The Day a Sea Lion Wanted to Play: Autism Acceptance in Unexpected Places

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We all want to feel happy, connected, and accepted. Sometimes that is found in ways we least expect.

One late winter day my family visited the zoo in Washington, D.C. It was early and we had the underwater viewing area at the sea lion exhibit all to ourselves. My youngest son had on a jacket with contrasting colors and we noticed it seemed to catch the attention of one particularly curious sea lion. I starting recording as the two darted back and forth on opposite sides of the glass, and she followed his every move. When my son realized what was going on he joyfully cried out, “She likes me!”

My son is *Autistic, and social interaction as well as playing with other children is sometimes hard and complicated. Some research has shown that children with Autism and other disabilities are actually  2-3 times more likely to be bullied by their peers. They also often find it easier to relate to animals and can connect with them more easily than with people.

My son was thrilled to find a playmate that day and to feel free to be himself. It came so easily. All the sea lion wanted was to play, and nothing else mattered; not social rules, not appearance. Just fun.

We learned later that the sea lion was named Sophie, and she was famous for interacting with her visitors. She accepted all potential playmates equally, but I would wager that few were as enthusiastic as my youngest son. As their game of follow-the-leader continued, he exclaimed, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!”
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Autism ACTION Month

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April is “Autism Awareness Month,” but many say that mere acceptance is not enough. Autistic people are far too often marginalized and dismissed. Autistic adults are aware that many who claim to speak for the Autism community don’t actually ask Autistic people for their opinion. They are aware that many businesses refuse to give them a chance at meaningful employment. Parents are aware of the isolation that their Autistic children feel when they are mocked by their peers, and they are aware of the lack of sufficient resources to help their children thrive in schools.

It is not enough to be aware one month of the year, and sometimes it seems like the only people really paying attention to Autism Awareness Month are people in the community. The rest seem to just want to donate money to an Autism charity to ease their conscience and feel like they made a difference.

A startling, heartbreaking example of why we need to do MORE happened while my friend, Cindy, was out with her son, Ty. Ty is Autistic and has limited speech. He’s also sweet and funny and loved by many. Cindy gave me permission to share details of an encounter they had while inside a store:

We were approached by an employee who seemed to have an intellectual disability of some kind. “Is he special?” He asked, pointing at Ty. “He sure is!” I said. “He is VERY special and I love him very much.”

The man said, “I’m special too. So I understand. He can be my friend”. I assured him that we could be his friend too, and agreed we’d high-five him whenever we shopped there. He liked this.

“Of course, everyone else thinks we are freaks”, he said.

What could I do but laugh? “Well maybe we are ALL freaks”, I said.

As I read Cindy’s words my emotions changed from inspired to heartbroken.

Everyone else thinks we are freaks,he said. NO ONE should have to feel that way. We need to do better to make the world a more accepting place for Autism.

That young man saw a kindred spirit in Ty and asked him to be his friend. If we want to make a difference then we too should be a friend to this man and other Autistic people. And we should do it all year round, not just in April. But how?

Want to REALLY make a difference? ACCEPT. ACCOMMODATE. APPRECIATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. Keep reading for some suggestions of ways that we can help improve the lives of people with Autism. They don’t need our pity, but they do need our support.  Continue reading

10 WAYS YOU CAN HELP SAVE AUTCRAFT

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Guest post by Elizabeth Barnes at Autism Mom

Autcraft, the Minecraft server for children on the Autism spectrum, could become a victim of its own success.

In the almost three years since its inception, the Minecraft server has grown from a handful of players to over 6,000 registered members.

Recently Stuart Duncan, the creator and administrator of Autcraft, has realized that either Autcraft has to become able to support itself or he may have to close it down.

This could be devastating for the thousands of children on the spectrum and their families who rely on Autcraft as a safe, supportive place for them to play Minecraft, socialize, and grow.

WHAT IS AUTCRAFT?

Created by Duncan (“AutismFather” in the game) who not only has autism himself but also a child with autism, Autcraft was designed to be a safe place for children to play Minecraft online without experiencing bullying and other social unpleasantness that can happen on public Minecraft servers.

The Autcraft server is administrated by Duncan, and part-time by volunteer adults and players that include autistics, parents of autistic children and family members of someone with autism.

WHAT MAKES AUTCRAFT SPECIAL?

Autcraft is unique because it is a closed server – one has to apply to join and whitelist applications are individually reviewed and approved.

Most importantly, Autcraft is closely overseen by Duncan and Autcraft’s volunteer administrators and helpers

  • Bullying, killing, stealing, griefing, etc., is not tolerated
  • Swearing and misbehavior is not tolerated
  • There is an in-game support system so that when a players needs administrator help, they can get it almost right away
  • Players builds are protected using WorldGuard so that no one can damage them by accident or on purpose
  • All blocks placed, blocks broken, items dropped, picked up and more are tracked to see exactly what happens anywhere on the server

Duncan has always refused to charge players fees to join – he doesn’t want any child on the spectrum to be excluded from Autcraft because they don’t have the means to join.

WHAT PARENTS AND PLAYERS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT AUTCRAFT

Autcraft has been featured by numerous news outlets such as the TODAY Show in Australia, the Voice of America, BBC radio, among others, each describing how valuable the Autcraft experience has been for children on the Autism spectrum:

While Duncan started Autcraft to give kids an outlet to play a game they loved, it has quickly become a godsend for parents and therapists who credit it with their children’s incredible developmental gains. “We’ve heard from parents whose children’s therapists have been shocked with how much progress they’ve made and they’re like, ‘What are you doing different?’ and the parents say, ‘Autcraft’” ~ News.Com.Au

But the best way to understand is to hear it directly from the players and their families.  Continue reading

Autism and the Theater: THANK YOU Kelvin Moon Loh!

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Kelvin Moon Loh is a performer who is currently in ‘The King and I’ at Lincoln Center. The day prior to this post there was an incident with an Autistic* person during one of his shows. His response was amazing, and he actually began a discussion about it on his personal Facebook page. Since some of you don’t have Facebook, and also because THIS IS IMPORTANT, I copied his responses and posted some screenshots here. Shared with his permission.

(*Yes, I said Autistic, not with Autism. I am not being disrespectful, I am simply reflecting the way that an increasing majority of Autistic individuals wish to be identified. If you are not familiar with the identity-first movement I encourage you to learn more.)

Here is what Kelvin’s Facebook post said (screenshot is at the top of the post):

“I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.

No.

Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?  Continue reading

When Public Figures Mess Up

In the past few days and weeks several public figures have had damaging personal information come to light. I’m talking about several different situations, not just Ashley Madison revelations. Some of these transgressions are seemingly worse than others, and some actually hurt people. I don’t make light of that. However, the media is always thrilled to have these juicy stories. Details of people’s private lives and personal failings are then trotted out to the world for their entertainment value. Commenters proceed to swarm all over the Internet and some are positively gleeful, saying, “This is great!” or “Haha, BUSTED!” There are cries of “Hypocrite!” Many are brutal, saying all kinds of cruel, crude, profane statements, even wishing them physical harm. When these fallen public figures happen to be Christians the screaming gets worse, and all Christians are painted with the same brush. People rally to stand in self-righteous judgement, seemingly forgetting their own flaws.

I understand that some of these individuals are experiencing a backlash because of their own previous statements. They have stood in harsh judgement of others and hurt people with their words. The irony is not lost on me. I hope maybe they learn something when they reflect upon the reality that they, too, are flawed. That being said, I still couldn’t believe some of the things that have been said online to those individuals. Reading the comments on a well-known You-Tuber’s page made me physically ill and brought tears to my eyes (but to be fair so did the news of what he is alleged to have done).

What I keep thinking over and over again in my mind is this: All humans are flawed, all humans make mistakes. At times some of us even do horrible things. Ultimately ALL humans on some level are hypocrites. Each one of us has a gap between what we say we believe/the person we want to be versus the way we actually live. And we all must ultimately face the consequences for our own mistakes or hypocrisy. But do those consequences warrant being subjected to public cruelty? (Click here to see a conversation about this subject on my Facebook page.)

Why is it that we take such joy in seeing other people fail? Why does it make us feel so much better about ourselves? And how is it that the simple disconnect of a screen between us and another person allows us to intentionally inflict hurt upon a fellow human being? Is it because we think they are so deserving of the Scarlet A, or the stoning? It seems we have not evolved very far from colonial days when a rule breaker would be placed in the courtyard stocks so that others could throw rotten fruit at them, instead of simply allowing someone to face judgement in the court system.

I make lots of mistakes too. There are things in my past that I regret. I have also stood in judgment and been harsh to others. But I want to do better in my own life and in the way I treat people.

I hope I never rejoice in the downfall of another human being. I may be relieved that they are no longer continuing down the wrong path, and I might nod understandingly at the fact that they are bearing the consequences for their own poor choices. I will probably even be relieved that they are brought to justice. But I do not wish to rejoice in it, or participate in lynch-mob mentality. I won’t use it as an opportunity to further tear someone apart by kicking a man when he’s down, so to speak. There are better ways to stand up for what is right. There are better ways to achieve justice.

The media and harsh commenters and vilifiers seem to forget that there’s often collateral damage… family members, spouses, and innocent children. Your words wound them as well.

Remember folks, we’re all in this together. Let’s be kind.

(This post was edited to add the following: “I understand that some of these individuals are experiencing a backlash because of their own previous statements. They have stood in harsh judgement of others and hurt people with their words. The irony is not lost on me. I hope maybe they learn something when they reflect upon the reality that they, too, are flawed.”)

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