This may be a very different or obscure concept to share about, but tonight I am reflecting on how experiencing the life cycle can be part of therapeutic teaching and learning.
I work as an Occupational Therapist in a VERY unique space, where we have the opportunity to incorporate animals into our work with our clients. Our day program has animals of all kinds, big and small, which clients interact with therapeutically in very different ways. While we do use our animals in the “typical” way you may think of animal therapy; petting, brushing, holding a soft animal to help be calm and connected, our animals help in many other ways. Some of our clients learn emotional regulation by learning the Zones of Regulation and how they relate to our animals. Many of them have trouble still identifying their own emotions, but would be able to tell you that this specific body movement of this animal means they are overstimulated so we can’t pet them because they can’t control their bodies. Some of our clients use the tasks that come with keeping animals as heavy work for sensory regulation (ex: stacking hay, moving wheelbarrows of food), while some of our teenaged guests practice their academic skills in researching facts about the animals to share during animal interactions. Our older clients practice life skills and having responsibilities by participating in “helping hands” around the property such as cutting oranges for the guinea pigs, sorting various vegetables, unloading food deliveries, helping clean out the paddocks or move woodchips etc.
Today I experienced a new way that our animals teach our clients, and that is in the natural life cycle which ends with death. We lost a beloved animal today, and four of our adult clients who were very attached to him were pulled aside to be broken the news. They were the group that would notice he was gone, so we wanted to ensure that they wouldn’t be left in the dark. Our manager spoke to them about how this is part of the circle of life, and how we can be sad but we can also try to remember our favourite memories with the animal and that he had a good life. From this one small conversation, our clients got to learn about the lesson about life, about accepting grief, and how we can cope with that grief.
But on top of that, something we all got to experience was the beauty of empathy. A lot of books and people in society talk about how autistic individuals (please see my note at the end of this post for person first language “person with autism” vs “autistic person”) lack empathy for others. From my experience working with autistic children and young adults, I believe that many of them almost have MORE empathy than most.
After the conversation about our animal passing, the four clients thanked our manager for sharing, were checking in on each other, and one of the clients told me that he feels bad that one of the other staff who was very close with the animal would be very sad.
This is a short blog post but I thought it was an important reflection to share, that we often look down at children and individuals with different abilities as thinking they can’t relate to others or that they can’t handle hard news. The reality is, we can’t assume that they can’t connect with these feelings and situations. When I worked with children who had very sick siblings, people always told me that they couldn’t imagine working with a group like that because it would be so sad. People commend me for working with people with varying abilities. I think in both scenarios, I have learned so much more from these groups than I could ever explain, and have learned so many lessons in love, acceptance, patience and empathy.
My reason to share this here is to remind Occupational therapists and other professionals that work with children and people with varying abilities to remember that even if they don’t seem to experience the world the way you do, doesn’t mean they don’t. It doesn’t mean they can’t understand what you’re saying, feel what you’re feeling, hurt the same way we hurt. So please, consider what you are saying around them, don’t filter sharing important information because they might not understand it, and see that individual as the human they are.
Finally, the note about person first language – I have been listening to a lot of podcast episodes from Meg Proctor, called Two sides of the Spectrum. In each episode she interviews someone who has lived experience with autism, and they all so far have shared that they prefer to be called autistic because that IS part of them. In school we were preached so hard that we should use person first language because autism does not define the individual, but this was something that a neurotypical person came up with. Many autistic folks share that they prefer calling themselves autistic because that IS something that defines them. It shapes who they are, and that is not something that we should be stigmatizing. As one of the guests shared in one of the podcast episodes, “Autistic people are just people who think differently than non autistic people”. I will not continue to preach this as I am not someone with a medical diagnosis of autism, but I definitely do recommend checking out the podcast, searching up #actuallyautistic on twitter, and seeing what people with autism have to say
Thank you for reading my little reflection tonight xo