Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Separating People From Their Behavior: The Power of First Impressions

by Chris Snell, University of Massachusetts Lowell

How can I objectively and effectively work with people diagnosed with developmental disabilities who exhibit challenging behaviors in the community?

I had no idea what to expect as I walked up the driveway for my first 3pm-11pm shift at a group home where individuals diagnosed with developmental disabilities and mental health issues resided. As I introduced myself to staff and the individuals a veteran staff member pulled me aside and gave me some invaluable advice, “Don’t read their confidential files yet. I’ll make sure you’re safe and don’t get caught saying or doing anything problematic.  It’s important that you spend some time with the guys before you read about their issues.”

I didn’t quite understand the rational at that moment but, I figured that he knew what he was doing and I was still feeling real good about the paycheck I would be getting at the end of the week….I was making nine dollars an hour! I’d have Sallie Mae off my back in no time! The next eight hours flew by as five fascinating men introduced themselves to me and provided me with snapshots of who they were. I found myself enjoying the interactions and the people who would become a significant part of my life for the next two years.

That day has become a template I’ve followed through my entire career. It is so important that we connect on a personal and professional level with the people to whom we provide support. I believe this to be even more important when working with people whose behavioral presentation can be hard to address or observe without judgment. After having the opportunity to form a first impression based on face-to-face interactions, I could then process the second impression that resulted from reviewing the confidential case files of each of the men I has spoken with earlier.

Our society ascribes a lot of negative social identities to people living with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. I implore you to give people living with developmental disabilities and mental health issues an opportunity to provide you with the "foreward" first-hand before you delve into the "novel" of their lives.  When training new staff, I have always tried to impress on them the impact of the monumental paper trail that follows people seeking mental health services. Imagine if there was a large book that documented every misstep, mistake, and significant event you have experienced …..EVER! It frightens me to think what the pages of my confidential case file would look like for ages 18-25. Now imagine that this personal history is available to every service provider with whom you interact!

There are occasions when I’m asked how I work with people who are stereotypically assumed to exhibit aggressive, unsafe, or illegal behavior. I make every attempt to reign in the "preachy advocate" in me but, I always mention the fact that there are a growing number of people in our community who are being transitioned into the community as institutional facilities continue closing at a rapid rate (click here to read an article on challenges to providing mental health care in Massachusetts) and these people need empathetic support from nonjudgmental professionals. It has been my experience that many of the people coming out of state facilities struggle with the transition into the community and need strong, passionate professionals to assist in their re-entry into the community.  In the same way that it’s not appropriate, helpful, or ethical to label someone as a “biter” or “spitter,” the labels too often affixed to people diagnosed with developmental disabilities do not have any place in the support we provide them.


Chris Snell is a graduate student in the Autism Studies program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is currently enrolled in Dr. Christopher Allen's Introduction to Community Social Psychology course.

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