Election week was a challenging week for many in the TCS community. While I generally strive to be apolitical in my role as Executive Director, I wanted to reflect for a moment on the increased anxiety I observed because of the election. In the weeks leading up to November 8, we had a lot of conversations with our participants about the different presidential candidates. We’ve always had participants who fall across the political spectrum, and we are comfortable supporting everyone in being part of a diverse, multi-perspective community. But this year has been a bit different. The inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump in particular has affected some of our young adults to a great degree. Many of our participants perceive themselves to be part of a marginalized group, a class of people who are discriminated against already. The idea that our country might elect a president who is even more unsympathetic to the challenges of these “different” groups was more than a little uncomfortable.
And then, in fact, Trump was elected. The man who openly mocked people with disabilities, who is an unabashed anti-vaxxer (i.e., someone who believes that vaccines cause autism and that families should not vaccinate their children—a medical theory that has been shown time and again to have no evidentiary support), who describes autism as an “epidemic,” and who has no clearly articulated plan for the treatment and support of those on the spectrum, is now slated to be the leader of our country. The anxiety in our community rose even higher, as at least some of our participants began imagining the worst possible outcomes of a Trump presidency.
One of our young adults recently said to me: “Marginalized groups, whether they are disabilities, minorities, or part of the LGBTQ community—a lot of those individuals’ lives are going to go from bad to worse. Even if Trump does nothing in terms of laws, there is still the issue of his supporters, who feel like they’ve been given a free pass to discriminate against a wide range of different groups. For me, it will make me feel less safe in my neighborhood. I worry for the safety of my friends as well, some of whom fall into several of those categories (e.g., on the spectrum and LGBTQ). I worry that there will be less tolerance and possibly fewer services if the leader of our government doesn’t acknowledge or respect the issues we deal with. We’re already seeing an increase in violence against women, minorities, and other groups. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI are reporting an increase in hate crimes since the campaign began over a year ago, and this will only increase with time.”
I can actually feel the tension in the room as this young adult talks to me. Regardless of how much I share his concerns, the prospect of a more hostile environment makes it much harder to function on an everyday level for the people we serve. For people who may be highly sensitized to emotion (even hyper-empathic, as some autistic self-advocates describe themselves) and generally more reactive, simply getting through a routine day becomes much more challenging in these conditions.
There are so many questions to answer. How can we support the people we serve in this kind of environment? How do we maintain our own equilibrium and positivity to be able to stay reflective, patient, and warm, when we might share the concerns of our participants? How do we help our participants continue to learn self-advocacy skills without getting hijacked by their worst fears? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know that there are some basic concepts that have not changed:
- Warm, empathic relationships are essential. They help participants to stay reflective, open-minded, and balanced. They also help caregivers to be hopeful, optimistic, and patient.
- Strengthening the core capacities is always a good idea. Helping everyone in the community to strengthen their “shades of gray” thinking, their shared social problem-solving, and their perspective-taking will always be helpful to everyone.
At TCS, we strive to be an inclusive, supportive community—including being inclusive of a wide range of political and social perspectives. We strive to help everyone have a voice, to feel heard and understood. We will continue to do that to the best of our ability while remaining positive, hopeful, and empowering. TCS has always been a relatively safe place for our participants to develop into thinking, independent adults, and this will continue to be the case in every political climate.
For those of you reading this who are caregivers and/or supporters of people of difference, I encourage you to not lose sight of the big picture. By staying focused on strengthening the emotional range, durability, and flexibility of the people you support, you will be helping them to navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead.