Autism: Advocating For Your Kid

In my first article for Dadomatic I talked about recognizing the signs of autism, and in my second I talked about dealing with the diagnosis.  Well, this is my third in, shall we call it a trilogy (sounds both pretentious and cool, not unlike myself….) about the disorder my son has, autism.

We are very lucky.  Our son Jon, 7, has autism, but he also goes to what seems to be the best prepared school in our city for dealing with special needs kids.  Jon has a full time educational assistant (EA) in the classroom and he is doing well.  

Early on though we had to fight some.  We wanted Jon to get speech therapy (which he now gets, and his therapist is excellent) and we ran in to quite the road block, or series thereof.  We had to get on waiting lists, we had to get an official diagnosis, and we had to navigate the system.  The problem here is that we were not only dealing with a bureaucratic nightmare, we also were dealing with the fact that we had a special needs kid.  My wife basically came up with a plan of attack that involved not only getting him on the autism “list” but also on the list of kids that just needed speech therapy.  This seemed to work.  She has a history degree, which might explain this classic pincer movement which is so effective in battle, but I digress…  It seems we put enough pressure on the system to get Jon his therapy.  

More recently, an acquaintance of mine needed to get a diagnosis for her child.  It seemed pretty clear to her and me that her son was on the autism spectrum.  Indeed, he has all of the classic signs of Asperger’s Syndrome.  At issue was the fact that she had moved from one province to another and did not have our local health insurance, and still had insurance from the province she recently moved from.  The functionaries at the local office of OHIP (our provincial insurer) came up with a reason that I need not go in to, to tell her she could not yet get insurance and had to stick with her out of province insurance.  The problem here is that to get help she needed for her son, she had to have an OHIP card for him.  She was understandably distraught.  I advised her to call our MPP and explain the story.  Well, the MPP intervened and now her son will get the help he needs.

These stories lead to a few bits of advice, which the reader can take or leave:

1. Ask for help from those with experience.  You can find people that have gone through the same thing as you are now, they are often happy to help, and know a lot of shortcuts.  How do you find such people?  Through local support groups.

2. Social workers can help too.  Most of us think social workers are there to help people that are not like us, you know, umm, people like Cletus on the Simpsons.  They do help folks like that, but they are also trained in how to navigate complex bureaucracies.  We ended up getting some quite useful help from a social worker.

3. If you have a partner, work with him or her, and listen to all ideas.  I admit I was not too keen on my wife’s idea about putting Jon on different lists to get therapy, but it is hard to argue with success.  You would think that after 20 years I would have learned to listen more closely to her…

4. Do not take “no” for an answer.  This is your kid, do not believe it when you are told “it can’t be done”, just find another way.

In closing, I learned some of these things through experience, and some of them by watching my parents advocate for me when I was young (I am legally blind).  In 1970 I started school and the principal asked my Mom “don’t you think your son should be in a special school?”  She replied with an emphatic “NO” which ended the discussion.  Thanks Mom and Dad.

Dr. Dave Brodbeck is a professor of psychology at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie ON.  He is married, and has two great kids.  Dave is the host of Why? The Science Show For Kids, thunderbird six, and co hosts Broca’s Area and Tangential Convergence. He can be found on twitter, usually making sarcastic comments.

Video Game Buying Guide

OK, that title is a bit pretentious..  Nonetheless, I know that most parents are not like me.  You see, I am an avid gamer, and even at 43 years old I have 5 consoles in my house.  Wait, actually that is four, one of the xBox 360s is in for repairs.  (My son has the other one, and he is rather protective of it, that said, he doesn’t know that I use his console after he goes to bed, don’t tell him…)  Anyway, some Dads are like me, but most I think buy games based on what their kid wants and “needs” rather than based on the appropriateness of the game.  So let us get to it.

1. Know what console you have

Yes I know this seems silly, but let’s say you are buying for a relative in another city, or frankly, that you don’t pay much attention.  Find out what console your kid or relative or whatever has.  Now there is some backwards compatibility in that original xBox games will play on the 360, but that is a hit or miss proposition.  The same is true of the Playstation 3, though it is even more complicated there.  Frankly, just get games that match the system.

2. Read online reviews

When you find out about a hot title, check out the various online review sites like gamespot and IGN.  Frankly a wikipedia search usually lists most of the review scores for games.

3. Check the ratings

The ESRB (The Entertainment Software Rating Board) actually does a really decent job of rating games.  You might want to avoid games rated M for mature and you almost certainly want to avoid games rated A for adult.  In our house, games rated T for teen are usually ok, even for our 7 year old son.  I have a couple of M games, Call of Duty: World at War and Grand Theft Auto 4.  I let him play COD, but not GTA IV.  GTA IV is a great game, but put it this way, would you let your kid watch the Sopranos?  Perhaps not, and frankly GTA IV is like being in the Sopranos.  (I could go on about how it is brilliant satire, as it is, but frankly, I would avoid buying it for a younger kid).

4. Family games can rock, literally

Rockband, Rockband 2, Guitar Hero etc, these are fun, and they are fun even for non gamers.  Games that let everyone participate can bring families together, and they are fun to boot.  Plus, you get to teach your kids about old bands you liked when you were a kid….. (“When I was young I liked Boston, but was afraid to admit it as it as not that cool, even then”).

5. Educational games are often not that fun

Games that are designed to be ‘educational’ are often not that great.  Indeed, Ken Perlin of NYU is now using off the shelf games in a recent project for education that I heard him speak about at a gaming conference.  I think the new Leapfrog Didj has some potential here, but I have yet to play with one.  (I will soon though, man I hope my son does not read this blog….)

6. Ask

I find the guys at our local game shop really helpful.  Now I know games, but I have seen them stop parents from buying GTA or Saints Row for kids simply by saying “how old is your child?”  They then explain the graphic content.  Just ask.

I hope this helped a bit.  Do you have any other tips?  Throw them in!

Autism, Recognizing The Signs

Before I get to the point(s) of this post I figure I ought to introduce myself. My name is Dave Brodbeck, I live in Sault Ste. Marie, ON Canada where I work as a professor of psychology at Algoma University (go Thunderbirds!) Much more importantly, I have an awesome family, I am married and I have two kids, one is 15 and one is 7, the 7 year old boy has autism, which, segues nicely into the actual point of this post.

We found out that our son has autism when he was about 3 years old. Now, there were suspicions, and I think most of those suspicions came from my wife, not from the guy in the family that has a PhD in psychology. Our son seemed so different from our daughter. He was not talking. He was not looking us in the eyes, he was loving, but in a different way. He seemed less interested in hugs and such. Of course the standard reaction is “well, of course they are different, one is a girl, and one is a boy”. This resonated with me, as I know there are developmental differences between boys and girls, especially in language. Looking back, the biggest signs were his repetitive behavior (things such as flapping his arms) his covering of his ears when he got upset, and his love of patterns. He would watch videos, but would much rather look at the credits over and over than the content of the movie. I have this great picture of him lining up chess pieces at the age of two, from tallest to shortest. Now these things individually seem maybe a little odd, and frankly kind of cute, but taken together they should have raised more red flags in my mind. The repetitiveness, the lack of communication, the self stimulation (arm flapping) and the need for order are classic symptoms of autism.

Now we eventually got a diagnosis from a neurologist, which allowed us to get government support and allowed our son, once he started school, to have a full time educational assistant in the classroom. We found out later than I would have liked (you may be able to recognize these signs as early as 18 months) but finding out helped our boy a great deal. The support from the province pays for a once a week trip out with a few other autistic kids in town and a couple of great caregivers.

He is doing very well in school, he reads, writes, does his math addition and subtraction (with some coaxing) he has friends and gets on well with the kids in his class. Oh, and he loves his computer  that runs Ubuntu (I forgot to mention that his father is a bit of a geek..) and can beat his Dad at Halo 2… He is an amazing kid, and he is a hell of a challenge.

So, why am I telling you this? Well if you see signs like this, have your child checked out. The earlier you can get a diagnosis, the earlier you can get help, and get the appropriate therapy for your kid. I also want you to know that if you do have a kid with autism, it is not your fault. Parental behavior does not predict the occurrence of autism. In future posts I will talk about dealing with the diagnosis and about being an advocate for your child. However, I am starting to ramble, so I ought to wrap this one up.