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What It's Like to Be an Autistic ABA Behavior Technician

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Editor's Note

This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement of any therapy or treatment. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

My name is Derek, I’m 22 years old, and I’m here to tell you about my experience being neurodivergent in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). For some background information, I’ve worked as a behavior technician for almost three years now. I started with my legacy company, C.A.S., and am currently a Senior Behavior Technician (SBT) with Kadiant. Something that most people don’t know about me is that I’m autistic. I personally use the term “autistic” as opposed to person-first language (“person with autism”) because I find the latter to be harmful and cause identity erasure. Other identities I have are: neurodivergent, transgender, hard of hearing and Jewish.

Growing Up Different

Where I come from, you don’t talk about being different. Any issue you have is a family matter, so I felt so lonely and misunderstood as a kid. I was misunderstood by both family and peers. My family always talked about how I was “eccentric, unique and dramatic.” It was hard to be accepted by peers when I couldn’t really relate to them. I had severe depression and anxiety growing up. We moved around a lot, and I always attributed my moodiness to that.

I hit a very low point in my life when I was 15 and not living in a good spot, and I was finally able to get my mental health taken care of. That’s when I was diagnosed with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It took me until I was 16 years old to finally get answers for why I was having such a hard time. Growing up I didn’t have many friends, I wasn’t interested in “normal” things the other kids were interested in, and I was subjected to bullying in school. It didn’t help that I started school early and was younger than everyone else.

I grew up experiencing living as a female — I didn’t transition to male until I was 18 years old. This is important to know because there is such a lack of evaluations and diagnosis for autistic people assigned female at birth, mainly due to stereotypes and gender roles/norms.

My Autism Diagnosis

After getting my job as a behavior technician, I was sitting in the training reading some of the information about autism and the diagnosis process they give us, and something in me just clicked and pushed me to talk with my therapist about getting tested. It took roughly 2-and-a-half months for the assessments and evaluations before I got my results. When the process was complete, at 19 years old, I finally received the news that made everything in my life make sense: “you have autism.” Hearing those words flooded me with a sense of relief. Now that I have my autistic identity, I treasure it. I have the support I need to be able to have emotional regulation, and I have surrounded myself with people who don’t see my autism as a bad thing.

My Autism Can Be a Challenge

There are still some challenges my autism brings to the table. I struggle with sarcasm and some social interactions; if there’s hidden meanings behind what people say, a “reading between the lines” type of thing, it can be difficult for me to interpret. There’s also sensory sensitivity and the occasional low self-esteem. Here’s where some of my other identities come in. It’s no secret that the world is unfortunately filled with antisemitism and transphobia. I’ve been in situations where others have had issues with my being trans and/or Jewish, and most of the time I’m able to recognize when a situation is potentially a threat, however, there have been times where I haven’t understood that I wasn’t in a safe situation. There also some people who think that because I’m autistic, I can’t possibly be smart enough to understand the concept of being transgender.

Another thing I find challenging is masking my autism. Masking is when someone who is neurodivergent makes themselves appear as neurotypical by “masking” their symptoms and behaving in a different way. It can be so exhausting and has caused some self-image issues in the past.

My Autism Is Also an Advantage

While there are many challenges that come with being neurodivergent, there are so many positives! I used to be ashamed of it, but I honestly love how I am. I think being on the spectrum has helped me and my ability to connect with my clients at work — I have a more thorough perspective than neurotypicals, and it definitely makes a difference. I really advocate for my clients and like to challenge other people’s perceptions of autism and what they feel needs to be “changed.”

My Advice to Parents and Caregivers

A big conversation topic in the ASD community that I’m passionate about is safe stimming vs. harmful stimming, and the ethics of not allowing a person to safely stim due to how it can look in the public’s eye. Some safe stimming can include a client wiggling their fingers, jumping up and down, rocking back and forth, and even opening and closing their eyes. Some harmful stimming can sometimes include excessive flapping at the wrist (it can cause issues later on in life), headbanging, pushing nails into palms, hair pulling, and other methods of self-soothing that can cause a client to harm themselves.

Some advice I have regarding stimming for parents and caregivers who care for someone who stims would be as long as the stim doesn’t cause harm, let them stim! Jumping up and down in the supermarket may cause people to stare, but it is a safe way to engage in soothing and expressive behavior. If your loved one engages in harmful stimming, you can always try to show them alternative ways to get their needs met, and even practice doing it with them. You engaging in that safe behavior with them can help show them that you are a safe person to stim with and that there’s no shame in safe self-soothing!

Getty image by MacSnap.

Originally published: January 25, 2021
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