Lessons From the Autism Symposium

Karyn Kaminski, May Peach, and Louise Slater attended the Autism Symposium held in Sundance, Utah the first week of April.  Karyn sat on a panel, “When ASD and SUD Combine: A Panel Discussion” and shared her advocacy for more cross training between substance use and autism programs and therapists, as well as thoughts on how diagnostically autism can be missed due to the crisis concerns of substance use, and the different reasons someone with autism would use substances.

Michelle Garcia Winner, an expert on Social Thinking, served as the keynote speaker at the symposium. There were several great takeaways from her presentation.  One point that really resonated is that autistic students often want you to understand what is going on internally for them, but have great difficulty figuring out from subtle social cues what is going on internally with others.  She came up with an example of how truly fluid our neurotypical interactions are by using us in the moment at the conference: we greet a person first thing in the morning, we often will engage with them by saying, “How was your night?  Did you sleep well?”  Or “Hello, how are you this morning?”  The second time we see the same person that morning, we may say “Hello again!” Or nod and smile, as we have already greeted them.  The third time that morning we see them, unless we have a specific reason to interact, we will most likely ignore them.  For autistic people, if we teach them to say “Hello, how are you this morning?” and do not teach them how theory of mind is fluid and varies, they may repeat this same phrase every time they encounter the person that morning.  Michelle’s point is that we cannot teach social interactions (“skills”) in a rote fashion and our social nuances can be incredibly subtle and different as this example illustrates.

As she talked about young adults on the spectrum, she mentioned that parents often focus almost exclusively on wanting their young person to be happy.  This sets up unrealistic expectations for the young adults who then think they are capable of being happy all the time and are failures when they are not. Michelle thinks this can lead to problems for the young adult as the most important goal for the person is to live a life of well-being, meaning that all of us need to learn that we can’t be happy all the time.  What we need to be able to do is tolerate those times when we are uncomfortable, confused or confounded in social situations, struggling with organization, or feeling frustrated with peers.  It is important to develop one’s own ability to tolerate distress, learn how to develop the ability to regulate emotions, and build life skills.

Her keynote helped me rethink the language and approach we use with clients on the autism spectrum away from teaching rigid social skills, and more toward the strategies she advocates. Her website is full of excellent free resources for therapists, clients and families.