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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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Notes to a Beginner

Copyright 2000 Roger N. Meyer



[This article is edited from my post to an assistant psychologist working as a job developer with his first Asperger Syndrome client in Northern Ireland.  He was looking for some pointers.  At the time I wrote it, I was a volunteer peer counselor at a Center for Independent Living in Portland.]


     I have a very eclectic approach in working with "people with."  As you might imagine, as a person "with" myself, there are some constitutional impediments.  But they are more than compensated for by having learned in the school of life's hard knocks.  Whoever says we don't have common sense is a bit daft: they simply haven't met the same folks I have, nor could they spot common sense if it bit them on the nose. What to some is common sense is plain gibberish to others, but in working with Asperger Syndrome (AS) adults I've learned never to assume anything and to approach each person with as much of an open mind as possible.  Because I have always had a rather unassuming acceptance of people (both a gift AND a curse), I find my lack of stereotypical thinking about new people I meet to be a major asset in working with persons who have spent their lives largely misunderstood.  If the AS person has been recently given the label, "self-understanding" is just as important for her as understanding of AS is for the person working with her.


     Much of our initial work is purely exploratory.  Part of the joy of discovery, even of things one wouldn't often wish for, is in recovering a sense of self once buried, or in the making of a new persona from the ashes of a self--view discarded as a necessary early part of the post-diagnostic process.  The mourning for some is intense, and for many, time doesn't heal as perfectly as for the few who miraculously take their new-found label and view it as a springboard rather than a millstone.  As you've by now discovered, working with anyone "new" to the idea of work, or unexposed to the real-life demands imposed on adults who earn a living rather than receive one off the dole, can be a challenge.  So often the healing process of seeing oneself as competent and able is the most challenging part of the job, both for the AS individual as well as the counselor.  The trick to maintaining one's sanity is to retain a good sense of humor, a perspective--if possible, and as many shoulders to cry on as will suffer your own confusion and occasional feelings of being a lumper in the mine along with the donkeys.


     The trick of working with persons who are bright but think of themselves as not able is to continually refocus the energy and the questions back to the person being counseled.  It's the only way the counselor can survive what often seems an impossibly draining relationship.  Much as we may wish to think we have the answers, the way out of many of our professional dilemmas lies in knowing the questions, and honoring the inquisitor in each client.  It isn't the answers; it's the questions that count, and the way in which the questions can be stacked one upon the next in a supportive and self-revelatory way, adopting the unique vocabulary of thought and words of each person being counseled.  To be of "our" world, so often persons with AS feel it essential for "us" to be of their world.  At least in the beginning.  Successful counseling is all in the building of the bridge between expectation and accomplishment, and if one is a successful counselor, the person being worked with gradually shifts her efforts to expending the productive energy, while we expend the supportive kind.


     People with AS, just as others with the same needs for work and dignity, need the unquestioned acceptance of their "helpers" so often hard to offer at the outset.  We rush headlong to the rescue overlooking the fact that the victim often has internal injuries far more serious than the ones we patch and plaster.  Is it our job to uncover those wounds, and if so, at what point and with what motivation in mind?  As a peer counselor for a center for independent living, I've found the effective way through and then out of many dilemmas is just to hang out with the person with no particular agenda in mind.  Let the agenda come to you as you get to know one another.  Trust in another only comes following trust in oneself, and there is no way to force that.




     Until we realize how precious a commodity it really is to one who sees himself as "wasting it," we would best spend ours in patient observation and plain companionship.


     Yes, I know.  This goes against the grain of the "professional" distance, the element separating the helper from the helped.  Unless one is willing to be as vulnerable as one's client, as open to risk as you ask him to be, there can be no progress.


     This isn't rocket science after all, though the appurtenances behind our names, the trailing titles and degrees somnetimes work against the process of establishing a good working relationship.  If a relationship cannot be forged, the work cannot be done.  I've found many AS people to be acutely sensitive to manipulation and unstated agendas, so it's best to be up front with oneself before one works with persons whose antennae are tuned acutely to each microwave of thought by the counselor with a plan.


     Really?  Ask yourself just whose plan is it, and who sets the timetable?  Certainly it mustn't be the counselor, and the sooner we disabuse ourselves of the notion of control, of knowing "what's best" for another person, the sooner the real work can begin.


     So often, effective counseling and support consists of just being there when whatever comes up, comes up.  Being there at that time may take hours of apparently unconstructive time.  If you work for others, an agency, there is your time to account for, and it takes a sense of trust in the counseling professional by managers to allow the latitude unique for each client.


     Our clients aren't widgets on the line, though in the past they've often been treated as numbers and statistics for service.  Client hours.  Contact hours.  Time is money.  But time is the common currency of the counseling relationship, and its valuation is best assigned by the person counseled.  For a profession where the experts have had the answers, the keys, the funds, and the means to control others lives, the notion of turning the keys over to the person counseled has a rub to it.  Unless that mental barrier is overcome, however, there simply can't be effective work by either of the partners in the counseling relationship.  To the degree that you are able to continually negotiate the terms of your working relationship, to that extent both of you will experience the time as well spent.


     Assume the person you counsel comes to you for answers.  Assume as well, that you don't have them, but you are willing to go on an exploration with them.  You might have the torch, but she will need the same walking stick and the same boots as you.  Your training may have provided you the tools, but not the answers.  Consider your tools the sharpeners and burnishers to those brought to you by your client, and then you'll discover the real meaning of craftsmanship.


     I use the language of the building trades because I once was a builder of houses and furnishings.  Now I consider myself a contractor for hire, in the service of those bringing their own materials and dreams to build their lives.  As much as I can, I work alongside my customer.  After all, she will have to live in the house and tend the garden long after I depart.  Think not only of crafting the structure; think also of sharing knowledge in the use of each of the tools you bring.  As her life becomes more complex and as the world of work changes around her, you can leave her with skills ensuring flexibility and the capacity to weather those very changes she once considered impossible to survive. 


     If you envision yourself as a change agent, keep in mind both concepts:  "new experience" and "agency."  If the person you counsel takes little else away from the relationship than appreciation of her own power to change, you will have accomplished more than a successful job placement.



Copyright Issues


This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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