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An Autistic Person Taught Me How To Communicate

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Written by: Lannette Inouye, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

I recall the day like it was yesterday as I entered a strange old building in Mission B.C. Canada; I still recall hearing his voice in my head, calling out my name from across a large dingy basement hall. “Lanna!”. It was Springtime in 1987 and I was not in a great frame of mind for many reasons, yet intuitive enough to know that this journey I was about to embark on would forever change my life and outlook!


The individual I am referring to in this article, I am not at liberty to publish his real name for privacy reasons, so from this point on, I’ll refer to him as T.J. Upon meeting T.J., he approached me with a very large personal space parameter. I tried to move up closer to him; however, he kept stepping backward with wide eyes that were not quite focused in my direction; there was no eye contact in other words. “You need to go to see Jenny in the office!” He said with urgency, as he pointed to directly behind me. So, off to see Jenny, I went.


T.Js Background


In 1987 T.J. was a 28-year-old autistic man who had been institutionalized for a majority of his youth in Woodlands Institutional School, New Westminster B.C., Canada. T.J.s parents were forced to surrender him at the young age of 3 years old to the Canadian Government and the Court system placed him there. While in Woodlands, his whole childhood was spent living behind large walls in a large cold building, much like a prison with dozens of other vulnerable children. He was barricaded from living a normal childhood.


He wasn’t exposed to family love and guidance. Nurturing wasn’t something he understood or trusted, with good reason! In fact, he wasn’t even encouraged to communicate! He spent most of his days heavily medicated or traumatized with very little access to mental stimulation or outdoor access. Regardless of how many times T.J. asked about his family, he was told nothing about them. His past was a mystery to him!


Woodlands Institution


You can read about the long and abusive history of Woodlands Institution on Wikipedia or type in Woodlands Institution, B.C. Canada in the search bar, many articles will pop up.


Warning! The content in these articles is about true, traumatic experiences, records of horrific abuse, and critical incidents towards vulnerable residents under the care of this institution; the reports are absolutely shocking!


Who was T.J., really?


From my experience, I found him to be an intelligent, artistic, meticulous and anxious young man with so much empathy. When I met him all those many years ago, he was a misunderstood 28-year-old man, reading books on a grade 3 level, who had just discovered some of his own self-worth. He had left Woodlands at the age of 18 and moved in with his grandmother. For 10 years, he lived in her home and he wouldn’t let her go within his very large personal space; he was frightened of the outside world. If she had moved within his bubble, he would have panic attacks and violently throw himself Into the corner of the room and self-abuse, or throw household objects at her.


His grandmother reported T.J.s doctor on several occasions of him biting so hard on his own hand that he’d bleed, and on a few occasions, he broke bones in one of his hands and gave himself a few concussions. She tried to get help for him, but due to his age, he was an adult in the eyes of the law; therefore, not eligible for certain services at that time, except antipsychotic medication, which seemed to bury TJs true personality.


June Was a True Friend & Advocate


One day a woman who had moved into a neighboring home approached his grandmother to offer help. For privacy reasons, I will refer to this neighbor as June. As it turned out, June worked for a Community Living Society that offered programs for adults who lived with barriers. Life skills and counseling were only just a couple of many services available.


This nonprofit organization was called M.A.C.L. As mentioned earlier, T.J.s needs were neglected as a youth and he suffered abuse at the hands of some staff at the Woodlands Institution. He was born with A.S.D., but developed P.T.S.D. and many other psychological disorders due to being traumatized at the hands of professional healthcare staff.


He was also not educated or nurtured during his long stay at Woodlands. With the help and guidance of June and the staff of M.A.C.L., T.J. was able to ease into a life-skills program and a trusted emotional support network. Over time he eventually felt comfortable participating in group activities. When I met him, he had a part time job working with a yard maintenance business, which he seemed to take much pride in and made a minimum wage. He also was being awarded by M.A.C.L. as a Self Advocate and an Advocate to other adults with autism. T.J. was a mentor to many!


I learned a great deal about my new job at M.A.C.L. from my Supervisors and other staff members; however, T.J. taught me the most value. T.J. spent many hours and days of his own time teaching me how to communicate with people on the spectrum. He would stand on the sidewalk at 8:00 AM almost every day, look for me as I walked to work, and then escort me into the building. Then he’d bring me a coffee. We became fast friends and maintained our friendship until, sadly, his passing a few years back. I still miss him today!


He Taught Me More About Myself Than Anyone Else


T.J. was an amazing friend and mentor to me! He taught me how to fully listen, by becoming quiet. It’s sometimes easier said than done, but with practice, most people can quieten their minds and learn how to communicate nonverbally. T.J. would say “ Just be quiet for a while and listen to me, Lanna”. Words from a wise, and often misunderstood man!


Because of T.J. these are some of the guidelines I’ve set for myself.

Over time I Learned...


  • To become quiet and observe

  • That how I feel can be felt by others and mirrored

  • The world is full of empathic individuals if you just listen for a while • To feel calm within and nonverbally display my zen

  • To observe and listen to nonverbal cues

  • That actions speak louder than words

  • That sometimes the outside doesn’t match the inside for a reason

  • That clear spoken sentences with long pauses allows room for responsive communication

  • One to one communication is more focused and trusted

  • To open my mind

  • To explore possibilities

  • To understand that teachers come in various forms

  • To understand we all have transferable skills

  • We all have value

  • To like myself

  • That the word disability is just a label • That labels can become crippling


The most frequently asked question from people I meet?


Q: How do you get to know someone who’s autistic?


A: Be patient, be calm, and let the individual observe you from afar first. Do something positive that you enjoy doing within their view. I like to draw quietly and would draw a picture a few seats away during my break. If I happen to notice this person looking at me, I won’t look straight at them, rather I’d glance up, smile, then return to my activity.


Pay attention to body language and what they might be interested in. Such as, in the first two weeks of getting to know T.J., I observed he had an interest in bird watching, so I started drawing birds. After I completed a drawing of a crow, I got up and purposefully left my art at the table, then went to the bathroom. When I returned, I found T.J. holding my drawing and pencil. He said, “here, you left your art here”. I love crows!” Thank you, T.J., I love crows too!” I replied. Then he quickly walked away.


Every day we’d have more interaction than the last, and I’d always let him make the first move. When he appeared restless or anxious, he usually wouldn’t be open to an interaction, and that was ok with me. By him behaving aloofly, I took this as a cue to give him some space to reflect, but also let him know I was close by if he needed me. Eventually, those days became farther and fewer.


After a couple of month T.J. gained trust in me and he became the one to initiate a conversation with me by drawing a bird as I watched from afar; he’d leave his drawings behind to do something else. One day he asked me why I hadn’t picked up his drawings and looked at them yet. He seemed hurt and confused. He asked me if I didn’t like them. I assured him, that I very much enjoyed them, and believed he was a wonderful artist. “Then why don’t you pick them up?” he asked. “Why don’t you bring them to me?” He concluded. As it turned out, our drawings had become a form of nonverbal communication.


With me not picking up his drawings and giving them back to him, as he had done for me, I was telling him I didn’t appreciate his efforts to form a relationship. We continued this form of communication at the center for several years until he moved on. It was a sad day for both of us that we weren’t going to see each other every day; however, I was so very happy for him as he was moving to his own apartment with his new roommate and an Independent Community Living team to help him adjust to his new life. We made arrangements to meet a couple of times a week for coffee and a tea after our workday. We met at a diner and exchanged drawings for a few more years until he sadly lost his battle with cancer.


Rest In Peace T.J., I hope you realized the positive impact you made for many!


In conclusion...


Before I met T.J. and had formed an unbreakable bond, I had no idea how to live my life. I was basically living in my head, unaware of the effects I instilled upon others because of my negative behavior. More than 30 years have passed and I still follow these guidelines I learned from my late friend T.J.


These guidelines I use consistently and successfully for my work as a Special Educational Assistant, and my business, as well in my own life too. I can only conclude that the benefits of these guidelines are limitless.


On those rare occasions that PTSD rears it’s ugly head, I’m reminded of T.J.s first lesson. “Just listen Lanna, and stop talking for a while”. You’ll hear it”!


Connect with Lannette on Facebook, Instagram and visit her website for more information!


Read more from Lannette!

Lannette Inouye, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Lannette, also known as Lanna, who lives in a small community on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. She is a budding artist whose designs have become a beacon to advocate for vulnerable people of society. For over 3 decades, she worked for and with nonprofits, and now special education, concluding many of those years volunteering her spare time helping those in need of resources. With a solid background in advocacy and a natural risk-taker, she has the added skills and tools to move forward and make a difference, so she founded and created Expressive Designs by Lanna with the intent to affiliate her art business with non-profit support societies and form partnerships of trust. One of her goals is to demonstrate to other small businesses how communities and businesses benefit from a partnership such as this. Her desires as a successful, independent, supportive businesswoman have been a lifelong dream, and she feels her new journey is full of positivity and hope for many.

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