Letting Birds Fly: The link between parrot training and neurodiversity

Birds were not meant to live in cages. They were meant to fly. Their natural instincts tell them to forage, scream, and avoid people. Wanting a bird to cuddle and talk is contradictory to their true nature. Teaching bids skills that are unnatural to them requires an immense amount of trust from both the trainer and the parrot. No two birds are the same. Some take to training easily while others respond with fear and aggression. A successful parrot trainer acknowledges a bird’s desire to express their true nature and learns how to respectfully communicate with their bird. Biting, screaming, and flying are natural parrot behaviors. They only become problems when humans are involved. Training a parrot means learning their language and loving them on their terms.

I feel a kinship with the birds that I train. My parrot and I speak different languages, similar to the way that neurotypical people and I speak different languages. Hearing my bird calmly grind his beak as he soothes himself to sleep reminds me of the sound of my incessant fastening and unfastening of the button on my jacket sleeve, and I understand the bird is calm. Watching his feathers fearfully dampen as he retreats to the corner of his cage is similar to how I might wince from an unwelcome gaze. While my parrot and I speak different languages, we share a common desire to communicate with the world in a manner suited to us.

Just as my bird’s beak grinding is a sign of content, his bite is a sign of fear. Many people make the mistake of taking a bite personally. A bite means that a bird needs his space. He has been pushed to his limit, and he needs his trainer to respect that. Although a bite may bleed, it is simply a form of communication. A pet bird has been stripped of nearly all his freedom. He lives in a cage around the schedule of a human. He cannot control what he eats, what he drinks, or when his cage is cleaned, and he was made to fly. One thing he can control is his beak, and when people fail to read a bird’s body language, the bird will use his beak to communicate his need for space. Birds need respect, and only trainers who treat their parrots with it will break that biting habit.

The most respectful thing a trainer can do for a bird is teach them to fly. Birds are incredibly human. They feel empathy and pain. They remember people who are kind (or not) to them for decades. They have a capacity for love, and there is no denying the presence of a soul. But, the most striking difference between a bird and human is that birds can fly. Flight training is completely necessary for a bird to reach his full potential. The only time their lungs reach full capacity is during flight. The sunlight makes their feathers shine. Finally, they have the freedom to explore and play. Humans were not made to fly. Therefore, we will never understand how vital flying is to the life of a bird. I understand that birds need to fly to reach their full potential. I Understand this, yet I will never soar above the trees like they do. I am not built for it. I will never fully understand neurotypical people, and they will never fully understand me. We were built to excel at different things. Yet, to deny either one of us our true nature is to deny the world the greatest gifts we have to offer it. We speak different languages, but truly all we want is to communicate. It is possible for us to come together and improve the world for both autistic and neurotypical people. But, for this to happen we need to remember to treat each other respect, even when misunderstandings occur. We need to stop taking bites personally, stop clipping each other’s wings, and accept our differences as a part of human diversity.

Autistic people are still people. We feel empathy and pain. We remember people who are kind (or not) for decades. Despite what people may think, we have a tremendous capacity for love, and there is no denying the presence of a soul. Just because other people must learn our language to see these things does not mean they do not exist. Autistic people must also remember this lesson and treat our neurotypical counterparts with the same respect we so desperately desire. We all fly differently, and even though we may never understand each other’s perspective, we must not deny anyone the privilege of spreading their wings.

The Story of How my Parrot Died


Both us looking snazzy and happy

Birds are considered exotic pets, and just like there is little information about proper bird care, there is also very little information about how to cope with the loss of a feathered friend. When my bird died, I was devastated and nobody seemed to understand why. I am writing this to add my voice to the few parrot owners out there brave enough to share their experiences of losing a bird. Their blogs, vlogs, and stories are helping me through this painful process. Hopefully, this blog post serves as a way to pay it forward.

Such a pretty bird ❤

Loki never liked his cage. I was unaware at the time that green cheek conures needed smaller cages to feel more secure. I purchased the largest cage I could afford and thought that I was giving my bird the best. When he hated everything about his cage, I remedied the situation by giving him more freedom than I should have. Every second I was home, we were together. I did this partially out of guilt. The thought of him feeling uncomfortable in his cage all day while I was working was unbearable. When my work hours increased and I had to spend more time away from home, the guilt felt like a physical weight on my chest.

The night that Loki died, I was attending a business function with my boss and did not get home until after 10 PM. My bird was not upset with me at all. He was just happy to see me. He climbed onto my shoulder like he belonged there and began chewing on my necklace, a nightly ritual for us both. That night, something was different. My necklace snapped in two, and the bird charm that rested on my heart fell to the floor.
“After all this time, you finally broke it,” I said feeling the empty space around my neck were the charm used to be.

Loki whispered the words, “I love you,” with his soft raspy voice in my ear as I stroked the feathers around his head. All that bird ever knew how to say was I love you, and I know he meant it.

My bird and I were exhausted. My twelve-hour workday had extended to sixteen, and my bird was always drained after spending more time in his cage than he liked. I laid down and let him nestle himself against my cheek. He smelled like warm down pillows. All I could think about was how guilty I felt for leaving him alone all day. I was so happy that he trusted me enough to fall asleep against my cheek.

I should put the bird away, I thought as I began to drift to sleep.

I should put the bird away

I should put the bird away

I should have put the bird away…

Waking up to find your best friend lifeless, suffocated by you in their sleep, is something I would not wish on my worst enemy. At first, I did not believe that he was dead, and tried desperately to wake him up from what I hoped was a deep sleep. After about fifteen minutes, I stopped and realized that I had just killed my best friend, and I knew better.

You can feel this now or you can feel this later, something inside me said.

I want to feel this now, I replied before breaking down in tears.

The tears streamed down my face like a monsoon, spilling into my mouth before falling onto the floor. My bird was gone, and he was never coming back. This bird loved me unconditionally and without restraint. Even though this bird had only been in my life for a short time, he changed me. He showed me what it meant to give everything you are to someone else without expecting anything in return. Loki was a model soul, and his untimely death shattered my world. All I wanted to do was vomit my feelings onto the floor and sweep them off the balcony. Loki was supposed to live twenty years. Losing him after only two months was more than I could bear.


Loki at the pet store

Birds are fragile, and it is difficult for even an experienced bird owner to protect their pet from everything that could go wrong. Because of this, parrot owners feel a lot of guilt with the passing of a bird. I feel an immense amount of guilt for the way that Loki died. No matter how a bird dies, the owner is always going to feel responsible. It is difficult to balance the idea of knowing that I could have prevented my bird’s death with the reality that life is unpredictable and it is impossible to prepare for everything.

Loki lived a happy life. Everyone adored him. Even though his time was brief, I am glad to have given him all of my love and attention. I did not know it, but I was waiting my whole life to meet that bird. He picked me, and that is the highest honor a bird can give a person. I harbor a lot of regret about the circumstances of his death, but I know that I loved him and that I tried my best. Those are the only two thoughts that matter.

This poem that BirdTricks (my favorite parrot training blog) shared about their bird, Bandit, has helped me quite a bit.

“I’ll lend you, for a little while, a bird of mine,” He said.
“For you to love while he lives, and mourn when he is dead.

It may be six or seven years, or maybe twenty-three,
But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me?

He’ll bring his charms to gladden you, and shall his stay be brief,
You’ll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief.

I cannot promise he will stay, as all from Earth return,
But there are lessons taught down there I want this bird to learn.

I’ve looked the whole world over in my search for teachers true,
And from the throngs that crowd life’s lanes, I have selected you.

Now will you give him all your love – not think this labor vain,
Nor hate me when I come to call, to take him back again.

I fancied that I heard them say, ‘Dear Lord, thy will be done.’
For all the joy this bird shall bring, the risk of grief we’ll run.

We’ll shower him with tenderness and love while we may,
And for the happiness we’ve known, forever grateful stay.

And should the angels call for him much sooner than we planned,
We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes, and try to understand.”

If, by your love, you’ve managed, my wishes to achieve,
In memory of him you’ve loved; be thankful; do not grieve.

Cherish every moment of your feathered charge.
He filled your home with songs of joy the time he was alive.
Let not his passing take from you those memories to enjoy.

“I will lend to you, a Bird”, God said, and teach you all you have to do.
And when I call him back to heaven, you will know he loved you too.

~Author unknown

Can We Cool It with the Receptions Please! My Thoughts about Networking on Capitol Hill

I am currently interning for a member of Congress on Capitol Hill with the hope of turning my internship into a full-time position, complete with health insurance and student loan repayments. The only problem is, so are the other couple thousand qualified Congressional interns. That’s right, each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives employs approximately three interns, and each of the 100 Senators employs approximately twenty. That means that Congress employs over three thousand interns at any given time! Three thousand interns who all have four months to fight for a handful of full-time positions. Three thousand interns who are ready to dedicate their entire existence to the Battle Royale that is job-hunting on Capitol Hill. The battle of choice is networking.

While this may be fine and dandy for most interns who seem to possess boundless energy to ensnare staffer after staffer to suffer through their elevator pitch, I an autistic person, am having a bit more difficultly learning how to play this new and relentless social game. I have never been interested in forming shallow relationships purely for personal gain. Yet, now I find myself attending receptions nightly and grabbing coffee with strangers regularly. I am told that I need to network like my life depends on it, my career certainly does. Seeing a familiar name on a resume is the only way it will stand out among the other thousand in the pile.

This behavior is not sustainable. Social interaction for neurotypical people is like driving an automatic car. The ride is smooth and effortless. For me, social interaction is having to reach my hand into the gearbox and force the gears and gear trains into position. My social vehicle drives in crooked lines and sometimes hits the occasional tree that came out of nowhere. This is what happens when something is considerably harder for one person than the majority. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to complete a task that most people find easy and trivial. The problem is that my entire career depends on my ability to perform that trivial task, a task that literally has nothing to do with my quality of work or performance as an employee.

I understand that hiring managers need a way to narrow the applicant pool from one thousand down to a manageable number, but when such a senseless amount of importance is placed on networking, it puts autistic people at a disadvantage. It is a shame. Autistic people are passionate, driven, and extremely politically active. Passion and written communication are a strength of autistic people. These are the two most important qualities that a legislative assistant or legislative correspondent can have. I believe very strongly that autistic employees would be nothing but an asset to Capitol Hill. All we need is the opportunity to prove it.

Autism Speaks doesn’t help autistic people

Originally published in the Daily Illini

Autism Speaks is one of the most terrible and disgraceful nonprofits in existence. Pardon my bluntness, but as one of the many autistic people currently suffering through Autism Awareness Month, I see it as my social responsibility to inform you all of how appalling and harmful this charity has historically been to autistic people.

I will start with my own personal story. I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in June of 2017 at the age of 20. DRES gave me a brief fact sheet with some of the symptoms of the disorder and told me not to Google it. Naturally, I did not listen and found myself on the Autism Speaks website. The first thing I saw was a poem that read, “I am autism. I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams. I will make sure every day you wake up and cry.” Ironically, I was so disturbed by what they said on their website that I cried for five days.

Only about 2 percent of Autism Speaks proceeds actually benefit autistic children and families. Most of their money goes toward lobbying, fundraising, and research to eradicate the autism gene. Their message perpetuates hatred and discrimination. It makes it difficult for people like me to find acceptance in a world that was already created without my specific needs in mind. It reduces me to a puzzle piece instead of a person. The only puzzle I see is how a charity so selfish and deceptive could become the face of the very people it oppresses.

If you really want to be an ally of the autistic community, advocate for inclusive policies, support self-advocacy networks like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and let us speak for ourselves.

Link to original: https://dailyillini.com/opinions/2019/04/05/autism-speaks-doesnt-help-autistic-people/#disqus_thread

Western Illinois needs funding

Originally Published in the Quad City Times

In 2017, Western Illinois University’s core expenses amounted to $243 million. While this may seem expensive, it is not much more than what Governor J.B Pritzker contributed to his own campaign last year. Pritzker’s total campaign donations amounted to $172 million. That would cover over 70 percent of WIUs core expenses.

Before becoming governor, Pritzker was a successful businessman and philanthropist who always found money to support worthy causes. In 2015, he donated $100 million to Northwestern’s law school. In 2002 he donated $30 million to the University of Chicago’s medical school. Considering how much money Pritzker spends contributing to his campaign and prestigious institutions with many affluent alumni donors, is it too much to ask him to give WIU a break?

WIU announced last week that it plans to cut 132 positions at both the Macomb and Quad City campuses. This accounts for 8 percent of WIU’s total workforce. The university, whose student population consists heavily of minorities and first-generation college students, does not have many wealthy alumni to gift it large sums of money. It is at the mercy of the state of Illinois and Gov. Pritzker for funding.

With our local university in jeopardy, it is more important than ever that our governor remains committed to fighting for quality education for everyone in Illinois.

Link to original: https://qctimes.com/opinion/letters/letter-western-illinois-needs-funding/article_a9abd733-6d32-5a97-b39b-f815f68ded06.html