2020: The Year of Hiking

A scene from today's hike at Skyline Ridge
[image: Young white man with short brown hair,
from behind, hiking a wide trail under tall oaks.]
2020 was, appropriately enough, the year in which my middle child turned 20. And despite the year's significant and unceasing horrors, which are being catalogued everywhere and which I do not need to list for you, I enjoyed the extra time I got to spend with my family, and specifically with that son. My crew and I are incredibly lucky, and I remain gratefully, painfully aware of that good fortune.

Because it's what we enjoy and due to a lack of other options, 2020 was, for me, a year of near-daily hiking. Most of it was with my 19- and then 20-year-old, some of it was with my eldest, some with my husband, some with my youngest, some with a combination thereof. It was all beautiful. We could hike a different trail each day in this picturesque, varied Bay Area, and never repeat ourselves. 

Yet many of our cherished trails were destroyed or badly marred in 2020. Sometimes I felt like we cursed these places just by visiting them during this upside-down year, even though I know this mindset is both egotistical and silly. But consider that our redwood pilgrimage site Big Basin State Park burned down the very day after we hiked it. Our favorite and frequented short coastal hike, Cascade Creek, burned black in that same CZU complex fire, which cost so many Santa Cruz Mountains residents their homes and livelihoods. The Oat Hill Mine Trail, with its dizzying views of Napa Valley, and which my husband and I hiked just before lockdown, was partially burned in this summer's Glass fire and is closed until further notice. South San Francisco's Sign Hill Park was torched by teen arsonists within a month of our visit. And, for variety's sake, human remains were found in San Bruno Mountain park, shortly after we'd hiked there. Perhaps you can understand my unease.

Hiking also helps me grapple with one of this year's most devastating losses, the death of Mel Baggs. Mel's compassionate but unyielding advocacy on behalf of disabled people like (and also unlike) Leo can't be replaced—but we can keep spreading those teachings, like what self-advocacy actually means:

"Self-advocacy doesn't mean staff get to pat us on the head, use the right buzzwords, tell us what wonderful little self-advocates we are, and then chastise us or put us on a behavior program when we get angry at them about their controlling behavior."

As Leo and I continue to hike through the redwoods Mel loved, and as my son's laughter rings through the trees, as my heart swells because who couldn't be happy in the presence of such joy—I hope that by doing our best to give Leo a good life and let him know how much he is adored, we are doing a small part to live Mel's legacy. Though we didn't do much else this year, I consider loving and being loved a win.

Bite me, 2020.  


Autism versus Face Masks and Maskholes

image: Two photos: Left: Iz as a baby wearing overall made from marbled green fabric; right: Iz right now wearing a face mask made out of the very same fabric.
Baby Iz versus Pandemic Iz
[image: Two photos: Left: Iz as a baby wearing overall made from marbled
green fabric; right: Iz right now wearing a face mask of the very same fabric.]

We're several months into mandatory pandemic face masking, and my son still can't wear a mask. It's not for lack of trying; he knows he's supposed to wear one, and we talk about how they help protect people from COVID-19 and why it is a deadly and contagious virus. When I put my mask on, he puts his on, too. And then, because the feeling of a mask on his face is intolerable for autistic sensory reasons, he takes that mask right off again. I don't know if he'll ever be able wear a mask for more than sixty seconds.

And this is why I am highly irritated by parents of autistic kids saying that “if my kids can do it,” then other people can’t complain about wearing masks: It sets a dangerously ableist precedent for forced mask compliance. And for those arguing, “He's talking about denialist maskholes, not making other autistic and disabled people to wear masks,” you don’t understand how compliance contagion works in the autism parenting sphere, or how stories like this get weaponized by ABA providers and others who work with people like my son. This example will be used to force autistic people to wear masks. And I'm pissed about it.

And yes, of course, some autistic people can wear masks given practice and patience. But others will never be able to, for a variety of reasons (some of which I wrote about in the Washington Post a couple of months ago). Still other autistic people totally get why they should wear a mask, while simultaneously struggling with wearing one:
If you are responsible for supplying an autistic person's masks, then it's a good idea to try them on yourself, first, and try to determine if they are scratchy, or rough, or pull in weird ways. I personally can tolerate masks that go over my ears, but dislike those that cinch my skull. Gaiters may work for some, but they are also more permeable than a face mask and so reduce protection. Other autistic folks find that mask brackets help reduce a mask's sensory assault. I tend to go with the standard blue disposable medical masks: They go over our ears, the interior is soft, and Leo can put them on himself. But the ear straps do break easily, so I always have a backup mask with me just in case.
Another mask stressor for us is that our county now fines people for violating pandemic mask guidelines. While California state law gives people with I/DD an exemption from mask wearingIt's usually clear that Leo's not wearing a mask because he can't, as when we're in public I have one on though he doesn't. But I still worry about law enforcement making first-glance assumptions, and that leading to an encounter in which my son's behavior might be misinterpreted. 

I am also upset about jerks using fake ADA cards to get out of wearing masks: It's such a callow, ableist dodge, as well as total bullshit, and here's why: 
The U.S. Department of Justice says"The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations." This means that while the ADA does say disabled people need to be “reasonably accommodated” when working with employers, public businesses and the government, it does NOT allow mask exemptions "without replacing it with another measure in line with public health requirements.No one gets to go maskless if doing so endangers themselves or others.
And last in my list of mask grievances: maskless joggers who run right through other people's social distancing bubbles. Doing so is a blatant dick move as well as a health code violation. It shouldn't matter that taking the time to safely distance interrupts an exerciser's rhythm or heart rate or whatever else they're tracking. This is a pandemic, we're all having to make changes for the greater good. Pull up your mask for five seconds, run around the other people if possible, or stop for five seconds until you can pass the other person safely. FFS.
We're handling Leo's inability to wear a mask by diligent handwashing and application of hand sanitizer, and by avoiding any spaces in which safe social distancing isn't possible. To be very clear, safe social distancing means:
  1. At least six feet between us and anyone else
  2. Being outdoors, away from enclosed spaces with shared or recirculated air
  3. Ideally, a good breeze 
Those last two are important because we're learning that good ventilation may be as crucial as hygiene in preventing COVID-19 transmission. And for us, this mean we are taking lots and lots and lots and lots of hikes in remote local areas, in open, breezy spaces with wide paths. (Shout out to Peninsula Open Space, whose maps now highlight trails wider than six feet in bright green.) With the exception of essential medical appointments—in which all staff take maximum precautions—Leo doesn't go indoors except in his own home. 

Leo and his dad, seen from behind, walking down a trail to a cove.
[image: Leo and his dad, seen from behind, walking down a trail to a cove.]

I’m relieved we have safety measures besides masks, because it’s crucial to keep my son healthy. Research indicates that people like Leo who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are four times more likely to get COVID-19, and twice as likely die from it, which is scary AF.

I am also terrified at the thought of my son and people who share his disabilities being hospitalized under pandemic conditions. Leo struggles with hospital environments, even in ideal times. He needs full time, 1:1 support, and while our state of California allows people with I/DD to have support people stay in the hospital with them, this isn't yet universal. And even if one of us were to stay with him, pandemic safeguards and protocols would make that experience exponentially more stressful and fraught than usual.
And even though Federal civil rights prohibit medical rationing and discrimination against people with disabilities, if hard choices need to be made about who gets that ventilator, I worry that my son may be denied care because of negative stereotypes about disabled people's quality of life, as recently happened with the death of Michael Hickson. Not being able to wear a mask is a minor worry, by contrast.

I am bummed that masking has become a fraught issue with bombast on both sides: Those who refuse to wear masks for "personal freedom" or "I don't believe in science" reasons, and then people who emblazon their cars with "Mask It or Casket" slogans, and insist that anyone who doesn't wear a mask is a selfish asshole or doesn't understand how masks protect people from the coronavirus. 
So, my plea: If you can wear a mask, please please PLEASE do. If you can't, please protect yourself by social distancing and hand-washing. And if you see a dude not wearing a mask and he's not close enough to imperil you, leave him alone. You might be looking at my son.


On Always Always Always Learning

White teen boy with short brown hair wearing a baseball cap, seen from behind, sitting on a wooden park bench overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
We are also Always, Always, Always Hiking.
[image: White teen boy with short brown hair wearing a baseball cap, seen from
behind, sitting on a wooden park bench overlooking the San Francisco Bay.]

My partially–speaking autistic son recently learned to say "excuse me" after he farts. 

This is important for many reasons. We are a gassy crew, and we fart a lot, so this is a good skill for all of us to have. But it's also important from the perspective of having confidence in him, in that he is always learning, and that we need to keep encouraging him to do so. 

Like many autistic people, my son requires often requires a lot of practice before acquiring a new skill. Not always, but often. We practiced the post-explosive apology for weeks before it stuck—though, like his siblings and mother, he still requires the occasional reminder about best flatulence practices. 

He's 19. He's nearing the age at which high-support disabled people like him are often approaching the transition from structured school environments into the great unsupported unknown of adulthood. I worry that for many parents, this transition is accompanied by a tendency to abandon learning now that our offspring are "grown." Or settling into doing things for our kids, because it's easier—things like toweling off after bathing when they can do it with support, guidance and/or patience—but it takes less time when we do it for them. 

But, we also know from autistic people who are able to self-report that they continue to acquire skills throughout their lives, more so than their non-autistic peers. So I am always encouraging the learning. Sometimes this means me talking about everything he and I see as we go on our many many local socially-distanced hikes, sometimes this means reading books about interesting things, sometimes this means having podcasts playing as we drive—when he's interested in them, that is; another recently taught skill is his ability to navigate the bluetooth enabled car stereo system, and like many teen boys, our hero has decided musical preferences. 

Whether he demonstrates to me that he has learned is less important to me than providing opportunities for him to learn, in ways that he's amenable to. Though when he does demonstrate learning—usually through an offhanded comment, or "suddenly" deciding to act on a skill he's been practicing, I am always glad for him, because he's usually glad for himself.

And also, we are all always learning, aren't we? (Right? Or am I being naive yet again?) I am obsessive with the podcasts, though I get irritated when they get banter-y or chatty because I want the information please. I try my best to listen to disability advocates who are destroying accessibility and ableism barriers while building policy that will make live easier for my son and his entire disability community. And I still feel like I know so, so little and never enough, and of course still make big mistakes. But even when learning is painful and humiliating, in my experience it is worth doing. 


Pandemic Greetings from Our Backyard

We are fortunate in that we can all learn and work from home during the pandemic lockdown, now on week…10?  Maybe? Time has lost any meaning without our usual school, work, and commute structures, which is both good and bad. My only complaint is the difficulty of carving out any alone time, which as an introvert is helpful for my mental health and energy levels/ability to not yell at people who aren't doing anything wrong. But that is a very minor issue right now. Very minor.

Still, yesterday was a beautiful spring day, so while the kids were engaged in the house but within earshot, I snuck out to the yard for some blissful hammock time. 

[image: My stubby feet and legs in a rainbow hammock.
Flowering jacaranda trees and oaks are in the background.]
Thing is, whatever I do, a certain someone also likes to do (this makes it hard for him when we go on our neighborhood hikes, because I wear a face make, but he can't bear having his nose and mouth covered). I did get in about five minutes of bliss before being politely asked to surrender my spot.

[image: Leo chilling in the same hammock as previous photo.] 
There's just so much wrong in the world right now, most of which I am processing on Thinking Person's Guide to Autism social media. Because of all the suckage, I'm hoping these two peaceful scenes will be as soothing to you as they were for us. And I hope you are doing OK, in your context.