Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Speaking Out: Seeing beauty in the autistic

By  Elizabeth Gay, Youth Speak News
  • August 25, 2021

Everyone stumbles in aspects of their life, but some individuals are called to weather more arduous day-to-day challenges than others.

Children and adults with more life-altering disabilities like autism, for example, have struggled to receive outside support and understanding in their trials.

This summer, I came across the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). This research-based work approaches treatment and the journey to help individuals with autism through personalized remedy plans and the development of strong, reliable relationships with a therapist or teacher.

The relationship with each child and celebrations of their successes is key to growth. I found that working with autistic children in this way highlights their inherent beauty, value and dignity.

I’ve learned that the internal reality of autism is a battle of intense emotions, isolation, difficulty forming friendships, sensory-processing disorder, difficulty with change and transitions, anxiety and emotional dysregulation.

Autistic individuals can be easily mistaken as emotionless or disconnected to those who have not experienced autism before. It is easy to pass by on the other side of the road from individuals who struggle to break free of their isolating disability. 

My education was greatly enhanced by the online content of Thomas Henley, a 23-year-old British filmmaker and researcher who crafted the documentary Aspergers in Society.

Henley, autistic himself,  gives insights to parents on how they can provide aid to their autistic child.

Step one is learning by listening. This struck me as a very Christian principle as we’re taught to be present and patient with everyone we meet, but even more so when engaging with someone on the autistic spectrum. Learning about their likes, dislikes, triggers and abilities can maximize your ability to provide support and teach them skills.

Depending on their level of functionality, autistic individuals struggle to integrate themselves socially and can find themselves feeling stressed, overwhelmed and alone. This is often how extreme behaviours develop — the individual protests against what they perceive to be an overbearing demand in the only way they know how. This is why applied behaviour analysis starts with understanding and developing a relationship without orders to work towards a level of trust where it is easy to teach the proper response to demands.

Many lives have been changed with ABA treatment which typically starts in Canada around age four because of delays in diagnosis and funding. This field has evolved much in recent years. Applied Behaviour Analysis used to be a harsher discipline as the child’s requests did not factor much into the treatment equation.

Once learning by listening is mastered, step two and three of Henley’s doctrine is also affirming. The next component is creating learning opportunities through joyful experiences, which sets the stage for the final step — learning by empowering the individual.

This approach outlines a beautiful way to engage with others; one that commends their qualities. Treatment works through rewards and excitement. Every little accomplishment is celebrated.

This joy that the educator and autistic individual share enables them both to see each other’s human beauty and dignity. Every trial and success, even failed attempts, must be applauded for progress to be made.

(Gay, 21, completed her third year at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ont.)

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