Believe me, life can be a monumental struggle when you can’t speak, not even to make a simple request for your most basic needs. Severe Autism has rendered me, among other challenges, without a voice. With an intensive learning program starting at 2 years of age, I have made certain progress. The way I learn was to imbibe what was presented to me as if by osmosis. I took everything in, and needed time to digest and make sense of things, but even after years of discrete trial learning, speech therapy, occupational therapy, as well as other methods in the armamentarium of Autism treatment and education, I have not been able to communicate using my own voice or other independent means (I also have dyspraxia, severely curtailing speech and writing ability).
I have a vivid memory of an occasion in Grade 3 in the school psychologist’s office. She was checking my responses on an assessment done a couple of weeks prior, and without any hint of emotion, told Mum that I was severely Autistic and intellectually disabled. What I felt then would more than make up for the psychologist’s lack of emotions. It was anger. No, it was rage, but also a suffocating sadness. Although I have always known that I was different, I felt my world disintegrating with her verdict – guilty – and the sentence, that I would never amount to anything. Being labeled and dismissed was especially painful because of all the work that I had put into the remediation and intervention programs with the hope of getting better. In many people’s eyes, speech equates intelligence. In the psychologist’s pronouncement right in front of me, she had assumed that I was unable to understand anything she said, and also lack the capacity to understand things of importance, By categorising and labeling me, I was dismissed as a lesser human being because I did not speak.
However, not long after the psychologist’s visit, I learned to communicate by typing with support at the DEAL Communication Centre (later renamed the Anne McDonald Communication Center). I will never forget the first meeting with Rosemary Crossley, the director who had made such an enormous contribution to bringing viable means of augmentative and alternative communication to those with little or no functional speech. With her hand under my wrist, I learned to type by moving my index finger on the keyboard, thoughts I had never been able to express until that moment. In the space of but an hour, I answered some questions and wrote a little story. Nothing spectacular, about Big Bird and Grover, another day on Sesame Street, but it was the first time I was able to use my own words to create a story. That simple communicative act, a thing most people take for granted, was for me, like reaching the summit of Mt. Everest – a milestone. I found my voice, what exhilaration and power.
Typing under Rosemary’s facilitation and tutelage was by no means easy. The spirit to communicate was strong, but my recalcitrant body was unwilling, just like a wild horse that bucked, kicked and tried its best to throw off an inexperienced rider – me. Rosemary’s support was fine but my right arm felt like lead, and moving my index finger across the keyboard required total concentration and excruciating effort. I felt tense and overloaded, was completely drained after the session. However, the incentive for honing this exciting new skill was clear-cut. With the uncompromising face of the psychologist still fresh in my mind, I was going to bust my guts to prove that she was wrong about me.