Author: Karen Copeland
About a month ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel presentation by five autistic youth, coordinated and facilitated by Elizabeth McWilliams-Hewitt from Behaviour Consultation, Education and Training. It was held at a local middle school, with the target audience being students in grade 7 as well as their teachers and support staff. I have attended a similar panel hosted by Elizabeth in the past, and when I found out this one was happening, I didn’t hesitate to ask her if it would be okay if I attend.
The reason is so incredibly simple to me. I go because I want and need to be listening to the right voices to learn about autism. And those right voices? They belong to autistic individuals. If I want to understand sensory sensitivities, if I want to have a glimpse of the power that anxiety can wield, then why wouldn’t I listen to those who live it?
There is tremendous opportunity to learn through storytelling. As I watched the students and staff listen intently to the words being shared by the youth, I thought about all the stereotypes that were being challenged. I witnessed the dawning of the realization that there were many similarities as well as differences between the youth and their peers. It was interesting to see the students in the audience who could identify with the message being shared by the youth on the panel, as if they had finally found someone who understood them. I heard curiousity from the educators and support staff, and a voiced willingness and desire to learn more, to hear more.
This is moving beyond awareness. Awareness to me is simply knowledge exchange. It is the flow information that provides a picture of a particular disability or illness. Awareness isn’t about asking about the human experience. Words I associate with awareness are: clinical, sterile, non-emotional.
Is awareness necessary? Absolutely. But it is the starting point, not the end point!
What happens when we have the opportunity to truly listen to a person’s experience? to their story? We begin to see the emergence of empathy and acceptance. Because to truly understand someone, it is not enough to simply be aware of facts and numbers. You must be able to acknowledge and accept people for their strengths and differences that are unique to them. You must be able to set aside pre-conceived notions and textbook facts that may be promoted by people who say they understand but can’t really because they don’t live this. And what better way to learn about people than to hear directly from them.
It strikes me how powerful it is when we are presented with the opportunity to learn and understand by creating the space for the right voices to be heard. When we do this, we encourage curiousity, empathy and acceptance. It challenges us to think deeper instead of resorting to making up our own (often uninformed) stories for why something might or might not be happening.
I think this is why I am so passionate about what I do. I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate two parent panels in the past, and am excited to be involved in two more that are coming up in the next couple months. These next panels will consist of youth and parents sharing their experiences with mental health challenges, as well as a professional who will be able to share tips on how to navigate systems. Providing a full context of experience from the people whose stories need to be heard. This is so important, these voices are critical if we are to continue the journey from awareness to acceptance in our communities.
If you are interested, one of the youth on the panel has his own Facebook page where he shares his experiences with autism, including videos. Please take the time to visit and like his page here: Livin_with_Autism
The #Blog4MH mental health blogging challenge runs through January 2016. You can check out the #Blog4MH community Facebook page to read posts by contributors to the challenge. For more information about the challenge, please visit January #Blog4MH Challenge 2.0 by Jasmine Rakhra.