Coaches’ Corner: Self-Awareness Practices for Autism Providers

Coaches’ Corner: Self-Awareness Practices for Autism Providers

I have the pleasure each day of doing work that can be the most fun. Many moments I have in the workplace involve large smiles and belly laughs and I reflect often on how fortunate I am to be doing this “work” and interacting with several wonderful humans. More recently, an awareness of my neurotypical self in a world where I am currently collaborating and working with neurodivergent folks has begun to set in and the responsibility of truly seeing this is no longer a luxury of perspective, but a requirement of integrity.   

If you are also doing this work as a behavior analyst, I trust you have noted the increasing conversations on ableism. For me, this has resulted in pausing more in my work. My intention has always been to help others, and now I am reminded that what “help” looks like is simply the product of my own history of reinforcers and punishers which have occurred in a sack of skin that is very much able-bodied and neurotypical. In other words, I am biased.  

I remain in this work for many reasons but ultimately, I see value in providing opportunities that allow for enhancing the voices of folks whose language abilities are different than mine. Further it is important to acknowledge that these voices and communication styles often vary from those most frequently and regularly occurring within the immediate community.  

Back to a requirement of integrity. I see this as minimally two-fold.  

  1. Practitioners are personally responsible for increasing awareness of existing biases including (when applicable) their own neurotypical/neurodivergent status. 
  2. Acknowledging this context, the practitioner works closely with recipient of care and caregivers to enhance the voice of this person that is the most/one of the most vulnerable persons in the room.  

By acknowledging that the perspective of the autistic community has been muted or diminished for several decades this responsibility to enhance this voice does not necessarily mean teaching them to “talk like us” but should involve enhancing the listening and attending skills of the surrounding community. Yes, supporting the development of vocal verbal speech when possible and comfortable for an autistic person is certainly of value. However, this will not always be the case. In these instances, the practitioner can collaborate with the individual and support the consistent utilization of this person’s communication modality. 

Further, the practitioner can work diligently with the recipient of care, family, and community to ensure that this communication style is reinforced and honored for both items desired and for communicating the cessation of an activity, person, or event. 

Here is a preliminary list of beginning steps toward an awareness and practice of advocacy over ableism: 

  1. Aim first to identify or create a highly preferred environment so that all parties can understand for this individual 
  2. How does this person ask/communicate for more of something? 
  3. How do they say no? 
  4. What is most preferred, and when? 
  5. What is unpleasant/nonpreferred, and when? 
  6. Seek and consume content and continued education from autistic voices to increase breadth and perspective taking! 
  7. As a practitioner, regularly attend to how you are speaking about, to and with the folks that you have the pleasure of working with 
  8. As a practitioner, reflect on clinical decisions made and how all voices are incorporated and involved in reaching that decision 
  9. Acknowledge as a practitioner, that you may and will “get it wrong” and do your best to address and remediate this as soon as the error or oversight is known 

In contemplating increasing awareness it may be helpful to consider this quote from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” May you strive to continually access knowledge to increase your care and practices with others.  

By: Daryl Williams, M.S., BCBA