It’s a question that I get asked. A LOT.
In my job I have the good fortune to do a lot of outreach with teachers, therapists, counselors (of the camp variety), program directors (also of the camp variety), parents, and many more people.
I talk with them about meeting a variety of sensory needs.
We spend a long time talking through very specific needs and finding solutions.
I love this aspect of what I do- both parts of my job are incredible, however the library outreach that I do often involves solutions that look rather like this:
[Images as follows- top left: a small room with white walls, colorful beanbags on the floor. top right: a small space with a purple light and a beanbag on the floor. bottom left: a clear plastic box containing toys, with the words “break box”. bottom middle: a hand holding a pair of headphones with a cartoon-like panda face on the side. bottom right: a young boy with short blonde hair leaning into a blue beanbag. He is wearing a blue shirt with stripes and his eyes are closed.]
I typically share with parents that I have sensory needs myself, in addition to raising kids with a wide variety of needs. This often leads to me sharing that I am on the spectrum along with my kids. And I will discuss what some of my sensory needs are.
Occasionally I will be talking with someone (usually a teacher or Occupational Therapist) who asks the question: “Are you an OT? What are your qualifications?”
It’s an understandable question. One the one hand, you wouldn’t ask your mechanic to do your dental work- you want someone qualified for that task. On the other hand, I think that we live in a society utterly fixated on this question. I suspect this is the result of generations of people who have been taught that the only road to success is a college degree. Don’t get me wrong- that is one road to success, depending upon your personal definition of success. I do think, however, that we have a long way to come in terms of recognizing that in order for someone to be qualified, they may have arrived there in a less-than-typical way.
It also brings up a very important point: Who better to ask than someone who lives it?
All too often in the world of disability-based conversation, much of the “talk” is happening without including those who live it.
To what end?
I think the mindset all along has been that the Experts are the ones who are qualified. They’ve studied us from a clinical perspective and can certainly provide some of the really necessary information. But unless they live with a particular thing themselves, can they truly know and understand what it feels like? If you don’t wake up daily with anxiety, can you truly know how deep the impact can be?
You may know this one: “Nothing about us without us”. It’s an old phrase, and basically it means that conversations about (and decisions affecting) a specific group of people MUST ALWAYS INCLUDE that group and requires complete inclusion and participation in said conversation or decision.
We have a long way to go.
Fortunately for me today, I was speaking with a small group of people, one of whom knows me. She very gracefully interjected when I stumbled over the question of whether I’m an OT, and she said “she is qualified by a lifetime of personal experience”. And she’s right. I’ve been living as me for a glorious (and often really awkward) 44 years. I’m an expert on my sensory needs, and have become an expert on my kids’ sensory needs. And after a lifetime of trial and error with a fairly small sample size, we’ve figured out quite a few things. We’ve learned things worth sharing. And sometimes it’s even the same stuff recommended by the experts.
I don’t have a degree. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish, and that’s just fine by me. I am doing the best I can with the information that I have, and I don’t let myself sell me short just because I’m lacking a piece of paper stating that I’ve Learned All The Things.