I am excited to share with you the very first guest blog post featured on my blog – and it's from none other than my wonderful husband, Dean! I hope to make guest blogging a more regular feature on here, so hopefully I'll have some willing guest writers! I'm thankful for more perspectives on the topic of interacting with people with autism and other intellectual differences. - Erica
Erica has shared her perspective of growing up with her sister, but we thought it would be interesting to also share some of my experiences with Rachel. In my current job, I work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, just like Rachel. However, I never imagined I would be working with this population when I thought about what my career would look like, and it’s been a wonderful surprise.
I don’t remember having much interaction at all with people with disabilities when I was growing up. I’m sure that I did without being aware of it, but in general I was around kids and other people who looked pretty similar to myself. I was taught and raised that people different than me were still human beings, and that I should treat them with dignity and respect. In spite of that upbringing, I just didn’t know much about how to interact with people with disabilities.
I think it is really common for people to not know how to approach or even initiate a conversation with someone who is different from them. (This is especially challenging for us fellow introverts.) So when I went to visit Erica’s family for the first time and met Rachel, I honestly didn’t know how to respond. She did not have traditional conversation skills, did not speak to me as I walked in the door, and very often did not seem to notice that I was around at all. However, I was able to say hello to her and it eventually became pretty natural to be around her.
There were some interesting things that happened before it felt natural though. As kind of a nervous habit, I would clear my throat a lot without even knowing I was doing it. When I went to meet Erica’s family for the first time, I did plenty of throat-clearing (I mean meeting your girlfriend’s family can be intimidating!). I remember we had all sat down to eat dinner for the first time, and I was sitting right next to Rachel. Inevitably, I began clearing my throat, and Rachel suddenly grabbed both of my hands and moved them to my mouth. Initially I was really taken aback and confused, thinking that she was trying to hurt me or something. But Erica’s family explained that Rachel was taught that it is polite for a person to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, and she was just on the lookout for people who did not follow the rules. Although I was just clearing my throat and not actually coughing ( my mouth was actually closed while doing this) Rachel still felt I needed to overtly cover my mouth with my hands, even if it was after the fact. Once I figured that out, it was not a problem to go ahead and do this on my own. But it took knowing the additional context and reason behind her actions to help me understand why this was significant.
Fast forward about 6 years, and I found myself starting a new job as a Service Coordinator for a Community Health Center, advocating and supporting people with disabilities just like Rachel. I would like to think that my time interacting with Rachel would have prepared me adequately for my work in this area. But even after all that time, I still felt awkward and unsure of how to approach people with intellectual disabilities. It took concerted effort and time, sitting down and talking to people with these types of disabilities, before I could feel comfortable approaching them. Eventually I became less worried about how a person would respond if I introduced myself with a handshake (maybe they’d shake my hand, or maybe they wouldn’t…. ) I began approaching people with disabilities just like they were people (because they are!). My early upbringing to treat all people like human beings helped a lot, but it was also important for me to just spend time with people that were different from me. Rachel is one of the many people who have taught me that interacting with people with intellectual disabilities doesn’t have to be scary, and she helped give me an appreciation for people of all different kinds of abilities.
Dean is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and has worked at Betty Hardwick Center in Abilene, TX for 9 years. In addition to a Master’s in MFT, he has degrees in Bible and Psychology from Harding University. He loves spending time with his wife and 4-year-old son, and playing video games. It’s even better when he can spend time with his wife and son by playing video games together.