Welcome to April!
April is known for many things: rain showers, egg decorating, colorful dresses, and in the world of counseling: Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness and Autism Awareness. At Hope and Growth Center, one of our goals is to provide resources and information to individuals and families based on our own special interests as Clinicians. On Buckets of Hope, Sarah has done an amazing job of sharing information from both a personal and professional perspective on the area of Childhood Sexual Abuse.
For those who do not know me, I am Dawn Hensley and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, Registered Play Therapist, Certified Sandtray Therapist, AutPlay Provider, and a 2w3 on the Enneagram.
Sarah and I have known each other for years now and in 2020 she welcomed me on board with Hope and Growth Center. Professionally I never thought going into graduate school that my focus would be on anyone under the age of 18 but God had other plans for me. Now I focus my time on attachment, trauma, and Autism. Autism has a special place in my heart not just because of the limited resources available in the field but also because I am blessed with two younger siblings on the Spectrum.
There are many uncertainties in Autism but for the focus of this blog, I wanted to share some reflections I have gained working with these individuals and some of their opinions on what it means to have Autism.
- The importance of language. Professionals and Non alike go back and forth between how to reference the “label” of Autism. Is it “a person with Autism? Is it Autistic? Is it a disability? Is it neurodivergent? Is it a handicap? Is it wired differently? Is it being on the Spectrum?”
The answer is IT IS UP TO THE PERSON. As a professional, I reference more often than not as having Autism but I always check with the person I am working with to see how they interpret the diagnosis. Most of the time, I have seen people be matter of fact about their diagnosis and open to talk about it, claiming their own unique language about the label. If someone says they are Aspie, Autistic, or Neurodivergent, it’s important not to correct them, claiming their usage of those terms helps them feel understood. For those who have been using that language, it is important they reference themselves that way because for them, being on the Spectrum completely shapes how they interact in the world. It’s the first filter they use to engage, it can be a wonderful skill for successfully navigating life.
- Do people on the Spectrum need to know? Won’t giving them a label hold them back?
Unequivocally yes to needing to know. If you suspect your child or you may have Autism, it is important to seek proper assessment and start encouraged recommendations at an early age. Early intervention is not to “cure” because there is nothing to be “cured” (more on this later in the blog). Intervention is to get as much practice as possible to ensure grasp on life skills while the mind is as mailable as possible. Knowing how the Autistic brain filters information and the best avenues for processing new skills is essential to as independent living as possible as an adult. Getting a label does NOT hold them back from anything. In recent years, many employers have started hiring individuals with Autism specifically because of how amazing their brains function under specific structures of employment.
- What about the tantrums/meltdowns and stubborn streaks?
For younger people on the spectrum and their families, this can be one of them most draining and debilitating experiences. The full-on meltdown from sensory overload, the tantrum turned sour and the straight up defiance. During these times, your child needs you to REMAIN CALM. This is a moment that can get engrained in their steel trap memories. They need to see you as someone who is not going to come undone and start feeding their frenzy with your own fire. Modeling deep breathing for yourself and for them is the first step. The Autistic brain is very logic oriented and is more than likely focused a very specific part of a problem. Ask them what part of the problem they want help with first. It is not the time for long explanations or instruction about how to act more regulated.
If this cycle of tantrums goes on for long enough, many families will resist the chaos by changing around the whole system to accommodate the triggers of the child. It can create systems in which the whole feels like they are walking on eggshells. This is not the way to encourage growth. After the incident has occurred, generating a clear step by step on how to solve the problem or reduce frustration for next time is needed and will need to be practiced more than once outside of the actual incident. Think like fire drills.
- Consistency and Routine
They need it! To know all the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a situation is vital. This allows time for them to process what pieces don’t make sense, to ask questions, and for you as the parent to notice potential trigger spots. They can’t always have it and that’s okay too but if possible, it should be given. The natural maturation process of seeing others do new skills and picking them up, grow out of habits, and desire to take initiative isn’t their strong suit. If they need to learn how to do something, it must be taught and it has to be done consistently. “Why do I STILL have to tell them or remind them how to do something?” It’s not natural for them as it may not fit their formula for how life works. It’s okay, just keep sending them through the pattern. They will want their preferred activities, it’s okay for them to earn that time but they need to know when they are going to get it.
- Hypocrisy, WATCH OUT!
Autistics can sniff out a hypocrisy a mile away! If you tell them something, you need to be careful what you say because they will hold you, the house, and the world to it. Especially if something is a “rule” and there are multiple children in the home…the naughty police are out. The social nuances of accommodation and each child gets treated differently, doesn’t fly here. They don’t enjoy a double standard and if they are being asked to do something to compromise, they expect the other party to also abide by the same standard. This can be part of learning to be flexible but in many cases, they aren’t wrong when they call something out for not being honored. Own the discrepancy, reflect back the statement, and work through solutions.
- Not Broken
This has come up with many of the young adults I work with as an area of extreme frustration. At this point in their lives, they have partly come to know that being Autistic, having ASD is just part of who they are and learn to live with it. Some working toward self-advocacy to let others know in social interactions about why they may interact differently. When speaking with them about experiences of perception by others, many reflect that, others see them as being unable to live life just like everyone else. Like they have a disease that prevents them from being wanted just as they are, people wanting them to be “normal.” This can be seen in some families in which the struggle to push life skills, reduce meltdowns, and connect naturally have been struggles so the family almost defaults to “keeping the peace.” This looks like young adults on the spectrum who are not competent in skills that they have the capacity to do but either don’t know they do or have not been encouraged to do. It’s almost a cutting off at the knees for some of these young people. People on the spectrum have great capacity to grow, they don’t know their limits until someone else decides it for them. Some adults will live completely independently while others live with a caregiver, others will fall somewhere in between.
- I want you to want me
A myth about people on the spectrum is that they do not enjoy social interactions. While it may be true for some, most Autistics will fall in the same percentiles as “neuro-typical” when it comes to introversion and extroversion. Connection is just as important for them as it is anyone else. They may be more difficult to connect with organically as their skill set for natural dialogue is not usually a gifting but they want to be engaged. Building a relationship with your person on the Spectrum takes time and you may not receive back the reciprocal banter but ask them questions and volunteer information about you/the activity/the situation. For the younger children, you can prompt them to ask the social questions or behavior. Like an actor needing a line from the director, it may just take a push.
The media has done its job and caricatured what is means to have ASD. One of the biggest portrayals in a character who has a super special gifting like an eidetic memory, musical prowess, fact encyclopedia memory, or Rubik’s cube solving in seconds. While some people can do these things more naturally because of their wiring, it is not a given. One of traits of Autism is an extreme hyperfocus on an area of special interest, for some it changes but others it is constant throughout their lives. They can sit and watch the same videos/shows/games for hours and recite information from it perfectly. It does not always mean they have processed all the information, just that they can recite it. If anyone had the same dedication to learning all there was to know about dragons/snakes/videogames/math/chemistry/trains/soap you could gain a strong proficiency as well. While their brains do tend to grasp onto their interests more rapidly and then to implement them into life practice, it should not be an assumption that they will have one.
- You know what they say about assumptions
Do you know someone with Autism? That’s amazing. Even with previous experience with an Autistic, use caution when interacting with others who are wading through this experience. It’s partly why it is referred to as a Spectrum. No two individuals or stories are alike. Your best of intentions could be deeply hurtful to someone else. Just because your method of interacting working for your person, doesn’t mean it will work with someone else. Assumptions can be exceptionally hurtful and leave little space for genuine connection. If you are curious about someone’s experience, ask them. It gives the space to know where they feel comfortable giving or receiving information/shared experiences.
In North Texas we are blessed with the University of North Texas who hosts a wealth of information.
Follow the links to find more information on Autism in DFW