“It models how to relate, in a way that’s not overwhelming and respects autonomy” Interview with autistic mentor Raya Shields

Podcast
Listen to the podcast at the audio link below:

Bio
Raya Shields just received her Master’s Degree from York University (Toronto) in the school of Critical Disability Studies. Her master’s thesis focuses on human rights abuses at the Judge Rotenberg Centre. She is autistic, multiply neurodivergent, and queer. For the last 12 years she has been mentoring autistic children and youth. She is currently working on a series of children’s books.

The episode
Raya and I talked mainly about her experiences as an autistic mentor. She described what the time spent with her mentees looks like: what they do, how they plan and what comes out of the experience for the youth and for their families. As she is works with the kids, she is also modeling for the parents in how to relate to their kids, approaching projects and goals with a crucial assessment question: “Is this about a critical life skill, is it a safety skill, or is this just an NT social expectation?”

Through the mentorships, kids get to try new things and experience the city in a way that is on their terms, with someone who is receptive and has a deep well of common experiences to draw upon. Raya says:

“What I hope the kids get out of it is it gives them the tools to advocate for themselves and their needs, to find pride in their autistic identity and to have greater access to their communities and feel comfortable with their way of being in the world.”

We also talked about disclosing one’s identity as autistic to clients, an issue many autistic child and youth care workers (CYCs) and teachers face. The discussion turned to Raya’s early experience working in the school system as an CYC and the problems within the school. She sums it up like this: “Super cool kid, lots of potential, utterly failed by the school system.” The school did not have accessible design, was not open to even basic accommodation and when there were difficulties, the student himself was seen as the “problem”.

Raya’s excellent recommendations for how to make classrooms accessible point to the need for schools to consult with #actuallyautistic people when developing accessible design and inclusion initiatives. Her experience in dealing with the school as a CYC is a concrete reminder of what research tells us as well: what holds administrations back from inclusion isn’t dollars, it’s attitude. Inclusion programs and accessible design work when there is an attitude of good faith from administration–a willingness to learn and change. In future episodes, we will be looking at successful inclusion programs, how they got there and why they work!

Autistic mentorship
We need more mentorship like Raya’s that brings autistic kids together around shared interests and helps them through life transitions as kids, tweens, teens and young adults. Raya mentors my son and it such a wonderful, relaxing experience when she rings our doorbell and they go off on an adventure on their own or with other autistic kids. I always know that he is in an emotional space where he can be authentically himself without stigma.

Many programs and classes for autistic youth are not designed to allow them to relate to one another, but rather to teach them so-called “social skills.” Those classes, through a heavily-mediated, hand-over-hand style, end up feeling awkward and inauthentic, and stymie friendship efforts because the kids are not allowed to connect on their own terms. Many “meetups” led by autism agencies even have behaviour performance charts at the front of the room, ranking the children’s “behaviour” instead of promoting true community and connection.

Autistic mentoring programs and interest groups push back against this approach and show clearly that autistic kids, no matter their age, should not have to wait until adulthood to find their community. It is here. The most helpful thing our policymakers could do is to stop prioritizing “clinical” social groups for autistic kids and instead support getting them out into the real world with #actuallyautistic mentors!

I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I did. Lots of great ideas and inspiration as we move towards inclusion in our society.