This week, we’re thrilled to welcome guest blogger Lia, an autistic music therapist in Canada currently writing her Masters’ thesis. Lia says, “Music helped me get to where I am today, and I want to help other autistic individuals reach their full potentials, while advocating with other professionals along the way.”
Over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with being autistic in a new way. I’d been accepting of my disability as an identity since I was diagnosed, and even a bit before, but I had never really allowed myself to BE disabled, unless I was in my own space. I had a weighted blanket in my bed, a chewie stick in my nightstand, and a couple small fidgets that could be hidden in my pocket, but I never used any of the resources available to help me cope with my disability in public.
Going to school with people who are training to work with people of differing abilities as therapists, I had started allowing myself to stim a bit more at school, such as jumping for a few seconds when I was excited, or allowing myself to stand in class when I needed more physical stimulation than sitting could provide, in January 2018. However, it wasn’t until December 2018, when one of my friends gave me a chewie necklace that doesn’t look quite so obvious that I started really getting in touch with letting myself be myself all of the time. It was in doing this that I had a realization about my role as an autistic music therapist working with autistic kids. Even if my clients aren’t overtly aware of my identity as an autistic woman, almost every child I have worked with has identified me as being somehow “different” from the other staff they work with, showing more of a connection with me right away, often sitting on my lap or taking my hand the first time they meet me, even if they are someone who does not typically show any affection or engage in any physical touch. It is obvious that they are seeing me as somehow more like them, whether they are at a level where they are able to explicitly understand that or not. As the autistic community is so small, comparatively at least, it is entirely possible that I am the only autistic adult they know, which means I have a job not only to be the therapist, but to be a good role model for them, because I know they are watching me.
In the realization that my clients are watching me and looking up to me, I came to understand that doing things like hiding my chewy under my shirt has the unintentional consequence of reinforcing the norm in society of seeing autism and autistic behaviours as being inherently “bad,” and sends the message to my clients that being themselves is somehow a bad thing. I have had both positive and negative reactions from parents and staff who find out that I am autistic, but I have come to determine that it is best for both me and my clients for me to embrace this identity and stop trying to “pass” as neurotypical all the time. I live in a country where I am lucky enough to have legal protection from discrimination from others, and I am at a place in my life where I am able to take on the negative things people say about me without letting those things define me.
But how do you deal with these negative reactions in the moment? I haven’t yet had to deal with one myself, as I have a great support system in my placements, but I’ve had to think about what I will do when that time does come, and I’ve reached the following conclusions. First of all, I will take a moment to keep myself calm. The best I can do when the incident first occurs is to provide them with information about me, as an autistic person and as a music therapist. On top of this, I can provide sources and websites from other autistic advocates. One common reaction might be the “not like my child” line, because I’m able to work, and in those cases, I think it would be important to provide blogs from lower functioning autistic individuals, as well as higher functioning, so they can see the comparison and similarity in our views. Ultimately, there is not much else I can do, but all of the situations I have been in where there has been a negative initial reaction was eventually taken back when I was given the chance to prove myself. I know I’m good at what I do, and I know that once the aggressor starts seeing results, they will understand that too. After all, music is one of the best ways to connect with an autistic child, and I have skills that I bring as an autistic person that an allistic therapist might not have.
There are other difficulties working as an autistic therapist in the autism community. A lot of the therapy centres for autistic individuals still practice things I don’t agree with, such as forced eye contact. I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to take care of myself in the moment, whether that be by stimming, or taking some space, and to debrief with a friend or family member later. Usually venting is enough to keep me going. I know I need to be accepted in a workplace before I can try and change anything. I still refuse to do things that are against my moral grounds. I mention things that are really bad or may be causing serious harm to the child. In many ways, I think this is the best way to approach it, as it plants the seed without pushing too far or putting myself at risk.
I want to end this with an anecdote on one specific, concrete example of how being autistic and acting completely as myself really helped one of my clients. One of the kids had just been given his first chewie, and he was having trouble understanding how to use it, continuing to chew on his clothes instead of his chewie. He would use it when it was put in his mouth, but he wasn’t able to be redirected verbally, and I realized that he wasn’t really understanding the purpose. I had my chewie on me that day, and I was able to model the action for him of picking my own chewie that was around my neck up and putting it in my mouth. After that, he had no further issues with redirecting himself to the chewie when he was given a verbal reminder. Being autistic in general is really difficult, and being an autistic therapist is particularly hard, given that people often think you should be receiving the therapy rather than being the therapist. When you push back and work hard at it though, the rewards are awesome and the system can start to change for the better.
Read more of Lia’s writing on her personal blog, Autastic!
Are you interested in sharing your perspectives on music, autism & neurodiversity as a guest blogger for The Musical Autist? E-mail us at TheMusicalAutist@gmail.com for more information!