My cousin rented her local swim club and invited all 26 cousins and their families for our annual family reunion. She scheduled it on a Saturday when many of my cousins would be in town. She is working hard to keep our large family together and give our children and grandchildren some of the same fun family times we had when we were growing up. Cousin Terri is offering a gift to our family.
So, will we go, or not?
Even though our oldest son Aaron has the label of autism and developmental disabilities, we try to include him in all our family activities. Now that he is in his forties, we have gotten pretty good at the extra planning and preparation to make sure all turns out well.
Today I want to focus on “ecological assessment”. Drs. Lou Brown, Alison Ford, Anne Donnellan et al. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison introduced this concept years ago and it has made a huge difference in how I look at the world. I’m not using their fancy checklists but I’m hoping to show how to analyze and plan for our visit– in this case, Terri’s local swim club.
Ecological Assessment with Commentary:
We can’t assume all swim clubs are alike. We have to access this one particular swim club. But we can compare/contrast it to Aaron’s past experiences.
We have been to this swim club before, if we hadn’t, we would have gone a couple of days before and scouted it out. Most people don’t like surprises or change. It’s not a coincidence that major chain stores like Target or Walmart are all laid out the same way. Each of us likes to know the lay-of-the-land. There is comfort in familiarity and that helps reduce our stress in any environment.
Terri’s swim club is about twenty years old. You’ve seen hundreds like it. The swim lanes, the three lifeguards, the signs telling the kids not to run… It is the same swimming pool our family enjoyed when we were teeny-boppers dripping Popsicles and walking around hoping our swimsuits didn’t make us look fat. (Oh, to only be as “fat” as I was when I was 12.) There are no steps and they have a ramp into the pool. (Thank you ADA.)
Aaron likes the water and is a pretty good swimmer. He started aquatic therapy when an infant to relax his muscles. My husband Tom will be in the water with him one-on-one. His cousins will be in the pool, so they will be aware of Aaron and add an extra layer of safety from stray beach balls.
Aaron has red hair, fair skin, freckles and if we lather him with sunscreen and he wears a t-shirt in the water he will be protected from burning. Past experiences predict Aaron will probably only stay in the water for about a half hour or so. The exercise will be wonderful for him and he will sleep well. Because Aaron swims with his mouth open, he probably will swallow some water and wet the bed. We’ll make sure he gets to the bathroom at night and we’ll use a mattress pad protector just in case.
The swim club has two separate restrooms and changing facilities. They have shower curtain dividers who Aaron and I will both fit. It is a typical swim club restroom, so I might have to bring in a chair so Aaron could sit down. I could change him and then he could go out to Tom while I change. We would bring Aaron in his swimsuit, so we would only have to change him once. We will give him yogurt in the morning and hopefully he will have his BM before we go. I’ll have an extra set of clothes. Aaron has some large plastic pants he will wear under his swimsuit just in case. (They don’t make swim diapers for adults.)
Aaron eats most anything so the pot luck buffet will be great. Cousin Ray will grill hamburgers… I will bring a dish that doesn’t require any preparation. I’ll make sure it is in a throw-away container so we won’t have to worry about bringing it home—maybe some frozen fruit cups or fruit-on-skewers so everyone can grab it and not even have to worry about a spoon. Those have been big hits in the past. Or, I’ll get real summer daze lazy and I’ll just go buy some cookies at the grocery. Aaron will need to eat at a table. I’ll bring some folding chairs. We’ll try and feed him close to his usual 5:30 mealtime. Between Tom and me, we can cut up his food and make sure he is comfortable. Usually, he sits by Grandma, so we can make sure both of them are okay. He can have one soft drink, and I’ll bring some bottled water.
We’ll bring some books and his baseball cards and make sure he isn’t too crowded at the table. We’ll make sure Aaron is in a spot where he can watch everyone and everything that is going on. When he seems tired or agitated we’ll leave. Tommy, Aaron’s younger brother will get to enjoy the day and spend time with his cousins, and we’ve arranged he can spend the night with Cousin Kevin if we have to leave early with Aaron. We’ll make sure someone is with him at all times but trade off so we can talk to some of the relatives. If Aaron starts his echolalia of, “You Okay?” or other odd behaviors, it will really be okay, because his cousins know and love Aaron. He is part of the family.
This post is to show what an ecological or environmental assessment looks like.
Most parents do the same thing for their babies, their children, their older family members. It’s really not that different–just thinking ahead, planning and being prepared.
If we really want Aunt Lizzie or Great Grandma Stella to come to the family reunion, there are little things we gladly do to modify the environment and accommodate their needs. For instance, Great Grandma Stella will surely take out her teeth after dinner and they will get misplaced. So we will assign someone to make sure and put them in a safe place. (This is an urban legend in our family.)
Same with Aaron–just add, subtract, and/or change a couple of extra things to make him feel comfortable. Modifications and adaptations are for everyone.
We still haven’t decided if we’re going to the family reunion or not.
In the comments below share some of the modifications and accommodations your family uses to make sure the oldest, the youngest and all the relatives in-between have their needs met at a family reunion?
Going to the Family Reunion, or not? Part 1 first appeared on my Climbing Every Mountain blog. It is the first of three parts.
As the number of adults with autism and developmental disabilities rise, many professionals and parents ask me what I am looking for? Will I ever be satisfied? Is it just a pipedream or can we really build an inclusive community around a person with severe disabilities? Can there be a combination of natural supports and paid supports? Does the family have to do it all? Can an adult with autism have a decent quality of life and be happy?
They tell me it doesn’t really make any difference to Aaron, my son with severe disabilities and autism. Their logic says that since Aaron can’t talk, and therefore can’t complain, it is only the mother (me) who has these high standards and expectations and Aaron is just fine and the mother is well, you know, ….
Many times, they tell me how lucky we are… Aaron has a Medicaid Home and Community Based (HCBS) Waiver when there are thousands of people on the waiting lists; Aaron lives in a nice house close to his parents–not in an institution in another city….
The media is full of stories about desperate families of adults with autism and intellectual disabilities: abandon your child to get services — To the parents and professionals who want to give up or “re-institutionalize,” Can we prove inclusion in the community can work?
Many nights these tapes play in my head over-and-over keeping me awake. I ask myself what else I can do to make Aaron’s life more inclusive. I count my blessings.
We are lucky. We’ve worked hard to be where we are, but there is still much to do.
But last Sunday, I went to bed and smiled: “Today Aaron had a good day!”
We usually bring Aaron home with us on Sundays. Here is what this inclusive day looked like:
Aaron’s dad picked him up at 9:30 AM from his house. He talked with Kevin, Aaron’s long-time caregiver. Kevin knew when Aaron had had his last BM. Kevin had given Aaron his breakfast and he was dressed in his Sunday clothes—hair combed, shaved and teeth brushed. He looked like a typical 38 year old.
Aaron came to our house and immediately got his favorite books from the closet. His dad and I sat on couches near him in the living room. Aaron put his books on the coffee table where he turned the pages in two books at one time. When he wanted more books, he went to the closet, chose his books, and carried them to the table. (I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal but because of Aaron’s severe motor and balance issues, this is something we have worked on for years and years.) He also went to the fridge and when I ask if he wanted the pitcher of ice tea or the juice, he pointed to the ice tea.
When he got tired of the books, he went into the kitchen, sat at the kitchen table and we ate our spaghetti lunch together. Aaron put his dishes in the sink.
At approximately noon, Tommy and Isabella (Aaron’s brother and niece) came over. We all changed to our swimsuits, lathered up with sunscreen and walked to the pool at our condo.
Dad started with Aaron in the deep end and Tommy stayed close to Isabella with her floaties. Sometimes we were apart, sometimes we all played ball together and Isabella would swim between Uncle Aaron and Grandpa.
The other families each did their own thing, but we all crossed paths in a friendly community sort of way. There were about 8 other neighborhood kids and their parents in and out of the pool. They all said hello and though we didn’t really know any of these neighbors (it’s a big complex) they were friendly to Aaron and interacted as anyone would. I introduced myself, Tom, Aaron, Tommy and Isabella and hope we will see them again next week.
After about an hour or so, we headed back home, changed clothes and everyone had a drink and ate cheese and crackers.
Isabella wanted to play Hide and Seek in the house (her favorite place is under my desk) and Aaron and I would count to ten and then go and find her. Isabella loves to hide, but then she giggles so much it is easy to find her. Aaron enjoyed the game the first couple times, but then Isabella wanted more and more and so he just sat back on the couch with his books and watched.
About 4 o’clock, Tommy and Isabella left to meet Ana, her mom, who was getting off work; Tom, Aaron and I took a ride to the post office and grocery.
At 5:30 we took Aaron back to his house and Kevin and his wife were waiting for Aaron to take him to King’s Island, an amusement park. We took him to the bathroom, washed his face and hands, checked his shirt and hair and again exchanged some details about how Aaron likes the Octopus and train ride and …
Aaron got in their car and they were off for the evening. Tom and I went back home.
Too much to ask?
Now, I ask you… is this really so difficult to visualize?
If it was only paid staff, Aaron’s parents are dead or out-of-town, could the staff figure out how to fill up a weekend afternoon with some friendly faces and meaningful activities in the community?
Would Aaron be groomed and the staff person double-check his toileting schedule so he is comfortable? Would Aaron be in status-enhancing clothes that were clean and age-appropriate so he could blend into the community?
I know Kevin can do it, because he and his family have known Aaron for years. But I can’t understand why other staff don’t get it.
Aaron is currently between roommates, so right this minute, he has 1-1 staff. This is the best opportunity of his life for getting out into the community, when he gets a roommate it will be 1-2 people and much harder to take them out.
Focus on the positive
Today I have a reason to feel good about Aaron’s life. We all shared a pleasant summer day. Aaron and our family did what many other families were doing all over the city. Aaron was surrounded by people who love him and care about him. We celebrated his self-determination to make choices and do the activities he likes. Aaron used the skills he learned in his 22 years in school and therapy. Aaron had staff who were willing to try and give him a good time. Aaron was healthy and happy. I only saw him bite his hand one time all day. The activities were in his home community. There are future opportunities for building a network of long term support and acceptance.
And this is inclusion. This is our vision for Aaron. This is the future we hope for our son. This is all we are asking for. Carpe Diem!
Come on, share what you are thinking. Am I being unreasonable to expect these kinds of days? Should I just accept “reality”? Do I just count my blessings? Do you have similar experiences? Should we go back- and re-institutionalize?
Ever wonder who puts all those flags on the graves of veterans?
Like communities all across America, on Memorial Day our city holds a celebration to remember our basic values. A parade starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery where generations of citizens and soldiers end their life’s journey.
As the sun was beating down to the Sousa marches, our whole family, including my uncle John, was standing by the largest fountain, watching the parade of Little League teams, high school marching bands, Boy Scouts and the politicians in their red, white and blue ties.
The cemetery was beautifully prepared. The lawns were like carpet, the grass on the edge of the sidewalk was so carefully clipped, it stood at attention; the peonies, irises and annuals colored the grounds with reds, pinks, purples and whites. Everyone was feeling damn patriotic.
Everyone, except Uncle John. He turned to me and said, “I wasn’t always handicapped.”
“What?” I know I raised my eyebrows and wondered where this was coming from. I mean, Uncle John was never a happy person, but since he had a stroke, he was a weary soul. We hoped this celebration would lift his spirits. After all, who doesn’t like a parade?
Uncle John explained, “You know, I was an electrician. I was important, I contributed, I worked in a great hotel for 30 years. Now I just sit here and watch life go by. I’m handicapped and useless.”
Not exactly cheerful parade conversation but I couldn’t resist. “Uncle John, having a handicap isn’t the end of the world. Can you enjoy the parade? Look at those little kids jumping up and down on their decorated wagons.”
“You just don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not like him,” eye-pointing to Aaron.
Some Battles Can’t be Won
Since Aaron, my son with the label of autism, was sitting in the lawn chair next to Uncle John, I felt I needed to say something.
But I couldn’t find any words.
In silence, we were side-by-side, almost touching–yet thousands of miles away from each other–as we watched the veterans from the VFW pass by in antique cars.
The soldiers varied in shapes and sizes, men and women, veterans from the current Iraq, Afghanistan war to seniors of the war that would end all wars—but didn’t.
The sun reflected off the windshields, and I reflected that our society treasures the antique cars which are worth more now than when new. The old model cars were spit shined and decorated with banners. The old soldiers also wore banners, but many of their faces and bodies were worn. Did our society value them?
Some soldiers were younger than my sons, Aaron and Tommy. But, we all know their youth was shattered in the deserts and mountains of strange lands.
Some of the veterans in the parade carried the labels of “handicapped and disability.”
As the crowd cheered and waved, I had to wonder if these brave men and women would be truly accepted into our society. Would others, like Uncle John, say they were “useless”?
Would they only see the handicapping condition, would they consider these wounded warriors better than Aaron, because they were once whole? Because they were “damaged” fighting for our country?
And another: Bob said after WWII, a family in London moved into a new neighborhood. Instead of saying their son had cerebral palsy and had the label of intellectual disability from birth, they told their neighbors, “He was gassed in the trenches of Germany.” And in a post-war era of grief and loss, that benign lie made all the difference. Instead of avoiding or shunning the family, the new neighbors welcomed their family into the community. Their attitudes were completely different.
Modern Day Attitudes
A soldier who used a wheelchair got some sort of award and the crowd clapped. I wondered if our community embraced his family, or did we just give him a token wall plaque on Memorial Day and then segregate, discriminate and ignore him the rest of the year. Would he get the support he needed to live, work and recreate in the community?
The same questions I often ask for Aaron. Is one human more valuable than another? Is that what our country stands for? What the soldiers sacrificed for?
Disabled and Yet-to-be Disabled
Didn’t everyone understand there are only two groups of people in this world–the disabled, and the yet-to-be-disabled? If we live long enough, each of us will have a disability.
Being Useful, Proving Worth.
People with disabilities are not useless and just watching the parade of life go by.
And then being a good advocate—or crazy person who doesn’t know boundaries or when to quit– I asked Uncle John if he noticed how beautiful the cemetery grounds looked.
I told him Aaron worked at this cemetery. He and the crew of people who did the landscaping had disabilities, but if they had the support they needed, they weren’t handicapped and “useless.” In fact, they were the ones who made the grounds look so beautiful.
I pointed to the rows of tombstones which each held a single flag.
I told him that for the last 2 days, Aaron’s job was to place a flag in the holders by each tombstone. And tomorrow, Aaron would go back and remove the flags and save them for 4th of July, when he would again put them out.
Was Aaron useless?
What I remember| Memorial Day:
It’s been ten years since that Memorial Day parade. Uncle John died a couple months later–old, bitter and handicapped. He never hugged Aaron or saw what Aaron could do, only what he couldn’t do.
And, like the day of the parade when he missed the joy, pride and purpose of the Memorial Day celebration, Uncle John also missed the joy Aaron brought to anyone who opened their heart.
I think Aaron and I will wave a couple flags tomorrow to celebrate America.
And, I’m hoping that while Aaron was placing those flags in the cemetery, other people were seeing him as a competent, contributing member of our community.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,
Come on, I know you want to share some memory of your own Memorial Day Parade, family reunion, attitudes about disabilities and “Handicapped.” Lots of good ideas, let us know what you are thinking.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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?