m not going to inject Aaron with an extra chromosome to make sure he is happy. No, I’m not going to give this thing we call “autism” supernatural powers to dominate his life.

But I will give him opportunities to make choices about his life as best he can–in spite of “autism.”

Yes, I can Love Aaron and Hate Autism.

Autism Awareness Day Marching On

Celebrate each wonderful individual person you meet in this video.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward.

All my best,

Mary

Comments:

Are you sitting there thinking, “how can this mother be an advocate for people with autism?” Do these words make you upset? Do you agree? Do you think “Disability World” thinks different than “The World”? Can we separate the individual from the label?

Related Article:

Here is another article about Autism Awareness Day asking people to do more than just wear blue.

Autism Awareness Day| Direct Action is Better

Autism Awareness Day at the Opera

Autism Day at the Opera

April is Autism Awareness month. The United Nations General Assembly even designates a World Autism Awareness Day.

World Autism Awareness | Gone Amuck

For the last week, I’ve been following the comment streams on Twitter (#Autism, #ASD, #WAAD…) and other social media outlets like Facebook… and I wonder if the whole world is nuts.

My son is 42, has autism and we are desperate for help. So I appreciate the need for autism awareness and DIRECT ACTION.

For autism awareness day, I’ve learned some people are buying blue mascara and lipstick to spread “awareness about autism.”

Others are using April 2nd as a “retail therapy” day to buy new clothes in blue.

How will Autism Awareness Day impact the lives of people with autism and their families?

For the life of me I can’t imagine why blue lights at the Sydney Opera House, The White House, Empire State Building or the house next door will change a thing–except for the blue light bulb retailer.

Put Time and Money where your Mouth is

It makes more sense to me, that the expense of buying blue lights, hiring a team of workers to install and operate those lights for one day–is just dumb and a waste of opportunity.

Using those same dollars, the Opera House could invite families or parents to an evening of the opera. Sure, the Sydney Opera House might not get the same press, but the impact would be direct and measurable. Real families would have the treasured opportunity for a night of respite.

I understand the White House is meeting with some advocates for autism which is an action step–much more useful in my opinion to a blue illusion.

The Empire State Building–well, there were those romance flicks with the hearts on Valentine’s Day, but really?

Action–not Hype

Now good people and advocates are working hard for all this autism awareness, and I know my skepticism sounds like sour grapes or something mean spirited.

I’m just tired of being used and being the victims of charity.

Past Experiences with the Charity Model and hype

One time our family was on a trip to the Smokey Mountains. My husband Tom, an avid golfer, passed a golf course which had a huge sign over the gate “Welcome Special Olympics.”

Tom went to the front desk and asked if Aaron, our son with the label of autism, could ride in the golf cart as he played golf.

The desk clerk looked confused. Tom said Aaron would be sitting next to him and would not even be on the course. He also told him Aaron has accompanied him on other golf courses and it worked out fine.

As the clerk continued to stammer around–Tom pointed to the “Welcome Special Olympics” sign.

The young man shook his head,

“Tomorrow, our Special Olympic fundraiser is for radio/TV personalities, the Governor and all kinds of influential people coming to play golf. NOT–those kind (pointing at Aaron). This is our public relations and publicity event for the year. It isn’t for them. We don’t allow them on the course.”

Real People–Not Causes

At a time when getting services for children and adults with autism and their families is desperate, my hope for tomorrow is that people will spend a couple minutes with actual people who have the label of autism.

If you want to dress up in blue from head to toe, with blue eye shadow and lips, more power to you. But somewhere in the day, actually touch a real person. Make a difference in an actual life.

Make the Autism Awareness Day, more than a media moment.

Take the opportunity to begin change–one on one.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,

Mary

What do you think?

Are you wearing Blue? Are you going to spend a couple minutes with an actual person who has the label of autism?