What I’ve Learned from Autism

Seven years ago I made to move to Iowa from Minnesota, and a year later started my journey in Social Work. I began my career at Four Oaks, a youth treatment facility. During this time I was also attending Kirkwood Community College where I met an instructor by the name of Monica. She was a wealth of fascinating information and one of her specialties was autism; In her full-time job she served as an autism consultant and also ran an Autism Spectrum Program at Four Oaks.

By this time I was burnt out from my many positions at Four Oaks and was looking for something new. In sharing this with Monica, she then told me she had an opening in her program and needed a staff. I told her straight out “Monica, I have no experience with autism.” Her response was, “As long as you are willing to learn, that is all I ask for.”

As I started my journey in that program, I fell in LOVE. Autism was and is so fascinating to me. These kids were all unique in their own ways but the things that made them strive and that they passionate about were the most amazing things. Some kids loved band and drum line, some liked vacuums, video games, etc. but it wasn’t the object or interest itself, it was how it worked.

People on the spectrum have missing puzzle pieces, that we as people not on the spectrum take for granted. And truthfully, they like to piece things together themselves. Unfortunately that program unfortunately closed due to funding, and I was heartbroken because it was a NEED in the community. The groups’ main focus was social skills, which people on the spectrum tend to lack. Upon leaving that position, I stepped back into the role of a youth counselor, but often there were kids on our units that had autism, or were on the spectrum. The background I gained allowed me the space to forge strong relationships with many of these kids.

Backtracking to 2017, I also worked at the ARC of East Central Iowa. I was bound and determined that i was NOT working on Sundays, as I was also attending school full time. My supervisor then said “well, we have this little girl (who was 5 at the time) and mom and dad strictly want someone that had a background in autism to go to church with her and her family on Sundays.” They had me at little girl, and needless to say, I still have her almost 5 years (in October) later.

Fast-forward to now:

I work with a company that specializes in group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities. The house I work in specifically has 5 girls, all with autism. As first, the idea of working with adults was completely out of my comfort zone. I’ve since learned that they function quite similarly to kids sometimes.

The biggest takeaway to all of this, is you just have to get on their level. Even if it seems bizarre or strange, it’s that relationship piece, and that’s what is important to them. Individuals with autism are some of my most challenging but favorite populations to work with. They strive to have a positive relationship for you, and when they learn something new, it is so crucial and amazing to them.

Now with my Masters in Social Work, and my soon-to-be licensure (fingers crossed), I am excited to transition to therapy and work with people on the spectrum because they truly fascinate me and that’s the only explanation I have. In more ways than one, I have learned that it is OKAY to be different and people on the spectrum need to embrace it!

Hear more from Lexxis and her journey as a mental health provider on a recent episode of the You Need a Counselor Podcast.


Lexxis-Onken Written by Lexxis Onken, MSW on July 13, 2022.

In BHIS session, I like to use a strengths based perspective to allow the kids to recognize that they have strengths despite their behavioral issues. I enjoy allowing room for creativity and also allowing for the kids to have a say in what they’d like to focus on or ideas they would like to try. Sometimes kids have a lot of pressure put on them and behavioral issues along with mental health diagnosis can make this more difficult so I enjoy allowing room for kids being able to be kids. Iowa.