FLEX’s founder Michael Decaire recently sat down with Michael Lander, MSW, RSW, to discuss his and role at FLEX and the services he has been providing to our clients over the last year. Michael [Lander] is a registered social worker and specialist in supporting those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Michael helps adolescents and young adults identify and work towards their goals and, more generally, to move towards a life of increased wellness, successes, and happiness.
MD: There is a misperception that therapy for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder is narrowly focused on social skills training, sensory, and behavioural interventions. While there is an obvious place for these supports, in my experience it is important to recognize that those with Autism are experiencing the exact same range of wellness and mental health concerns as any other client we see. The difference is that this population may come to those problems with some unique perspectives and needs. I was hoping you could discuss some of this uniqueness and how your work in this area has shaped you as a therapist.
Michael Lander: I agree with you Michael. I think that there is a misperception out there that therapeutic interventions for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) should only be oriented towards social skills, sensory, and behavioural interventions. However, as you say, people with ASD experience the exact same range of mental health and wellness concerns as neurotypical people. It should follow, then, that evidence-based therapeutic approaches used in treating common conditions such as anxiety disorder among neurotypical individuals should also be utilized in treating those with ASD. For example, there is a high prevalence of comorbid anxiety disorders with ASD. But there is a lack of empirically supported anxiety-specific interventions for the ASD population. What is needed is the modification of effective therapeutic approaches that are adapted to the unique needs, styles of thinking, and perspectives of individuals with ASD.
Working closely with people with ASD for over ten years has given me the chance to understand ASD as being expressed and experienced uniquely by every individual. However, there are a limited number of common characteristics of ASD that I believe are keys to developing and implementing effective therapeutic practice for those with ASD. People with ASD often experience executive functioning deficits, problems with ‘central coherence’ (the ability to see the “the big picture”) and procedural learning skills. Combined, these different ways of thinking often cause barriers to generating alternative thoughts, beliefs or solutions, difficulties judging the potential usefulness of alternative strategies, or speculating on the outcome of various courses of action. Integrating these core characteristics of ASD into my therapeutic approach, I have shaped my practice around working collaboratively with clients to work through the relational and social emotional issues they face daily, and to develop concrete alternatives to disordered, or self-destructive thinking.
MD: It strikes me that the therapeutic relationship with clients with Autism Spectrum Disorders can pivot from therapist, to advisor, to coach or mentor. Could you discuss the fluidity of that relationship and your role in providing the type of support that our clients need when they need it?
Michael Lander: I believe that a strong therapeutic alliance between a therapist and client with ASD is tantamount to providing effective therapy, and can be cultivated by fostering an environment and relational style that is driven by the communication styles, competencies, and needs of every individual client. Due to the varied and unique characteristics of individuals with ASD, my therapeutic practice is flexible and adaptive, largely driven by a solution-focused approach which holds that all clients have knowledge of what would make their life better, but often need support in achieving these solutions. Therefore, my role is constantly adapting and changing to provide every individual with tailored supports in setting and achieving goals, and in developing the tools and skills necessary for cultivating a better future, and achieving their goals. Sometimes, this calls for me to be an advisor, and mentor – one who can work collaboratively with the client to untangle the meanings of complex social interactions and relationships. Sometimes, I can take on the role of a career counsellor or life coach – working with clients to better conceptualize short-terms and long-term educational and employment goals, and put strategies in place to achieve these goals. No matter what role I take on – my priority is always to tailor the supports that I am giving to the unique needs, goals, perspectives, and thinking styles of every individual.
MD: Early in my career I worked extensively with clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder during their transition to College or University and then into the workforce. At the time, the education system was making leaps in bounds in supporting those with ASD to be met with success in school. At the same time, it felt like we were not preparing them well for the transition into the work force, and unemployment was rampant with my clients despite their obvious skills and ability to contribute towards their areas of professional interest. I was wondering if you could discuss how this sort of transition looks today, what types of supports are available, and what kind of assistance you are able to provide through your work at FLEX.
Michael Lander: I believe the reality today is much like what you recall, in that supports are offered to individuals in school and throughout teenage-hood, but when high school is over, these supports largely dissipate. The transition into the workforce, then, with the goal of being an independent and self-sustaining person, becomes a transition and a task that many people with ASD struggle with, and is a primary concern for almost all of my clients.
There are many agencies within the General Toronto Area (GTA) which provide employment supports to individuals with ASD. Most of these agencies operate through the Ontario Disability Support Program, which many individuals who I meet rely on for income – despite obvious skills, abilities, and training in various professional fields. Unfortunately, most of the employment support agencies in the city which support individuals with ASD are cross-disability serving. Meaning that the supports put in place are not specific or adapted to the needs of individuals with ASD, but are the same supports provided to anyone with a disability accessing employment supports. This means that there is an alarming lack of ASD-specific employment support services in the GTA.
I believe that effective employment support for individuals with ASD looks quite different than the employment support that is most commonly offered to individuals with ASD, in that what is required is more relational and social emotional support rather than job task oriented. Most of the individuals I meet are more than capable of doing their job tasks successfully, but often face social and relational barriers to success, both in the hiring process and on the job.
Through my work at FLEX, I am able to offer supports related to employment which are specific to people with ASD, working with individuals to collaboratively set and achieve goals in regards to many aspects of employment, often focusing on the relation between person and environment. I provide supports in developing strategies for dealing with anxiety in the workplace, pre-employment skill building, self-esteem and confidence building, developing strategies for disclosure of diagnoses, and developing self-advocacy skills. I also provide supports in terms of communication with co-workers/managers, and the collaborative process of understanding, deciphering, and sometimes re-framing social emotional communication, cues, and unwritten rules that exist at work and in the job search. Through these supports and others, I am able to provide assistance to individuals with ASD to tackle the most common barriers to success which are faced in the crucial transition into the world of employment and independence.
MD: Conversations about gender and sexuality have exploded in public forums and the media. It feels like this is an area that had been swept under the rug with the ASD population for many years, but is finally becoming a part of the conversation. Given the role relationships and partnerships have on one’s wellness, it is exciting that this is an area our clients are now tackling. Could you speak a little about how we support clients in exploring these areas, understanding themselves better, and moving forward in a manner that promotes happiness and wellness.
Michael Lander: Despite discussions concerning gender and sexuality exploding in public forums and in the media, widespread social stigma and misunderstandings surrounding the intersection of gender, sexuality, and disability makes it hard for people with ASD to have a platform to talk frankly about their thoughts and feelings concerning gender and sexuality, even though these are primary concerns for many clients who I see. Part of my work involves confronting this stigma, speaking literally, acceptingly, and with verbally expressed non-judgement about sexuality, relationships, and gender if these are concerns brought forward by the client.
One of the lynchpins of my practice is supporting individuals to address and engage with stage-specific social emotional desires, strengths, and competencies. For many young adults who I see, romantic relationships and dating are a primary social emotional priority – and I support my clients in setting and achieving goals in this area of their life, one which is commonly overlooked by loved ones and professionals involved in the lives of those with ASD. Whether pursuing a passion in relationships, education, or employment, I work collaboratively with clients to set and achieve short-term and long-term goals in the areas of their life which promote happiness, wellness, and fulfillment.
MD: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today about your work within the ASD community. I look forward to seeing more success stories with your clients at FLEX!
Michael Lander: Thank you for the chat! I look forward to my ongoing work with the FLEX team.
If you feel that Michael Lander could assist yourself or a loved one to move towards wellness, please consider contacting FLEX now for more information and to inquire about availability.
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