A Meltdown Met With Compassion

A few days ago, I dropped my autistic son off for therapy. He was in the midst of a minor meltdown the continued outside the car(meltdowns are not uncommon in the world of autism) and it was enough to draw attention. A gentleman standing by his vehicle glanced in my direction. I ignored it like I usually do. So, I took J inside and we said our usual goodbyes.

As I returned to my car, the glancing gentleman approached me, gave me his business card and began crying. He put his arm around me and said, “Call me sometime, I have an 18-year-old with autism. Bless you.” He got in his vehicle and left.

I misjudged the man’s glance. His gesture was the kind of compassion the moment called for.

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10 Year Old With Autism Arrested

The Washington Post recently reported that a 10 year old boy with Autism was arrested at his school for a 3rd degree felony charge.

I read this story with great interest as a parent of a child with Autism and as an educator. The story is no doubt incomplete.  There is always more information than what the public is given. One thing is for sure, getting upset or offended by the vile comments made by those with little understanding or compassion would be futile. I’m here to educate and foster constructive dialogue.

No two individuals on the spectrum are alike. For example, some cannot communicate verbally, while others, like the 10 year old at the center of the report, can verbalize quite well.  And, yes, just like the boy does in the video, that may include dropping the proverbial “f-bomb”.  But I hear that from neurotypical students every day. So, it’s inconsequential to the story as far as I’m concerned. I am more concerned how instances like these, as outrageous as they are, can serve as a learning opportunity for all.

While we cannot ignore the  “throw ’em in jail” attitude when dealing with difficult students. Our culture has a long history of this easy way out.  But this incident, like most, was likely avoidable. It highlights the need to better train our public educators and to cultivate a greater understanding in the hearts and minds of the general public on the subjects of Autism and neurodiversity.  A properly trained educator will better detect the triggers that can lead to a tantrum, meltdown, or an aggressive episode.

This is an opportunity for understanding and new learning -not judgment. My prayers are with the boy, his mother, as well as the educators involved.

 

 

 

 

Guns, Mental Illness, and “Autistic Shooters”

Screenshot of a now deleted Facebook page intended to scapegoat people with Autism for America's gun problem.
Screenshot of a now deleted Facebook page intended to scapegoat people with Autism for America’s gun problem.
In the wake of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a  Facebook page was created with the title, “Families Against Autistic Shooters.”   Scapegoating people with autism for America’s gun problem is as irresponsible as blaming people with mental illness.

We can have a conversation about autism.  We can also have a conversation about mental illness.  But if we are going to have a  conversation about gun violence in American life, then we need to talk about guns.

Gun advocates like to point to anything but the problem, whether it’s misplaced blame or irrelevant statistics.  Automobile deaths are a favorite among the most vehement opponents to sensible gun legislation. But that stat is no longer at their disposal, as deaths from gun violence  (deaths- not including casualties) are poised to surpass auto mobile deaths in the U.S.  Downplaying the frquency of mass shootings is another. But there have been 994 mass shootings– 4 or more fatalities and/or casualties in 1 incident- over the last 1,004 days in the United States.  In 2011, the most recent year compiled by the CDC, there were 32,351 firearm related deaths.  It isn’t just homicides recorded by the FBI that must factor into this conversation.  We must include ALL firearm incidents that result in fatalities AND casualties.

This problem isn’t a parenting issue, or an autistic issue, or a mental health issue, or a blacks-in-Chicago-issue: this is a gun problem. The only pathology I see is the defend-the-second-amendment-at-all-cost mentality, even it means a rising body count of innocent people. The 2nd Amendment won’t be repealed.  But it needs a serious reinterpretation for the 21st century.  This isn’t 1778.  We’re not carrying around musket rifles anymore and we have a standing army (modern day militias are usually driven by hate and fear mongering). There’s no such thing as a zombie apocalypse and nobody is coming for our weapons.  The latter would be  a terrible decision anyway, as it would be a fantasy come true for gun fanatics itching to use their weapons  against the government.

It’s time we start finding solutions born out of reason and concern for the safety of the public and not driven by scapegoating, fear, paranoia, or profits from gun sales.

*Part of this post was paraphrased from the linked articles and reports found in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and form the CDC.

The Handicap Placard: Why We Use It

UnknownOn occasion one will find my vehicle parked in a handicapped space. And there’s a good reason for it.

This post is not a defense, nor is it an apology. It is an explanation to increase awareness.

Obtaining a handicap placard isn’t as easy as some people assume. There are specific disabilities that qualify an individual (or his or her driver) to park in reserved parking. Some of these disabilities are visible to the eye: some are not. Therein lies the problem for those who do not understand, or worse, roll their eyes and cast stones when they see someone using a handicap space that they think shouldn’t be.

Imagine an 8 year old boy whose neurological processing does not allow for the same awareness of surroundings as the typical individual. Place that boy in a crowded and busy parking lot and the likelihood of him running in front of a moving vehicle is increased exponentially. To an onlooker it’s the child of a neglectful parent. In reality, it’s a boy with autism who, growing stronger everyday, that, at any moment, will impulsively pull away from his parents and run haphazardly into danger.

My wife and I use the placard when we feel it’s necessary, especially when visiting a “big box” store. Most of the time we don’t. But when we do passersby won’t see Jakob’s disability. But it’s there. And our job as parents is to get him safely from the car to the front door.

So, to those who are quick to judge those without visible disabilities, please give pause and consider what limitations lie beneath the surface.

Likewise, to those who have a family member that qualifies for a handicap placard, please don’t use it if that person isn’t in the car. It doesn’t help the rest of us.

Use [Choose] Your Words

When my stepson, Jakob, wants something he typically communicates via an assistive application on his iPad. The phrase “I want popsicle please,” spoken in a computerized voice, is frequently heard in our household.

But he often tries to get away with an “uhhhhh”, while simultaneously pointing to whatever it is he wants. Kerri and I have to remind him, “Use your words.” We either prompt him to speak (assuming it’s a word he’s practiced) or use the iPad.

The ability to speak and articulate with a voice is, for most of us, something easily taken for granted.

When I was seventeen I was involved in a bicycle accident that I was fortunate to survive. But escaping death wasn’t the end of the story. For the next several weeks there was a question as to whether I would be able to speak again. This was devastating news to someone considering becoming a pastor. Thankfully, I recovered.

I’ve often understood my recovery in terms of a calling to, not only use “my words,” but to choose my words carefully. I felt called to speak up for those whose voice is muted or who have no voice at all: like the marginalized, the dehumanized, the ignored, and even people like Jakob. I haven’t always used my voice in the most faithful and productive way. But these last few months in my new role as a stepfather to a child with autism and apraxia have helped me regain some perspective.

Words have power- the power to convey hate or love, indifference or compassion, injury or healing, division or reconciliation, and so on.

Unfortunately, I fear our world is losing its verbal nerve. Public speech is sour and toxic. Interpersonal conversation is often disingenuous. Words between loved ones are often sharp. Hateful and snarky comments plague social media. Productive dialogue is broken.

The words we choose have real consequences. The health of our personal relationships, as well as our local and global communities depend, in part, on how we communicate with one another.

This poignant video was shared with me today. It’s a couple of years old but it’s new to me. Its message is on point. Enjoy.

Autism Stepdad in Training

I’m ten months into learning how to be a stepfather to twin 8 year old boys- one of whom is diagnosed with Autism and apraxia. Together they bring bring all the joys and challenges that come with parenting any child.  But when special needs are in the mix there’s a completely different dynamic at play.

In short, my stepson with Autism and apraxia processes the senses differently than I do.  Further, he requires an assistive device to communicate, as he cannot form consonant or vowel sounds in the way most people do.  This requires an added dose of love and patience.  And I can tell you it’s a lot easier to offer than one might think. By the way, we often call him J Bird, in addition to his real name.

No doubt I will have plenty to write about over the years.  But here are just a few of the things I’ve learned in the past few months.

  • Affirmation of love and safety comes before any form of correction.
  • All that push back over the word “retard” is for a reason.  Outside a musical composition it’s never used in a positive manner.  I’ve dropped it from my vocabulary.
  • Bursts of anger or frustration are more about wanting to be understood than “there’s something wrong with that child.”
  • A child with Autism, particularly one with a twin brother, is just as protective of his sibling as any other would be- and he has his way of letting you no….”that’s my brother your scolding!”
  • “Naked as a J Bird” moments may happen at anytime.  We’re working on this one.
  • If J Bird is outside and it’s in his hand there’s a high probability it will end up in the pool.  I’ve seen it all: hot dogs, bicycle locks, rocks, bowls of pretzels, the popsicle he just asked me for, his cup of juice that’s now adding a nice color to the water, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll suddenly see his swimsuit at the bottom (see previous bullet point).
  • Moments of affection from  J Bird without prompting are golden.
  • I’ve learned to ignore the stares from others who just don’t understand.
  • Use handicap parking when necessary without apology.  The same holds true for the disability pass at Six Flags Over Texas.  A forthcoming post on this issue is in the works.
  • When J Bird invites you to join him on the trampoline you gladly accept. It’s one of his favorite things to do.

Like I said, I’m only 10 months into this.  I’ve learned to  expect. . .well, the unexpected.  There’s more to come for sure.  My hope in writing about this journey is to bring awareness, neutralize the judgments, and deepen the compassion toward a growing segment of the population that is . . .well, a unique piece of the puzzle that makes up all of us.  So, if you’re still reading I hope you’ll return for more.

Brent Woodall Foundation Walkabout for Autism 2014.
J Bird and me. Brent Wooodall Foundation’s Walkabout for Autism, 2014.