Megan Kent is a self-employed behavioral analyst or – as she herself calls it – an ideas person. She works both with adults and children to help them overcome hurdles in their daily lives. Megan is often approached by parents of children on the spectrum, especially when they get stuck in the conventional health system. For Odder Being, she generously shares some much needed wisdom!
Megan, tell us a bit about your work!
It’s true, I am an ideas person. My work is based on interventions. People approach me when they’re struggling, or – more often – when their child is struggling. I assess the situation and create possible interventions to address issues and enable my clients to live a happy life. I tell my clients: “Here’s some crazy idea, go and try this, then come back to me and let me know how it went. If it works – cool, and if not, we’ll definitely think of something else. Sometimes it’s trial and error. Some things can be addressed quicker than others.
When I come in, I focus on offering a different, optimistic perspective. It’s not even because I’m more capable than my clients are. It’s just an outsider’s perspective: I haven’t been up with their child all night and I can come in to be a fun, playful friend. In the end, being positive and holding on to the wins for people that are in a very tricky situation is just the best thing you can do.
With that said, I am also a trained specialist. I was initially educated in ABA, Applied Behavioral Analysis, a theory used to educate differently abled children, primarily children with autism. I also have my transactional analysis psychotherapy foundation and I’m a registered behavior technician. When I upskill myself, I add new tools to my toolbox, so I can mold myself in a way that fits my clients’ needs. This enables me to work with people long term and support them with different challenges in their lives. After all, autistic and other differently abled people are mainly just people. We all evolve through life and all encounter mental struggles at some point, whether we’re diagnosed or not.
What is your experience with labels?
Labels can be both detrimental and positive. For instance, there is this woman that I have worked with… She is in her 40’s and she’s incredibly high functioning. She loves to tell people that she is autistic. Being autistic is her thing, she is so proud of this label. She really sees it as her superpower.
I wish the gift of such a perspective could be given to everyone, but unfortunately that’s not possible. We often use labels to describe something that doesn’t ‘fit’. For instance, in western culture we are so blindsided by thinking: “This is the way we teach and unless you can conform to this, we’re going to label you as someone with a disorder”. I think that’s ridiculous, so I prefer the perspective: “You are capable of learning, so I’m going to think of different ways in which I can teach you, and we’ll figure it out together.” When I was a kid myself, I was labeled as naughty and disruptive, but here I am now – helping other children that are considered to be disruptive.
At this moment in our evolution as homo sapiens, we have created language to describe these ‘conditions’ that people have. But realistically, we are all on the spectrum. That’s why it is a spectrum. So we as society have a long way to go – we need to accept people not conforming to the norm. Having additional needs actually isn’t an issue, as long as we can provide support in the correct way.
But we still use labels… why?
It’s really hard to get funding for clients if they don’t have a diagnosis, if they don’t fall into a category that we’ve already determined. This is also a reason why sometimes parents have to jump through so many hoops to get funding for their children.
In my ideal world, one would observe a person, identify their needs for additional support (such as respite care to offer a parent some time off) and provide funding regardless of whether this person is described as autistic or some other kind of label. It would make for a far more beneficial person-centered care. Unfortunately, when funding is the main focus in a capitalist society, it doesn’t always work that way.
Another problem is that labels are often suggested by a GP, a general practitioner. But these doctors – although very well-educated – are no specialists. They often don’t have specific training for learning disabilities, personality disorders and the like. I’ve had a number of clients who would initially be diagnosed with for instance a personality disorder and eventually diagnosed with autism instead. That’s why I believe it’s very important to question diagnoses, if possible get a second opinion.
It may be an unpopular opinion, but it’s also good to use the internet. There is so much information out there these days. When it comes to mental health and learning disabilities, do your own research. Communities online are sharing their experiences and this is extremely valuable.
What can we learn from children on the spectrum?
When I talk about my work, people often say: “Oh, that’s amazing, you’re such a good person.” Are you kidding me? I get paid to hang out with people’s children for a job! These kids are amazing and so humbling.
By far one of the biggest influences on my life is this really, really special guy, whom I’ve been working with for a decade. We have worked on and off together. I homeschooled him for a few years when he was 7 to 9, and later we had a tribunal with his local council to get funding for his education. This resulted in him enrolling into a mainstream primary school for a couple of years. I now work with him again twice a week. He is 16 and seeing the difference in his development to now has been amazing.
It also helps in the moments when I feel sorry for myself about anything. I’m working with people that are facing such adversity… It really grounds me and makes me appreciate the opportunities that I get without having to fight an uphill battle. A lot of the different abled people I know are also some of the happiest people. So do we need to get so caught up in pettiness? Probably not.
Kids just bring out the best in people. Especially different abled children, who are authentic and genuine. One client only wanted to spend time with me if I wore a care bear onesie. I thought: “Fair play, I wish I could tell people that I only want to hang out with them if they are in fancy dress!”
We met at Breaking Convention, a scientific conference on the use of psychedelics. What is your take on the potential of psychedelics for treating autism?
Overall, I’d say psychedelic research is the most exciting thing happening in science right now. The results of the use of psychedelics, for instance in conjunction with therapy for PTSD or addiction, is just incredible. Last year, a research center opened in Baltimore, USA, and now these centers are emerging in more places.
On the other hand, there is this stigma. I almost have to be self-conscious of being a pro-psychedelic therapist. We live in a society where the label ‘psychedelics’ also carries a negative connotation. But we need to shed the historic ideas about psychedelics and embrace their possibilities in for instance improving connectivity between neurons in the brain. There is so much potential, some of the research that is done now, is truly fascinating.
With respect to autism, it’s hard for me to make predictions. Research into psychedelics is so popular right now because people realize they can capitalize on it. Unfortunately, for autism and other ways of being neuroatypical, not a lot of funding is provided for psychedelic research.
Thank you so much for your insights! Do you have any final advice for parents?
A number of things, really.
First of all, everyone can be their own behavior analyst. In the end, it’s just making observations and coming up with ideas for possible improvements.
Neuroatypical people are often very sensitive to stimuli. We live in a hectic environment and there are so many stimuli. This can trigger anxiety. When possible (and desired), reduce sensory input, by wearing dark sunglasses or headphones.
On the other hand, use touch. We have an incredible array of different textures and sounds. From a very gentle tickle to deep pressure. Be tactile with your kids. In my experience, people with different learning abilities do communicate, but often not verbally.
Play, be silly. Nobody wants to do tasks that are boring. If it’s entertaining, it automatically reduces the stress. Make it fun. If your kid wants to do grocery shopping in a superhero costume, let them!
Give yourself a break. You are doing the best that you can and that’s incredible. There is no shame in getting help and no parent gets it right 100% of the time.
And last but not least, don’t forget: autism really is a superpower.
Resources Recommended by Megan
Got more great resources? Leave them in the comments!