Presuming Competence Takes More Than Words: A Cautionary Tale.

Ihe giving a treat to Ms Piggy.

Ihe giving a treat to Ms Piggy.


[This article is posted with Ihe’s permission]

I posted this image the other day on our Facebook page of Ihe giving a treat to Ninette’s dog, Piggy. I wrote this little bit about Ihe: “When we first met Ihe four years ago, he was terrified of dogs. But Ihe has a deep sense of empathy and kindness which allows him to move past his fears to a place of connection, including dogs. Ihe reminds us each day of the power of inclusion and the profound difference it makes in our lives.”  As I was writing that, I knew that I was masking some truths about Ihe in our program. By masking these truths I was not telling the full story of the remarkable person Ihe is. I was also failing to honestly discuss some critical issues I had with former staff and the mistakes they made in how they worked with Ihe.

I want to be very clear from the start that I am speaking of former staff, what I write about here happened years ago. The adult program staff I am blessed with now are among the best group of teachers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.

Ihe came to our transition program with a warning label and a behavior plan. He hit, he slammed his fists and threatened people; plus he is large and had trouble walking any distance, which is an issue for a community based program. He came loaded with negative expectations and that negativity carried over into our transition program; negativity which was subtle most of the time and hard to manage.

It started with my staff constantly coming to me with “issues” about Ihe. Ihe processed information slowly and became frustrated easily if he wasn’t given ample time to work through information. Staff and I talked endlessly about giving him the space to process and language to help him express his frustrations. It would get a little better, but then happen again with more intensity. Then came complaints about his body and his physical size all couched in the language of concerns for his health. Red flags went up in my mind. I carefully observed the interactions of staff with Ihe and listened to their “concerns” at staff meetings. I came to understand that Ihe’s “issues” were in fact being created by us.

Despite pledges to positively regard Ihe and presume his competence, staff did the opposite. My staff created chaotic spaces around him; it was written in their body language, vocal tones and their constant anxiety that he might have a “meltdown”. All of these things pretty much guaranteed that he would. I don’t know if staff’s actions were intentional or a subconscious, but this is the classic “Helpful Helper” model, which is so common in our profession. My staff needed Ihe’s dependency; they needed his behaviors in order to frame themselves as behavioral “experts.” The staff spoke the language of self-determination, but self-determination was a threat to them: their own sense of importance, their need of control. It was never about Ihe, it was always about themselves.

I believe my former staff cared about Ihe, however they could never take responsibility for any of their actions, give up control, or understand how their actions actually infantilized and disempowered Ihe. This was my fault. I hired them and was responsible for their actions. It was a very hard lesson to learn. I mistakenly believed that all I had to do was provide an opportunity for people to work in a person-centered, self-determined program environment and they would automatically embrace it. I was wrong. It actually takes pretty special people to flourish in this system. In the end, I systematically replaced the entire staff, created new hiring and training protocols. The lessons I learned have not been forgotten.

For Ihe, the change in staff brought about immediate and sustained change. The complete story of Ihe is beautiful. It is told in the way he builds on top of his successes and the way he owns them and how they motivate him to take the next step. It is Ihe’s self-efficacy which is at the core of his success. What burns in the heart of Ihe should burn in all of us. Ihe, to me is a shining example of what non-judgmental, person-centered, self-determination, and presuming competence are all about. But these ideas need to be more than that collection of words, as educators, aids, and administrators they need to part of our DNA. They require us to be constantly mindful; to step aside and let our students lead; to listen to our student’s wants and needs at all times and not just when it is convenient for us to do so. The reward for us exists in the absolute joy of watching someone like Ihe blossom.

[Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California].

2 Responses to Presuming Competence Takes More Than Words: A Cautionary Tale.

  1. raspycricket says:

    Putting mindfulness into practice in everything one does takes more effort than most people realize. Definitely one of those things that are easier said than done, even with the best of intentions. It makes me so happy to have been able to witness Ihe’s journey to the place of self-efficacy and self-determination that he’s in now.

  2. Pingback: MOVE OVER WAY-WE’VE-ALWAYS-DONE-IT | Autism Mom

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