Wired for Warmth: Crisis Counseling on the Autism Spectrum
My name is Danielle Ryer and I am autistic. I started volunteering at Crisis Text Line in November 2016, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It allows every aspect of who I am to shine, without giving any self-identifying information about myself to the people texting in. I believe myself to be a very careful, effective interventionist, who can pick up on what might be causing an individual to suffer. I can explore someone’s feelings, and wrap up the conversation with an effective, satisfying conclusion; or, at least one that allows them to get through long enough to see how the situation develops and feel empowered to take charge of future situations when possible.
You might be thinking, "What does being autistic have to do with being a Crisis Counselor?" Depending on your experience with people with autism spectrum disorder, you may even ask, "Just what makes that a good idea?"
Well, I'll answer that for you.
Mainstream society identifies people on the spectrum as "without empathy." Although I cannot personally speak for everyone, I can say that's not only untrue for the vast majority, but very problematic because it limits people to a label and to very specific roles in life. For one, it paints people on the autism spectrum as not particularly adept at helping in the mental health field. This type of stigma also reduces the amount of much-needed diversity in thinking about social change and empowering others to make the changes that they want to see in their lives.
Being a social minority has endowed me with a sense of personal responsibility that I've vowed to uphold: To speak out when I can, to help empower those in oppressive circumstances to speak and stand up for themselves, and remind them that oppression is never their fault. Diversity of all kinds is necessary in the world of mental health because it brings a warmth of familiarity to those who may feel alien.
If you understand not only what it is like to struggle, but can articulate how you've dealt with it personally, it arms you with more compassionate solutions -- perhaps ones that can even save someone's life.
I said earlier that autistic people are not without empathy. By and large, I find that I am acutely aware of how others are feeling. The same emotional information given off by a person online has the capacity to overwhelm me in person. However, with the godsend that is the Internet, I’ve found a way to do what I love - supporting others - in a way that is not only meaningful, but efficient on my energy resources. My stamina for learning new skills is streamlined by the online format. I do plan to provide support to others in person at some point. Crisis Text Line enables me to feel more confident and gives me a minimal pressure environment to develop my skills and confidence. Working for Crisis Text Line has trained my level of mental stamina, and given me the knowledge of resources for to help others.
When you’re typing to someone, there’s no body language to be forced to consider. There are just words, in their most natural form, which makes it easier to draw the correct amount of meaning from them. I feel it’s helped me to strengthen my listening skills so that I can become a more well-rounded individual. I know that the training that I undergo at Crisis Text Line fully prepares me with the personal insight and communication skills to be an effective clinical interviewer. I’ve applied the skills I learned to help in my own life, building a strong framework for in-person communication and learning to reflect on the question, “why am I talking?” and listen just as much as I speak.
The staff at Crisis Text Line really went the extra mile to encourage me to speak my mind and I would strongly recommend anyone who feels their disability may stigmatize them from entering the mental health field for any reason to volunteer at Crisis Text Line. As for me, I couldn't think of a more important, direct way of helping others that will set me up to be the best social worker I can be.