This Is “Profound Autism”?: Reframing the Discussion Around Complex Care Needs

A few days ago, there was a discussion on the Autism Science Foundation’s Facebook page in which parents of autistic adults with complex care needs were describing their children with the hasthag #ThisIsProfoundAutism. I asked to reframe the discussion to include people with multiple disabilities including autism in general, because it is rarely (but not never!) autism, no matter how severe, alone that causes a person to be completely dependent on caretakers. I then explained that due to the combination of my disabilities, I need 24-hour care, including one-on-one for most of the day.

Not surprisingly, I was quickly met with the question whether I was saying I needed 24-hour help with basic tasks such as eating, bathing, dressing myself, etc. Well, the Autism Science Foundation page is a public Facebook page and I didn’t want the people on my friends list (including immediate family) who don’t know this, to judge me for it, but the short answer is yes. While I, like presumably most “profoundly autistic” people who don’t have physical disabilities, am physically capable of eating and dressing myself for the most part with some difficulty, my executive dysfunction means I still need help with them. As for bathing, well, I basically need someone to wash me, because, while I can physically hold a washcloth in my hand, I don’t have the organizational skills to actually work out the ritual without a ton of supervision and even then it’d lead to a lot of meltdowns.

I did, incidentally, point out that I recognize intellectual disability as a valid additional disability that needs to be taken into account when I asked to reframe the discussion. After all, that’s most likely what’s causing these autistic adults to be unable to understand instruction and to be completely dependent. For me, it’s a combination of executive dysfunction, which is a direct autism symptom, blindness, mild cerebral palsy, and other things.

I also do recognize that the need for support with severe challenging behavior is not the same as the need for help with basic personal care. One does not exclude or necessarily include the other and one is not more valid than the other. I, for one, am somewhat more independent in terms of eating, dressing and bathing than my severely intellectually disabled fellow clients. I am a lot more dependent where it comes to the effects of my challenging behavior.

I also do not mean to say that autism on its own cannot possibly cause a person to need a lot of care. It can. I am reminded of a girl I read about on Dutch social media many years ago, who indeed had hardly any functional communication skills but did have an IQ above 85. She, unlike me, didn’t have any additional disabilities. She was completely left behind in the care system: she was too severely disabled for traditional child and adolescent mental health services, but her IQ was too high for intellectual disability services. Really, I should not have called for reframing the discussion to include those with multiple disabilities, but those with complex care needs in general.

That being said, I strongly disagree with those people who say that just because I can write, means I should have ignored the conversation, since it clearly wasn’t meant for me. The fact that I can write, does not make me not dependent on care providers and does not mean policy or lack thereof won’t affect me. I am autistic and that, along with my blindness and other disabilities, causes me to need the extensive care I get now.

Life Skills I Struggle With As a Multiply-Disabled Person

Earlier today, Ann Hickman wrote an interesting list of ten life skills she is teaching her autistic teenager. As a teen, I missed out on most of these lessons she mentioned, leading to a big gap in my skills as well as my awareness of them.

Of course, lack of education isn’t the only reason autistics and otherwise disabled people may struggle with life skills. I struggle with many of them due to lack of energy, executive functioning issues and other things.

Today, I am sharing life skills I struggle with and why.

1. Personal hygiene. I remember vividly my sister gave me a deodorant for my fourteenth birthday as a hint. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t taught about hygiene much beyond childhood, but even if I were, I didn’t grasp the concept.

Similarly, because we had a bath at my parents’ house, I didn’t learn to properly shower. I didn’t know until a few years back that you’re supposed to use body wash when showering each time.

Other personal care tasks, I simply cannot do due to my physical limitations. I cannot clip my nails, for instance. I know some other blind people (presumably without physical disabilities) can, but other blind people I know go to the pedicurist for this.

2. Meal preparation. While in the training home, I tried for weeks to learn to put peanut butter or jelly on my bread without success. My mother can’t do it blindfolded either. My father can, but he assembles all his supplies around him in a very structured manner.

To be honest, I never had to prepare my breakfast or lunch before going into the training home, as we didn’t eat breakfast at my parents’ home and my lunch was always packaged by my mother (or I’d eat a sausage roll at the cafeteria).

There are probably ways I could prepare my own meals if I really need to. I mean, when living on my own, I just ate plain bread without toppings. However, I prefer my staff prepare it for me.

3. Cleaning. This is a difficult task for most blind people, but it can be done. I can dust my desk and table with minimal help if I’m reminded to do so. However, I can’t vacuum or mop the floors. I learned both, but with each house having a different way it’s set up, it’s very hard to find my way around it with a mop or vacuum cleaner.

What I struggle with most with respect to cleaning, is remembering how often each task needs to be done and actually organizing them. For example, in the training home, I’d clean the top of the doors each week despite no-one ever touching them. On the other hand, I’d procrastinate about changing my bed sheets, sometimes leaving them on for months.

4. Getting around. Ann mentions navigation for a reason: regardless of high-tech solutions to help people navigate, they still need to learn to use maps or to use public transportation. For me as a blind person, mobility was always more important, as it additionally involved safe white cane travel. I never mastered this, even with seven years of mobility training in special education and many more lessons once out of special ed. I only recently learned that more blind, neurodivergent people struggle with white cane usage.

Currently, I can for the most part move around inside the care home by myself, but I cannot at all get around outside without a sighted guide. My parents used to blame this on lack of motivation. While I am pretty sure this, as well as anxiety, does play a part, it is also about other things. Besides, lack of motivation is not the same as laziness. In my case, it feels as though the activity of independent travel overloads me cognitively to the point where I feel incapacitated.

I am assuming Ann’s son is “just” autistic, whereas I am multiply-disabled: autistic, blind and mildly physically impaired. However, with this article, I want to make it clear that there are many reasons a disabled teen or young adult might struggle with life skills and, for this reason, many different approaches to supporting them.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
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How Far I’ve Come #SoCS

SoCS Badge 2019-2020

Today’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday is “Where”. Linda, the host, is probably referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and where we all were at the time when she says that she has a feeling the subject of many posts will be the same. I, though, think I already shared where I was during the 9/11 attacks. I was in my room, writing in my diary about being used for a reality TV show. I mean, in the taxi home from school, I was secretly filmed while talking to the taxi driver and then was asked to consent later to it being shown on TV. I obviously refused. I was only fifteen. My mother said they should’ve picked someone at least five years older than me.

I don’t want to revisit that day though. Instead, I want to reflect on where I came from and how far I’ve come in those twenty years since the attacks.

On 9/11, I was in the ninth grade at grammar school or a classics-oriented high level high school in my city. I was being mainstreamed despite being multiply-disabled, because my parents believed I was just blind and oh so intelligent (which they considered a disability too in some ways, but it really isn’t).

Two months after the attacks, on November 2, 2001, I experienced a major mental crisis, which was of course brushed off by my parents. Six years later exactly, I did land in the hospital when experiencing another crisis.

I spent 9 1/2 years in the psychiatric system, 2 1/2 years living with my husband because the psychologist at my last psych unit felt I was misusing care and should be living independently. Then I went into long-term care. It’ll have been two years on the 23rd.

In a sense, I’ve only deteriorated in those twenty years. On 9/11, I proudly told that taxi driver how I was doing being mainstreamed as a blind person in a high level high school. Twenty years on, I live in a facility with people with severe to profound intellectual disabilities. Even then, I’m the one who needs the most care, getting one-on-one most of the time.

In another sense though, I’ve come a long way. I’ve definitely become more like me, the real me, who doesn’t care what her parents or teachers or support staff for that matter think she’s supposed to be like.

Why I Am in Long-Term Care

The day 1 prompt for this year’s 31-day writing challenge is “Why”. I immediately thought of the question that keeps popping up in my mind whenever I meet someone new at the care facility: Why am I in long-term care? Today, for example, I met a student doctor who was touring our home. I informed her midway through our conversation that I don’t have an intellectual disability, to which she replied that she could tell. Well, duh! Even when I’m overloaded, like I was at the time, and experiencing pretty bad language problems, I still sound like someone with at least an average IQ.

So why am I in long-term care? To a casual stranger, I could just point to my lack of sight and they’d be satisfied. Not a doctor or even a medical student, I guess. The medical advisor for the funding agency understandably concluded that blindness alone doesn’t warrant 24-hour care. Neither does mild cerebral palsy. And, as regular readers of this blog know, autism, being seen as a psychiatric condition, doesn’t count.

They finally found a way around this situation by saying that my disabilities are intertwined. They are, of course. In multiple disabilities, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For this reason, the short answer to why I’m in long-term care is because I’m blind and autistic and have mild CP, not because I have any of these alone.

This is the legal answer. The way the funding agency found around the stupidly close-minded look at disabilities the law requires medical advisors to have. The long answer is, of course, that my individual care needs mean I need 24-hour proximity of care.

I have significant executive functioning issues. These cannot be objectified by tests because I’m blind and the tests of executive functioning that are available, are all visual. For this reason, the medical advisor wrongly concluded that I don’t have cognitive impairments. I don’t have an intellectual disability, but that’s not the same.

These executive functioning difficulties make it hard for me to take care of myself. I can do basic self-care activities with reminders and prompting, but then still I often mess up.

People, including my support staff, have used my blindness as an excuse for my difficulty with basic self-care. Of course I can’t see when my clothes are dirty, but if I were just blind, I would be able to prevent the most common causes of my clothes getting dirty. Like, I would be able to prevent myself from drooling over them, or I would be able to find other ways around it.

People also use my blindness as an excuse for my needing proximity of care. If I were just blind though, I would still struggle to know when staff had left the room, but I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed by it.

But I’m not just blind. Had I been just blind, I wouldn’t have needed to apply for long-term care. And yet, paradoxically, my care ground is blindness.