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The Joys and Challenges of Being a Dog Trainer on the Autism Spectrum

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I run a business as a professional dog trainer, which is challenging enough on its own — but being an atypical, aka neurodiverse dog trainer is even more difficult. The dog part is easy. The people, not so much.

I can read, understand and communicate easily with almost all dogs, while I find the same skills to be very challenging with people. Then there is translating what I observe and learn from your dog and how I communicate with your dog into understandable instructions for you, the owner, without seeming judgmental (I am not) or condescending (I am not). I just do not see and experience the world in the same way most people do. My brain is literally wired differently, and I do not understand neurotypical (aka NT) people very well.

Let’s get the big question out of the way first. How am I atypical? I have what was formerly called Asperger syndrome. In 2013, it became part of one umbrella diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Though the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome is no longer used by many professionals, some people still identify with being an “Aspie” in a positive and meaningful way. Having autism spectrum disorder is difficult in and of itself, holding a job or owning a business? Those are more difficult by order of magnitude! Why?

While people with Asperger’s are often described as “high-functioning,” that does not mean we function without great difficulty. Aspie’s usually have normal to strong verbal language skills and intellectual competency. We are often misdiagnosed and misunderstood for many years, causing painful misunderstandings and “accidental” gaslighting by neurotypicals who think we are behaving the way we do because we are “spoiled,” out of spite, or to intentionally hurt their feelings.

Other typical Asperger’s traits are awkwardness in social situations, very focused interests pursued with near-obsession, difficulty with change and extraordinary strengths. Our strengths can include uncanny focus and persistence, a propensity for seeing patterns and extreme attention to detail. In the workplace, this can translate to strict adherence to following protocol and extreme anxiety when others do not. When protocol changes it, can take Aspies much longer to adjust to the new way of doing things. We usually want to know why things changed (and will argue against the change if it seems less sensible).

Aspies can also have hypersensitivities to sensory stimuli such as smells, lights, sounds and even touch. Difficulty with normal social interactions is very common, with missed conversational cues as well as voice volume and tone difficulties. People with Asperger syndrome are often clumsy and much more likely to have anxiety and depression. In the workplace, bright lighting, the humming of office equipment and even strong air fresheners can cause anything from anxiety to headaches, nausea and sensory overload, resulting in a psychological shutdown. Aspies often prefer to work alone in order to avoid awkward social interactions.

Asperger syndrome varies from person to person, and we often learn to hide our differences by focusing on our strengths. We engage in “mimicking” — copying what we see others do — and “masking” — hiding our differences by playing “roles” we can step into in certain situations. For example, to help me when working with people whose dogs I am training, I prepare by stepping into my “dog trainer” persona. I am no longer “Kim with Asperger’s” but “Dog Trainer.” I am an actress stepping into a role that is familiar and safe and to which there is a script I can follow. As new situations arise outside of my script, I can add them to my script later, after I get done obsessing about how badly I handled the situation (even if it wasn’t that bad according to other people).

So there it is. While I might seem alien or “off” to you, I am just far more in tune with animals than people. I understand their simple, honest language with much more ease than all of the often-conflicting nuances of human interactions. How does this matter for a dog trainer? When I work with a dog, I have to work with you, the owner, as well. I have to translate all the information from my way of observing, thinking and doing into easily understandable instructions for you.

My long silences while I observe and work with your dog may seem uncomfortable, weird or rude to you. To me, I am just completely focused on your dog’s behavior and what it is telling me, while simultaneously forming the best training approach for your individual dog. I am learning about your dog’s motivations, resiliency, reactivity, intelligence, willingness and communication style. I see nuances of body language when your dog interacts with me and others present. I see the level of stress or relaxation. I see what makes your dog happy and what shuts your dog down. I am not just sitting silently, wasting your money — I am taking in information.

I have faced challenges in every job I have had and while some people are understanding and tolerant, others are judgmental and cruel. My hope is that neurotypicals will come to understand that I have spent my entire life attempting to conform to their “norms” and maybe make an attempt to accept mine, both on the job and off.

Originally published: April 23, 2020
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