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We can all learn a thing or two from people with autism and their families. Each person sees the world differently. And by experiencing it from another's point of view you can better communicate and serve others. In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, I talk with Myles Hinkel and Katie Lentz of The Thompson Foundation for Autism about how they help people with autism and their families to adapt and improve communication.

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Hosted By
Monica Maye Pitts
Monica Maye Pitts Chief Creative Officer

How Understanding Autism Improves Communication

We can all learn a thing or two from people with autism and their families. Each person sees the world differently. And by experiencing it from another’s point of view you can better communicate and serve others.

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, I talk with Myles Hinkel and Katie Lentz of The Thompson Foundation for Autism about how they help people with autism and their families to adapt and improve communication.

Podcast Summary Notes:

Q: Introduce yourselves!

A: My name is Katie Lentz and I am the director of donor relations for the Thompson foundation. I have joined the organization in November of 2020. It’s been a great journey for me learning all about autism, exactly what you’re talking about today, best ways to communicate, both with people on the spectrum and about autism. So that’s a lot of the work that I do in the marketing and communicating with our donors.

I’m Miles Hinkle, the executive director of the Thompson foundation for autism. I provide strategic direction, fundraising, all kinds of good stuff for the foundation here, as we support the Thompson center.

Q: What is Autism?

A: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Now we know that there are different biomarkers for autism, we know that there are different subgroups. We know they’re probably multiple environmental factors. It might be more accurate to describe someone with Autism as someone with “Austims” plural.  It’s multiple things in multiple people.

Q: How does Autism affect the way a person interprets the world? 

A: Autism is usually characterized by three things. It’ll be sensory issues, whether that’s audio light, type thing, communication challenges, and then socialization. Everybody brings a whole different set of strengths to all those different areas. That’s truly why it is a “spectrum”. I think focusing on maybe our similarities with all of each other, versus the differences, and focus on our strengths I think can really help to bring out the best in people.

Q: How does the Thompson Center help families and individuals affected by autism and how do the two of you help the Thompson Center?

A: The Thompson Center for Autism and neurodevelopmental disorders supports families and children affected by autism and many other neurodevelopmental disorders. They focus on clinical services, which include diagnostic services as well as therapies. They also have an educational component that includes training. And then finally, the last part is research; clinical trials, pharma studies, etc.  We help the foundation by supporting all that work.  A large portion of it The funding for the center comes from our foundation; when people support us, they are directly supporting the center. Along with that, we do also share resources with other centers across the nation, as well as some advocacy work. But primarily, we’re serving the families here in Missouri.

Q: What’s holding you back from being able to help more families?

A: The CDC estimates that one in 54 children worldwide are on the autism spectrum. So that’s a problem that has greatly increased in recent years, and with that the demand for diagnostic and clinical services has gone up as well.  Currently, at the Thompson center, there are over 1100 children who are waiting to receive diagnosis with 900 of them being autism-specific evaluations.  How that translates for families is up to over a year of waiting for those services—and that diagnosis is just the first step.  After they receive that diagnosis of autism, there are other services that may be able to help them in their journey, like different therapies, but then there are waitlists for that as well. So it’s a great challenge for the center and the families we’re trying to serve.

Q: Do you feel like the increase in diagnosis is because people are becoming more aware of symptoms and may be more welcoming to treatments and therapies? Or do you attribute it to something else?

A: I think it’s a little bit of both. As you provide a good service, you start to hear word of mouth. I think the theme of “the rising tide raises all ships” comes into play. And then also, I think, there’s more awareness; it’s a little bit more in the news.  When Nancy Thompson first started the center, and then the foundation, it wasn’t as much in the news just yet.

Q: What are some ways that we can shift our communication patterns or routines to better adapt and communicate with individuals with autism?

A: There are several different ways, depending on his or her receptive and expressive language.

  • Listening–truly listening–and not just waiting to say whatever you want to say when they’re done speaking is a critical practice in all cases. 
  • Communication devices can work for some children and individuals on the spectrum.  This could be an iPad, for example.  
  • Storyboards with pictures can be a huge help. Let’s say you’re going to travel somewhere and you want to go through that scenario with an individual on the spectrum.  Depending on where they are in the spectrum, having a storyboard with pictures of where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there and what it’s going to look like when you end up there can be extremely helpful.  
  • Encouraging others to speak directly to a person with autism, as opposed to going through you, can be important.  For example, sometimes we’ll host a dinner party, and Blake (son with Autism) will be in the room with us. Sometimes somebody will turn to me and say, “Hey, miles, what does Blake like to do? What are some of the things he’s into?”  I’ll turn to that person and say, “Well, go ask Blake” so that they’ll kind of get out of their comfort zone and really interact with him.
  • Another one that comes to mind for me is literal speech versus figurative speech. Like saying, “Oh, this is easy” versus “Oh, it’s a piece of cake”. Someone on the spectrum might be expecting a piece of cake to be given to them. There are ways that we can all think about our speech and how we’re communicating clearly for people on the spectrum.

Q:  Are there any communication techniques that you’ve learned from your experiences that you’ve been applying to other aspects of life that you want to share with people?

A: The really listening rather than waiting for your turn to talk is important and applicable to any situation.  Another one is appreciating another person’s communication initiations. By that, I mean our son’s speech, for example, is very tele telegraphic. It’s “daddy-go-store”. But that’s huge in and of itself, because he is initiating.  It may be a little atypical or not in the norm, but he’s initiating an interaction with you and that’s huge. So it’s not always what he’s expressing or how he’s expressing it. It’s the fact that he’s doing that. And that’s a big first step.

Q: How do you react to his communication initiation?

A: At times, drawing additional speech out of him. So if given the chance, he’ll kind of default to only using two or three words, so I try to encourage him to use full sentences and kind of bring it out.  It helps if that’s helped to be married to the speech pathologists, I will say that.

Structure is something that very much helps people on the spectrum.  Even something like an agenda that is very helpful for a lot of different meetings could be helpful for someone on the spectrum as well.

Q:  How can people contact you or how to make a gift.

A: We’ve got a great website, thompsonfoundation.org, thanks to MayeCreate Design. You can find a Donate button right at the top of our website.  We’re also active on all social media platforms. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn so please connect with us.

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