Janet Lawson, MFT | February 23, 2014
[This is the third in a series of blog posts on the history, development, and methodology of Autistry by Janet Lawson and Dan Swearingen]
One of the key components of the Autistry program is the sharing of skills and learning together with our clients. This modality did not come about by theoretical conjecture but evolved naturally by trial and error as we followed and expanded upon interactions that were successful.
Janet has often been told that she was born to be a therapist. That may be true but it took her a long time to figure that out. One of Janet’s first ‘semi-professional’ experiences as a sympathetic or rather empathetic listener came while she was in grad school and working in Bloomington, Indiana. She was asked to lead an AlaTeen group. Every Monday night for five years Janet sat quietly and listened as teenagers told their stories of struggle with drug and alcohol addiction – their own or their families. Janet found she loved working with teenagers. She resonated with their struggles for independence, their search for identity, and above all, their brutal honesty.
When they returned to the Bay Area and learned that Ian was autistic Janet had no free time to lead teen groups. As caring for an autistic child is all consuming she had given up trying to hold down full or even part-time jobs. But when Ian went off to school, Janet went back to school too. This time for a Master’s degree in counseling psychology. After years of working with Ian as well as talking endlessly with other families with special needs children Janet knew that this world would be her arena for the next few decades. And Janet saw a tremendous need for counseling that came from personal experience with the challenges special needs families encounter — the day-to-day obstacles.
Lunches with Kent
Every psychotherapist in training for their license in California is required to do 3000 hours of combined individual client sessions, group sessions, seminars, and case note-writing. Janet did most of her client hours at local high schools working with teenagers and their families. As one of the few therapists, either in training or fully licensed, with both experience in ASD and experience with teenagers the students with ASD would be referred to her. One of her very first clients was a 14 year-old freshman boy with autism. Kent was highly intelligent and did well in science and mathematics. But he was not very social and reluctantly verbal. When asked a simple rhetorical social question like “How are you?” He would reply, “I am how I am.” And “How was school today?” “It was how it was.”
Kent was not rude, just economical in his responses. He also had trouble formulating complex conversational sentences so he preferred to be curt. He did not want to be called out of class for counseling sessions so he and Janet agreed to meet every Tuesday at lunch. He brought his lunch – a cheese sandwich, a small bunch of grapes, two cookies, and juice. He ate the same lunch every day. At first they spent the hour quietly eating with occasional questions being asked by Janet and only marginally answered by Kent.
One day Kent brought a sketch book and introduced Janet to his imaginary world. He had created several characters based on the shape of a pencil eraser – the pink rubber erasers that you can stick on the ends of pencils. Kent had created over 50 different characters – some based on a mechanical pencil, others on a pencil sharpener. He created story lines, detailed settings and very imaginative names – often the names were puns or elaborations of words.
The characters were stick figures but each had a distinct personality. Kent had a definite artistic talent. He captured expression in the arch of a brow or a crooked smile. Whereas face-to-face with another person Kent seemed to lack affect, the characters in his drawings communicated volumes in subtle simple pencil lines. Janet began to see Kent differently. She looked for the subtle communication in his expressions and found that, like his characters, in his own minimalist way Kent too was reaching out. He was sharing his thoughts and emotions but with expressions that were nearly indiscernible.
Janet began to seriously take an interest in Kent’s creative world and they discussed his characters in depth. They shared online cartoons with each other. Kent had his own online comic strip which Janet followed each week so that they would have common ground to explore. Their sessions together, though never filled with the ‘normal’ therapeutic discussions, were rich with non-verbal exchanges.
Kent and Janet had lunch together every week for two years. When Janet and Dan started Autistry Studios Kent was in the first workshop for high school aged students. At that time Kent was a junior in high school.
Girls Who Love Anime
When Janet finally finished her training hours, passed the licensing tests and hung out her Marriage and Family Therapist shingle, she continued to see teens and adults with ASD. While working with a young woman Susan, diagnosed with high-functioning autism, Janet realized that trying to discuss social challenges and teen-identity issues in a small room, face-to-face was not working. Unlike the verbose AlaTeen kids, Sarah was not able to accurately describe problematic or triggering incidents and she had great difficulty describing the emotions those incidents inspired.
One day, Susan asked if she could draw during the session. Janet quickly found a pad of paper and some colored pencils and Susan not only began to draw beautiful anime-style fairies. And she began to talk. She needed the drawing to express herself. It was as if the two channels – speech and drawing – needed to be activated simultaneously for her to fully communicate.
At that same time the parent of a young woman with Asperger’s called and asked Janet to start a group for girls. The mother was desperate. She had tried every support group from Girls Scouts to Social Skills Therapy but her daughter continued to languish socially and to fail academically. Janet was reluctant to start a group as they are generally difficult to schedule and take enormous amounts of time to prepare. But the mother was so insistent and her anguish so genuine that she could not say No.
The first session Carrie sat in the office, her head down, looking at Janet over the rim of her glasses. She answered questions without elaboration and in a rather distracted fashion. She had obviously been through the therapy wringer and knew the drill. When Janet asked her what she liked to do most she answered, “Draw”. When Janet responded that she would love to see Carrie’s drawings, Carrie brought out a sketch book. Janet expected Carrie to show some of her work but instead she began to draw and quickly created a sketch of a young girl with large innocent eyes in a very sexy outfit.
Though Carrie’s drawings were more sophisticated than Susan’s — and less innocent, she nevertheless seemed quite similar to Susan so Janet asked if they would like to form a small group. This tiny group was the starting point for the development of Project-Based Therapy and the inspiration for Autistry Studios. Every week we drew together, ate snacks, and talked. The girls drew primarily in anime style and we named the group Girls Who Love Anime.
As Dan and Janet delved deeper into the subculture of anime they discovered that Susan and Carrie were not alone. Many ASD individuals are attracted to anime. They love the simple drawing style and find deep meaning in the restricted range of iconic emotional expressions. Many people on the spectrum often cannot decipher nuanced human facial expressions and are therefore challenged by personal non-verbal communications. In the anime world they quickly learn the simple range of expressions and their associated emotions which are used consistently across the genre. Often for the first time they start to understand emotions and their meanings in the context of narrative. They can fully participate in the communication. They can engage in the stories.
Janet wanted to challenge the girls to take their drawings to a new level. She asked them to create in 3 dimensions. Susan created a plushie of her favorite character from Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go! Carrie designed and made a beautiful gold dress.
Doing projects together allowed us to experience what barriers were preventing these talented girls from being successful. We encountered executive functioning issues – the inability to make a plan and stick to it. They would become lost in the details losing sight of the larger picture. We also encountered the effects of perseveration on forward progress. The girls would often become fixated on a character or a theme and it would be difficult to move to a new project. We experienced cognitive distortions such as rigid thinking, over-generalization, over-personalization, and other thought patterns that impede positive progress and social integration.
It became clear that by working on projects with our clients allowed us to see, feel, understand, and experience their world in a way that sitting in a room doing ‘talk-therapy’ would never be able to do. Because the girls were interested and invested in the projects they had motivation to solve the issues that arose.
Night of the Living Dead
Carrie was also very interested in Anime Music Videos (AMV). These are fan-made cuts of an anime film making a short music video with the cuts synched to the music. She watched these all the time but had never been able to make one herself. Dan was not (and is still not) an anime fan but he and Carrie compromised on using footage from the original Night Of The Living Dead (now in public domain) set to Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams. Their goal was to make their AMV in one afternoon so that Carrie could experience all the steps of the project end-to-end.
The project was a success. We later realized that the key to this experience was:
• choosing materials easily obtained or already on hand. In the first session, it is important that external obstacles are minimal: you want to see the student’s internal issues.
• being able to finish that first project in one sitting – a small sample sized project. The real product of the session is a working relationship which lasts beyond this one session.
• demanding acceptable quality. It is essential that the student be proud of their product.
The lessons we learned from these very first clients became some of the fundamental principles upon which we built the Autistry programs. From Kent we learned that creating meaningful relationships with ASD individuals takes time and patience. Trust does not come easily as, generally, they are not accustomed to people understanding their world. Susan and Carrie helped us to fully appreciate the importance of breaking out of the talk-therapy box. With them we learned that helping a client discover their strength and develop their talents is the most effective way to support their becoming independent.