Have you ever had an experience where you heard a statement that just seemed to stick in the back of your head? Almost like your internal dialogue, you hear the statement from time to time, sometimes when you least expect it. After a while, that statement begins to impact the way you think, and over time it can even change the lens through which you interpret new information.
Well, I had an experience just like this almost 4 years ago at a conference. See I was a well-meaning, but frankly, uninformed therapist attending a conference to learn “all I could” in 3 days about autism. Don’t worry it’s okay to laugh at my naivety, I do now too. See, I had begun serving primarily autistic non-speaking clients and I wanted to be the best therapist and service provider possible to them, but I didn’t know-how. Serving these individuals was not something that was covered in lectures or textbooks in my college social work classes and seemed to be a foreign concept to many providers.
At the time, I thought I was doing all the right things to support my clients. I wore blue to spread awareness, I bought every puzzle piece pin I could find, I even ran a marathon in full Autism Speaks gear to raise money for autism awareness, I read every book and journal article I could get my hands on, I spent countless hours scouring the internet for practice advice, and I contacted other providers who may have experience in the field. However, the opportunities for learning about providing therapy to autistics still seemed to be limited—something was missing. So, in my mind, I thought I was going to find all the answers at one professional conference, this conference. Looking back, the funny thing is I did, but not in the way that I expected. It was during a panel discussion led by autistic self-advocates on service provision, not a traditional session led by a researcher or practitioner, that I realized my good intentions were misplaced and, in some ways, hurtful. I was not actually listening.
The aha moment that sparked my own personal journey toward acceptance, inclusion, and better service provision came when an autistic adult shared her thoughts with the audience. She explained that she never understood why people read scholarly articles and books about autism. She stated, “Why don’t people just ask me or someone else who is autistic about autism.” At the time I remember thinking, “Yes! Yes! Why don’t we? Why don’t I?” It all seemed so clear at that moment! Why do we spend more time as providers and people reading articles and listening to podcasts from “experts” in the field or awareness groups instead of listening to autistic voices? As a mental health provider and treatment director my goal is to provide services and to hear from my clients, so why wasn’t I now? Autistics, even non-speaking autistics can communicate and teach us about autism.
From time to time the statement from the conference pops into my mind and speaks to me. It reminds me of what I need to do and how I can best support my clients and community—Listen. Hopefully, as we enter Autism Acceptance Month this post will encourage you to listen. Listen to autistic voices, seek information and education from autistics, and learn from them.