Straight From the Source
As a speech-language pathologist in training, I recognize the importance of self-advocacy. As an Autistic* person and sister of another Autistic adult, I have seen firsthand how safety and happiness depend on it. I spent years watching my brother come home from school hurt, angry, and misunderstood. His self-advocacy, rather than being cherished and honed, was often ignored or even punished. The trauma he endured in these experiences, and my experiences learning to advocate for myself, while riddled with anxiety, have shaped my appreciation of the critical need to honor and promote self-advocacy.
My brother’s diagnostic process followed the usual timeline. My mother and the pediatrician noticed early developmental delays in areas of mobility and speech. He got his diagnosis by age 3 and was enrolled in early intervention. After school each day, I’d sit on the other side of the mirrored-window and watch various professionals work with him. My journey with autism has differed widely from the understood norm, but is not at all uncommon. In kindergarten, I was reading chapter books and already performing in the top of my class. My mother’s ongoing lament throughout my life was that I could be “so good at school, yet so difficult at home.” As it turns out, this holding-it-together-in-public-and-melting-down-at-home routine is common in people whose autism doesn’t present naturally. We have managed to appear “okay” when complete loss of control feels too unsafe. But doing so taxes our nervous systems heavily such that we pay for it later.
For most of my early life, it didn’t occur to anyone, myself included, that I might also be on the spectrum. At school, I was quiet, but quick to learn. At home, I was an unruly brat. My brother was probably the first to realize, though not consciously. We bonded with one another more deeply than with anyone else in this world. During family parties, we have always found where the other was hiding (or crying if we got too overwhelmed) and quietly kept each other company, an unspoken tradition of camaraderie. We would pick up each other’s stims and lift the mattress for each other to go under when we were struggling.
If you told me five years ago that I would be a practicing social worker, I wouldn’t have believed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a social worker. Rather, I felt that it would be something that I couldn’t do because of my Autism. To be entirely honest, I took to heart some of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Autism. I felt like I could never support others because my eye contact is fleeting. From a young age, most kids learn that good eye contact is one of the most important skills for social interaction. My interests can also be rather specific, and I really enjoy sharing about them, but sometimes I have a difficult time telling when others want to change the subject. In all my years receiving Autism-related services, I had not once met a clinician with Autism. Since there were no models, I worried that people must not want a social worker who has Autism. It was during my time in undergrad that I met someone who had similar differences who was pursuing a career in social work. With that person’s support, I came to the realization that I would take a chance on my dreams and become a model for others who might wish to follow suit. I earned my undergraduate degree and applied for a master’s level social work program.
My early career assumption was that I would pursue employment in the realm of immigration or refugee services, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to interview at one Autism-related agency. That agency was Milestones Autism Resources. “Milestones serves clients with Autism and I have Autism, maybe this could be a good fit,” is what I told myself. I called Beth Thompson and within a week I had an interview. I arrived far too early than what might be considered professionally appropriate, the dress shirt (that my mother encouraged me to tuck in) was untucked because I found it to be too uncomfortable, and my interview consisted of an abundant amount of oversharing. Yet from the moment I walked through the door to the moment I left, I felt welcomed. I knew then that Milestones was where I wanted to complete my first year internship. I celebrated with my family when Milestones offered me a position as their Graduate Social Work Intern.
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As I consider making goals, whether for the whole year of 2018 or just for upcoming situations I know will be challenging, I utilize a pattern I learned in my first semester of college. This strategy may be familiar to you too. It’s called making “SMART” goals, which is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
Using this strategy has helped me find success in areas where I truly want to make changes or grow personally. In the past when I was not realistic, I would make goals that were far too grandiose which resulted in my giving up easily, and being unable to actually see any progress. Now I concentrate on smaller but attainable changes, and once I reach them I push the goals out further. I also set only one or two goals at a time in order to keep my focus.
For example, I struggle with asking repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions of others. Instead of setting a goal like, “I will stop asking repetitive questions,” I set a SMART goal. Applying the SMART strategy to the goal would look like this:
S (specific): I will reduce my repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions at home. I will enlist the help of a family member to give me cues when needed and keep me accountable to my goal. I will reduce the questions to two times each.
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