I'm a speech-language pathologist whose primary focus & passion is helping adults and young adults with autism prepare for the social demands of the workplace through both individual and group therapy sessions. This is a blog of my experiences working with adults with autism and using different therapy resources.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Supernatural

During the first session of every social training group, I introduce the course by letting my clients know they are in the group because they have a diagnosis of autism. I also introduce the term "neurotypical," a word that refers to individuals who are not on the spectrum.

I make it known that I am a neurotypical, whose purpose is not to change anyone. My role is to provide a safe environment where everyone can learn and practice the social skills needed to navigate and be successful in the workplace.

I intentionally avoid using the word "normal." "Autistic" versus "normal" is misleading and offensive. How many neurotypicals do you know who are "normal"? If they are "normal," I imagine they are duds. I digress...

I have found that creating an environment where my clients are encouraged to embrace their identity as someone on the spectrum leads to better understanding of the general differences in thinking among individuals with autism and neurotypicals.

Strengthening one's awareness of the differences in ways of thinking is not to draw attention to "abnormalities." My experience has been that it helps improve one's understanding of why communication breakdowns occur between neurotypicals and individuals with autism. After all, a communication breakdown involves both parties.

Understanding why communication breakdowns occur sets the groundwork for identifying communication breakdowns and ultimately repairing such breakdowns.

In one of my social groups, we have been working for quite some time on making small-talk. The group members have made some great progress.

With the fundamentals down (initiating, maintaining, and ending the conversation), the focus has now shifted to tweaking each individual's performance to make it appear more natural.

Each time two group members practice making small-talk, the rest of us provide positive feedback. Some individuals choose the "two thumbs-up" approach; others have learned scripted phrases, such as "way to go" and "keep up the good work."

In this particular case, as everyone spouted out their positive remarks, I chimed in loudly, "Nice job, _________! That was super natural!"

I was glowing with excitement over the performance of two of my shyest clients, but as my eyes grazed around the room, what I witnessed was a mixture of responses, ranging from looks of surprise, mesmerization, and most of all, confusion! One wide-eyed student muttered, "how?!"

Unintentionally, what ensued was a natural, or as I might say super natural, example of how differently neurotypicals think in relation to individuals with autism.

I wrote on the marker board, "That was super natural!"

I went around the table, asking each individual how he interpreted the sentence. Some individuals said they pictured specific fantasy characters; others just noted they thought I meant the small-talk practice session was "supernatural," exceeding the realm of scientific explanation.

Soon the room erupted in a very passionate conversation about different fantasy characters, movies, video games, etc., which exceeded my realm of understanding!
Image taken from here.

After I redirected everyone back to the point I was trying to make, I explained that I meant their performance came across as "very natural," highlighting that the word "super" was substituted for "very."

I explained that most neurotypicals would have gravitated toward my interpretation and that this was a great example of our different ways of thinking.

Of course, I had to admit that the "neurotypical" interpretation was definitely boring in comparison to the "spectrum" interpretation!

One client did a head count and enthusiastically noted, "Martine, you are outnumbered!"

We all had a nice chuckle and continued with the original lesson plan.

Though I feel that the material in my lesson plans is important, I've found that it's these real-life "super natural" examples that foster the most growth.