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How Direct Support Workers Help Me With the Emotional Challenges of Autism

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When you think of emotional support, you probably think of going to a psychologist or other mental health professional. While those types of professionals provide valuable support for the psychological well-being of those on the autism spectrum, there’s another group of people that tends to be overlooked, yet they play a crucial role in providing emotional support. They are people who provide more hands-on care to those with autism and other disabilities. They include school paraprofessionals, caregivers, companions, babysitters etc.

Throughout my life, I have received assistance from school aides and paid companions. Their emotional support proved to be the most valuable asset to me. I am going to share how these people played an important role in maintaining my emotional stability as an individual living with both autism and anxiety.

In my school years, I had a one-to-one paraprofessional that would accompany me to my general education classes. The purpose of having this adult was to help me with developing appropriate social skills and to work on coping strategies to effectively manage my emotions throughout the school day. I didn’t anticipate the emotional bond I would develop with some of the aides that worked with me. In particular, I developed a bond with the paraprofessional who worked with me in high school. Once a week, we would have lunch together and I would talk to her about my personal feelings and struggles. She would offer advice and encouragement which helped me get through high school. I looked forward to these lunches because I felt I had a safe adult I could talk to at school.

Once I graduated high school, I lost that designated adult I depended on so much for emotional support. Once you get a high school diploma or age out of the school system at age 21 or 22, you lose all the entitlements (like 1:1 aides) that are guaranteed under IDEA. It was very difficult to find an equivalent person in college since most disability centers don’t provide personal assistants. Without that resource, I felt isolated and depressed during my college years. I had a hard time dealing with the emotional and social demands of college.

It wasn’t until the end of my second year of community college that my mom and I decided to hire someone who would be a companion/mentor to me. This person took me out on community outings once or twice a week. Through these outings, we would bond and I would confide in her and talk about some of the things that were going on in my life. In turn, she acted like a “big sister” or a motivational life coach to me.

Having someone to provide emotional support has enhanced my quality of life. Navigating the neurotypical world as an neurodivergent person can be a challenging as well as an isolating experience. Having someone I can turn to when the going gets tough makes the journey more bearable. Direct support individuals such as school aides, personal assistants, companions and other caregivers do more than tend to the physical care needs (such as toileting, bathing etc.) of their clients/students. We need to pay more attention to the emotional/psychological needs of those on the spectrum (especially those who are mildly affected) and how direct support people like caregivers can fill that gap that sometimes cannot be met by mental health providers.

Getty image by Pixelhead Photo.

Originally published: February 18, 2019
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