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The Logistics of Facilitating an AS Partners Group

ASA 2002 National Conference, Indianapolis, IN

Friday Evening, July 19, 5 PM

Lisa A. Lieberman, MSW, LCSW

Roger N. Meyer, OADM

Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved




In this paper, the authors describe some of the elements that have made our Portland Aspergers Partners Group a success.  Our group focuses on the dynamics of communication in the marital partnership.  In the first part of this paper, we describe our values and how we "work."  The last half of the paper describes how the group works.


 Our values, our goals, ourselves


We are holistic thinkers.  We value people as whole persons.  We delight in discovering new facets of ourselves as colleagues every bit as much as we value our clients for the gifts they bring us.  We honor those who come to us.  We realize that those who come to us and those we seek are members of the community.  We encourage inclusion, involvement, and the finding of strength in unexpected places and with unexpected people.  We delight in surprises, and we carry this joy with us in our work with others.


We also know that change is inevitable.  It can't be stopped, and as both of us have experienced so much change in our lives, we help others to experience its newness and its discomforts.  To do that, we have two primary values in our work.  First, we both believe in providing a safe place for ourselves and others to work.  Second, we know that trust must be earned, not demanded or expected.


As co-facilitators and friends, we trust one another.  We believe others feel that trust, too.


We have chosen a male/female co-facilitator approach.  Lisa has been in a wonderful long-term relationship.  Roger has learned since his diagnosis five years ago what relationships and friends are all about.  He made his first real adult friends five years ago, and he's still learning.  Both of us have Autistic Spectrum Disorder in our families.  Roger is Asperger Syndrome (AS) as was his father, and so is his younger sister...at least she has more than a "touch" of AS.  Incidentally, she's in a "double AS marriage."  Lisa has a 14-year-old son in full bloom of teenage-itis, firmly planted on the autistic spectrum.  We think it's important that at least one facilitator have this family experience.



Our complementary styles


We are quite different as people and as problem solvers.  Roger thinks in abbreviated metaphors, which he loves to expand once he comes across one.  He's also the first to admit he's a bit scatter-brained and this is where Lisa's "therapist" and family "business partner" background comes to the fore.  While Roger sometimes waxes rhapsodic and tends to go off with his thoughts like sparks from a fourth of July pinwheel, Lisa keeps him grounded.  Roger feeds Lisa ideas; she makes sense of them by pressing Roger for examples and explanations.


We have a different take on how to solve problems, but there's one thing we know:  We are competent problem solvers, each in our own way, and our styles complement one another.  We work well together, even after not having seen one another for weeks. Maybe the press of time and our own schedules makes us more focused.  One thing we know we can do when we set our minds to it is to work efficiently.  Lisa is a great note taker.  She is a wonderful compiler and summarizer.  Roger sits back and pontificates, but then Lisa "grounds him" through gentle correction and through her "what do you mean?" questions.


Up to now, there are no questions that have arisen in the partners group that are off limits.


What we do is "go for it."  Whatever it is, whatever we see as a thread worth exploring or an observation worth making, or something to draw out of the partners who haven't spoken for a while, we openly explore what is going on.  We also give ourselves public permission to make mistakes. We think that's good.  We think people learn from their mistakes, too.


We are both knowledgeable about AS.  Roger has his knowledge through "being" and reading and all of those factoids he keeps coming up with.  He and Lisa have both had much training in matters autistic, formal and informal.  Lisa lives with autism in the person of her son, Jordan, and from having crafted and guided his childhood and his early adolescent experiences.  She puts great teams together for her son.  She always has.  It's the social worker in her, the professional.  Roger brings the resources.  He's a walking Information and Referral kiosk.  Lisa knows how to tell him to stop when he's gone on too long.  Roger has learned to ask for those signals, those hand signs and the gentle chiding.  We feel our process of working together demonstrates positive modeling behavior.


We can both laugh at ourselves and we enjoy the laughter of others.


This contrast in styles, in perspectives, is what we bring to the group.  We are not walking examples of a one-size-fits-all approach.  We are working contradictions, but between both of us, we seem to get it right most of the time.  And when we don't, we correct one another, and always, we ask the members of the group to correct us.  And they do.  We fake it a lot, but we tell the partners to trust us in our faking it, and it works.  They then learn that faking it is OK, and that it works when they agree to support one another.


It's like Garrison Keilor's Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Woebegone on NPR's Prairie Home Companion.  We believe in "pretty good" rather than "perfect."  That seems to work for us.


As facilitators, we can identify and articulate our particular therapeutic orientation such as cognitive-behavioral, family systems, reality, neuro-linguistic programming.  Our challenge, though, is to constantly check ourselves to make sure that our operating frameworks do not blind us to the nuances of what we are seeing and hearing, AS or otherwise, that could cause us to misinterpret something and do some real damage.  It's always hard to repair that kind of damage, so we remain aware of the lenses we see things through.  Having two of us there, often using quite a different set of tools at the same time, also helps avoid this pitfall.




When we started the group two years ago, we had no pre-existing models to work with.  We knew that drawing out partners' issues would be our first order of business.  Aside from that, as facilitators we've remained respectfully "hands off" about directing discussion to any topic other than what the partners identify as agenda items for each of our monthly meetings.


We think its fair to attribute the uninterrupted two-year success of the partners group to our mutual disinterest in imposing too much facilitator influence over the meetings.  We are aware that other couples groups have been formed but for a variety of reasons, most of them unknown to us, they haven't worked out.


While both of us are human service professionals, we've never come across as "experts."  We feel that everyone's comfort in the group hinges on a true sense of collegiality that we all share.  As facilitators we believe that no one, regardless of the extent of their training or experience working with adults on the spectrum has a right to claim a leadership role for that reason alone.


What we "do" isn't therapy, although on occasion Lisa will don her "therapist hat" and make an observation or, with people's permission, try out a technique she has found helpful in her clinical work.  She is very respectful in very rarely assuming this role.


We didn't start the group with any pretensions about what we were about to do.  From the beginning, we were very open about "letting things happen" as they happen.  We have studiously avoided orchestrating or manipulating topics or the group members.  Conversational drifts or monologues are common for persons with AS.  On occasion, one of us--invariably Roger--will go on too long or nurse a topic when it's apparent that interest in the group is flagging.  Knowing that Roger sometimes gets "stuck in a time warp" has led both of us to a very open, direct process of bringing things back on track.  What may appear to an outsider as a level of directness and abruptness in Lisa's interventions is what Roger has said he needs.  And he means that.  Roger feels that over time, this process has helped him become a better monitor of the flow of group conversation and his participation in it.


We deliberately model this public process of redirection and correction.  We haven't developed any signals between us that aren't obvious to everyone.  We feel this openness in accepting redirection and correction may be one key to why the group works so well.  We model a process that, with variations, partners exercise with one another.  We also believe that this process has led everyone to call attention to similar drifting or time-sharing issues in the group.


As we've worked with one another, Lisa and Roger have concluded that this very open means of communication works well in our other capacities as co-trainers, co-presenters, and colleagues in a clinical case study group.




What we do as facilitators is take turns, but we don't do this in any lockstep way.  There have been occasions when one of us has arrived very tired from a long day of work.  We let our energy level be known to one another and to the group.  The "more energized" facilitator just for that evening may take a leading role.  However, as the meeting proceeds, the energy of the group is often enough to breathe wind into the sails of the tired co-facilitator.


If one of us becomes preoccupied with something or simply decides to space out a little bit, the other facilitator handles the tiller for that period.  Sometime we do that formally, but more often there is enough chemistry between us to let this process happen on its own.


We believe that the informality of our process contributes to the very high level of trust in the group.


Process and Logistics




Community awareness of the Portland Asperger Partners Group started with word of mouth information.  We have since notified a widening circle of child and adolescent medical and clinical diagnostic and treatment specialists and their patients or clients may call us.  When we receive calls from professionals inquiring about the group, we inform them that we do not "chase down" couples for the group.




The screening is conducted through a phone interview that lasts about an hour.  Although both partners may be free to talk, the person interviewed is commonly the wife who is usually the over functioning partner in the relationship.




As things have turned out, all spectrum-sitting spouses have known for some time that they are AS.  Even if not professionally diagnosed, their AS has often come to their attention as a result of a child in the family having been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.  Confirmed AS incidence figures suggest there is a fifty-fifty chance of one parent or immediate family member of an AS child also having AS or noticeable AS trait behavior.

The screening process



Roger conducts a screening interview with prospective partners group members.  If at all possible, he speaks with both the husband and wife.



Dual group membership


We prefer but do not insist that the partner on the spectrum also attend the separate Portland AS Adult Support Group.  The general focus of that group rarely involves lengthy discussion of couples' issues although initiating social contact and forming friendships are common topics.  The theory underlying our preference for dual attendance of the spectrum-sitting spouse is that if the partner is fairly new to the diagnosis, he--usually a "he"--will have a chance to experience other AS persons outside of a setting where his spouse and other couples work on relationship issues.


We've also found that even if recency-of-diagnosis issues arise in the partners' group, the discussion often takes a completely different turn.  Attendance of the "partner with" at the adult support group has not been enforced, but we do mention it regularly.  Since both groups meet once a month and as new couples join the group, it is too early for us to determine whether this requirement should stand.



Interest, commitment and special issues




Once they become members, there are occasions where only one partner can't come because of work duties or other unavoidable conditions such as illness.  Under those conditions we still encourage the unaccompanied partner to attend. Their presence assures the "intact" chemistry of the group.




In the group, we don't have the expertise or the reserves to deal with a full-blown co-morbid or dual diagnostic flare-up.  Group members come with the expectation of being able to share their time and their issues for the group.  Having one person "at the center" or dominating the attention of the group for the better part of two hours is unacceptable.  Good screening ferrets out such possible problems.



Couples fight.  What we look for in our screening interview are indications that the partners know how to fight "fair."  Somehow, they must have come to an arrangement or a negotiated settlement regarding unfair combat.  If they haven't, they aren't admitted.


We know that abuse does occur in AS marriages. To our knowledge, our couples have not experienced egregious psychological or physical abuse in their current relationships.  We know that many conventional kinds of anger management therapies do not work for AS individuals.  If we become aware of abuse we are required by law and our code of ethics to report it.


In the fall of 2001, we added two other conditions for group membership.



The group does have a special dynamic, and if people don't come as expected, their absence creates a  "hole" in the group.  If we know in advance that one or both members of a couple can't make it, we can handle that knowledge.


Staying away from the group during bad times furthers isolation and lessens the likelihood of learning through sharing even the bad stuff.  We've also found that bad stuff provides everyone with good lessons.


To sum up our roles as facilitators, here are the high points:


a)  One of us screens new members.  We could share the duty, but haven't so far.

b)  We walk alongside with our group members; we do not lead or "shine a light on the


c)  We listen for themes and we extrapolate.

d)  We re-focus the discussion when it goes astray.

e)  We ask clarifying questions.

f)   We reflect back what's said for confirmation and for further discussion.

g)  We respectfully discuss commonalities and differences among participants.

h)  We model acceptance of differences across the spectrum.


Necessary Conditions


Group size



We started out thinking about "ideal group size."  As things have turned out, we've had as many as five couples attend plus ourselves.  Usually, however, we have three or four couples.  We have discovered that a number smaller than four couples contributes to a different tone.  If we had more than six couples, sheer numbers would not allow enough opportunity for participants to exchange their different experiences.  As facilitators we try to assure that everyone has an opportunity not only to speak but also to explore.  However, we do not insist that people talk.  There is a "right to pass" that is respectfully adhered to.





After an initial start at a Portland Center for Independent Living, we moved to a church whose pastor and congregation are heavily committed to community outreach and inclusion.  All three Portland AS groups that meet regularly use this church as their base of operations.  We chose this location because it is neutral, community-based, integrated, and not identified with disabilities, medical or therapy services.  In short, we did not want to be identified with any agency known for "treatment."  We are "of the community" and we want to remain "in" the community.



When we first started, we posted signs on the outside of the church and along the long hallway leading to our meeting room, the "Fireside Room."  When a new couple is expected to attend the first time, the signs go back up, but just for that one evening.  We've never had a situation where a couple goes through screening and then fails to show up.



Our meetings start at 7 PM on Monday and run for two hours once a month.  We try to keep to the same scheduled evening monthly, but have had to change our meeting nights to accommodate known absences or the effect of holiday weekends.  We do not provide childcare, and expect couples to have made arrangements for "their night out."  Although we didn't initially intend the meeting to act as "respite," the fact that it takes place at a time of common family activities does, in fact, provide couples with growing children some respite.  So far, we have had no couples "attached" to their families with cell phones on during the time of the meeting.  Were this to become an issue, we would ask that cell phones be turned off for the duration of the meeting.



Our meeting room is carpeted and has a fireplace, soft chairs, and conference tables that we pull together in a horseshoe or large solid square.  We have easy access to bathrooms and the kitchen where we brew the coffee and water for tea.  We provide doughnuts or cookies are provided.  There is ample parking and excellent access to Portland's superb public transit system.  (All of our couples drive.) The site is wheelchair accessible.  We have never had to compete with noisy activities occurring elsewhere in the church although other community and church activities can and do occur in the building at the same time we hold our monthly meetings.



The physical arrangement of furniture in the room "sets the tone."  We use a circular conference table arrangement.  We do not expect participants to sit in an open circle of chairs without having the psychological safety of a table as a protective barrier and also as a writing and "play" surface.  Several tables are pushed together to allow for seating around all four sides.



When Roger first started his adult AS group four years ago, he brought small objects to be used as noiseless, handled items to fiddle with.  The stims are handled a lot.  In addition to relieving tension, they offer participants a chance to comfortably "zone out" without getting too disconnected from the flow of the discussion around the table.  The stim collection consists of consist of small textured balls, smooth and varied-surface rocks, small holographic "disk" tops, and a number of silent spinning or visual object-shifting toys.


Setting the agenda and some other logistical issues



a)  Anything discussed during the meeting remained with us:  no disclosure

b)  Identity of group members is confidential:  no disclosure to outsiders

c)  People will take turns in the discussion and show respect for one another

d)  No one "has to speak."  Individual right to "pass" on a topic is to be respected

e)  Reminder Email is sent during the week of the meeting.  If a couple can't make it to the meeting, they

     should notify a facilitator in advance of the meeting



At our first meeting, Lisa and I used humor and a little bit of story telling as an icebreaker.  Following that, we asked the couples to introduce themselves and tell us a little about their marriages.


When starting a group, identifying the issues in a manner similar to what we used is important.  We used the brainstorming model, but when there was "domination" or imbalance, we changed our approach to allow for full participation of all partners.


At the first meeting, we used butcher paper to identify our group members' issues.  During that meeting, the men dominated the discussion.  At the beginning of the second meeting, Lisa met separately with the wives to get their issues.  The meeting with the wives occurred in a kitchen off the main meeting area.  One wife who couldn't make that meeting was contacted by phone and Lisa added her issues to the butcher paper list for our following month's meeting.  For the first three meetings, the butcher paper lists were taped to the wall.  Knowing that posted issues would be addressed probably relieved partners' concerns that an issue would be overlooked.



a)  We start each meeting by soliciting each couple's issues

b)  Before we adjourn we agree on the date of the next meeting

c)  We distribute notes usually taken by Lisa of the previous meeting with our Email reminder notice for

     the next one.  Corrections and additions are always made at that next meeting.

d)  Recent past notes are always shared with new members as part of the welcoming ritual


Final notes


Neither of us believes we have the key to running an Asperger Syndrome partners group.  We are still "writing the book" and remain open to anything that works.  We believe the values by which we operate and the respect our group members accord one another have been major reasons why the Portland Asperger Syndrome Partners group has fared well.  We both believe that if someone is to start a group of this kind, they must be committed to seeing the project through.  Starting a second group following the failure of a initial group is always harder, especially in smaller communities where word of mouth and negative rumors can make running a "second edition" quite troublesome.  We may be lucky in that Portland is not a metropolitan center with a large number of professionals competing to serve the needs of Asperger Syndrome adults.


Portland, Oregon is a community that appears open to experimentation.  One reason the group may have done as well as it has is that there is a shortage of diagnostic resources for adults with AS.  With only a small handful of professional counselors experienced in working with Asperger Syndrome adults, we know that the partners' group has filled a void in our community.




Copyright Issues


This paper is copyright by Lisa Lieberman and Roger N. Meyer.  Single copies may be duplicated only for personal use.  This article is not to be distributed, copied or republished by any person, agency, or institution, nor are the contents to be used by any persons, agencies, or institutions for personal or professional aggrandizement or economic gain.  Prevailing state and US federal legal standards governing "fair use" quotation by the media or for academic purposes apply.  Express written permission for any other use must be obtained from the authors.



Lisa A. Lieberman, MSW, LCSW                                                                                            Roger N. Meyer

15100 SW Boones Ferry Road, Suite 750A                                                                                18162 East Burnside

Lake Oswego, OR  97035                                                                                                         Portland, OR  97233

isalieb@aol.com                                                                                                                 rogernmeyer@earthlink.net


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