4 Ways to Participate During World Autism Month

Today’s guest blogger is Heather McCutcheon, an advocate for autism acceptance, understanding, and inclusion. Her now 4-year-old daughter Bella was diagnosed with autism at age two. Since then, she has devoted much of her time researching and learning about ASD so she can be the best caregiver possible to her daughter. She has another daughter, a 1-year-old, and keeps her on her toes, as toddlers tend to do. Heather and her husband are raising their daughters in Central Florida, which means they get to frequently visit local theme parks (their favorites are Disney World and SeaWorld, of course!) as well as enjoy fun outdoor activities together such as boating, hiking, and going to the beach. Heather spends most of her days taking care of their two beautiful children and driving to school, therapies, church activities, ballet class, soccer practice, and other activities. Heather has a degree in Health and Biomedical Sciences, and she works part time at a local hospital where she has the opportunity to share her heart and care for people outside of her own family as well. Please join me in learning from her family’s story, her firsthand wisdom, and the knowledge she has gained from years within the community.

Heather McCutcheon

Happy April! We have survived the tricks and pranks of April Fools Day, and I’m writing this on April 2nd, World Autism Day. This day was sanctioned by the United Nations as an official day of observance for worldwide autism awareness and acceptance in 2007. The entire month of April, in fact, is recognized as World Autism Month among most advocacy groups.

Believe it or not, within the world of autism advocacy, there is lot of divisiveness and disagreement about exactly how one should go about raising awareness. Some people are against using the word awareness at all, and prefer to replace it with acceptance. Personally, I use a combination of both terms. Some will “light it up blue,” but because that campaign is associated with Autism Speaks, an organization that many advocates for autism and actual autistic individuals have spoken out against for a number of reasons. Some people go #redinstead, or will represent support by donning a ribbon with a multi-colored puzzle piece pattern. Again, nothing is universal and therefore some advocates reject the puzzle piece symbol as well, particularly autistic adults, citing reasons that it portrays autism as something that only affects children, and that autistic individuals are people, not puzzles. These groups often use an infinity symbol in place of the puzzle piece. There is even a debate on terminology- is it person with autism, or autistic? Professionals trained to work with children on the spectrum (therapists, educators, etc.) are taught to use person-first language, while many adults on the spectrum prefer identity-first language (i.e., autistic). On social media, the hashtag #actuallyautistic is used frequently by adults on the spectrum. The debate really boils down this:  there are some who view autism spectrum disorder as just that- a disorder. Therefore, it is implied that autism is something wrong, that needs to be fixed. The opposing view of that is the idea of neurodiversity. That autistic people just have a difference in the way their minds work, but are not broken. The thought is that autism is simply a normal, natural variance in the human genome. Steve Silberman, author of the New York Times bestselling book Neurotribes – The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, explains it this way: “the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”

Regardless of the differences in the world of autism advocacy, the bottom line for most is to educate more people about autism, in order to make the world a more accommodating place for autistic individuals. The awareness aspect should focus on speaking out against discrimination against individuals with autism. The goal should be about promoting a kinder and more accepting outlook on autism. As an advocate myself, my goals are to promote understanding of what autism truly is, and to encourage inclusion for individuals on the autism spectrum. For example, far too often you will see a news story of a teacher or aide who has physically mistreated an autistic student. If you see these stories on social media and read the comment section, time and again commenters will say something to the effect of “a child like that shouldn’t be in a public school anyway, they are a distraction to all the normal kids!” Seriously, I see comments of this nature so often. Proof that we are nowhere near a place of acceptance and inclusion. Another example, is that an unfortunate attribute of children on the spectrum is the tendency to wander off. This trait combined with a lack of fear, and an attraction to water often results in tragic endings of accidental drowning deaths. These devastating stories are on the news far too often. Leave it to the keyboard warriors though, to comment about these tragedies that they have more to do with neglectful parenting than anything. The people who say this clearly have no real knowledge of what autism is and how it affects children. Again, a clear indication that we have a long way to go to help educate the public.

I’d love to take this opportunity to share some ways you can help.

1. Educate yourself! Start by watching Temple Grandin’s TedTalk. Then, choose a book about autism to read this month. Here are a few book recommendations: The Reason I Jump by Naomi Higashida. Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry M. Prizant, Ph.D. Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life by Laura James.    Neurotribes by Steve Silberman. Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, Ph.D, and The Autistic Brain, also authored by Dr. Grandin. Another favorite of mine is Life, Animated by Ron Suskind. Life, Animated was also made into a documentary of the same name that is available on DVD through Amazon and is worth the watch!

2. Educate your children. Teach them young about differences. Teach them about inclusion. Encourage them to be kind to the boy who doesn’t communicate verbally, or the little girl who flaps her hands and never makes eye contact. Teach them why that little girl has those behaviors that are a bit unusual. Teach them to be friends with those children. Take them to those kids’ birthday parties. If you have toddler or preschool aged children, I would suggest introducing your child to the Sesame Street character, Julia. Sesame Street recently developed a wonderful initiative to teach children about autism. There are great tools at autism.sesamestreet.org to help parents teach their children about autism. Another thing I recommend is getting the children’s book The Girl Who Thought in Pictures by Julia Finley Mosca. It is the biographical real life story of Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned animal scientist, livestock consultant, college professor, author, and autism advocate. Grandin herself has autism, and this fun little book explains a bit about her childhood on the spectrum.

3. Get involved. Take action by supporting programs that provide resources to autistic individuals. Learn about the programs or organizations in your local area and find out ways you can help. There are resources that help parents of newly diagnosed children navigate their way through the foreign territory of therapies and IEPs. There are scholarship programs designed to help students with special needs attend private schools that may be a better fit for their needs. There are camps for children with special needs. There are organizations who help with job placement for autistic adults. The list goes on, and I encourage you to research the programs like these in your area and reach out to them to learn how you can help. 

4. Don’t jump to conclusions. 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism. If you speak to a child and the child doesn’t respond or make eye contact, don’t assume the child is being rude. Stop to consider that they may be autistic. The same can hold true for adults on the spectrum too. If you see an uncontrollable child throw a tantrum in public, don’t assume the child is a spoiled brat. You may be witnessing an actual sensory meltdown happening to someone with autism. If you don’t like seeing children with screens in front of their face in public places, consider they may have sensory issues, and the only way they can tolerate being in a restaurant or grocery store at all is by using a phone or tablet as a distraction from the loud noises, the bright fluorescent lighting, the crowds of people, and other factors that can lead to sensory overload. Please try not to judge children and parents in similar scenarios to these, as you simply don’t know their story. Autism is very complex. I could never even begin to break down the misconceptions about ASD that I have encountered in just four years of parenting an autistic child. The bottom line is, instead of passing judgment and making assumptions, learn more about autism and always be kind.

As an advocate for autism acceptance and a mother of an amazing autistic child, my main goal is to make the world a better place for my daughter to grow up in. Autism is a spectrum, meaning every person on that spectrum will be unique. This is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis, and it can be really difficult to navigate in the early years after a diagnosis is made. Doctors don’t hand you a guidebook when they diagnose your child with ASD, and parents are left navigating their way through uncharted territory. I quickly realized, the best tour guide of this journey would be our daughter. The best way to learn about autism is to know and love someone on the spectrum. My 4-year-old child’s brain is fascinating. She doesn’t always respond when people speak to her. She doesn’t typically look people in the eyes. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t listening. Bella has some seriously impressive memorization skills. She memorizes books after we read them to her only two or three times. She memorizes entire movies, every word! She has amazing talents and I’m excited to discover more of her strengths and abilities as she grows. The reality is that despite these strengths, people will tend to see her differences as weaknesses, and those will overshadow everything else. I don’t want her to be isolated because she is different. I want the world to recognize her differences as something to celebrate and embrace. I hope Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month will continue to educate people about acceptance and inclusion. In Temple Grandin’s TedTalk on the topic, she summarized it best when she said “The world needs all kinds of minds.”

Heather and her two daughters

References

Callahan, M. (2018, July 12). ‘Autistic person’ or ‘person with autism’: Is there a right way to identify people? Retrieved from https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/07/12/unpacking-the-debate-over-person-first-vs-identity-first-language-in-the-autism-community/

Robison, J. E. (2013, October 7). What is Neurodiversity? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity

Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes. St Leonards: ALLEN & UNWIN.

United Nations, main body, General Assembly. (2007, December 18). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/ga/

Boundaries

That’s a trendy word these days, but do you know what it means? Today I’d like to discuss the three types of boundaries and what they mean in our relationships. And let’s use baseball analogies, because #LetsGoBucs?

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Nonexistent. Imagine standing in the middle of PNC Park, right on the pitcher’s mound, with no glove, no sunglasses, no hat… The sun beats down on you. The batter hits a line drive right toward you. Your teammates are yelling encouragement while your opponents are shouting less helpful things. Fans are cheering you on, but the visitors are throwing cups at you. You’ve got nothing to defend yourself, nothing to get behind for protection. When we’re living with nonexistent boundaries, we are left to absorb whatever is being hurled our way— both positive and negative. I’ve heard someone describe it as “trying to be all things to all people,” which just isn’t possible. We lose our identities and become defined by the roles we play. It’s exhausting, and we can’t sustain it over time.

Rigid. Now imagine standing on the pitchers mound surrounded by a brick structure. It’s about 6 feet in diameter and stands 30 feet high. It’s tall enough to protect you from the heat of the afternoon sun, the line drive headed for your face, and the insults being hurled your way. But it’s also blocking out the sun that was keeping you warm, the kind words of your teammates, the cheers of your fans, and the sport you love. With rigid boundaries, we isolate behind high, protective walls so no one can get in. Sadly, that means we also miss out on things that are beautiful and good for us. Rigid boundaries might be necessary during a time of healing or recovery, but they’re terribly isolating, and we can’t sustain that over time.

Balanced. This time, imagine you’re on the pitcher’s mound with all the appropriate equipment for the game. You’ve got a hat for the sun, a glove to catch the ball, teammates nearby to help with defense, coaches to guide you, and fans who drown out the noise of opponents. With balanced boundaries, we’re able to regulate the ways we treat others and the ways others treat us. It’s like having gates on a fence that allow some things in while keeping other things out. We’re empowered, strong, grounded, and healthy. We don’t view the world as all-or-nothing because we know we have power to influence the world around us, including our relationships. We can clearly communicate our boundaries to others (I don’t allow people to steal from me) as well as consequences for violations (and if someone does, I will call the police).

Let’s be clear: boundaries are not conditional love. You don’t get to say, “I’ll love you when…” because that’s not love; that’s manipulation. You absolutely can say, “I love myself enough not to tolerate that treatment anymore, and because I care about you I hope you can see why respecting me in that way is so important so we can remain connected.” It’s pretty painful when someone can’t (or won’t) see that, though, which is why having standards can feel intimidating and risky. Boundaries truly are a way we communicate love for ourselves as wel as love for the people around us. Clear expectations make the world go ’round! If you can be vulnerable enough in a relationship to express your needs, that’s great! And if the other person is able to meet you in that tender place and prioritize what’s important to you, even better! One of these days I’ll write about the Ten Laws of Boundaries (per Drs. Cloud and Townshend), but for today, focus on the three types of boundaries.

Can you think of times you’ve stood on the pitcher’s mound using each of the three types of boundaries? Where are you now? What steps can you take toward being more balanced? It’s helpful to identify which type of boundaries you most consistently hold, with the goal of balance in mind. You can do it!

New podcast!

Justin Boothby leads the way as we talk about mental health, sex, and how we can support the people we care about the most.

Click here to learn more about
Empowering Hope

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You can watch/listen to the Empowering Hope podcast in your favorite way:Youtube, Google Podcasts, Itunes, Spotify, and Soundcloud

How to find the right counselor

One of the most common questions I get from friends is, “What things should I look for if I’m trying to find a counselor?” I love knowing that my friends are trying to make wise investments in their personal lives.

Counseling can have a lot of benefits. Some you’ll notice right away: making time for your personal growth; clarifying goals; referrals for medication; having a safe, nonjudgmental place to share. Other benefits may take a little longer to appear: changed behaviors; relief from chronic mood problems; improved ability to manage stress and make decisions.

So, where to begin?

First, ask your friends for referrals. Odds are, at least a few of them have had counselors of their own, and personal recommendations can be a wonderful place to start.

A great second step could be checking websites like PsychologyToday to dig deeper. You can search for counselors by location, specialization, and even insurance provider! Which brings me to the third place to look…

Your insurance provider! If you call the number on the back of your insurance card, you can inquire about your individual/family mental health benefits and ask for a list of local providers.

By this point, you may already have a list narrowed down of potential candidates, and that’s good! Just like you don’t click with every person you date or form a friendship with, you won’t click with every counselor out there. It’s okay to be picky! FYI, counselors are aware of that, and we won’t be offended if you don’t figure that out until after you meet with us!

So, here are some questions you can ask potential counselors over the phone before you even schedule your first session:

  • What is your fee, and do you accept my insurance? (It’s worth double checking!)
  • When will you be accepting new clients? (If you’re experiencing a crisis, you want to know you’ll be seen as quickly as you need. Otherwise, you may be willing to be placed on a wait list for a counselor you think would be the best fit.)
  • What is your theoretical approach? (Counseling isn’t one-size-fits-all, and you have the right to know how your counselor approaches problems.)
  • Do you have experience dealing with my presenting issue? (Not only acceptable to ask, but also really important.)
  • What are your qualifications? (I call this the “alphabet soup” after my name: degree, licensure, certifications. You have a right to know whether your counselor has a license in the state where you live, where he/she earned the counseling degree, etc.)

*For my answers to these questions,
check out my FAQs page.

By the end of those questions (which counselors are used to answering… at least I know I am!), you’ll probably have a good idea about whether that counselor might be a good fit. There’s still no substitute for meeting someone. So, even if it’s a good fit on paper, it might not be once you get into the office. Because of first-session jitters, I recommend a couple of sessions to test it out. But just like a good date, you know when it’s working, and it’s always okay to acknowledge if it isn’t working. I tell all my new clients, “If this isn’t a good fit, I won’t be offended that you know what you want! Let’s try to figure out what that is so I can refer you to some counselors who might fit the bill better than I do.”

Although a counselor isn’t meant to be a friend who just tells you what you want to hear, finding the type of challenging you need is very important. It’s your mental health and your investment, so if there’s a question you want to ask, I hope you will!

Sexual Enrichment

 

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I say it quite often during sex therapy sessions: “Sex without attachment is just naked cardio.” That absolutely does not mean that attached sex has to be bland or routine; it simply means that the best sex of your life only occurs when you’re invested in your partner.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be unpacking twelve ways you can be more engaged with your partner to invest in a deeper, more fulfilling sexual experience. Make sure you’re following me on Instagram so you don’t miss any of the #EnrichmentChallenge!

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