Iren and Carol – Q&A
1. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?
We’re two licensed psychologists with over forty years of experience between us in the fields of autism and mindfulness. We also both love working with children and adolescents who are unique in how they see world and how they learn. Given our many years of connection and mutual respect for each other’s work, we decided to team up to offer mindfulness tools with imagination-based exercises specifically for teens with autism.
We saw the opportunity to invite these teens to learn skills through play, through using their imaginations, and through using mindfulness tools to manage their anxiety, get connected with their bodies and calm themselves. Mindfulness creates a receptive internal state so people with autism are freer to try out new behavior, make observations and learn how to manage their own lives instead of spending all their energy battling stress.
Collaborating in writing this book was a joyful experience for us both.
2. What special skills will autistic teens learn from the role-playing activities in this guide?
In this book, teens are not actually doing traditional role-playing; they are learning skills to practice and explore on their own to help them try out different roles with others.
The book teaches skills of self-observation and focused imagination, helping teens ground their experience of flexible role-playing. We invite readers to use mirrors, act out feelings with their bodies and facial expressions, explore sensory experiences, and then rehearse activities.
By emphasizing the importance of getting in touch with what is most comfortable for them, and by using mindfulness activities to alleviate anxiety and discomfort, they gain confidence in moving outside their comfort zones. The skills that they learn from the book’s activities will facilitate their being able to do real-life role-playing, in a wide variety of situations, when they want to.
3. What makes teens with autism such great actors?
Because they have difficulty engaging socially, and want to fit in and engage with others, teens with autism are highly motivated to observe and study the behavior and mannerisms of people around them. As a way to try to figure out social language and unwritten rules of communications that come naturally to others, many are highly skilled in copying gestures, voice tone, facial expressions that they see people use. When teens with autism have a special interest in a film or show, they often have all of the lines memorized, including voice inflections, tone, gestures, and can play out entire scenes flawlessly.
Many of the activities are drawn from the world of acting and theater because drama can help people with autism capitalize on and expand their interest in understanding how people use their bodies and faces show feelings. Using different scripts allows the teen with autism to try on different roles in different situations to sharpen their relationship skills. Having specific roles and scripts that fit their own unique personalities reduces the anxiety and awkwardness of entering the social world, so teens with autism often gravitate to theater and acting, even as careers.
4. Can you tell us the role that mindfulness plays in the book’s activities?
Mindfulness skills underlie all learning. In order to learn, one must be in a relaxed, alert state of mind and body. The skills include being able to concentrate, choose where to place one’s attention, and to observe what is taking place, both inside the body and mind, as well as outside in the social environment. Mindfulness tools provide the groundwork for developing any of the skills in the book. We systematically guide the reader through activities that teach self-calming and being present in the body with moment-to-moment awareness. Anxiety, stress, sensory overload and the predisposition toward meltdowns and over-reactivity are typical of teens on the autism spectrum. The book guides teens in learning how to reduce stress, calm nervous tensions, work with frustration, and become better at relating to people using mindfulness skills.
5. Is the book appropriate for all teens on the autism spectrum?
No, it is not. This book is written to be clear and accessible for teens (and adults) with average reading skills. It is a fun and easy-to-read book, intended especially for teens on the autism spectrum that have expressive and receptive language schools. Although this book is designed for teens to be able to use by themselves, parents and caregivers of those who are less able to use the book alone may want to partner with teens and use this book as a resource tool. Teachers, therapists, coaches, and counselors can use this book to work with teens individually or in groups, in educational and therapeutic contexts. The activities are designed to be easily adapted to different settings and for different ages.
6. How does the book work in concert with autistic teens’ unique neurology?
The book takes into account the fact that teens with autism are not neurotypical. We believe that each of these exceptional and fabulous teenagers with autism has the capacity to learn and grow. The activities normalize teens’ stressful experiences living in a social world that does not operate in ways that support their unique differences. Designed to be practiced in various ways in a variety of settings, the diverse activities take into account the unique perspectives, sensory issues, neurological strengths and challenges that teens with autism bring to their encounters with the outside world.
There are many theories and hypotheses about autism; ultimately the key to understanding is the knowledge that each person with autism is a unique individual. We know there are real neurological differences in this special population; helping teens learn to connect with what is unique in themselves will help them develop the skills to connect with others. The mindfulness and imagination-based activities in this book help individuals experience greater attunement with themselves—become aware of their own bodies, aware of their own feelings, aware of their own way of being in the world. The book is designed to work with where someone is right now and give him or her ways of accepting, normalizing and strengthening the resources they already have, to become independent and engaged.
7. Many teens with autism have trouble connecting with others. How do the activities help foster social awareness?
The book opens with activities to center the body, calm the mind, and build an awareness of self. The middle section focuses on awareness of thoughts and feelings, and using those thoughts and feelings to build independence and confidence. The final section of the book focuses on teens’ reaching out to others and directing their own lives.
Chapters such as “Play the Role of a Scientist: Get Curious” invite teens to use their skills to be comfortable in social situations. The activities focus an existing interest in social engagement that these teens have and help them to channel this interest with specific guidance about what to do in different social situations. The book provides techniques for taking in the whole picture, focusing on details, quieting the anxiety in body and mind, and pausing before entering situations in order to gather information. Using the grounding of mindfulness, teens are directed in developing tactics for being in the outside world with other people. Fostering social awareness is a key focus of this book.
8. In addition to teens, who are you hoping reads this book?
First of all, it is worth noting that the book is highly adaptable, depending on the teen’s motivation, flexibility, level of curiosity, and willingness to try experiments for and with themselves. In addition, we are certain that this book will be tremendously useful for parents, teachers, counselors, and other professionals who live with and/or work with teens with autism.
This book is an ideal resource for adults with autism and for adults who work with children and adults with autism. A teacher could use this book in the classroom; professionals could give the book to their clients, patients and their families to help guide them through the simple activities.
9. What does this book offer that other books on autism do not? What makes it new and unique?
New books on mindfulness for children and teens have been published in recent years; however, this is the very first book that uses mindfulness activities uniquely for teens with autism. Furthermore, it is the first book that combines mindfulness with specific tools for using imaginative play to build skills that lead to connection with others.
Another unique aspect of this book is that it is designed for the reader to use on her/his own, without needing to part of a group or a class. Most of the activities can be done in the safety and privacy of the reader’s own space, which in itself, reduces the anxiety of trying something new.
Finally, although the activities are designed so that they can be effectively explored and practiced solo, they can just as easily be used with other people, such as friends and family, if desired. All of the activities leave room to be customized in whatever ways best suit a teen’s or family’s needs and imaginations.
10. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
We loved writing this book as a collaborative professional project. In working together, we actually used the activities to facilitate our work. We tried out each activity as we were writing in order to ground the activity in our authentic experience. We tried out the activities with students and with family members.
The book was a true collaboration, using all aspects of who we are, what we value, our unique gifts and perspectives and our shared commitment.