Maya Georgieva in a recent ACA blog repeated 3 pieces of advice that every counselor should remind themselves every day. The first was ‘Do not assume that what you see is what you think you see.’ None of us can assume we know what another individual is experiencing without asking the other person. To make such an assumption would assume we are mind readers while taking away the autonomy of the other person.
To burn this point into our minds, I would suggest reading one of the most powerful books I have read in many years: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. The author was a 13 year old severely autistic, but brilliant and self-aware, teenager who wrote the book by painfully pointing out letters on an alphabet grid which another person would transcribe. David Miller and his wife translated it from Japanese to English. His responses to questions we ‘non-autistic’ people are curious about give us an insight to another world. If I could, I would require every counselor to read this book in order to be licensed.
The Naoki ‘writes’ in the preface: ‘You can’t judge a person by their looks. But once you know the other person’s inner self, both of you can be that much closer. From your point of view, the world of autism must look like a deeply mysterious place. So please, spare a little time to listen to what I have to say. And have a nice trip through our world.’
In this blog I will quote a couple of passages to give you a flavor what he experiences from his world. Although the world of our clients may not be this different from ours, always assume it is different. Also, always remember, often our clients want to say what they think we want to hear thinking that way we will like them and use our powers to heal them. The more a person has been in therapy, the more they will have ‘learned the language’ making true change even more challenging to us as counselors—we will be hearing about our world and not what the client is actually dealing with.
“Q: Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?
People often tell me that when I’m talking to myself my voice is really loud, even though I still can’t say what I need to . . . This is one of those things I can’t control. It really gets me down. Why can’t I fix it?
When I’m talking in a weird voice, I’m not doing it on purpose. Sure, there are some times when I find the sound of my own voice comforting . . . But the voice I can’t control is different. This one blurts out, not because I want it to; it’s more like a reflex. . . . I’d be okay with my weird voice on my own, but I’m aware that it bothers other people. How often have the strange sounds coming out of my mouth embarrassed me nearly to death? . . . even if we’re ordered to keep our mouths shut or to be quiet, we simply don’t know how. Our voices are like our breathing, I feel, just coming out of our mouths, unconsciously.”
“Q: Why do you ask the same questions over and over?
The reason why? Because I very quickly forget what it is I’ve just heard. Inside my head there really isn’t such a big difference between what I was told just now, and what I heard a long, long time ago.”
“Q: Do you prefer to be on your own?
I can’t believe that anyone born as a human being really wants to be left all on their own, not really. No, for people with autism, what we’re anxious about is that we’re causing trouble for the rest of you, or getting on your nerves. This is why it’s hard for us to stay around other people. This is why we often end up being left on our own.
. . . Whenever I overhear someone remark how much I prefer being on my own, it makes me feel desperately lonely. It’s as if they’re deliberately giving me the cold-shoulder treatment.”
His plea is a plea of every client:
“We are misunderstood, and we’d give anything if only we could be understood properly. People with autism would be suffering breakdowns over this—all the time—if we weren’t holding ourselves in so tightly. Please, understand what we really are, and what we’re going through.”
The whole book is an amazing window into the experiences of a sensitive, aware, thoughtful individual who experiences himself and his world differently from ours. By looking into his world, we as counselors get the strongest message that what we see and hear may not be what the client is actually experiencing. We must be careful and always realize that any counseling session is an adventure with two independent minds, two independent worlds trying to understand each other. We must always check out any assumptions we might make—and even then the answer may not mean what we think it means!
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'. He is now on staff with New Hope Clinical Services, LLC. nhclinicalservices.com