More and more people have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Do you know how to help this growing group?
By André Parent, c.o.
Many studies have suggested that the number of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is increasing rapidly. According to an article published Jan. 6 in the Quebec City daily Le Soleil, Quebec minister Véronique Hivon stated that the number of diagnosed cases had doubled in 10 years. As career or guidance counsellors, it is important that we have a solid grasp of what makes these clients unique. This article will outline some of the points to consider when treating members of this growing client group.
An individual with ASD has a range of characteristics that are important to put into perspective in terms of their degree and intensity. It has been shown that this neuro-genetic disorder is caused by the dysfunction of certain brain structures. The structures are there, but the connections are different than in other individuals. This difference affects several aspects of these individuals’ behaviour in regard to communication, social interaction, their limited range of interests and their atypical behaviour.
For them, understanding non-verbal cues and social conventions properly can be very difficult. Behaviours like looking someone in the eye when talking to them, shaking hands when meeting someone or using common civilities have an implicit importance that people learn spontaneously in childhood. For individuals with ASD, there may be a significant gap between their age and their expected level of interpersonal maturity. They will often reach a major turning point in their 30s, when they begin to assimilate and use their communication skills more easily. Nevertheless, they can find being in group situations or exposed to new social situations exhausting. In response, they may prefer to be alone and go about their personal business free from stress and pressure. It is critical that we remember this when working with these clients.
Individuals with ASD may have difficulty understanding how things fit together; it’s easier for them to consider the details separately than to see the big picture. They may see trees rather than a forest. They don’t know that they don’t know something. What might be obvious for you is definitely not for them. Being clear and concise and breaking your explanations down into smaller parcels of information is critical for optimal communication with your ASD client.
A different logic
Logic is usually extremely important to individuals with ASD, and it is not the same logic as our own. Several things that we can do spontaneously don’t necessarily have any rational purpose. If individuals with ASD don’t understand the how and why of things, they will not take action.
Many individuals with ASD feel that other people talk too much and are not sufficiently precise in what they say. Faced with this overload of irrelevant information that they have to filter out, it might take them a great deal of effort to follow conversations, so talk more slowly, get straight to the point and be precise. Understand that when you ask a question, you may get a moment of silence or a delay in response. This delay enables your ASD client to ascribe a logical, consistent meaning to your words.
Choice of words
The choice of words is another important factor. It’s common for individuals with ASD to understand only the literal meaning of words. Consequently, understanding jokes, irony and metaphors is difficult for some. As they grow older, they become more adept at drawing on their past experience to understand these subtleties. This difficulty in grasping non-verbal content can cause people with ASD to experience rejection by their peers at school or on the job.
These complications can be exacerbated by ASD clients’ tendency to have a very limited number of highly developed interests. Their peers may become fed up with always hearing about the same subject. Nevertheless, as a result of their limited interests, they tend to develop a very specialized vocabulary and can be very excited and animated when talking about it. As professionals, our challenge is to help them apply that passion to a future job, because people with ASD can be very rigid and believe that only their interests are important. For example, can a young man who is passionate about Lego blocks or another who is excited about sketching plans find their way into a career in building design or architecture? This rigidity of thought patterns presents another interesting or difficult challenge for professionals, who will undoubtedly run into a degree of resistance. Getting your client to explore various avenues and pursue new experiences while you provide effective support and coaching can pay big dividends for your client.
Helping your clients with ASD
For those of you who work with ASD clients, it is important to understand that you can help them come up with realistic, doable plans for their academic and professional lives, according to their own needs, interests, abilities and differences. Take the time to explain your role and how you work, and join forces with family members and other partners. Take the time to get to know your client well. I often say that when we work with a different sort of client, we have to remember that success in an educational program does not always equate with success in joining the workforce. There are three different realities that we have to deal with: those of the client, those of the educational community and those of the labour market. Our responsibility is to strike a balance between these three realities so that our ASD clients can find their own way and build a career path that contributes to their sense of self-worth while making them feel like they are part of a society that too often leaves certain individuals on the outside looking in.
We can look at autism as another form of intelligence, another way of thinking. People with this condition are able to fit in our schools and businesses. They are often loyal, honest, straightforward, reliable, meticulous, rule-abiding and decidedly logical. They are often free from spite, maliciousness and prejudice. Some people say they’re on the wrong planet but unable to leave. So let’s welcome them and help them carve out a place among us, because they have a lot to contribute. With their different way of seeing life and the world, many of them have helped improve our society.
We often read that people like Jobs, Einstein, Darwin, Mendel and Mozart may have suffered from autism spectrum disorder, and they all left their marks in a big way. Temple Grandin, a well-known ASD activist, once said that if autistic people hadn’t existed to move things forward, we would still be socializing in front of a wood fire at the entrance to a cave. So let’s adjust our practices to make them a bigger part of our professional lives, for the betterment of society. Let’s train, discuss and experiment. No matter what you do, do it with good intentions. To err is human, and readjusting your approach is smart. Have faith in yourselves.
Over the last 10 years, André Parent has specialized in counselling clients with ASD and mental health problems. Based in Quebec City, he works with ASD clients from across Quebec. He also provides training on working with ASD clients to career counsellors who want to expand their knowledge of this client group.