Now that the school year is over, it seems a good time to reflect on how our profession treats autistic individuals or “autistics” as many like to self-identify themselves.
When I first started working with autistic children in clinical practicum, I remember how strange and discomforting my treatment sessions were thanks to the less-than-great guidance of my clinical supervisor. There was quite frankly a lot focus on getting autistic children to behave like non-autistic children socially without any particular interest or discussion on what they wanted to be working on. Were these children actually interested in practicing turn-taking skills or staying on-topic with a graduate clinician that was replaced every semester? I wouldn’t know because we never asked. What’s worse is we used external motivators to reinforce the behavior; in other words, we bribed the children with things like candy or prizes in exchange for having them practice non-autistic behaviors. I remember thinking at the time how disconnected I felt from these children compared to my other pediatric clients; it didn’t feel like I was having a meaningful interaction with a human being and that was probably because I wasn’t; I was treating a child like a dog that can perform tricks for treats.
In the past few years, it has both been a relief and horror to learn that autistic individuals were not fans of these behaviorist approaches. It is a bit of a relief to know our therapy doesn’t have to be this way and that my discomfort was rooted in some real ethical dilemma; it’s horrifying to realize the harm I did to these clients and that I never spoke up or had enough understanding of what I was seeing to advocate for a better approach.
Not being autistic myself, I am not the best resource for summarizing all the amazing work of Autistics in combating harmful approaches like ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and drawing more attention to respectful treatment materials like Autism Level Up. So instead, today’s post will include the best resources I have found on respectful, humane approaches to working with autistic clients. Additionally, I am going to include the few key points I have learned from the Autistic community over the years. First the resources:
This organization educates about trauma-informed, respectful, and affirming therapy for neurodivergent individuals. Neurodivergent individuals include autistic, ADHD, and other unique populations but I’ve observed that a lot of the information is focused on supporting Autistics on the website. There is also an excellent facebook group for therapists. For parents, there is a directory of therapists that use these approaches and have committed to not using harmful approaches like ABA.
The name says it all: this is the website and blog of an autistic SLP. She writes about her own experiences but also covers actual treatment approaches that are humane and affirming to autistic children and teens. Full disclosure: I haven’t read every post on there but whatever I have read thus far has blown me away.
This is a nonprofit organization run for and by autistic individuals; it supports policies that promote the inclusion, representation, and disability rights of autistic individuals.
And now to some quick lessons I have learned from speaking to or following Autistic individuals and therapists over the years. Unfortunately, I do currently have the time to give context to all of these so you will need to do your own research from the above sources!
1. Autism Speaks is a harmful organization and does not in fact speak for Autistics. Autistic individuals are not a part of the organization and the group does not respect Autistic persons.
2. Applied Behavior Analysis is traumatizing and dehumanizing per the many reported experiences of autistic people.
3. Social Skills Training programs are problematic because they demand Autistic folks mask their autistic behaviors and research has shown this to be dangerous to their mental health. There are other issues with prepackaged programs as well for various reasons.
4. Teaching Autistic Girls to mask their autism and/or behave like their peers to be liked or have friends puts them at increased danger of being manipulated, bullied, and sexual abused. We MUST be more careful in what we teach Autistic girls and teens in general; we must focus on teaching healthy relationships, boundaries, and affirming their self-worth.
If you want more context more on the statements above, please explore the linked websites! Until next time.