5/24/2010

A Book Review: Rudy's Get Out, Explore, and Have Fun!


Lisa Jo Rudy is the About.com guide for Autism, and as such, she works hard at impartiality and inclusivity. I’ve previously asserted that this amounted to straddling the fence, and as such, was bound to irritate both those who think vaccines did it and those who don’t.  At Countering, I don’t straddle that line of impartiality, wanting to provide factual and helpful information while not offending parents.  I don’t have to keep my opinions to myself and not choose a side and I’m not trying to be a central watering hole, so to speak. Rudy, on the other hand, manages a site that is a central water hole, and she does it well. On any given post, you will see comments from people who believe fervently in vaccines as a cause of autism discussing the post’s contents alongside science-based, neurodiverse advocates. The exchanges can and do get heated, but by and large, areas of commonality can be revealed and discussed openly and freely.

I seriously underestimated Rudy and the level of tact and maneuvering it takes to create that kind of welcoming environment and of the importance of doing so.  Not everything is two dimensional and the divide between parents is not nearly as stark as Huffington Post regular posters and Age of Autism would make you believe. This is something I’ve learned as I’ve stepped further away from the pugilistic enterprise that posting over at Huff on the autism-related threads is.  It’s also helped that I’ve communicated more over the last year with parents whose beliefs regarding their child’s autism run the gamut and yet somehow, we’ve managed to fairly easily work together to try to advocate for others in need and to forge friendships, as well, based on the mutual desire to make the world a better place for our children. It’s refreshing and heartwarming to realize that we have common interests that rise above the questions of causation.

I’ve come a long way from that us or them view. I think it’s important to directly counter misinformation, but I don’t think that should be the only thing or the main thing to engage in. Far more important is the question of how do we make the world more accepting, more appreciative of, and more accommodating for our children and others with disabilities?

Rudy indirectly addresses this question in her newly published book, Get Out, Explore, and Have Fun! Within the first twenty pages, I realized that here, too, was another person whose common interests and, more importantly, common experiences resonated with me. From the beginning, Rudy makes it clear that those divisions of causation and therapies won’t be present in her book: it isn’t about that. And what a relief to just have that all shoved aside as so much of the background noise that it really should be. Most of us, hopefully, don’t spend all our time stuck in that morass, fighting out those battles. For all that Countering focuses on refuting misinformation regarding vaccines, autism, and various therapies, almost none of it spills over into my real world life with my children, which is focused on helping them navigate the wider world successfully.

Here , then, is a book that isn’t going to wade through that mess of divisions, either. Instead, Rudy’s book will focus on “getting out into the real world and participating in community activities.” In the end, Rudy’s right when she points out how important this is; this will matter far more for our children’s future than any spittle-filled rant war at Huffington Post or any of the other places where such debates can be had between the diehards.

Rudy’s first focal point is on the inadequacy of the school system to educate our children, how often the time with our children is wasted trying to achieve normalcy, and yet acknowledging the reality that the school system is hamstrung with the current legal requirements.

Schools, in general, are poorly equipped to foster curiosity and interest in typically developing children. For children with autism, school can be one long nightmare. Rudy points out that schools aren’t set up to give kids, especially our children, the kind of learning environment that would best benefit them: “In fact, professional visitor-study organizations have reviewed, codified, and assessed the impact of hands-on, inquiry-based learning for children, teens, and families
and found it to be extraordinarily valuable across the board.” Unfortunately, that’s not what most kids get: “Overall, students with autism have a very limited school life.”

Rudy’s book, then, is a guide to create that for our children outside of the school environment. With the schools’ concerns focused on normalizing our children, our children are “unlikely to connect with like-minded individuals, build relationships based on common interests, or find opportunities to learn, grow, and lead in fields that interest them.” We must do what we can to help foster our children’s creativity, their areas of interest and help them forge relationships with like-minded individuals, and we can do this by getting out into the community.

Rudy details the ways in which community businesses’ interest in catering to the needs of the autism population has changed as the prevalence (and awareness) of autism has increased, as well as the financial pressure many businesses face creating an incentive to draw in any customers. She notes, though, that many families continue to be reluctant to explore the wider world with their autistic children: many providers of daycare and kid-centered activities don’t really display the tolerance towards special-needs children that they purport to; the mistaken assumption by parents that therapy should be nonstop, parental fears regarding “failure or embarrassment,” “low expectations” of autistic children by adults, over-protectiveness by parents, lack of awareness by parents of the importance of” multisensory learning,” autistic children’s lack of interest in regular kid-centric activities, and a lack of information regarding available local resources.

The above reasons for keeping autistic children at home and uninvolved in the local community can all be mitigated. Information is a key way to get around many of these issues. Working with local businesses to foster acceptance and understanding is important. Making sure that unfriendly businesses know that the word will indeed get around regarding how unfriendly they are to the disabled is a powerful tool.

Parents need to be better informed regarding the need for balance; real world experiences are an important and absolutely vital component to helping our children fit into the wider world. If the goal is integration and acceptance into society, this cannot be done while hiding our children at home and immersing them in narrow therapies that do not translate to real world situations. We can find a way to balance the need to keep our children safe while letting them experience the wider world.

Rudy notes our children need a variety of experiences if we want to discover their potential talents and interests. She points out: “Besides—and this is very important—the fact that a child is “typically developing” does not mean he will be capable, kind, attentive, or self-aware. In other words, you needn’t assume that your child’s autism will make him more difficult or less competent than other children.”

Chapter one closes with a list of practical tips that helps to set the stage for chapter two, which covers getting started on getting out and exploring. Preparation is key, as almost all of us parents of autistic children well know!

Rudy visits again the reasons for getting our children involved in the wider world. Yes, it absolutely takes more work, more thought, more effort to do this with our children, but it is a fundamentally important part of making them ready for their future. Rudy writes, “By involving your child—and yourself, by extension—in the ordinary world, you make it possible him to know what’s expected
of him, not just by therapists, parents, and teachers but also by peers.”

As parents contemplate this somewhat daunting idea of helping our children engage in the wider world, Rudy provides some suggestions: remembering that our children often walk the “fine line between interest and perseveration,” that our children “may do things differently,” that talking isn’t always important, and as a mother of three on the spectrum, one I wholeheartedly echo: “a thick skin” is imperative.

Rudy provides a series of things for families to try: popular culture, the natural world, musical instruments, “marble mazes”—a very interesting idea, as well as sports. If your child doesn’t seem to have regular kid interests, that’s okay; Rudy suggests a number of things that relate to your child’s particular special interest and activities that might interest them.

Once you’re ready to get on out there, Rudy suggests some handy tools you’ll need: “an intact sense of humor” (I’ve found a tendency to delight in the odd, the wacky and the absurd really helps), time, energy, patience, flexibility, and gasoline. Sometimes the things that most interest our children will require an investment of time and money to drive to the particular activity, event, or person who makes a connection with our children.

If your family is a blend of neurotypicality and neurodiverse, Rudy offers suggestions for siblings of autistic children, as well.

Chapter two, as will all the chapters in this delightful book, ends with a series of top tips. Chapter three focuses on the community and how to select the right opportunities for you and your children. Chapter four looks at various sporting events and activities, while chapter five picks up on various youth groups like the scouts, 4-H, and the YMCA. Chapter six looks at learning environments like museums, zoos and aquariums. Chapter seven explores faith-based options. Chapters eight through ten explore the performing arts, the natural world, and special interests and family outings. Each chapter is well-organized, filled with ideas and with solid tips for making these ideas a reality. Personal anecdotes are helpfully placed. This is not dry reading by any means. Rudy has a warm, friendly demeanor throughout the text, and readers will feel right at home with her as she leads them through an abundance of ideas. There really is something here for everyone.

The book closes with the concerns we as parents have for inclusion. It also, importantly, offers Rudy’s own experience with accepting the need to stop for a minute, an hour, a day, or more, when things have just gotten to be too much. It’s absolutely okay to take breaks from trying to take the world by storm, from trying to carve a place for our child in the wider world, and to take care of ourselves so that we can emerge refreshed and ready to wade back into the challenges of working for inclusion.

This is a book that any parent of autistic children will find entertaining and helpful. I highly recommend it.

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