By Jacquelyn Marquette, Ph.D.
For World Autism Month 2019, I want to shine a light on persons on the Autism Spectrum (AS) who rely upon a greater need for supports. Many of these individuals have strengths and talents, yet they are often ignored and turned away from resources such as supported employment services. Professionals often view their needs to be too great for the workplace or college going. Why are we not surprised with the low quality of life outcomes of this group and their families. Current AS outcomes are quite disturbing when the disability research indicators on well-being include: personal determination to pursue interests, vocational opportunities, and community connections for community membership.
Trent Altman, my son who has autism, has a great need for supports, yet has been a professional artist now for 19 years. His art is in galleries and has won international awards, i.e., the United Nations 2012 stamp to raise awareness globally for autism. He has also had numerous opportunities to exhibit and sell his art through The Art Of Autism with Debra Muziker and Strokes of Genius with Dr. Rosa Martinez.
People have said to me, “Oh he must be high functioning.” I then explain about the ‘broad creative supports’ (BCS) that helped him and how they continue to help him participate and enjoy optimal settings. I am proud of his accomplishments, yet, his accomplishments as an artist is not the reason I am writing this article.
Research indicates, a person’s unsatisfied needs represent a state of deprivation or a lack of stability. However, when the environmental demands are too intense for the person with AS, ‘broad creative supports’ (BCS) can meet one’s needs and serve to establish satisfaction and harmonious relationships within the setting.
What are ‘Broad creative supports (BCS)? BCS are factors that include physiological support, structure, conducive environments that promote participation or emotional adaptation, and ‘people connections.’ When youth engage in optimal situations and make adaptations with BCS, the outcomes are more likely to reflect of acceptance.
Trent uses BCS to create paintings in his art studio, to take part in his fine art shows, and to use tools that help him when in overwhelming and difficult settings. I recently recorded a video to show Trent using his painting skills and techniques, some of which he invented. More importantly, I wanted to show examples of the BCS Trent relies upon in order to do his art: 1) the environment – we made an art studio in his garage with a furnace for winter and air-conditioning for summer; 2) new age music playing in the background (written by Michael Fess, a friend); 3) essential oils in the diffuser; 4) a timer to encourage his self-regulation and to get calm before starting to paint; 5) a checklist he had already written about his choice of paintings he wanted to work on and the order of painting (routine and structure); 6) a studio helper to assist in mixing colors, to take care of paintings, and to support Trent when he gets agitated or frustrated.
The research literature is clear that disability represents impairments. But the research is also clear that an impairment or diagnosis is hardly predictive of the person’s functioning level and membership in society. In other words, it isn’t the person’s diagnosis of high functioning with cognitive ability that translates into a successful transition into adulthood with quality of life and well-being. Equally important, it isn’t the autism diagnosis of those who have a great need for supports to have less or a low predictability to a quality of life and well-being as an adult. Rather, it is mainly the ‘people connections’, people who are open and interested to create the personalized BCS for the person. These advocates notice AS strengths/capabilities and assist in arranging the environment with opportunities for the person to have optimal experiences. These actions performed by ‘people connections’ can carry a person through challenges and into experiencing their interests and goals.
Borrowing from the work of Julia Cameron, I see that ‘people connections’ are really ‘believing mirrors’. ‘Believing mirrors’ are people who stand with the person in their corner and have their back. ‘Believing mirrors’ reflect back to the person a belief in their abilities/interests, career possibilities, and capability to emotionally adapt. ‘Believing mirrors’ are valuable people in the lives of youth in transition to adulthood and beyond. ‘Believing mirrors’ help create opportunities and well-being for individuals with AS. I see that autism acceptance can be promoted by the ‘believing mirrors’. Making school transition to adulthood is dependent upon the student finding his-her strengths and career possibilities, and the BCS to meet the demands of the workplace or other settings. What ‘believing mirrors’ do is create and advocate on behalf of the individual with AS. This is an an art in itself.
Autism Spectrum and support for adulthood requires a strength-based focus, which is a step in the right direction. Creating one’s own life or being a support as a ‘believing mirror’ or supporting another to help create their life is not a science of therapies, but is an art form. Persons with AS who have a greater need for supports are dependent upon ‘believing mirrors.’ Anyone can become a ‘believing mirror.’ Some examples include: school personnel, teacher, peer, advocate to access community, mentor, coworker, employer, family member, community member, peers from a hobby/interest, or live-in support. These ‘believing mirrors’ can make all the difference in persons with AS to shoot for the north star of their lives.
Jackie Marquette Ph.D. is an autism employment researcher, author, and parent of an adult son with autism. She created and provides trainings to schools and agencies to use the S.A.F.E.T.Y. Works an Interdependent Employment and Emotional Adaptation Model. She has developed the Strengths and Career Index(c) and Power Practices(c) Curriculum for students with autism and related disabilities. Read more about Jackie here.