July 30, 2008

That one percent feels like a universal truth

When I've got some time, I'm going to write about the conference at which I spoke yesterday, which was an amazing and eye-opening experience, for Julie and me both but particularly for Schuyler.

Until then, however, I wanted to share something exceptional that I read this morning, a post on Jennifer Groneberg's blog. It seemed especially appropriate, given recent sobering events in the special needs community.

Among other things, it addresses fear, and does so in an unblinking way that really resonated with me. I am always happy to have the discussion about gentle terminology and inclusive language (which has come up again, not surprisingly), but this is a good example of exactly why I prefer direct language. Sometimes the monster is just plain scary, and calling it something besides a monster just doesn't do the job.

Thanks, Jennifer, for posting this.

July 26, 2008

"Hard times give me your open arms..."

Sometimes sadness feels distant, like Third World suffering. And then there are the times when it hits close to home.

Noted writer and special needs advocate Vicki Forman unexpectedly lost her son Evan this week. The subsequent torrent of sorrow and shock that have been moving through the online community of special needs parents and advocates speaks to the immediacy of Vicki's writing and the positive effect that she and her son have had on others who are trying to make their way in a world of silent monsters.

It also speaks to the quiet fear that so many of us carry through our lives. After I left a heartfelt but probably inadequate message on Special Needs Mama expressing my condolences, Vicki was kind enough to write to me. In her message, she mentioned the thing that we both knew already, the thing that all parents of special needs children know but rarely speak of, even amongst ourselves. It exists behind the inspirational stories and the moments that allow everyone to believe that strong people who fight the good fight will always triumph in the end. She referred to it as "a vulnerability that is unmentionable," and in Evan's case, it became more than he could bear.

It lurks, the biggest monster of them all. It watches and it waits, and sometimes it takes advantage of that moment of vulnerability. What it leaves behind in the short term is chaos. It leaves fear and a cold truth for those of us who live our lives, even on the best of days, casting brief but troubled looks over our shoulders. And for parents like Vicki, it leaves a pain that I can't even begin to imagine, although of course I've imagined it plenty over the last five years.

The thing is, however, it doesn't end there. People who have known me for years can attest that I am not the same person I was before Schuyler came into my life. Most parents are changed by their kids, but I'll go out on a limb just a bit and say that the parents of broken children are changed even more profoundly than most. Evan was just about Schuyler's age, and the years that Vicki and her family had with him have undoubtedly left them all different people than when they began this trip together. In Vicki's case, her writing and her advocacy over the years have allowed Evan to change a lot of people as well. I hope that when the pain has dulled a little bit, she'll see just how much he left behind, and what a legacy she has allowed for him.

As cliched as it may sound, that's how kids like Evan never die. Small comfort today, but true nonetheless.


Contributions in memory of Evan Kamida may be made to:
The Pediatric Epilepsy Fund at UCLA
Division of Pediatric Neurology
Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
22-474 MDCC
10833 Le Conte Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1752

July 23, 2008

On Michael Savage and Other Monsters

Before I begin, let's look at what exactly was said last week by Michael Savage, talk radio host and celebrated caveman:

SAVAGE: Now, you want me to tell you my opinion on autism, since I'm not talking about autism? A fraud, a racket. For a long while, we were hearing that every minority child had asthma. Why did they sudden -- why was there an asthma epidemic amongst minority children? Because I'll tell you why: The children got extra welfare if they were disabled, and they got extra help in school. It was a money racket. Everyone went in and was told [fake cough], "When the nurse looks at you, you go [fake cough], 'I don't know, the dust got me.' " See, everyone had asthma from the minority community. That was number one.

Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.

What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."

Autism -- everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, "Don't behave like a fool." The worst thing he said -- "Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry." That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men. That's why we have the politicians we have.

I had no intention of addressing the whole Michael Savage issue here or anywhere else, mostly because what he said was pretty clearly stupid, but also for the simple reason that autism isn't my issue. I occasionally have disagreements with parents of autistic children, and in most cases it boils down to the fact that Schuyler is not autistic. Her condition does not in any way manifest itself like autism, not even her lack of speech, and my beliefs in how she should be cared for, how I refer to her condition and my expectations for her future are completely different from theirs. I have the utmost respect for these parents, and I like to think that the fight I bring on Schuyler's behalf will benefit them just as much. But still. Not my fight, not directly, anyway.

But then I followed a link that was showing up in my stats, and I found a discussion of Savage's remarks on a parenting forum. I found the link back to my blog, and to my irritation, it was in a post by someone who, while disdaining the manner in which Savage expressed his opinion, nevertheless defended his point about how kids are supposedly being over-diagnosed with autism by pointing out that Schuyler was originally misdiagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. You may be reading this blog for the first time right now, as a result of following that link.

So let me say a few things briefly and clearly. First of all, yes, it is true that Schuyler was misdiagnosed, by the Child Study Center at the Yale Medical School, with Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS, or as I liked to call it, for its vague and unhelpful description, "PDD-WTF"), an autism spectrum disorder.

But I also think it's important to note that Schuyler's actual condition, Bilateral Perisylvian Polymicrogyria, is extremely rare, with perhaps as few as a thousand identified cases worldwide, and without the MRI that Schuyler eventually received, there was no way to identify what her monster really was. It was unlikely, even at Yale, that anyone was going to immediately get it right, particularly without a brain scan. Furthermore, we pushed for more tests when that diagnosis felt unsatisfactory, and those tests were granted without any resistance because her doctors agreed with us. Her misdiagnosis only stood for a few months, and was suspect from the beginning.

In other words, I don't think Schuyler's misdiagnosis is very helpful anecdotally. Are children being diagnosed prematurely with autism spectrum conditions? I have no idea; my kid isn't autistic, and even when she received that diagnosis, I don't think anyone ever seriously thought she was. I can't speak to how autism is being identified by doctors.

I do think, however, that it is important to realize that yes, autism is a serious, legitimate medical condition and one that affects thousands of families in ways that I can't even begin to fathom. Furthermore, I can't imagine there are really non-deranged people out there who believe otherwise. If there are people out there ready to put forth an intelligent argument in defense of that position, Michael Savage is not one of them. He's a buffoon, and I'm pretty sure he knows it.

Having said that, I don't believe he should be silenced for expressing his opinion. Typically, free speech only truly requires our democracy's defense when it is denied to the assmonkeys of the world; logical or popular positions (and why are they so rarely one and the same?) can usually take care of themselves.

Still, it's nice to know that sometimes the marketplace responds appropriately.

July 20, 2008

Big Box of Inappropriate

Has it really been almost two weeks? I apologize for the silence. I've been working on a lot of things and it's kept me busy. "What are you writing these days?" I get asked a lot. Well, I have not one, not two but three speeches to write this summer, including a keynote address for this conference on technology in special education in which I have an hour and a half allocated for whatever I plan to say. An hour and a half. I predict lots of Powerpoint and perhaps a puppet show.

Summer with Schuyler continues to be sort of hit and miss, to be honest, although it's still a vast improvement over previous summers when she was being watched by snotty know-it-all college student interns working for the school district. (I still remember the 19 year-old tool who, when told that Schuyler needed to be encouraged to use her device, disagreed and backed up his position with "I am a psychology major...")

As much as she must love hanging out in the office with her forty year-old father, she's missing her school friends and it's beginning to show. We keep trying to arrange play dates with some of her AAC classmates, but everyone's busy during the summer (what is this word "vacation" of which you speak?) so it's hard to put together. She's got her cousins and a few neurotypical kids that she sees now and then, but I think that as much fun as she has, it still serves as a reminder of her brokenness, and as an eight year-old, she's not as in love with being different as she might have been once.

We've been trying to learn a new word in sign language every day, and she's shown some excitement for that. I think part of her enthusiasm has come from the fact that I've been letting her choose the words, which has led to such useful words for everyday use as "robot" and "bat" (on the day The Dark Knight opened, and no, I didn't take her to see it). Now that she's beginning to enjoy learning new words, we may start trying to sneak some useful ones in from time to time. Not that "robot" isn't a solid daily vocabulary tool.

The Big Box of Words remains her primary form of communication, however, or at least our main focus. One way of firing up her enthusiasm for it has been to add things to it that she and I say when we're teasing each other, which is, well, pretty often. We already added a little rhyme from my childhood that I taught her a while back to say when people eyeball her in public, so her device will now say "Stare stare, booger bear. Take a picture, I don't care." (When she's old enough, perhaps she'll replace it with "What are you looking at, assmonkey?") At lunch yesterday (at a Mexican restaurant, naturally), she asked me to add "Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot." Clearly, I am a fine, fine influence on my child. Her teachers are going to be so proud.

Speaking of which, last week Schuyler wanted to use her device to call me a "monkey fart" (honestly, I don't know why Julie teaches her these horrible things), and lo and behold, the Big Box of Words did not have the word "fart" programmed into it. You can probably see where this is going.

Twenty minutes later, Schuyler had a new subdirectory on the BBoW listing words associated with, well, bodily functions. Say what you will about the beauty of language and creating an appropriate and enriching environment for a child, but come on. An eight year old who can't say "fart" or "burp" or "booger" is not a complete human.

And honestly, just assigning icons to her new words made it all worthwhile.

Did I mention that I'm the keynote speaker at a professional educators' conference? I did.

July 8, 2008

No Blue Fairy

Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
The Big Box of Words has been such a positive thing for Schuyler and her future that I think I usually fail to give a completely balanced picture of the ups and downs that accompany her experience with assistive technology.

Of late, she's had something of a rough time with the BBoW. There are times, especially during the school year, when Schuyler really seems to dig the device and the very unique place she has in the world because of it. Lately, though, I think it's just pissing her off.

Part of the issue is summer. No school, no peer group of device users, and no structured classroom environment. Just her smelly old parents and lots of activities that are not even remotely BBoW-friendly. She loves to swim, for example; she has never willingly left the pool without at least a grumble or a plea for five more minutes. She'd stay in her swim suit all summer if she could, her device hidden safely away on dry land. For the Fourth of July, we went camping with my brother's family, and I can count the times I saw her use the device on one finger. I know because I made her do it, and while it wasn't exactly under protest, she definitely did the bare minimum required.

We've decided to try to vary her techniques a little, stepping back up to the sign language plate again, for example, as a parallel technique alongside the device. Schuyler's condition limits her fine motor abilities in her hands and thus keeps her from being truly skilled at signing, but that never kept her from having real enthusiasm for it. She learned most of her signs from the early Signing Time videos, which I think I've discussed before, and now that they're on PBS, the DVR catches new episodes every now and then and we all sit down and learn them together. Her signing is limited by her own monster-stifled, clumsy fingers and by the limited number of people who can understand her. Nevertheless, signing still presents an elegant way to speak that the Big Box of Words simply can't match, at least at this point where she's still constructing sentences and thoughts at a necessarily slower, sometimes maddening pace. She understands the necessity of the device, but I think she sees the beauty of sign language in a way that I am only now appreciating myself.

Recently, Schuyler has begun to outwardly express her own awareness of her monster. She has this thing she does now to explain it, a whole story told in gestures and sign language. She gently touches her throat and shakes her head. She then touches her head with her finger (the sign for "think") and draws a line down to her mouth, signifying how the things she wants to say don't make the trip from her brain to her mouth. I like how she recognizes that her voice is broken, but her mind is working. It's important for her to know that her thoughts are there, and they are magnificent.

The thing about this little mimed explanation of Schuyler's condition, however, is that no one taught it to her. It's all hers. While some people worry about how to tell her what's wrong with her and how to explain it in gentle terms that won't bruise her delicate psyche ("Don't call her broken!"), Schuyler has figured out her own harsh reality by herself and expresses it without a hint of self-pity or trauma. Schuyler knows her monster better than any of us; it's presumptuous for anyone else, even me, to pretend we understand it, too, or to think that we can somehow tell her something about it that she doesn't already know on some visceral level.

Lately, Schuyler has balked a few times in public at using the Big Box of Words to answer other people's questions, and the sense that I get from her is that she may be starting to feel, if not embarrassed, at least self-conscious about it. Schuyler may delight in being a weird little girl, but only when it is on her terms. A speech output device still represents her very best (and possibly only) chance of being able to spontaneously communicate any kind of real expressive thought, but it remains an unnatural way for a little girl to speak. I suspect the day is coming, and soon, when her desire to be "normal" is going to cause some serious heartbreak for her.

There's one literary figure with whom I have always associated Schuyler, although to even say it aloud breaks my oft-broken old father's heart right in two.

In her own very unique way, Schuyler is Pinocchio.

July 1, 2008

"A Good Read"

(I swear to God, I thought I mentioned this already. I believe it was in the Father's Day post that got scrapped when I wrote about Tim Russert instead. My brain is apparently turning into pudding. Welcome to thirty-ten. Now get off my lawn.)

A few weeks ago, Naomi Shulman, research chief at Wondertime Magazine, wrote a very nice recommendation for Schuyler's Monster titled "A Good Read". I was of course happy to get a good review; it sure beats the alternative of a bad one or even worse, none at all.

I was especially touched to get yet another positive mention in Wondertime because they've been so supportive and great about my book. They featured a lengthy excerpt back in their March issue, which is nice online but looked absolutely breathtaking in its print layout. I was also interviewed by Naomi for a follow-up interview on the website. Wondertime has been a good friend to me and my family from the very beginning.

It's especially nice to have this coming from Naomi, who was an exceptionally pleasant and professional interviewer and who has been following Schuyler's story since before her diagnosis. I keep discovering over and over again how deeply Schuyler has touched so many people, and how the connections she's made through her story circle back around to us again and again.

So thank you, Naomi. This means the world to me, and that's the truth.