Wednesday, November 29, 2023

What is Unmasking in Autism?

What is unmasking in autism? What does autism unmasked look like? Learn all about autism unmasking below and get tips and resources for how to unmask.

Up until a few years ago, you didn't really see people talking about concepts such as autistic camouflaging, social masking, or unmasking. Yet, they are incredibly important topics to learn about, especially if you are autistic yourself. And, thankfully, more and more people are sharing their experiences.

Now, once you understand the basics of autistic masking, the next logical step is to look at the unmasking experience and what that means. Right? Well, that's obviously what we're going to explore here...(I mean the title kind of gives it away, doesn't it?)

Specifically, we're going to dive into answering the question: what is unmasking in autism? You'll discover what it is, the motivations or reasons behind it, what it looks like to be an unmasked autistic person, and more.

Autism unmasked: what is unmasking in autism?

What is Unmasking in Autism? A Definition

If you were to look up the term unmasking in a dictionary, you would see definitions such as "to reveal the true nature of" or "to remove a mask from." (source) And that's precisely what unmasking in autism is about.

For a more specific definition, unmasking can be defined as the process of removing or giving up masking and revealing one's true, authentic, and autistic self.

Definition of unmasking in autism

It is important to highlight that unmasking in autism is a process that requires a lot of self-acceptance and self-discovery. So, it is deeply personal. That means that the process will be unique to each and every autistic person.

A quote about the unmasking process

Motivations & Reasons to Unmask

If you're familiar with autistic masking at all (which you should be before reading this), then you're probably aware that there are lots of reasons why autistic people might mask their autistic traits.

Unsurprisingly, there are also a number of reasons to drop the mask, so to speak, including:

  • For mental health considerations
  • To be more authentic and true to oneself
  • To find and develop healthy coping strategies
  • Due to social exhaustion
  • They're unable to maintain the mask
  • To manage sensory overload
  • They're in a safe place or among people they trust
  • To educate others about autism
  • For self-regulation purposes
  • For self-advocacy purposes
  • To reduce stress and anxiety
  • To build deeper and more meaningful social relationships

Remember, unmasking is a personal process so reasons may vary from one autistic person to another.

Yet, as you can probably tell from this list, unmasking is beneficial and healthy. I mean less stress, deeper connections, managing sensory overload, better mental health...those are all great things!

But what does the process of unmasking involve? What does it look like? What helps a person drop the mask? That's what we'll look at next.

A list of motivations & reasons to unmask

What Does Autistic Unmasking Look Like?

The following are some examples of what autistic unmasking can look like. Keep in mind that it may look different for every individual (tired of me saying this yet?). It is worth mentioning, though, that it's all about embracing your autistic identity and trying to live more authentically. That might mean:

  • Accepting your autistic traits and being more open about what it's like to be autistic
  • Paying attention to your sensory needs and using sensory tools and strategies as needed
  • Advocating for your needs
  • Using accommodations and supports (e.g., visual aids, fidgets, sensory tools, AAC device)
  • Educating others and sharing your own experiences
  • Setting boundaries and sticking to them
  • Exploring your own identity
  • Prioritizing self-care and well-being (e.g., taking breaks to recharge and recover, practicing healthy coping strategies, doing things at your own pace)

While it's helpful to know what it can look like, sometimes it's difficult to know how to get to that point or where to even start. Especially if you are new to this process. So, are there certain things that help a person unmask? Well, that's what we'll look at next.

Examples of what autism unmasked can look like

How to Unmask: Things You Can Do or Try

Not sure where to begin when it comes to unmasking? Here are some things that can help you during the process:

  • Connect with others in the autism or neurodivergent community (talking to others who have similar experiences can be super helpful!)
  • Spend time alone and take time for self-reflection
  • Learn about your autistic traits and embrace autistic culture (resources here)
  • Infodump about your passions or special interests, especially to someone you feel safe around and trust
  • Listen to your favorite music or rewatch your favorite movies, shows, and videos
  • Rely on things that are safe and comforting in terms of sensory input (e.g., eating samefoods, spending time in sensory-friendly spaces, using fidgets or sensory tools, engaging in calming sensory activities, wearing clothing that is comfortable)
  • Ask for support and accommodations
  • Try using other modes of communication (e.g., using scripts, communication cards, or an AAC device) that will help with social interactions
  • Acknowledge any internalized ableism and work on dismantling that
  • Use visual supports (e.g., checklists, visual schedules, social stories, written supports, communication cards)
  • Establish boundaries
  • Go at your own pace and do things on your own terms
  • Build a support network with people you trust
  • Read about others' experiences with masking and unmasking (see a couple of book recommendations below)

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting point for those who might be learning how to unmask. Remember, this process is personal and highly individual (repetition helps, okay?). So, do what works for you.

Things you can do to help you unmask

If you need more strategies and ideas, keep in mind that there are books that go into more depth on this particular topic, which leads me to the next section...

Useful Books About Unmasking in Autism

Ready to learn more and want to dive deeper into unmasking? Well, here are some book suggestions that you might be interested in:

1. Taking Off the Mask by Dr. Hannah Louise Belcher - This book is filled with lots of research and information about autistic masking and camouflaging. It also includes practical exercises to help autistic people. The book is relatively short too (around 150 pages) so it shouldn't take too long to read through.

2. Unmasking Autism by Devon Price - I know that many autistic people have found this book helpful and really informative. It comes highly recommended! It's a book I started reading, but never finished (and probably should try to read again).

A Summary of Autism Unmasked

We covered a lot of information above. So, let's do a quick summary of what unmasking in autism is, what it looks like, and what you can do to help.

  • Unmasking is the process of removing or giving up masking and revealing one's true, authentic, and autistic self.
  • This process of unmasking is personal and highly individual so it will look different for every autistic person.
  • There are plenty of reasons to unmask, but two common ones are for mental health reasons and to be more true to oneself.
  • Autism unmasked looks like accepting your autism, stimming freely, advocating for your needs, using accommodations, setting boundaries, and exploring your own identity.
  • To get started with unmasking, you can try connecting with others in the autism community, embracing your special interests, learning about autistic traits, using visual supports, and reading about others' experiences.

You now have a better answer to the question: what is unmasking in autism? and, hopefully, this information will help you as you begin to unmask (or support someone else who might be trying to unmask). Good luck!

Autism unmasked: what is unmasking in autism?

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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Tips & Strategies for Presuming Competence

A list of tips and strategies for presuming competence. Actionable things that parents, teachers, therapists, and other professionals can do.

A phrase that you might hear a lot in special education, speech therapy, or AAC circles is presumed competence.

But knowing what presumed competence means and why it's important is one thing.

On the other hand, knowing how to put it into practice is a whole other thing.

Perhaps you already know the basics of what presuming competence means and maybe you're like, "Okay, it all sounds great and all, but now what?" What are some actionable things that you can actually do? Where do you start? What should you avoid doing? How can you advocate for inclusive education settings? Those are the kinds of questions that we're going to explore and answer below.

Specifically, we're going to look at some tips and strategies for presuming competence in a wide variety of settings. That might be at home, in therapy, in special education or a general ed classroom, or somewhere else entirely.

Think of these ideas as a bit of a checklist of sorts to make sure you're doing what you need to be doing to best support a wide variety of individuals and accommodate a wide array of abilities. Building inclusive educational settings and classrooms is always important. So let's dig in!

A list of tips and strategies for presuming competence

Tips & Strategies for Presuming Competence

Please note that the following list of tips is pretty thorough. So, you might find all of this information about presumed competence overwhelming. Remember, you can always start with one or two strategies first and then go from there.

Keeping that point in mind, let's take a look at some of the actionable things that you can do when it comes to presuming competence:

  • Speak to them normally and in age appropriate ways (e.g., avoid baby talk and over simplified language, consider tone and speed, use age appropriate vocabulary)
  • Honor and support all forms of communication (e.g., gestures, AAC, pictures, spelling, sign language) and find ways to help an individual communicate
  • Adapt your own communication styles and be flexible (e.g., modeling scripts and gestalts, modeling on a communication device, acknowledging echolalia)
  • Encourage them to speak or communicate for themselves (e.g., do not speak for them, teach them self advocacy skills, provide extra time for them to process and communicate - see the power of waiting)
  • Acknowledge them like you would any other person
  • Include them in conversations (i.e., do not speak about them in front of others as if they aren't there and instead talk directly to them)
  • Take a strengths-based approach and focus on what they can do (there's often too much focus on what someone can't do, which can lead to viewing some individuals as incapable)
  • Respond to and acknowledge all attempts to communicate (a simple nod or yeah can go a long way, even if you aren't sure what they are trying to communicate - especially important for our gestalt language processors)
  • Tailor support to their individual needs and preferences vs. tailoring them to the disability or diagnostic label
  • Shift your mindset and attitude to make sure that you're setting them up to succeed rather than assuming they will just fail
  • Focus on an individual's abilities and needs instead of describing them using functioning labels or by developmental levels (i.e., avoid referring to someone as high-functioning or low-functioning and instead say concrete things like "they can read at a 5th grade level" or "they find visuals helpful")
  • Avoid making assumptions about what they can or can not do based on their disability, neurodivergence, or diagnosis
  • Reject and question stereotypes, consider your own biases, unlearn harmful practices, and reserve judgment
  • Keep learning about best practices related to disability, neurodiversity, and related topics in order to continue to improve support and inclusivity. Doing so will also help you with the previous bullet point. (e.g., read books by disabled and neurodivergent authors, stay up to date on the latest research and best practices, follow disabled and neurodivergent creators on social media)
  • Use respectful and inclusive language (e.g., opt for neurodiversity affirming language and avoid deficit language)
  • Ask for permission before offering assistance or sharing information with others (i.e., respect their privacy and their boundaries)
  • Resist the urge to withhold information out of fear that they might not grasp it or understand it (i.e., if you would share it with any other child/person, share it with them too)
  • Recognize that they might not be able to demonstrate what they truly know or understand (i.e., there could be a big gap between what they understand and what they are able to show that they know - especially when it comes to standardized tests)
  • Expose them to age appropriate content like you would anyone else their age
  • Observe an individual's behaviors, actions, and expressions and try to determine what those behaviors might be trying to communicate (e.g., yelling or hitting when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious)
  • Offer them a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their skills, abilities, and talents
  • Provide choices for how they can demonstrate their skills, abilities, and talents (e.g., typing out an assignment vs. handwriting it)
  • Provide appropriate educational supports and accommodations that will help an individual reach their full potential
  • Use their strengths to encourage the individual to show their understanding (e.g., for hyperlexic learners, that means relying on written language vs. just spoken)
  • Recognize that standardized tests have limitations and may not accurately capture an individual's true abilities or potential (the book Drawing a Blank touches on this issue in relation to hyperlexia and comprehension)
  • Set expectations that reflect the individual's potential vs. setting low expectations based on assumptions or stereotypes
  • Prioritize safety and trust (e.g., follow the child's lead, don't withhold favorite objects, focus on connection over compliance, use trauma informed care or therapy)
  • Advocate for inclusive environments and celebrate diversity (e.g., accommodate various abilities and sensory needs, use a variety of diverse books in the classroom, use neurodiversity affirming practices, reduce sensory triggers, celebrate differences)
  • Be patient and remember that progress may take time (i.e., every individual develops at their own different pace)

Example tips and strategies for presuming competence

Some Final Notes on Presuming Competence

As you can see, there are a variety of actionable ways to presume competence on this list. Some of these strategies are things that you will do behind the scenes. For instance, shifting your mindset or continuously learning. However, a bulk of them are things that you need to be constantly monitoring - in the moment - while working directly with someone.

Quote about presuming competence

You'll also notice that some of these tips for presuming competence will be relatively easy to do, such as speaking to kids in age appropriate ways. And others might require a lot more work and patience, such as unlearning harmful practices.

It's also a good idea to consider these strategies and tips during IEP meetings as well. After all, they can be a great way to guide educational goals and outcomes. So, be sure to discuss them with the special education teacher, resource teacher, general education teachers, and other support staff on the IEP team.

Speaking of which, presuming competence is something that all members of the IEP team should be on board with. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. So, sometimes a lot of advocacy might be required to get the team on board. In this case, you might have to start small or simple.

It's also especially important to keep these tips in mind when it comes to working with individuals who are nonspeaking or have limited verbal communication skills. Too often, they are presumed incapable of learning or understanding and that's simply not the case.

Remember, presuming competence is the "least dangerous assumption" (source) so we need to see all individuals as capable of learning.

Presuming competence is the "least dangerous assumption" quote

Now, will you make mistakes along the way? Absolutely! You're human after all. No one expects you to be able to master all of these overnight. So keep the last tip about presuming competence in mind for yourself: be patient and remember that progress may take time. Having a growth mindset will also help tremendously.

Good luck incorporating these strategies for presuming competence into your teaching, your therapy sessions, your parenting, and so on. Your efforts and your dedication to learning, growing, and doing better are much appreciated.

A list of tips and strategies for presuming competence

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Monday, November 27, 2023

Presume Competence: What Does it Mean & Why is it Important?

A look at what presume competence means and why it's important.

There are a lot of different terms and phrases that you might come across when learning about topics like autism, hyperlexia, neurodiversity, gestalt language processing, disability, and so on. There's also a lot of acronyms to navigate. It feels like learning a whole new language some days!

Then there are also some terms that you might encounter as your child starts therapy. Or there are the terms that get tossed around during meetings with the special education team.

One specific term or concept that you might come across frequently - especially as it relates to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) - is the term presumed competence. It's quite an important concept and term to discuss, I might add. It's also a term that you might see popping up more and more on social media lately.

But what exactly does it mean to presume competence? And why is it important? Well, that's what we're going to discuss below.

Presume competence: what does it mean & why is it important?

Presume Competence Definition

First, let's break the phrase down into its two words:

  • Presume = assume, believe, expect
  • Competence = ability, capacity, proficiency

In other words, presuming competence is the belief that an individual is capable of thinking, learning, and understanding, even if there's no tangible evidence, they aren't able to show it yet, or regardless of what standardized test scores show. 

Presumed competence definition

Basically, presuming competence is about:

  • Giving people the benefit of the doubt
  • Offering support and providing opportunities for individuals to show their skills and their potential
  • Not making assumptions based on their challenges, weaknesses, disabilities, and/or diagnostic label
  • Treating people with respect
  • Valuing everyone's unique strengths, abilities, and contributions

What does presuming competence mean?

Why is Presuming Competence Important?

Now that you have a better idea of what it means to presume competence, let's look at the benefits of doing so. Here's why it's important to always presume competence:

  • It's the "least dangerous assumption" (source) as presuming incompetence, for instance, would be much more harmful
  • Reduces stigmas and rejects stereotypes that are associated with disabilities
  • Supports inclusion
  • Improves communication
  • Strengthens relationships
  • Values and respects individuals for who they are, as well as their unique strengths and contributions
  • Gives people a chance and provides opportunities instead of making assumptions about what they can and cannot do
  • Prevents underestimation because you are setting appropriate and high expectations (vs. setting low expectations based on stereotypes or a diagnostic label)
  • Recognizes that traditional or standardized assessments may be flawed and don't always give an accurate representation of what one can do
  • Strengthens self-esteem and fosters independence
  • It's empowering

Why presuming competence is important

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. Yet, you can see how powerful presuming competence can be. Especially with minimally speaking or non-speaking individuals who, too often, aren't always seen as capable.

But what does presumed competence look like in practice?

What Does Presuming Competence Look Like?

To avoid overwhelming you with too much information, I'm only including a small list of examples below. I will have another post that is much more detailed. But here is a simple list of what it looks like to presume competence. It means:

  • Supporting all forms of communication (including AAC)
  • Using a strengths-based approach
  • Tailoring supports and accommodations to the individual vs. tailoring them to the disability or diagnostic label
  • Seeing individuals as capable of learning
  • Providing opportunities
  • Offering choices
  • Fostering an inclusive environment
  • Celebrating diversity
  • Not making assumptions
  • Rejecting stereotypes and reserving judgment
  • Building authentic relationships based on safety and trust
  • Recognizing that sometimes there's a difference between what someone understands and what they are able to show and finding ways to support individuals in showing their understanding
  • Setting expectations that reflects the individual's potential vs. setting low expectations based on assumptions or stereotypes
  • Recognizing that behavior is communication and has a purpose

You might already be doing some of these things naturally, especially if you are taking a neurodiversity-affirming approach to your parenting, teaching, or therapy. And that's great! But unfortunately, presuming competence still isn't standard practice for some professionals or in certain fields.

If you'd like to learn more about how to presume competence, read these tips and strategies for presuming competence.

What does presuming competence look like?

A Quick Recap of Presuming Competence

Just to recap all that was discussed above, here are some key takeaways:

  • Presuming competence is about believing that all individuals are capable of thinking, learning, and understanding
  • Presuming competence is important because assuming otherwise is much more harmful. In other words, presuming competence is the "least dangerous assumption."
  • There are lots of ways to show that you are presuming competence, including: supporting all forms of communication, taking a strengths-based approach, providing opportunities, rejecting stereotypes, not making assumptions, being respectful and inclusive, and giving people the benefit of a doubt.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about what it means to presume competence. Hopefully you found this information helpful.

Presume competence: what does it mean & why is it important?

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Thursday, November 16, 2023

Free Gratitude Jar Printable

Looking to try a simple mindfulness exercise with your kids or teens? Try this free gratitude jar printable.

Nearly five years ago, I started a gratitude journal. It has had such a positive impact on my life (and helped me better process those really hard days).

Every night, I write down three things that I am grateful for, no matter how small or silly those things might be. It might be an action that someone did on my behalf. It might be something someone did that made me laugh. It might be something I am proud of or something that surprised me during the day. Writing those things down is such a great way to reflect and appreciate the good in my life.

Keeping a gratitude journal like this is such a wonderful mindfulness exercise. Plus, it's something that not only adults, but children and teens can do too.

And that's where this free gratitude jar printable comes in. It's a great tool for helping kids and teens start to reflect and be appreciative of the good in them and others, as well as the good that is all around them.

Free gratitude jar printable for practicing mindfulness - great for kids and teens!

About this Gratitude Jar Printable Pack

This gratitude jar printable is all about identifying the things you appreciate and are grateful or thankful for in your day to day life. The idea is to help you be more mindful by considering what went well during your day or what made you happy, even if your day was crummy overall.

Like I mentioned earlier, it's a simple mindfulness activity that anyone - no matter the age - can do. Yes, even kids. Besides, it's not something that takes long to do either. You can simply spend a few minutes each day writing down something that you are grateful for.

Before you download the printable though, let's take a look at some ways you might use this printable gratitude jar. We'll also look at some prompts to get you started.

Free gratitude jar printable for practicing mindfulness - great for kids and teens!

Tips & Suggestions for Using these Gratitude Jars

There are a variety of different ways to use these printable gratitude jars as you will see. However, feel free to get creative and come up with your own ideas if you'd like.

  • Write down what you are grateful for
  • Draw pictures of what you are grateful for
  • Cut out pictures from magazines or newspapers of what you are grateful for and glue them to the page
  • Print off pictures of what you are grateful for and glue them to the page
  • Laminate the printable so it is reusable
  • Print off multiple pages and make a gratitude journal and fill in a jar every night, once a week, or even once a month
  • For really little kids, encourage them to name what they are grateful for and you can write or draw it for them

Not Sure What to Write or Draw? Try These Gratitude Prompts

Sometimes it can be hard to name or list some things that you might be grateful or thankful for. Especially for kids. And even more so for hyperlexic or autistic kids who often find open-ended writing activities like this pretty overwhelming (see this post for more information).

So, here are some prompts to consider when filling in your printable jars. And don't worry, this list is included with the printable jars as well.

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Pets or animals
  • Something someone did for you recently
  • A favorite object or belonging
  • Something in nature
  • Specific skills, talents, or strengths that you have
  • Something you are proud of
  • Something you like about yourself
  • A challenge that you overcame
  • Something you are happy to have
  • Someone or something you love
  • Holidays or seasons
  • Your favorite people, memories, animal, sport, hobby, toy, song, book, places, food, teacher, items, etc.
  • Something beautiful
  • A gift you've received
  • Something that made you laugh or smile
  • Something you enjoy doing
  • Something you use every day
  • Something that brings you comfort
  • Something you find calming or soothing

Download the Free Gratitude Jar Printable Pack

This printable is 13 pages total. There are four blank jars with different wordings, four jars with lines and different wording, four jars with hearts and different wordings, and a page with some prompts of what to write in your gratitude jar (the same prompts as above). Feel free to pick and print off the version and wording that makes the most sense to you.

To get your copy of the gratitude jar printable, click the link below:

>> Click here to download the free printable

Free gratitude jar printable for practicing mindfulness - great for kids and teens!

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