By Cheryl Checkers, M.S., MHC
I have been on a journey to help individuals with ASD and their families for many years. During this time, the people I have worked with have helped me become a stronger therapist. They are the ones that inspired my curiosity to continually research and understand how a neurodiverse brain works. It has been the parents who repeatedly asked me why their child could not complete a simple task, yet were able to work out high-level math problems. For example, one family told me their child was going to become a doctor, just like both his parents. They weren’t concerned that he would struggle academically, but that he would not succeed socially at a college that was far from home. These worried parents wanted to set their child up for success. They voiced a frustration I have heard many times – “I wish my child came with a user’s manual!”
It is important for parents and anyone working with an individual with ASD to understand how the neurodiverse brain works. The neurodiverse brain is malleable and able to learn new skills. What many people don’t realize is that in a majority of cases, the simplest tasks must be taught, even when an individual is seemingly capable of completing these tasks without guidance. The mirror neurons do not work exactly the same way in the neurodiverse brain as they do in the neurotypical brain. This means you as a parent (or someone that does not have ASD) may be able to see something done once, and then repeat it. Many individuals with ASD lack this ability. The tasks must be taught by breaking them down into concrete steps according to the skill level of the individual. This understanding and way of teaching is as crucial in early intervention, as when working with transition to adulthood.
The clients I have been honored to work with have taught me what true courage is. They have struggled to fit into the world, even when they didn’t understand it. They have each taught me the valuable lesson of what it is like to see the world through their eyes. When I was able to understand their world view, it opened the door to why they became anxious in many situations; for example, why they may be in an Honors class, yet not be able to answer the telephone. It is important to understand that everyone with ASD has different skill levels, just like those who are neurotypical. Despite these challenges, life and social skills can be taught, along with other valuable skills needed to reach the highest level of independence.
The next time your child or client reacts in a way you don’t understand, try to see through their eyes. Ask what and why, before presuming their behavior is inappropriate. There is a plausible reason for everything. When you understand their reaction, you may realize they have not learned what is expected of them in a way that allows them to generalize their skills in different situations. The knowledge they can share will help you understand their world and make sense of why their reaction may be different from yours.
I am happy to report the son of the doctors did end up going to medical school, armed with the life and social skills needed to succeed. As I have learned, we must never set the bar too low. Provide the tools an individual with ASD needs, and most importantly, see the world through their eyes.
Cheryl Checkers has a Master of Science Degree in Psychology, with a concentration in Mental Health Counseling from Nova Southeastern University. She received a post graduate certification from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and is a UCLA Certified PEERS therapist. Cheryl has taught the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) intervention at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and in a private psychology practice. She has worked as Clinical Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) where she created a life skills program for adolescents and young adults with a behavioral health struggle. She also worked as a Clinical Support Specialist, Contractor and Coordinator for FAU’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) and was recipient of the 2015 Autism Society of America (Palm Beach/Martin County Chapter) Outstanding Autism Advocate/Volunteer award. Cheryl specializes in working with individuals who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the areas of intensive resource and transition planning, life skills training, relationship and friendship skill building, parent and family education and support, and professional consultation.