I love my job. I really do. I love working with all minds on the ASD spectrum. It is a mind that is quirky, different, straight down the line, focused but also often overloaded from input. It is quite amazing for me when I can communicate with an ASD mind that can so beautifully articulate their experiences in this social world we live in. It is so incredibly insightful. If you are reading this you are likely a fellow professional, parent, friend or partner of an individual on the autism spectrum, which means you have probably had these insightful moments yourself. To me, an insightful moment is when an experience you thought you might have understood is described from the perspective of an ASD mind which makes you go “wow, so that’s how it truly is for you.”
I see a lovely adolescent client, who has ASD that I have worked with for years, and he will often come out with remarkable comments or ways of explaining his experiences in sessions that help me understand him better. One particular session we were on fire discussing aspects of ASD, and it became one of those insightful moments. With his permission, I wanted to share some topic points discussed. I wanted to share these because I loved the way he can describe relevant experiences on his journey so far from his adolescent mind, and I loved his passion in wanting to give advice to other children and parents who also live the ASD journey. Professionals in the field are only professionals because we have read literature/books and are using our experiences to share knowledge through what we have seen, heard and experienced ourselves with individuals on the autism spectrum. However, we cannot possibly always explain it or understand it the way an individual with ASD does. We also don’t always get it right! A person living with ASD might have a totally different perspective as to what is going on and why. It is always so important to stop and listen to these insightful moments, to validate them and to try and then consider a potentially different way of understanding. It can change your approach, relationship and more importantly your connection with them.
So let’s delve into the insightful moments from an adolescent ASD mind! Please keep in mind this is only one individual and their personal experience of living with ASD which may be different to others, but it is still a voice. I am someone who always wants to listen to and take on board what an ASD voice has to say.
Our first topic, as he liked to put it, is when “we lose our shit” (I had to giggle at the awesome terminology). He went on to describe that the brain gets cloudy, he cannot think and he cannot be rational. This helps explain why the ‘tools’ we teach for emotional regulation cannot always be successfully implemented in that moment! He also made a profound comment in saying he needs to ‘lose it’ otherwise he will just carry it around and it will burst anyway. This notion is something I am familiar with, but it was refreshing to hear him speak these words. I think of it like a bucket – there are so many stressors in dealing with the social unpredictable world every day (and all of these go against the grain of an ASD mind) that the bucket builds and builds until that one trigger (even if it looks minuet to us) makes the bucket boil over and a meltdown must follow, as it is the only way to empty the bucket. He told me he feels so much better after a big meltdown … that in itself says a lot. So let’s consider that it is not about stopping every meltdown, but more about creating a safe way to experience it and release the build-up.
We then started to talk about special interests. He stated that his brain is very specific in its focus, then corrected this to extremely specific in its focus. He commented that he will be drawn to something and his brain has to keep checking it. He also stated that his brain can so easily wrap his mind around these things. However, once he is bored his brain automatically shuts down and turns off. Another insight which validates if we are not linking everyday mundane learning tasks to a special interest or something their brain can wrap itself around, it will shut down. We need to capture this special skill of being able to give 110% focus by using what their brain wants to wrap itself around. Another validation that motivation and using special interests in learning or getting ‘uninteresting’ tasks done is so important and simply necessary for the brain.
School also came up as a topic, and he very strongly stated that ‘school is the hardest thing.’ He named triggers such as sound, people, rules and bullying as making it such a hard day. He was also passionate in saying ‘it is an excuse in itself not to accommodate, they don’t care.’ Now I have worked with many wonderful schools who set up and implement the most amazing accommodations but I also support his point. Schools are still learning about the ASD brain and how to teach, and let’s face it, it’s a tough job setting up a school day and classroom as being completely ASD friendly. We have a lot of work to do in this area because clearly our children are still feeling very stressed at school. This will be one of the biggest areas your child will need your advocacy in. Home schooling is now working for him beautifully, and I think this is because the day can be structured to suit his ideal learning times, environment and it is safe for him when he needs to ‘lose it.’
His final point was that he sees different as being better and cool (he is very proud of having ASD) but that there is fear there because you don’t want to come across to others as being different, especially to your peers. My validation here is don’t underestimate underlying anxiety your child might have in knowing they are different and knowing that they have to do things that are different to their peers. Validate this notion, protect their self-esteem, celebrate different but also ensure teacher, peers and family also understand and talk about and celebrate different. Whole family and class approaches to strategies can make all the difference.
Insightful moments bring the ASD and the neuro-typical world together – an unstoppable combination!