Supporting Autism Parents, with Dr. April J. Lisbon | EDB 184

Autism coach and mom Dr. April J. Lisbon on giving parents support

(21 minutes) Dr. Lisbon has over 18 years of experience as a school psychologist. She is an autism coach and strategist, as well as an empowerment speaker. She is the mother of a son with autism, and uses her experiences to help other parents navigate raising children on the spectrum. She is the author of 3 books: “Stretched Thin: Finding Balance Working and Parenting Children with Special Needs”, “Unmasking the Trauma: School Bullying & Children with Special Needs” and “Autism in April: A Mother’s Journey During the Tween Years.” Dr. Lisbon discusses the work she does to help businesses better communicate with employees on the spectrum, looks at the challenges of advocating while parenting, and talks about the needs autism families have for support.

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Dr. April J. Lisbon returns

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D.(HR): Hi this is Dr. Hackie Reitman, welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today we are so fortunate to have returning to us from Baltimore: the coaching specialist, the advocate, the school psychologist, the special needs mom Dr. April Lisbon. April welcome back to Different Brains!  

APRIL LISBON (AL): Thank you so much for having me again Dr. Hackie its a pleasure!  

Spreading autism awareness to companies

HR: Tell us how you work with companies.  

AL: So one of the things that I have started doing as you described is that a really connecting with organizations to see what types of programs and services they are actually offering to clients. So I have been connecting with a lot of HR specialists to identify what was your conversational levels look like when you are hiring neurodiverse learners. And I tell people I think the programs that are out are phenomenal, because it is opening up some doorways for individuals with different brains as you describe. But sometimes the language that is utilized in the traditional companies don’t work for our particular population. And so some things that I have done has been providing scripted language to help leaders understand when speaking with someone with autism, this is what you want to say. So for example, one of the examples that I was talking to an HR representative about was that they had a summer program for a group of autistic individuals. And so they provided them with an opportunity that they were supposed to do for the entire summer. Well they didn’t clarify for that particular population that the task you’re asking to do is throughout the entire summer. So one of the individuals thought they needed to get the job done right then and there. And so the person was basically working intensely on this opportunity for a full four days. Or when the when he came back to the office, they noticed that his hygiene had declined. And I was like “what what do you mean that his hygiene had declined?” And they basically indicated that he was looking scruffy, he wasn’t smelling very well, and it was because they did not explain to him using the correct language that this project that we have assigned you to is from May to July. He thought that he was required to get it done then and there. So what we did was for this particular organization, was to talk about being clear in our message. If it is from May to June, or May to July, you need to ensure that you tell that person task one is due by May 25th, task two is due by June 12. Some people may think that’s for the–but when you are a black or white thinker, and there’s no gray in between, you have to be very clear in your message. And so that’s one of the projects that I have when doing because once again, we have to realize with differently wired brains, that the one-size-fits-all mentality just doesn’t work.

Another thing that I have been doing– and this is something that came out of a conversation with another actually autistic adult that I am working with–is creating the bottom line. What does that look like with him, as far as retention of autistic individuals? And one of the things that I really learned that I didn’t even think about because I’m coming from an education background, is that are creating community even within our companies. more time than not what I’m seeing is that because people don’t understand what autism is, or what neurodiverse learning is, they kind of shy away from it or have fears about how do I approach an autistic person or how do I approach someone with ADHD? But once again just creating that sense of community can make all the difference and ensuring that you know your neurodiverse employee is still producing. and it all comes back to the bottom line, if you show them that there are part of your community to produce for you. But they have to feel like they belong. they have to feel like they’re super powered, because I hate the word diagnosis even though I know people want to call it a diagnosis, I have to believe that their superpower is embraced within the organization, it’s accepted. And more importantly, it’s appreciated in the organization.

So that’s something that I have been starting up connecting with more organizations to see how we can create a sense of community for neurodiverse learners. And then finally, the final thing that I want to really be able to do, that I haven’t figured out how to make this connection and how to go about doing that, is that of creating a resource tool guide, as far as–and this is more so from the parents’ perspective–organizations who are doing integration of neurodiverse training programs well. Not only applying them, but creating a resource for those parents. Because like you said, I am one of those parents where I worry about what is going to happen to my son. And I hate to say this, when I die one day–because I know it’s going to eventually happen–how will he be gainfully employed? As a parent, I want to know what organizations are really out there, not just talking lip service about neurodiverse trainings, but are actively doing it. One of the things that I would love to see, and I know this is far-fetched and out there but I believe it can be done, is that of autistic individuals for example, mentoring other autistic individuals in the workplace.

And I know that people are like “April, that doesn’t make any sense because how can two autistic who both have their own differences and they both struggle to function to get things together…” And I tell people “I did it for my son because they’re had gotten a point and time in my life where I could not communicate with him because I didn’t understand his life and what he was thinking through and in his emotions and how that was tied into his autism.” And I have literally found another autistic individual whose an adult, very successful young man, who got my son. And to watch the dynamics between the two of them where my son is like, “so it’s okay that I’m a little bit disorganized and it’s okay that I need this because this is how my brain is wired.” That has been so impactful for my son, and I know that if that’s impactful for him as a teen, I know having seen other autistics mentoring other autistics and ADHD individual mentoring other ADHD individuals in the workplace. Go be powerful. Once again, that will also do two things. One, say that it’s okay for me to have a different frame. And two, more importantly, that I have someone else that I can connect with. So that’s my third project that I am looking forward to releasing and really branching out and diving deeper with that area too.  

Dr. Lisbon’s experience as an author

HR: Well we find that within our community here in a little community of here in Fort Lauderdale, where our neurodivergent interns help and teach each other. And it’s all a big interaction. And all of us here have somewhat different brains and different ways. You have any kind of label you want. Now with your vast knowledge, and how you’re putting it into effect, tell us about your books you’ve written.  

AL: Okay, wonderful! One of the books I wrote was more so of a release cathartic moment for myself. And that first book is entitled Stretched Thin: Finding Balance, Working, and Parenting Children with Special Needs. And at that time, I actually had two children with what disabilities. My oldest son and then my middle son, he actually had a diagnosis of developmental delay as well as communication disorders. And I will tell you, even with him, it was a challenge for me to accept that I not only had one child who learned differently, but another child who learned differently. And so it was that combativeness intrinsically within myself, that I as the expert should have been able to recognize these issues within my own children. But I didn’t. And then on the job, feeling like I was an imposter. It was like “April, how can you be telling other parents how to support their own children and you can’t even support your own children?”

So it goes to the highs and lows of what it is looks like and what it feels for the person not only providing education for families coming back home to that, and realizing that there are certain things in my life that I can control and there are other things I can’t control. And how do you go through this process for the condemnation of yourselves. So that’s the first book. The second book is Autism in April: A Mother’s Journey During the Tween Years. And that’s one of those processes where we are talking about hormones, girlfriends, making the transition from elementary school to middle school, his fears, my fears, about just life. And how, do you move through this journey, this transition. This is no longer my baby, but this is a child who is growing up to be a young man. How do we communicate with each other, how do I feel like–I hate to say that I’m not the nagging mom, but I want you to feel helped and supported. So that’s really what that book is about. And the final book is an anthology that I did with other parents and educators entitled A Mask in the Trauma: School Bullying and Children with Special Needs. And I actually wrote that particular book while going through the process with my son been his psychiatric hospitalization. And the funny thing about that third book was that the intention was never for it to be a book. It was actually supposed to be a pamphlet for parents that I could present to schools as a parent resource.

But for some reason, I felt like it was incomplete as just a brochure, or hand out. And I felt like I needed it to be a book, but because I was so emotionally charged and so emotionally tied to the story at that moment, I couldn’t complete the book by myself. So I got seven other individuals to write their stories. And I will tell you that sometimes as you said earlier on this journey you feel like you’re all alone by yourself. And to hear other parents that I’ve never met, other educators I didn’t even know had relatives that had different brains, to to realize that our stories were the same was not only cathartic, but it was also enraging because it’s like you know everybody lives in different worlds, but yet our stories are still the same. And so I wanted other parents out there to realize that you don’t have to do this practice alone. There are other families that are going through this just as you are. And it is not okay for schools not to be stronger advocates when it comes to school bullying, and I mean that for all the children. But especially for our special needs children because more times than not, these kids they struggle on their own intrinsically. They don’t need a school system, or a building administration that’s not supportive of their needs. So that’s the third book.  

Autism advocacy and coaching

HR: And so all of this led you into your career of advocacy coaching?  

AL: Yes, yes! For me, I want to be a voice in the wind for those families who feel like their voices have been, I don’t know if cut off is the right word, but who feel like they they cannot express their emotions and their feelings. I want to be that voice for those parents who are always apologizing. I used to be one of those parents. “I am so sorry that he’s doing this, oh. I’m so sorry he really didn’t mean to have this meltdown.” Apologizing because my child’s brain is different, I shouldn’t have to apologize because that’s who he is. That’s what he’s about. And I want to be that voice for other parents to realize, and understand that it is okay to have a child who learns differently. What’s not okay, is that we accept from society that plain and simple, our kids aren’t good enough or that we can talk about our child’s different diagnoses, mental disabilities. Yes, we can. We have a right just like every other parent. We need to bring awareness and more acceptance to what our families go through every single day. So by creating a voice–like I tell people, God gave me a big mouth anyway so I might as well use it for good. So that’s me.  

HR: Now in line with that advocacy, talk about the balance between a career and parenting.  

AL: I will tell you it is a tough haul because special education is my life 24/7. And some days are better than other days. there are times where I tell people it seems like if one of my autistic babies at school who is having a meltdown, I used to wait by the phone for a call from Administration to hear that my son was also having a meltdown. And so more time than not, would be a struggle to balance it mentally and emotionally because I couldn’t control it. And because I am the type of person where I like to have all my I’s dotted and all my T’s crossed, there were days where I was ready to give up. I was ready to give up being a mom of a child with autism. There were times where I wanted to quit being a school psychologist because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I could not create harmony in my life trying to be a professional as well as being a mom. But once again, I had gotten to a point where I realized, “April, you can’t do this on your own.” So I tell people therapy is beautiful. I literally had to go to therapy for me to start the process of realizing once again I can only control those things that belong to April. I cannot control or fix what happens at work or things that may happen with my son. All I could do is to be a support system, make sure that I’m doing what’s right, not only by the children I serve at my school, but also my own children. And then in that, that’s how I’ve been able to get some peace for myself.  

HR: And another factor also, which I speak about when I talk to parents, I say “don’t beat yourself up, that’s my job.” By definition, if you’re a parent who’s so filled with love with your kid, you can’t do as good a job in certain areas as a co-dispassionate, somewhat third-party, many of whom were professionals. It could be another parent, it could be anybody. So what I do is make fun of myself. Like when I made the movie The Square Root of 2 about my daughter’s challenges in college, I finished the movie which is when I found out she went for a job interning at a school for autism, the owner of the school met her for 10 minutes and said, “hey, doc, you know your daughter has Asperger’s.” And I said, “What’s that?” “Well it’s on the spectrum of autism.” And then I said, “What’s that?” I was completely ignorant. And in retrospect, when you look at the movie, you see all the classical scenes of this clueless father, who had no idea about hypersenses, about specificity as you mentioned before, and clarity and so on and so forth. But we as parents, we just want that one thing. And especially because God made the mama bears a little bit different than the papa bears. And I salute you! It’s doubly tough. Now you have the added thing, you’re a professional psychologist here. You’re a school psychologist, “I’m supposed to know this stuff.” And you can beat yourself up pretty darn good over this.  

AL: Oh absolutely. I will tell you I will think about all the interventions that I will provide to parents, and then they would come back to follow up meetings and say “oh my goodness, Dr. April”–that’s what they would typically call me, or Dr. Peoples–“you know, what you recommended worked.” Thinking “yes, I’m going to add this to my toolbar with my son.” And then I would try to replicate it with my son, and it will go to hell in a hand basket. And I’m like “wait a minute, how did it not work for you when it worked for this other child?” kind of a thing. And I had to realize, once again, all kids learn things differently. What may work with one child may not work with my own child. And I also have to remember this is your child, April. He’s totally different from someone else. And so I think that used to be one of the hardest things for me, is hearing and getting the praise from parents saying “the strategies and the interventions you recommended worked” and then not being able to replicate it at home. That used to give me a lot to anguish. And after a while, I stopped doing it. I would get frustrated with my son, I would get frustrated with myself, and it just was not a good look at all.  

HR: Please tell our audience how they can get in touch with you and how they can get your books and more about how they can interact with you.  

AL: Absolutely! So you can get both of my books at Amazon as well as Barnes and Nobles. So they are on, like I said, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, as well as if you go to WalMart bookstore. You can also get all three books there as well. To reach out to me on social media, both my Instagram and Facebook handles are AutismCoachStrategists–that’s one word. And then you can also reach out to me on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn handle is AskDocApril. That’s a-s-k-d-o-c-a-p-r-i-l.  

Appreciating the gifts of different brains

HR: Is there anything else that you would like to tell our Different Brains audience that you have not covered today.  

AL: You know what, I think actually now I think one of the big things that I would tell less of the parents and more so the individuals with different brains is don’t be ashamed of your gift. People need the gifts and the talents that you have. Never allow people to make you feel different, or feel like you cannot impact the world. This is your season to be influencers, to be life impacters because of what you have to offer is so different, it’s so unique, it’s so awesome, that our world needs you. Don’t ever allow other people to make you feel smaller than what you are, because that’s not who you are. That’s not how you were made. To be proud of your unique differences, be proud of your unique learning styles, because we need you. We do need you.  

HR: Well said. Well April it has been a pleasure having you once again here at Different Brains. We look forward to staying in touch, and having you return even again. It’s great to have you keep up the great work you do for so many.  

AL: Thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure.