Finding a friend: Unlearning autism with a 14 year old

I have been a student of psychology for as long as I can remember. Given that I had  freshly finished the Teach For India fellowship, where I spent the most transformational two years of my life, I knew for certain now that schools and children were my happy spots. I was certain that I wanted to work with young people and I could see myself doing this for a long time to come. Naturally, I decided to work in a school.

I got a job as a counselor at an inclusive school. I was lucky to be able to start working in a space that was brave enough to explore what lies beyond the traditional ideas of mental health. They were consistently trying to make better meaning of the already present ideas that existed in the mental health culture in our country. And this was surprisingly a mainstream school. I could not be more thankful for this opportunity.

First day of school. Enter: the most significant person of my professional journey so far, and maybe even my life.

He has hit his teacher; you need to talk to him, I was told. But who is this person? What is he like? What does he like to do? What made him act out? Did he have a fight with another student? Was this self defence? Who are his friends? How is his family?

The only piece of information I had about him was that he was autistic. He was 14 and autistic.

He was really tall for his age. Much taller than me. He would make eye contact with me while he spoke, though it would be sporadic. He would repeat his sentences several times, which meant that the person talking to him would also have to repeat the same thing a few times. Conversations would seem repetitive at the onset, but there would be new things that one would keep discovering about him every time. He has an angelic voice and an infectious smile. The same smile he welcomed me with when he first met me.

I was scared. I suddenly felt I had no skills, experiences and definitely no jargon to support my conversations. My idea of autism was limited to Rainman and Barfi.

Yes, you can judge me but I had no practical exposure of being with another person whose thoughts and behavior were not exactly like mine.

Even after 8 years of formal training in psychology I felt at a loss. Our training does not teach us to embrace. What we are taught efficiently is to consolidate people into labels. Most of the work is to examine the label and not the person we are putting it on. So in this case I was only knew to judge how autistic is the person (we actually put them on a spectrum), how many diagnostic characteristics can we identify and other such quick fixes. What happens to the person behind the label? That was my question, and I was stuck.

For my first session, with meticulous research and planning, I decided on relaxation techniques. He was still upset with the recent outburst, and I thought this would really help. I felt a little confident with empirical research backing me up and I mean it’s common sense: if a person is angry, he needs to calm down, right? The session began with meditation and he meditated for exactly 30 nanoseconds and wanted to talk to me. He wanted to talk about himself, about his life. What was I doing apart from projecting my own anxiety on him, was that I was trying to follow the code of conduct to be followed in a session. I was trying to stick to my session plan and that did not involve any talking – at least not so soon. I did not let him talk. I did not let him break the image that was already created in my head.

I did not let him tell me that I was wrong in assuming that he is not a person in his own right, his diagnosis is not the only truth that he is living.

I blocked out everything else. I remained a stranger. The session was a failure.

The next few sessions were mechanical. I would have a session plan, prepare it with a lot of effort and see it fail. Social stories, role plays, behavior modification charts – none of the these had the impact I had in mind. I realized I had some unlearning to do for myself and for him. I had to internalize that I was dealing with a real person, who had a real condition but was much more than just that. The promise I made to myself was this: it’s my responsibility to keep him engaged and most importantly get to know the person beyond the huge label of autism.

Thus began my effort to unlearn. I realized my textbooks were not wrong but they were not enough. I was a therapist by training but the process would not be therapeutic for my client till I was able to let go of my own guard down and challenge my own schemas. I began observing us. I realized my fears and my intense desire to make him ‘Fit In”.

Autism is an auto-erotic state, which means he is content and happy to be the person he is. We are the ones who are unable to cope with his state of mind and so need him to become one of us.

Do we realize how liberating it is to be him? He is unbashful in his skin, without pretense, without the fear of rejection. He is living everyone’s utopian dream and I wanted to break it for him as brutally as I could.

Slowly, my sessions were focussed on him as an individual only. They would focus on his abilities. Over the next few months I could see myself deleting and creating new labels for the both of us. I realized he is a beautiful singer and he loves to sing to me, also sing with me. He enjoyed dancing and observes his body movements in the full size mirror in the room. When given a chance to write on the whiteboard he would come out with the most reflective, philosophical thoughts about friendship and other life truths. He would be reflective about violence and cinema and how it affects us and particularly him. The days I would be visibly upset he would ask me what happened and try to rationalise with me about why I should or should not feel a certain way. The reason I distinctly remember these moments is because I was so pleasantly surprised to have him say or behave in this way. These conversations challenged my own understanding of autism. The labels created did not let me believe there was scope for such empathic understanding.

It hasn’t always been rosy. In the last 15 months we have also fought. He has told me that I am a horrible person and he would never talk to me again, that he would never come to my room again, and punish me.

Why did he say these things? I honestly don’t remember. Maybe because I said something to upset him, or maybe he was unwell, tired or just hungry. Don’t we all go through this? Why is it different if he does it? What was interesting for me to learn here was that since we had worked on creating a relationship rather than just a clinical interaction, it made me realize that it works just like any other relationship. It requires effort and time. There were times when he would say these things to me and I would be hurt too. There would be moments of self doubt since the responsibility and the challenge is so much more when you work with someone who has special needs. I’m not trying to equate or not equate a diagnostic illness with diagnostic normalcy. I’m just saying that in a relationship, we all have shades of grey. It falls on those we love to accept these. And it works both ways. I knew it would require us to pick up the pieces and overlook a few instances and move ahead. A new session was a starting anew not just for him but also for me.

Over the year, we eventually did get back to my immaculately planned and researched sessions. We did focus on his body image, better communication, anger management. Surprisingly this time it worked. He has not had a single acting out episode since that day and it’s been a year and a few months. He has been upset but he has also been able to contain his feelings and use the strategies we came up with collectively in our sessions. On days he has lost his calm, and maybe got into an argument with me or a classmate, but he has been able to come to me later and reflect with me on what happened and why did it happen. What worked for us, I don’t completely know. Perhaps it worked because I knew the person I was working with, because I had made a substantial engagement with the child.

Perhaps I understood that he was not just another 14 year old boy who was simply autistic.

It’s work in progress but atleast I know we are heading in the right direction.



Trained as a psychologist but a bohemian at heart. When not working little people, she’s always trying to hoard pretty  notebooks and scavenge for the best cheesecake in town.


Featured Image by Edgaras Maselskis, used from