by Amina Dreessen, CF-SLP

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lila Watson

Over the last two years, I completed my master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology. While my master’s program was incredibly rigorous and taught me many important things about speech and language, I found myself noticing by the end of it that we had failed to learn the most important thing of all: that being a good clinician is as much about helping yourself as it is about helping others.  Perhaps this is something that an academic program can’t really teach, and so I’m grateful to the life experience that has brought me to this awareness as I begin my first year as a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP).  By telling a piece of my personal story here, I hope to illuminate for fellow SLPs, clients and their family members — and anyone interested in communication in general — what I mean when I say that an SLP’s liberation is bound up with the liberation of the people we work to help.

I remember the first time I heard my brother’s label: autism. I was 8 years old, on my way to piano practice when my mom told me. Before that, I had just thought of him as my brother. Eccentric for sure--he loved to talk about history and draw dinosaurs. But then again, I was eccentric too--I liked to do my homework in a closet while dancing to the Spice Girls.  But once I knew about his label, it changed how I related to him. In some ways it helped me, because I could now realize that sometimes when he annoyed me it was because he was experiencing things differently. Often, though, the diagnosis made it harder for me to relate to him, because I was so conscious of there being something “wrong” or different about him. Concerned that he would do something weird in front of other people, I would always make sure to let people know that he had autism before making introductions. I spent the majority of my time with my brother correcting him: telling him to fix his hair, stop scraping his fork against his plate so loudly, and stop talking so much about history because nobody was interested.  As a result, my brother closed himself off from me, and I started to feel guilty whenever I thought of him.

I carried this guilt pretty heavily. It occupied my conscience so much that it led me to pursue this career as a Speech Language Pathologist. I figured if I could understand what was wrong with my brother and help other people like him, then I could help him, help my family, and ultimately help myself. What I didn’t know then was that my logic was backwards: I needed to understand myself better first, not my brother.

As you read this, I invite you to think of a situation in which you have felt such a strong sense of guilt or judgement towards someone that it made you feel uncomfortable to think of them. Hold that experience in your mind, and I hope that it guides you to a similar realization to the one I am about to describe here. 

Over the course of my time in my master’s program, a few pivotal things happened in my life. My family went through a big conflict, and in a dramatic display of anger, I shaved my head.  Then, the COVID19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, I was isolated in a house with my mother, my father, and my brother, and I had a haircut that made me look like a 9 year old boy.  It was an interesting time, to say the least. In the extensive alone time, I began to unravel layers of myself. I started to dress differently, and without much contact with the outside world, I began to realize that many things I thought were part of my identity were really just things I had been told were part of my identity. 

This realization was a delicate process, and it brought me to a pivotal conclusion: the way I communicate with others is a direct reflection of the way I speak to myself in my head. When I tell my brother that nobody will like him if he looks or acts a certain way, I am telling myself that I am not worthy of love if I don’t look or act a certain way. What a painful thing that is for both of us to hear. 

As I begin my career as an SLP, I run into this dynamic frequently. Family members of people with communication challenges often criticize that person at home in an effort to shield them from criticism out in the world, but they don’t realize that their words cause just as much harm as a stranger’s. And not only does it harm the person they are speaking to, it harms the person who is speaking, too.

So how do we escape this well-intentioned but harmful pattern of communication?

This question brings me back to the Lila Watson quote about liberation. Our liberation is bound up with one another’s. In order to help others, we have to begin with ourselves.

I make it a part of my practice as an SLP to ask questions like:

What can people with autism teach me about social norms?

What can people with ADHD teach me about attention?

What can people who stutter teach me about time?

A client who stutters told me the other day that he is hyper-aware of his flaws and tries to hide them at all costs.  He told me a story about a classroom of kids and teachers staring at him with confusion and judgement as he struggled to get a word out in response to his teacher’s question. Moments like that are part of what causes him to hide his stutter to this day.  In response, I shared an experience of trying to hide one of my own insecurities. While neither of us had a resolution to offer, I felt something click between us.

The more I learn, the more I see that the clients I work with teach me just as much as I teach them. As I’ve become gentler with myself, I’ve noticed myself soften towards others as well. I no longer have the urge to judge or correct my brother all the time. If this urge does creep in, I am more able to pause and reflect on the impact of my words before I say them. 

This shift has led to something beautiful, both personally and career-wise.  This past summer, I visited my brother, and we went on a walk to the beach where he encountered a hermit crab.  I listened to my brother as he carried out a 5 minute conversation with this crab, who he named Martin.  The creativity and wit of this very one-sided conversation made me laugh so hard that I cried.  My brother laughed too and patted me on the head, “I’m glad you’re here Meanie,” he said.  I was glad too. I had missed my brother so much. 

This sense of mutual liberation and self-honoring that I have uncovered in my relationship with my brother in the last year influences the work I do with each of my clients.