Last week, Andrew wrote a blog about the logistics of getting counselling for your child, I would like to provide some insight into what happens inside the counselling room. I absolutely love working with children. I find it challenging, inspiring, rewarding and unique. Often folks ask me “So, does the child just sit on a couch and tell you how they are feeling, does that even work with kids?” I chuckle and assure them that counselling with children is going to look very different than counselling with adults.
Enter PLAY therapy.
What Is Play Therapy?
I believe that play therapy is the most developmentally appropriate therapeutic approach for children. I feel that it is doing children a disservice if we ask them to communicate their inner world the same way we ask adults, which happens primarily through talk therapy. Children do not have the same cognitive ability as adults, therefore, play therapy bridges the gap between concrete experience and abstract thought.1 Play therapy provides the opportunity for children to express their feelings and thoughts in a way that is familiar to them because typically children love to play.
To this, some might question, “Are you just playing then?” The answer is unequivocal, “No, quite the opposite.” There is much meaning in play; Froebel says, “children’s play is not a mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.”2 Play is the natural language of children. Play is the way children communicate. Garry Landreth says, “toys are used like words by children, and play is their language.”3 While engaging in play therapy, the child uses the toys in the room to communicate thoughts, experiences, situations and feelings.
My Approach To Play Therapy
Each counsellor who works with children has a different way of engaging with the child through play therapy. For myself, I adopt a posture of curiosity; I want to see the child’s world through their eyes. Typically, the first session is about establishing trust and rapport, just like a session with an adult client. Personally, I find sitting on the floor and meeting the child at their level is helpful. I have a box of fidget toys that I have available on the floor or table, these are for the child to squish and fiddle with as we talk and play. Often if a parent is in the initial session, I will encourage the parent to use a toy too.
In order to help facilitate the sometimes awkward first meeting jitters, we play Getting to Know You Jenga. This is a tower building game with a twist – each block has a question. The child is encouraged to answer the question and this helps establish a rapport and points of connection. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the child’s ability to direct the conversation to the areas that are needed to be focused on. This is modelled in the way that child answers the questions and, in turn, ask me questions. When I have my initial meeting with the parent, I often share that my trust needs to be earned. Often a child might share a small piece to “test the waters” and see if I am paying attention. Like playing pass with a ball, I need to catch what they have shared with me and convey to the child that I have heard them.
What Is A Play Therapy Session Like?
Each play therapy session can look different. For me, I am all about the feelings. It is vital for children to grow up with a greater understanding of their feelings and learn healthy ways to express their emotions. I try to incorporate as many different modalities as I can. Sometimes it might be colouring pictures of feelings and emotions, other times it is outlining their body and drawing where they feel that emotion. Other times it is playing in the dollhouse and sharing about their family. There are incredible books that provide wonderful language for children as they process their feelings. One of my favourites is In My Heart, which beautifully describes some of the many emotions that are found in our hearts. For the more active children, we can play catch and answer questions back and forth. I really try to tailor the activities to the likes of each child.
One of my favourite ways to work with children is through the use of the sand tray. Picture a mini sandbox complete with figurines to play with. The child is encouraged to use the sand tray to create a scene. The child can build a magical world or perhaps create a scene that is more realistic. The beauty of the sand tray is that often it is a way to visibly show what a child might be feeling internally. As the child creates, depending on the preference of the child, I am asking questions and gaining insight or silently attending to what they are sharing with me.
How Can Play Therapy Help My Child?
Just the same as adult counselling, when I am in the room with a child, it is my desire to provide empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as these are the core conditions that help to facilitate change.5 I truly believe it is the relationship with the therapist that helps to promote growth and healing. However, that does not negate the important role the parent plays in the relationship. When a child has shared something significant or created something powerful, I encourage the child to invite the parent into the room to see and learn together. As I remind the child, we only see each other during sessions, but you see your parent more. I want the parent to be well equipped to take the themes and language that was spoken during the session and translate that to home. I want to thank you, parents, for trusting me with the most precious gift: your child. I want to work with you in order for a child to learn, grow and develop into a confident and healthy person.
Although the mediums used in play therapy are often very fun, many times, the work that is done in play therapy is difficult – children work hard at expressing and understanding their big feelings. It is my role to help facilitate these discoveries through conversation and play. Play therapy can be a powerful experience where great changes can happen for our kids – changes that may not happen without the freedom and safety of the play therapy sessions. Play therapy is a place where children get to be who they are at their core and have that be ok and celebrated. A place where they can explore difficulties in life in a safe, supported way.
Working with children is a privilege and one I do not take lightly. If you are interested in learning more about play therapy or setting up an appointment for your child, please do not hesitate to contact me through our website.
- Bratton, S. & Ray, D. (2000). What the research shows about play therapy. International Journal of Play therapy, 9, 47-88.
- Froebel, F. (1903). The education of man. New York: D. Appleton.
- Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play Therapy: The art of the relationship. Third Edition. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.
- Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy, Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Last week, I broached the subject of “back to school”. With some insight from teachers, I shared 3 ways to prepare for going back to school in a positive way. We looked at three components: Trust, Teamwork and Transitions. For Part Two of my blog, I want to share some practical tips, the ABC’s if you will, of what to remember when going back to school for both parents and children, and especially students who have challenges with being at school. The ABC’s stand for Advocacy, Bravery and Connection.
Parents Can Be an Advocate for their Child
Parents, please hear me when I say, you have the hardest job in the world. Being a parent is intense, it challenges you to the core, it captures your highest highs and your lowest lows. You have the responsibility of helping your child grow, learn and discover. You are your child’s biggest champion and because of this, you have the privilege to speak on behalf of your child when your child might need some extra support, especially at school.
I recently saw a parent of a child with some behavioural challenges. As she spoke through the tears, she looked at me and said, “I just want people to see what a great kid he is, I don’t want them to see all the challenges. I want them to see him.” This is what being an advocate looks like, painting a picture of who the child is at his/her best and what needs to be put in place in order for this to happen.
Here are some practical ways to be an advocate for your child:
- Be informed. Know the challenges your child faces at school. If your child has a diagnosis, learn about how the diagnosis affects your child’s learning at school. Does your child need an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? If so, collaborate with the classroom teacher to get it started. Know your child’s strengths and continue to find creative ways to work from a positive strengths-based perspective.
- Keep organized. Gather all paperwork, reports and letters and get a binder where you keep all the information regarding your child. Make sure you have it accessible and bring it to meetings when/if necessary.
- Build relationships. Introduce yourself to the principal. Get to know your child’s teacher. Connect with the support staff. More information about this can be found in Part 1 of the series.
- Talk to your child. What does your child need to learn and share these insights with your child’s teacher:
- Extra time to work on projects
- A different way to show their work ie: typing instead of writing
- A specific place to sit in the classroom
- Time to be able to move around
- Breaks during the day
Emphasize Being Brave, Not Perfect.
A few months ago, I sat with some parents who shared with me a story about their 6-year-old daughter who, despite never trying, did not want to play baseball because she was “not good at it.” I was so disheartened to hear this. How can a precious little person announce that they are not good at something without even trying it?
Let’s face it, not many of us like to fail. Not one bit. But the reality is that we are not going to be perfect at everything. To put it bluntly, we are not going to be perfect at hardly anything.
This coming school year, it is time to exercise your brave muscle. Imagine what your child could experience if they heard that it is better to be brave than perfect? Encourage your child to take risks, even if it leads to failure. Praise your child for the effort they put into a project, not in the grade. Delight in the scraped knees, crushed spirit and tears because it takes bravery to try to slide into home base and get called out instead of waiting cautiously on third.
What might be brave looks like for you and your child?
- Be the example. As the Big person, the model being brave, taking risks and perhaps even failing.
- Asking the new kid to play with them
- Trying a new sport, even if they do not know-how
- Asking for help from a classmate
- Putting up your hand in class and saying you don’t understand
- Telling a friend that they hurt your feelings
- Sharing with each other ways that you tried new things but failed. Maybe even make a joke out of it and share Failure Fridays.
I often tell my clients when they feel like giving up and not trying, remember, “I can do hard things.” This is what brave looks like. It is acknowledging that this is hard, but you can do hard things.
Perfection breeds unrealistic expectations, stress, discomfort and constant striving. Bravery evokes self-determination, strength and resilience. I believe these are the qualities that this school year can foster.
Don’t Forget to Connect
Many parents replay the same scene each day after school. They ask their child, “How was school today?” And the instant answer, inevitably, is, “Fine.” Typically, the follow-up question might be, “What did you learn today?” With the usual answer being, “Nothing.”
I cannot stress enough the importance of connection. Take time to connect after the school day. Take time to be fully present with your child without distractions.
Here are some great alternatives to “How was your day today?” You never know what you might learn.
- What was the best thing that happened at school today? (What was the worst thing that happened at school today?).
- Tell me something that made you laugh today.
- If you could choose, who would you like to sit by in class? (Who would you NOT want to sit by in class? Why?).
- Where is the coolest place at the school?
- Tell me a weird word that you heard today. (Or something weird that someone said.)
- If I called your teacher tonight, what would she tell me about you?
- How did you help somebody today?
- How did somebody help you today?
- What is one thing that you tried today?
- When were you the happiest today?
- When were you bored today?
- If an alien spaceship came to your class and beamed someone up, who would you want them to take?
- Who would you like to play with at recess that you’ve never played with before?
- Tell me something good that happened today!
- What word did your teacher say most today?
- What do you think you should do/learn more about at school?
- What do you think you should do/learn less at school?
- Who in your class do you think you could be nicer to?
- Where do you play the most at recess?
- Who is the funniest person in your class? Why is he/she so funny?
- What was your favourite part of lunch?
- If you got to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you do?
- Is there anyone in your class who needs a time-out?
- If you could switch seats with anyone in the class, who would you trade with? Why?
- Tell me about three different times you used your pencil today at school.
To make this connection time into more of a routine, consider putting the questions in a jar and picking a question each day and even coming up with your own.
Make it a habit to put your phones down and turn your screens off and be present for your child. Make it a priority to spend time together each week. Put it in your calendar so you make it into the schedule.
- Reading a book together
- Playing a board game with some snacks
- Ask your child to teach you something he/she enjoys doing
- Go for a walk around the block
- Go to a coffee shop and order a hot chocolate and play a game of cards
- Write a letter to a family member
- Record each other singing a song
- Go to the gym together
- Take a class at the Rec Center together
Like learning the real ABC’s, being an Advocate for your child, exercising your Brave muscle and making time to Connect takes practice. Please know you are not alone. Alongside You wants to journey with you and your child through this upcoming school year. Please reach out if you need some extra support – maybe that is exactly what brave looks like for you! Together we can help you be a progressive advocate for your child and help you connect in beautiful and tangible ways.
You’ve got this, parents! Happy Back to school everyone!
Cue music. “It’s the most… won-der-ful time… of… the… Year!” Nope, not Christmas just yet. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL time. While this realization might bring fear to some and joy to others, the reality is that September is going to be here sooner than we know it. I wanted to take some time to address how families and students can prepare for school in a positive way. I wonder, how can the change of summer routine into the school routine be met with anticipation instead of dread?
This summer, I had the privilege to run into my very first teacher: Mme Buss. She taught me kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2. I remember how much I loved learned from her. I was in French Immersion and can recall looking up at her and speaking rather loudly saying, “I don’t understand what you are saying!” To which, she would continue to reply back in French and point to what I needed to be doing. Now multiply that by 25 students. Personally, I think teachers are real-life heroes. They have dedicated their career to help, support, encourage, teach and champion students. This is no small feat.
I have connected with some teachers and asked for their input, I mean they have gone back to school for years, so they are getting pretty good at it. In fact, the information that they shared with me was too much for one blog post, so stay tuned for Part 2. I love a good alliteration so this post will focus on TRUST, TEAM, and TRANSITION.
Building Trust With Your Child’s Teacher
The resounding message that was repeated over and over again was trust. It is vital for parents to trust teachers and vice versa. Perhaps, you as a parent might have had a negative experience with a teacher either as a student yourself or your child. Yet, it is so important to understand that teachers are doing the best job they can. Trust them that they are working for your child’s best interest. Trust takes time to foster and grow.
A counsellor who works in the school shared her thoughts: “I would like parents to hear… please trust me! If there are things going on with your family and I can help, please come talk to me! If your kiddo is struggling or you need support, I have resources! And if I offer you services, it’s because I care about your child and want them to be healthy and happy – it’s not a criticism of you or your parenting. Please don’t feel bothered or threatened if your child wants to talk to me – I’m here to listen without judgment. Also, while my primary job is to support the kids, if you need an ear, I will do my best to lend one!”
Another teacher explained: “When we have a fuller picture of what struggles and accomplishments a child is going through, we are more prepared to work with them and the family. It also goes a long way to speak in positive ways about your child’s teacher. We do the same for parents. For example, we always take stories from home with a grain of salt – kids don’t see the full picture of what all happened at school.”
Trust denotes belief, confidence and faith. These reflect the attitudes that are so crucial to have when building trust. There needs to be a belief in the skills and knowledge that a teacher’s posses. We must have confidence in the teacher’s capacity and care for your child and lastly, faith in the understanding that trust is built through connection and engagement.
Some things to think about:
- How would the school year be different, if you started to cultivate trust with your child’s teacher? What would trust look like?
- Imagine the impact of starting the school year with gratitude and acknowledging the hard work that each teacher puts in and thanking your child’s teacher? How can you share this gratefulness with your child’s teacher?
The Importance of Teamwork
It has been said that teamwork makes the dream work. This cannot be truer for parents, students and teachers, they are a team. I loved how one teacher expressed their perspective: “Teachers and families are a team. Families are their child’s first and best teacher, we (teachers) have so much to learn from them. We want to know about their child, big things, celebrations, important changes, please continue to inform us.”
Parents and teachers are not in competition with one another. They are a team and have a common goal: what’s best for your child. Another teacher spoke about the power of assuming the best of your child’s teacher by explaining, “teachers and parents need to be a team in order to best support the learning of each child. The attitude of ‘I am going to talk to that teacher and fix this problem!’ has way less value than, ‘I am going to talk to the teacher and see how we can work together to resolve an issue.’ Approach teachers with an assumption that they love this child and want the best for them…one of the safest assumptions ever!’” Each person has a different role in the team and yet, they are part of the team nonetheless. Play to your strengths. Speak with kindness and grace. Be generous in your assumptions of teachers.
Another teacher brought humour and humility through their words: “Though educators are “experts” in our area, we are not experts of your child – you are, dear parent/guardian! We respect that, yet our advice/comments/suggestions are to help guide your child to success as they select from the menu of school – what they like, don’t like, enjoy, are curious about – those topics, subjects and activities are where our strengths are but knowing your child as well as you do can only happen thanks to what you share and they share with us. Together we make up a three-legged stool – teacher/home/child – all equally important in the quest to reach the cookies on the top shelf.”
Some things to think about:
- Consider teaming up (see what I did there?!) and writing a letter with your child to your child’s teacher. Sharing with the teacher all about your child, letting them know the things that help your child learn best and some of the areas that are challenging for them.
- If your schedule allows it, consider showing your commitment to being part of the team by volunteering to help the teacher in whatever capacity they need.
- A small token of appreciation always helps to build a sense of teamwork, cookies anyone?
How To Manage Transitions
Switching from summer mode to school mode is challenging for the best of us. I would be remised if I didn’t speak about transitions. Transitions are hard. They can be unpredictable, confusing, and downright frustrating. It is so important to help prepare your child for the upcoming school year. An insider’s perspective shared this practical advice: “September is a big transition. Give it time. Your child may be off and act unusually. Give it 6 weeks. Compare it to you starting a new job. You’re on and trying to follow the rules, build relationships and do your best all day every day. When you come home, you want to crash, veg out, etc. As an adult, you have some strategies and abilities to set boundaries, self-regulate etc. Kids don’t necessarily have those yet. So, expect meltdowns. Expect tired and hungry kids. Expect your child to be great for the first week and then refuse to come the second, make sure you still bring them. Routine is key”.
Some tips and tricks to make transitions easier:
- Have a schedule/calendar where children can see it, so they know what is coming up and can prepare
- Take time for exercise, if possible, get outside and enjoy nature.
- Encourage your child to get lots of sleep, and you too while you are at it.
- When possible, enjoy healthy food together
- Make time to just play and hang after school, if possible save joining piano, dance, swimming for later.
- Read with your child every night.
- As your child’s best BIG person, the best thing you can do for your child at home is to model healthy living habits, love and support. Turn off screens and connect with your children.
Some things to think about:
- What tips will you incorporate for your family to help encourage a successful transition back to school?
- Consider doing some back to school shopping with your child and take some time to connect and ask how your child is feeling about the upcoming changes? How can you work together to make this school year a great one?
Going back to school brings up a myriad of emotions for both parents and students. However, there are people to support both you and your child. Alongside You provides counselling services for parents and children. If you are wanting more information or tools to know how to best support your child going back to school, please do not hesitate to reach out and contact me, or one of the many counsellors who would be more than happy to help you.
I can appreciate the not everyone has a positive experience with school. Please stay tuned for Part 2 of the Back to School Blog that will provide resources and suggestions for those students who find school a bit more challenging and need extra support.
I was speaking with a friend on the phone a few weeks ago. She was curious about what I do as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and what happens in a session. As we continued to talk, I mentioned that I was going to see a counsellor myself. She gasped and said: “You have issues too?” I chuckled and said, “Yes, we all have issues, even counsellors.”
I mentioned to a few colleagues that I was going to see a counsellor and they encouraged me to write about my experience as a way to share with others and ultimately normalize going to seek professional help. As a counsellor myself, it is so important to understand the perspective of what it is like to be a client. This post will try and shed some light on my experience as a counsellor, and being a client.
I have been thinking about seeing a counsellor for a while now: over a year. However, it always seemed like it was never the right time. I was too busy, juggling different jobs, other commitments, financial constraints: all these things seemed to vie for my attention and appeared to be good reasons to once again push down counselling on the list of “things to do.” May I offer my perspective for a moment? There are always going to be things that seem more important and seem like they must take priority, yet, my mental health and overall well being should also be a priority. It is my deepest desire to be the best counsellor that I can be, to show up and be the right support for each of my clients. Therefore, I need to make myself a priority. I need to make the time to work on areas of my life that will ultimately help me in my career helping others. I struggle with the idea that this sounds selfish, but as the old airplane analogy goes, I need to put on my oxygen mask first before I help others with their masks.
So, I put on my mask, so to speak, and made my first appointment. I left a message. I was brief and gave my contact information. Julie (this is not her real name) called me back promptly and we set up a time to meet in 2 weeks time. I had done it. I was proud of this first initial step. I filled out the intake form, sharing contact information and reasons for counselling. It was personal. I was reminded of the initial vulnerability that all clients must experience as they complete the forms; from a counselling perspective, it is crucial for liability and legality sake, yet there is also a piece that asks the client to try to put into words the areas they want to work on. In my experience, this process allowed me to think about the areas that I wanted to concentrate on and helped organize some of my thoughts a bit more.
Seemingly small, making that first phone call was the first step towards reaching out and asking for help, acknowledging the importance of having someone to listen to my story. As I tell all my clients on our first meeting, coming for counselling is brave. It is trusting a stranger with pieces of your story and there I was asking for a stranger to listen to mine. The tables have been turned, or perhaps another way, this time I get to sit on the couch instead of the armchair.
The day arrived. I saw some clients of my own. As the day progressed, I continued to check in with myself and see how I was feeling. My stomach felt a bit “off.” I named this feeling and voiced that I was nervous. This seemed like a natural reaction to me as I was preparing to meet with Julie. I left myself enough leeway in my schedule to arrive on time, as I tend to be late and did not want to arrive flustered.
Disclaimer: It is May, and I still have my snow tires on my car. Again, this is something that is on the “to do list,” not really a priority, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, there is a misconception about counsellors that they have it all together and have reached new levels of perfection. May I say, this is not the case. At. All. I share this with you, because as I sat in my car waiting to go into the office, I saw Julie getting out of her car, and to my delight, she too had her snow tires on. At that moment, I felt a sense of connection and validation that counsellors are people too, people that care deeply, they are human just like everyone else and perhaps have left car maintenance slide a bit as well.
I got myself comfortable on the couch, Julie has a few couches in her office, and so she chose the couch opposite to where I was sitting. She went over the limits to confidentiality and said that although I was a counsellor myself, she would treat me like any other client. I appreciated that. She mentioned that as she asked me questions if there was anything that I did not want to answer, then that was fine; in addition, if there was something that I wanted to talk about more in-depth for another session, I was free to do that as well.
Julie explained the importance of finding the right fit with a counsellor. This is so important. Just like in life, you are not going to click with everyone. Sometimes I like finding a counsellor to that of eating ice cream. There are many flavours and while some folks might enjoy more daring flavours of Bubblegum, Tiger or Moose Tracks, others enjoy the classic Vanilla, Neapolitan and Chocolate Chip Mint. It is a preference, and like ice cream, finding the right fit is crucial in a relationship with a Registered Clinical Counsellor.
My first session was basically me providing background. I gave a brief summary of what my childhood was like and highlighted some major events that have happened throughout my life. My counsellor listened intently, she provided encouraging nods and asked questions when more insight or clarification was needed. Her approach was gentle and genuine. As I shared about a situation that is particularly meaningful to me, I started to cry. I am not saying that crying in mandatory in counselling sessions, but as I share with my clients, “tears are welcome,” while ensuring a box of tissues is close by. When I cried, my counsellor sat with me. She shared the space. She acknowledged this was important to me and therefore she took the time to understand it more from my perspective. This was a beautiful gift for me to receive from her. It validated my experience and allowed me to know that she understood the importance for me.
At the end of the session, I felt like I was in a bit of a fog. Sometimes I have referred to this with my own clients as a “vulnerability hangover.” It is the sense of having shared meaningful information with someone and trusting them enough to hold the information. Did I share too much? Not enough? My life cannot be condensed to 50 minutes. Nor can the lives of the clients that I see. Counselling takes time to unpack, learn and discover. As I tell my clients, after my own session, I took some time to breathe and think and be calm. I booked another session to see Julie again in 2 weeks.
In summary, the session went well. I felt safe, heard and validated. For me, this is a sign of a positive therapeutic rapport. Moving forward, I anticipate more tears, more questions, more wrestling with the reasons why I do the things I do; but I know that what I learn and discover as a client will help me tremendously as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. My second session with Julie is in a few days. I am excited to see her again and see where the conversation takes us. And I must say, I still have my snow tires on my car. Perhaps I will have them taken off before my third counselling session, and maybe Julie will too?
If you have been thinking about going to counselling, can I give you that little nudge and say to do it? Find a Registered Clinical Counsellor who is a good fit for you. Can I be so bold as to suggest looking at Alongside You to find a one? Like ice cream, we have some daring counsellors as well as classics and everything in between. There is no shame to ask for help. There are counsellors who want to help. Put on your oxygen mask. Be Brave. Contact Us.
15 years ago, I had an opportunity to work at a summer camp for children with special needs. I was scared. I was nervous. I did not know what to expect. The result was a life changing 2 months that has completely changed the trajectory of my career path and ultimately my life. I sometimes like my experience to that of the Grinch in that I too felt my heart grow 3 sizes that summer.
Since then, I have been a support worker helping individuals with diverse abilities in their homes and the community. I worked as an Educational Assistant in the school system, helped co-lead a summer camp for teens with Autism, worked as a social skills worker, coordinator for a pre-employment skills program for young adults with Autism and finally, I am a Registered Clinical Counsellor. I specialize in working with individuals with Autism and their families. This has been a long journey, but such a rewarding one.
Last year, I was chosen to give a presentation to fellow professionals. I had one and a half hours to fill. I wanted to speak about something I was passionate about. Easily, I narrowed my focus down to Autism, however, I did not want to speak of facts and figures, I wanted to concentrate on the individual. From this idea, the title “What I really wish you knew” was borne. I interviewed 5 individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and asked them a series of questions with the intention of hearing what they really wish the world knew about them. I used my place of privilege to let their voices be heard. It was an incredibly powerful and humbling experience for me.
My hope for this article is to highlight the information I was given, and share it with a wider audience. Before I delve in, I would like to once again thank the individuals for sharing their stories and experiences with me. Without their bravery and voice, I would not have anything to share. I would also like to acknowledge that ASD is a spectrum and there are varying and different experiences; these are merely the experiences of the individuals I interviewed.
The first thing I would like to address is that of language, often there is some discomfort when trying to know how to address a person on the Autism spectrum. I acknowledged this right away with each of the individuals I spoke with and ask them for their preference. The answers were as varied as the individuals:
- Person First language, the person before the diagnosis
- ______________ has Autism
- I don’t love being called Autistic
- Neurotypical refers to someone without ASD
- “ ‘Neuro Diverse’ drives me batty. If I am different from you and you are different than me, then why are we not both referred to as ‘neurodiverse’ “?
- I refer to myself as an ‘Aspie’
- I am a person with Asperger’s, but I don’t introduce myself to others as someone with Asperger’s right away.
- Being on the spectrum, a person on the spectrum
How Do You Define Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?
My first question was to ask each individual, “What ASD means to them?” Their responses highlighted the unique perspective of each person:
“It is hard to describe, cause I never thought about it, it is something I have to live with.”
Sense of pride
“Autism means ‘just being you.’ I am unique in my own right. We have gifts as well.”
Sense of indifference
“Honestly, it doesn’t mean anything to me. It is a scientific title given to a different way of thinking that helps people who don’t think that way understand it. I have no personal attachment to it. It is thing that exists and I have it.”
A different way of thinking
“I think differently and have a different perspective on life; when people have a problem, they don’t see a different solution. When I look at that problem, I can see a different solution.”
Still more to learn
“I don’t think that anyone has a good idea of what ASD really is; I don’t think any of us really know enough.”
I asked one of the individuals about having a label as someone on the Autism spectrum. They replied, “Labels are not necessarily there to hurt, labels are there to help and let others know what they are dealing with. If you walked into a store and saw a jar of peanut butter without a label on it without ever seeing a jar of peanut butter, you would be like, ‘Ewww, what is that gross brown stuff?’ But, if you walk into a store and see a jar of peanut butter with a label on it, you will know what you are getting; you will think, ‘Oh butter with peanuts in it…I think I will try it.’ Labels help you know how to help the other person.”
How Do You See Yourself As An Individual With ASD?
Keeping in mind the label of ASD and what ASD means to the individuals, I asked, “How do you view yourself?”
As a person
“I view myself as an ordinary person, to be honest sometimes I am paranoid, but mostly I am a normal person.”
“I view myself as an individual. I am a young person with ASD, without it, I would think differently, but I don’t know how it would affect me. It influences me, it doesn’t define who I am. It affects the way I interact with others.”
“I am speaking on behalf of others and making this world a more inclusive and diverse society. I want to take out the word ‘normal’ and use ‘diverse.’”
The Challenges of Living With Autism
Changing direction, I asked the individuals, “What are some of the challenges of living with ASD?”
The list was long and varied:
- Communication and the complexities of text
- Not understanding boundaries in friendships (Ex. How much can I call/text you)
- Focusing on things too much
- Getting stressed too much
- Not being able to sleep
- Experiencing sensory overload
- Social isolation
- Perseverating on what I did that was “socially awkward”
- Social barriers at work, interacting with co-workers, feeling left out and not part of the team
- “Anxiety gets in the way, it prevents me from leaving the house.”
Alternately, I then asked, “What are some of the strengths of living with ASD?”
Again, the list was long and diverse.
- Critical thinker
- Observant, I notice things around me
- Good at logic
- Following the rules
- Being a voice for others with ASD
- Attention to detail
One individual poignantly expressed: “I don’t think I have strengths solely because of my Autism, my strengths come from me as a person and how I was raised in an open-minded and accepting environment from my mom. I have always been taught to trust in instincts and think for myself.”
Advice for Parents of Children with ASD
These individuals are experts of their own experience and have much wisdom to share. I was curious to know what advice they had for parents who are currently raising children with ASD. Their answers were filled with humour and knowledge.
“The most important thing is to cultivate an environment where the children do not have to feel ashamed of themselves, and something they cannot control.”
“Don’t try to push your point of view on them, let them think for themselves. It is useful to let things take their course, and for the child to figure things out for themselves and form their own opinions.”
Implement this for the first 18 years of your child’s life. Have a buddy to walk with you who is a few years ahead and can help teach and guide.
Don’t worry about eye contact so much
“Lack of eye contact is not the end of the world. They understand what you are saying and are paying attention even if they are not looking at you. For me, eye contact seems forced, it feels uncomfortable and not normal. I give eye contact depending on the conversation and how vulnerable I have to be. Often I am looking past your head or at your hat, not directly looking at your eyes.”
Parents need a team; they need networking and connections. “Remember to choose your battles with ASD, geeze, you are going to have a lot of battles.”
Use technology as a tool
Technology can be used for communication and for connection
How to Connect with Individuals with ASD
As a counsellor, I was curious to learn how I could become a better counsellor for individuals with ASD. However, I believe that the answers are applicable to a wider audience as well. I was both humbled and motivated by the responses.
“Be as genuine as you can be: people with ASD can tell when you are lying.”
“Make it clear you want to help and that you care, just because you cannot see my feelings, doesn’t mean you cannot hurt them.”
“Don’t assume you know what I need. Give me wait time to formulate on my own. I have more brain cells than you do, give me time. You cannot expect to see progress every day.”
Don’t try to ‘match make’ friendships!
“We don’t necessarily want to meet others with ASD, they can be annoying. We don’t necessarily want another special needs friend, because sometimes people with special needs don’t have the same special needs as you and you don’t always get challenged.”
Try using ‘invitational’ questions:
- What would it be like if…?
- Imagine if…?
- What do you think would happen if…?
Trust must be earned!
“I have a lack of desire to express my emotions due to fear of being judged. With ASD, trust is earned, it is difficult to earn and easy to lose. We think differently, we don’t automatically think of family and friends to be trustworthy. You need to prove that you can be trustworthy.”
How To Advocate For Individuals On the Autism Spectrum
Not only did I want to focus on helping professionals, but I also wanted to hear how everyone can become better advocates for individuals with ASD. The answers spoke of inclusion, acceptance and belonging.
“Don’t use ASD as an insult…Don’t think less of us because we have Autism. Teach kids with ASD to accept themselves, and teach kids without ASD to accept everyone.”
“Stigma is damaging!”
It is about relationship and connection
“Talk to us, not about us, just like everyone else. Talk to our family and friends.”
“Any success is about relationship. Rapport is key. Getting to know someone and building that trust over time. We can best be reached through our interests.”
“Ask the individuals themselves how they want to be advocated for. We each have a personal preference of how we want to be advocated for.”
Remember each person’s uniqueness
“No 2 people with ASD are the same. Everyone without ASD is not the same, so too are people with ASD not the same.”
“Take time to listen to them because they have so much insight even though they think differently than you.”
What They Really Wish You Knew
Lastly, I posed the question that was the title for my presentation: “What I really wish you knew.” The final words were theirs, and their answers showed the humanity we all share.
I am paying attention
“Sometimes it seems like people with ASD are not paying attention, not looking at you, but believe me, they are! We are listening to everything! If every spy in the world had ASD, that would be pretty dangerous!”
I want real friendship
“I wish I was told in school that there are differences between friends and acquaintances. When a relationship is forced, they are acquaintances but if it is genuine, then it is a friendship.”
I am doing the best that I can
“Autism is not an excuse for poor behaviour. We can’t hold ourselves to the standard of ‘normal’ people, but we can hold ourselves to the same moral standard. We can’t use ASD as a crutch. We need to take responsibility for your actions.”
Again, I want to thank the individuals for sharing their voices and experiences with me. It is my hope that their words help foster change, acceptance, and inclusion for everyone. It is my desire that we continue to celebrate diversity and acknowledge the ways that everyone is unique and has the right to love and belonging.
It is my desire to be able to walk alongside individuals, couples, families, and supports of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as they go through life in the various stages. If you’re impacted by ASD, I’d love to spend some time with you walking your journey. You have so much to offer, and I’d be honoured to be a part of it.