The widely recognized behavioral health paradigm is not fulfilling the full potential, opportunities, and abilities of people on the autism spectrum. This is a bold statement to make, considering my relatively new entry to the field. This model has existed for at least 30 years, and yet I am not suggesting that behavior planning be replaced completely in our thinking. If we supplement the behavioral model with an environmental model, which considers the sensory and social needs unique to people on the autism spectrum, fewer behavioral issues will arise, and the most important pro-social behaviors can be given the focus that they deserve.
I approach the field of autism from two different viewpoints: personal and professional. My experiences as a child and teenager on the spectrum informed my decision to study social work and work in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) professionally. As I began to work with other professionals interested in I/DD and attend conferences, the viewpoints and practices I encountered reinforced my earlier personal impressions. There are a large number of wonderful, intelligent, hardworking people, who truly care about improving the lives of people with autism, but they often plan around our behavior because it is difficult to understand the way that we experience the world.
I understand the irony of an person with autism leveling the accusation that the wider world lacks empathy, but this realization has been at the root of my formative experiences. A teacher or direct service professional will see a person with autism flapping, making a groaning noise, or holding a pencil in an unusual way and will “correct” the behavior without necessarily considering its meaning. I have found that the majority of autistic behaviors are really efforts at communication and, more often than not, the message being communicated goes something like, “This hurts….get me out of here!” The field has begun to catch on to the fact that short sensory breaks from an overwhelming environment can eliminate some sensory tantrums, but, to put it bluntly, we are missing the bigger picture here. The problem is not that the person with autism is agitated; the problem is that the world hurts, and s/he could achieve better results if we designed the spaces where people with autism spend the most time to be less painful for them.
The Transforming Spaces model uses an environmentally based theory of autism support. It begins with these core principles:
1. Everyone can be successful somewhere. An environment can support a person to achieve his or her maximum success or can inhibit success.
2. All non-aggressive and safe behaviors can be viewed as a form of communication between the struggling person and his or her team.
3. By measuring behavioral communication in different environments, it is possible to find the factors that all environments that trigger the undesirable stress behaviors have in common. Changing these conditions can reduce the unwanted behavior and, more importantly, make the person more comfortable in his or her space.
4. The Rule of Ten applies in considering sensory pain in people with autism. A person with Asperger’s syndrome experiences the sensory world with ten times the intensity of a neurotypical person. A person with more profound autism appears to experience the world at ten times the intensity experienced by a person with Asperger’s. Environmental factors, which are barely noticeable to a caregiver can make a huge difference.
5. Altering an environment for comfort should be an ongoing and collaborative process between the person and the team. Behavioral communication (and conversation when possible) can be used to determine whether or not the person is pleased with his or her new environment and what further changes could be supportive.
I am excited to take my Transforming Spaces model of autism spectrum support into the community and to collaborate with organizations, schools and other agencies to design autism friendly spaces, which will help others on the spectrum to be more successful. I truly believe that given safer and more comfortable spaces in which to learn, grow, and try new things, people with autism will blossom intellectually and socially. When people with autism no longer have to view their spaces through the lens of “fight or flight”, they become free to observe their peers and interact more with them. They can focus more completely on their studies or employment. They are less apprehensive about participating in sports, art, and other social activities.
If you feel as I do that by Transforming Spaces, we can transform the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum, please join me in this creative and collaborative work, and together we can change the world for one person with autism at a time!
Wendy Katz, MSW
Wendy is ao’s newest Partner Consultant. She is working on designing spaces for people with autism in the community. To connect with Wendy to discuss how she might help your organization in this area, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org