I see a lot of “light it up blue” stuff being posted around the net today. It makes me sad, really. See, The light it up blue campaign is a project of Autism Speaks. Their name is Ironic, considering they do not have any Autistics on their board, and one Autistic on ONE advisory committee.
I am an Autistic Adult. I have an Asperger’s Dx. But any time I say this, people say things like “Oh, but you can’t be, you talk!” or “But you have so much to say!” This is particularly a prevalent response online, where I do communicate better. I sometimes hear it from people whose only experience around me is hearing me give a talk, not cognizant that there’s a huge difference between public speaking and reciprocal communication.
If they stay around long enough, though, and they know what Autism actually *is,* they get it.
Thing is it’s pretty rare for people to actually get what it is. They are given imagery and little information. Puzzle pieces, Statistics, and fuzzy photos of kids looking anywhere but the camera. They are told that being Autistic is somehow worse than life threatening diseases- which, to be honest, is bad on multiple levels- I wonder what my one friend who is both Autistic and HIV+ thinks when the advertising compares one part of her life to another?
Recently I posted a video on tumblr that Rethinking Autism did called “Autism Support Group.” It had all the usual things we hear said about us- How it seems like we aren’t there, that we don’t display affection in typical ways, That we just “don’t get” school. Throughout, an Autistic adult responds to these comments, only to be ignored and unheard by parents. Thing is, these are comments we hear about ourselves, and about children who were like we were as kids, all the time. The comments could have been lifted from so many parent support groups around the nation- possibly around the world.
Another thing is that it’s always children that are mentioned. The majority of the leaflets and flyers that do feature Autistics (or models) instead of a puzzle piece feature children. “These children,” “Help a child,” or “1 in 100 children” is mentioned. Thing is, it’s NOT just children. There’s no follow through on the notation that Autism is a life-long thing, just a margin in the notes.
The exception is the speculation. “She will never get married and have kids.” “He will never hold a steady job.” “My kid will never go to college.” While these things might be true for some Autistics, saying it’s true of all of us- or rather, all the 1 in 100 or 110 or 160, whatever number you recognize- is just an outright lie and speculation. The same speculation that had my IEP team pressure my mom, saying “She’ll never go to college. She’ll probably never graduate high school. Stop filling her head with the idea that she should pursue advanced classes.” My mom pulled me out to put me in first cyber school then Christian school, and never bought into what they told her about me.
I eventually went back to public school, and I graduated high school in 2006. In 11th and 12th grades, I even took Advanced Placement English classes, and got a perfect score on the AP English exam. (They thankfully didn’t have a spelling section.) In fact, had I not had a nervous break down- inconveniently after the school had pulled my support services- my senior year, I would have been ranked and recognized as such at graduation.
This didn’t come to pass because of an obsession with curing me. It happened because my mother supported me unconditionally. (Her second and now ex husband is a different story for another time.) She knew I was anxious and distracted in school, and that they refused to let me pursue my potential. So she arranged it that I could, and in an environment that suited my changing needs. She encouraged me to get up in front of people and start advocating. She didn’t ever show me doubts about my being able to accomplish things.
A year or two ago, my mother was approached by a parent. The parent was talking about how “of course, you know, you grieve your kid when you find out they have special needs.” This made my mother angry. She responded that no, actually, she didn’t grieve me. I was right there. The extra work was stressful, that is undeniable, but she never lost me so there’s nothing to grieve. She has me, just the way I am- Autistic, Queer, and living with Chronic Pain.
My mother was there when I would melt down and flail wildly- sometimes so much so that she was worried at times about her own safety. She had to deal with people telling her that maybe she should put me in residential placement. She experienced the fear when as a small child I would wander off, one notable time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. She heard the comments of “Why isn’t your daughter smiling?,” the “cheer up honey, it isn’t all that bad” and my response of “I’m happy, I don’t need to cheer up.”
Maybe she didn’t see what her second husband put me through, or notice the extra time I took in the bathroom, practicing facial expressions in the mirror so that the cheer ups would just stop. But she never stopped believing in me.
So, you know that Autism exists- but do you know what it means to be autistic?
[Trigger Warning: history and images of restraint and restraint related abuse. If you would like to view this post with the images redacted, please see the image-less version.]
Wanderers- people with Mental Health or Developmental Disabilities who “wander” off. The most common image of a wanderer is an older adult with dementia. I know that- before her health failed- my great grandmother ended up in a locked ward at a nursing home- the “wanderer’s ward.”
A little more relevantly, a number of Autistics are or were wanderers, myself included.
One afternoon when I was in 1st grade, a teacher’s aide called my mother to let her know that she had some concerns. I wasn’t making it into the class room- I would get off the bus and wander around the school yard, looking at all the little things that exist in yards on a warm fall day. If I *did* make it into the class I would end up wandering the halls when the teacher would send me to the speech room. This was in addition to other in class things, too. At this point, my mother demanded that they have an aide escort me from the bus to the class, and my “services” began. This was a year before Asperger’s would be added to the DSM IV.
The reason I bring this up now is because the CDC put in their recommendations for the ICD-9-CM (International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification; the US government’s official system of assigning codes to medical diagnoses and procedures). In this, they included a recommendation for a diagnostic code for “wandering” behaviors. (Here is the Complete PDF of the CDC’s recommendations.)
Here’s the problem- having it listed as a diagnosis/diagnostic code doesn’t add anything to the situation to make the constructive steps they outline happen. What it does is create an excuse or justification for things like restraints. Wandering behavior sure has in the past.
The Utica Crib was developed at the New York State Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. It was based on a French design, but the Utica Crib incorporated the slats. It was used to keep people who might get up and wander around at night in bed. This would allow a smaller staff, or even enable another problem- having other patients do a percentage of the care work. This issue was more prominent at Developmental Centers, where those deemed as “higher-functioning” were enlisted as unpaid care-laborers.
Bed Straps were Used in a similar fashion. The patient would be tied to the bed, to limit movement and prevent wandering. In some cases, the individual might be strapped down in the daytime hours as well as at night.
This is one of several images of individuals being tied to chairs or Benches from A Christmas In Purgatory, a famous Photo-essay/expose on the conditions of those with Developmental Disabilities in an institution from the early 70′s. (Here’s A child Bound to a bench with hands tied and a nude woman tied to a bench next to several other women.)
This was another method frequently used to restrict wandering behaviors. The patient was tied around the waist to a lead on a bench in a matter that would keep them from getting off the bench. in some cases, additional restraints were used. In the above photograph, the individual wears a restraining jacket, and propped up with a pillow- which would further restrict the amount of movement the lead would allow.
Restraints that further restrain movement can lead to a number of issues, including bed sores and staph (and in more recent times, MRSA) infections.
I researched the local Developmental center’s history when I was in high school, and it required firsthand sources. In interviewing several people who grew up in the surrounding community and spent time on the grounds (usually because a parent worked there), I heard a lot.
The more mild stories were of people with leads tied to outdoor benches, giving them a 5 foot range in which they could wander. Some of the more frightening ones involved peering in a door window as a small child, to see an individual tied to a chair, urine stains on their pants and pooling underneath. When my interviewee had asked what had happened, one of the staff members had replied that he kept “elopeing” and that he still had a couple of hours left in the chair. She remembered hearing him crying to be allowed to use the restroom. This would have been in the 1960s.
Reforms have happened in the recent past. But Abuses still happen, people are still restrained, and bed restraints of various sorts are still used on night time wanderers. Presenting a code for this behavior just adds one more thing to legitimize some very damaging approaches to people who have a long history of abuse.
It isn’t some distant fringe that advocates restraints. In researching this post, I cam across repeated examples of this. Modern versions of the Utica Bed, but now made with mesh and external zippers, marketed to parents of children who wander. In 2005, the FDA had to issue an alert on Vail Beds because of safety hazards.
Older Adults with dementia are put in “Gerichairs”- geriatric wheelchairs that bind the user to the chair, too often in a way that prevents the user from unbinding themselves. While they can be useful tools for those who need the physical support, when used as a restraint tool it can be dangerous. Bedsores and other infections are common remarks on the use of these chairs. (An FDA statement on improper use of geriatric equipment.)
These abuses are not only in our past. Pretending otherwise just endangers people. I strongly believe that the implementation of a wandering diagnostic code would only add a justification to a group of people who already invoke their own personal difficulties as reasons for abusive behavior.
(Please Sign ASAN’s petition against the Implementation of this abuse enabling code. You can read more about it at the above link.)