The Bridge: The Approach

So I decided to title the series The Bridge, since that is essentially what you’re doing in this line of work. I hope that the series helps not only workers (whether a Specialist, Interventionist, Counselor, etc.) who are anxious about entering into this field, but also autistic people who may wonder why the heck we do what we do sometimes.

The first session is always the scariest one. Here’s the truth: no matter how experienced or confident you are, you’re going to be nervous. It’s a brand new client, and a brand new family. You (hopefully) know that you cannot approach this client exactly the same way you approach others, because you know that if you’ve met one autistic person…you’ve met one autistic person.

So what is the first thing you do? Jump straight into what they’re doing? Parallel play nearby? Redirect them to an activity of your choosing?

Me? I observe.

I usually tell the family that the first session is the introduction session and that I’m taking mental notes. In my silence, I start to answer several questions and make observations. Let’s use a kiddo I will call Peter as an example. Peter will be a composite of several different clients I’ve had in the past. He will also be a younger client since many of you that the series is intended for probably work in early intervention. I will rotate my example clients throughout the series.

So when I walk into Peter’s room, the little tyke is paying me little to no attention. He is walking around, humming to himself, and then briefly makes eye contact. I make a mental note of about how long the eye contact was (maybe one second) and will keep an eye on how many times he does it. He then retreats into a corner of the room, on the other side of the bed. So he has some kind of coping skill; he knows when to remove himself from a situation if he feels anxious or unsafe. I don’t follow him over.

While he is there, I ask his parents for some information: preferred toys, daily routine (I take another mental note if there is a lack of one), gross motor activities (does he do a lot of jumping, running, spinning?), family participation (do siblings engage or not, and what is his usual response?). Is Peter overly cautious, or does he throw fear to the wind?

I’m not writing any of this down, but I am starting to build a Peter profile of sorts in my head. All of us do this to some degree with people in our lives, and I assume that Peter is doing something similar with me. These first impressions set the stage for the entire process, so I don’t want to cause him any unnecessary fear or anxiety. The biggest thing I try to avoid is pushing myself into his safe zone too much. For session one, I just want him to know that I am there, I will be coming back, and that I want to play. I tell him this at the start and the end of the session; just because he’s not looking at me, doesn’t mean he’s not listening.

Goal of session one: Recon

For session two, I plan to come baring items of interest.

New Series

After thinking about it for awhile, I decided to write a series about how I work with my clients. I have met many newcomers to the autism therapy community, some coming into their very first job, and they often hit the ground running with very little knowledge of how to interact with their new client. In the companies that I have worked for, most of the training falls on the lower level supervisors. Unfortunately, they are usually swamped and can’t do full on training until their schedules allow them to shadow or meet with their employees. I know this because I have been the supervisor before.

My hope is that this series of articles will help incoming interventionists and specialists look at their charges not from the standpoint of data collection or trial running, but from the standpoint of relationship building and earning trust. While every client is different, there are some universal truths to interacting with any human being that (for some odd reason) I have sometimes seen ignored when dealing with autism.

I will probably start this early next week, walking you through my experiences as a therapist, interventionist, and specialist. I hope that some of you that are new to your positions and the field get a feel for what sessions can be like, and why you really shouldn’t take a lot of things personal or be too hard on yourself. For those who are “veterans,” I hope to remind you of why you do the work that you do. 🙂

Next week’s first article is: The Approach

Autism Empathy Kit

First, a lovely Happy New Year to all of you! I hope you had as much fun saying goodbye to 2016 as I did!

Being that my business is all about expanding autism awareness and acceptance, I was intrigued by this article about an empathy kit. It was created by a design student who has an autistic sibling. It addresses quite a few of the sensory challenges of autism, including taste, hearing, and vision. Combining something like this with my presentations could make for an even more engaging experience for those who take the trainings.

Check out the article and let me know what you think. Is this a good start on such a concept? What would you add or adjust with the kit?

Autism Empathy Kit

Also, if you know any groups or organizations who would love an interactive and informative introduction to understanding autism, send them to my classes page or drop me an email!

Police Autism App

Technology really is incredible, if you think about it. A great example of this is the article below, about a Minnesota police officer created an app to help officers if they encounter an autistic person. If they get within 40 feet of someone on the spectrum, they are given not just a name and photo sent to their phone, but some quick info of what can cause behaviors (loud noises, for example) and how to calm the person.

I have no idea where the police get that type of information from (a database, maybe?), and that could lead to a whole discussion of privacy issues (could employers have access to that information during background checks?). The article does not go into that much detail about…well, the details. I think it is intriguing, though, and I am glad that police across the country are starting to address this issue. It will be interesting to see how this continues to develop.

New autism app for police being tested

Good work, Boynton Beach!

This city is about 15-20 minutes from my hometown. I applaud their efforts to get their city employees more aware (and accepting!) of autism. I hope they continue their work, and that other cities follow their lead. They made some amazing adjustments, from visual aids in lobbies, to HR personnel learning that lack of eye contact does not necessarily mean that the person is being rude.

Read the story here: 

My First Autism Trainings

Over the past two months, I have had the amazing opportunity to talk with volunteers from a great nonprofit about autism.

These two trainings (with one more coming up in about two weeks) were more than just throwing up a PowerPoint and shooting off some stats about autism. I always wanted it to be more than that. We had discussions. We dispelled myths. We got personal as the volunteers began to realize that the behavior of those around them made so much more sense now. I met one volunteer’s autistic teen son and had a rousing conversation about Pokemon Go and what he wants to do for a career. I spoke with clients of the nonprofit itself who listened in out of curiosity. For some, they walked in with the extent of their knowledge of autism consisting of the movie Rain Man. They left knowing more, and most importantly, wanting to know much more. One even asked if she could bring her teen children to the next training.

This is the gap I hope to fill. The concept of autism awareness has become, to me, something of a gimmick. Light everything in blue, raise some money, and then business as usual until next year. Meanwhile, families continue to face battles everyday coming from the lack of actual awareness and acceptance in the world at large. Hardly anyone in my trainings knew that autism had anything to do with sensory processing and sensitivity. They didn’t know that an autism “meltdown” is different from a regular tantrum. They had no idea what having autism feels or looks like.

They know now.

If that 1.5 hour training helps them understand, build acceptance, and be willing to talk to someone whose experience is different from theirs without judgement, then I consider it Mission Accomplished.

FYI: The nonprofit where I have been training volunteers is called the JW House, a place for families of hospitalized individuals to unwind and feel welcomed. Check them out below!

The JW House

The Interview/Rejection

I’ve seen some great videos come out of the National Autistic Society in the UK about the autism experience. I really wish that the US organizations would take a similar approach, but hopefully we’ll get there. I want to hear from some of you: do you think that this video captures some aspects of adult autism? Is there anything that is different in your personal experience? I would love to use it in an upcoming training, but I wanted to see what others thought first.


Night Owl Ramblings

I just put the finishing touches on the first of many different classes that I believe to be my life’s work. While helping people uncover their purpose is the biggie, I also have a strong desire to educate others about autism. The training I finished up tonight is the latter.

I drew this from the many experiences I have observed, participated in, and read about from those on the spectrum. I don’t like just getting up and spewing facts and diagnostic criteria. I really want people to understand what the autism experience is like, and in understanding, learn to approach with acceptance rather than judgement or fear.

Despite the years of Autism Awareness Month, I am quickly learning that many people still have no real idea of what autism is. In fact, their understanding is limited to Rain Man and “out of control” kids, and that’s about it. Kids have started using the word “autistic” as an online insult, much in the way that “retarded” was used in the past. For all of the walks and fundraising that is done every April, why is it that such a large percent of the population do not have a more accepting view of it?

I kind of answered my own question there: awareness and acceptance are two different ideas. I have definitely seen evidence that a lot of people are aware that autism exists; I think that goal has been fairly well achieved. It’s time to switch gears to acceptance. Unfortunately, the very agencies that started the awareness campaign do not seem too keen on promoting acceptance of autism. They’d prefer if it was “cured.”

I find myself in a unique position to change the narrative, a few people at a time. I have the opportunity to help shape a different way of looking at not just autism, but the power of human spirit and potential overall.

The awesome thing is, so do you.

Conversations on Facebook have opened and challenged some of my friends to think beyond their ideas of what “special needs” really means. I have other friends who do this everyday as well. We can make a difference. We can teach others. Speak your stories. Share your knowledge. This goes triple if you are on the spectrum yourself, because YOU are the expert on it. Not me, not a BCBA. YOU. Everything I learned, I learned from my clients. They have taught me and made me a better person.

I went off on a bit of a tangent, which is typical for me after midnight, so I’ll end by saying that I am super excited about tomorrow (a little nervous as well), and that hopefully all will go well.

Un-training Myself

*NOTE: I could see this post upsetting some people, so fair warning…this is me and my processing in action. This is me attempting to understand a perspective outside of myself, and in the process of trying to understand, you are almost bound to offend someone along the way. I’d just appreciate refraining from any inflammatory responses, that’s all. Anyway, onward we go…

The past few weeks of indirect research has been an eye-opener, to say the least. I wasn’t specifically looking for anything for my literature review, but I wanted to hear more from the adult autistic viewpoint, something I had just started really looking at late last year because my life work has always revolved around kids and teenagers. What I am discovering is making me realize that a decent amount of how I was trained when it comes to autism is not only wrong, it is deplorable.

The first lesson that made me start to question a sizable chunk of (especially) more recent training was the entire “first person language” mindset that so many autism workers and therapists have. I mean, it’s everywhere. People correct you on the daily about it. So imagine my surprise when I emailed an autistic professor at my school for some feedback on my thesis idea, and he politely informed me that most autistic adults find the first person language insulting. The record in my head came to a screeching halt. Wait, so…my trainers with the boatload of autism experience and degrees/certifications weren’t right?

Now I suddenly found myself in not just uncharted territory, but to me, scary territory. The last thing I ever want to do is demean people, and the fact that I had been doing it unwittingly for some years now horrified me. As I started to read more and more from the growing presence of the autistic adult community online, I began to realize that a LOT of my trainers in the field got quite a bit wrong. My challenge now was to re-train my brain on my own. I realized one day that to do this, I simply had to make one observation.

I am a black female, and with that label comes pluses and minuses. Sadly, in the United States, it includes a lot more minuses than pluses. So I thought about it from my own viewpoint, and the re-training began. I would balk at someone if they constantly referred to me as “a person with blackness” or “a woman with melanin.” No, I’m a black woman, end of story. I don’t see my skin color as an asset or a liability per se, it is simply who I am. I also have heard people say to me something to this effect: “It’s amazing how intelligent and well-spoken you are despite being black.” Maybe not those exact words, but you get the point. Again…what? So in other words, those people came in with a very clear and very low expectation of me and were just sooo amazed that I surpassed it. The expectation shouldn’t really be there to begin with, especially with regards to my race.

I could go on and on about that, but the bottom line is that this little exercise helped me to get it. In both cases (being black or being autistic), we are born with it (or at least the scientific evidence with autism is pointing in that direction, environmental factors or not). It is not to be ridiculed or worshiped, it is who we are. This is not to say that the experiences of both are the same, because they certainly aren’t. I needed a way to redefine in my mind what it meant to be autistic after hearing…well, crap…for so long. This was the best way for me to do it, by looking at “whole person” rather than “first person” in reference to my own experience. In doing that, I’ve realized that there is a lot of work to be done, both within myself and in the therapeutic community. I’m ready to roll my sleeves up and do that.