A Fitting Honor for a Mentor and Pioneer

A couple of weeks ago, I received a newsletter from The Asperger Autism Network (AANE). AANE's newsletter is excellent and I make a point of reading it as often as I can. In this installment, one article in particular caught my eye. AANE is embarking on a fundraising drive to update and expand their training center and they're going to name it The Elsa Abele Training Center. As soon as I read about it, I knew that I had to help them somehow. Elsa is one of the wisest, kindest people I've ever encountered and, for the past decade or so, I've been privileged to call her a mentor and a friend.

"Among my colleagues who know her, the mention of Elsa's name always seems to conjure up a smile. She's like everyone's favorite grandmother - provided that Grandma is an incomparable genius."

I met Elsa over a decade ago when I took a couple of continuing education classes she taught. I had heard good things about her classes. She was pretty widely known as a pioneer in the assessment and treatment of people with Asperger's Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder so I was optimistic. But I never imagined the influence that Elsa and her teaching would have upon me and my work.

Elsa Abele

The first class I took with Elsa was entitled What Can I Say? What Did You Say? It was a 3 day course focusing on issues around social skills and social cognition among people on the autism spectrum. When I enrolled in the class, I had already been working with kids with autism for 15 years or so doing work that focused on helping them improve social interaction. I had read some books on the subject, attended some conferences, but mostly had picked things up through the process of osmosis. I felt like I was doing good work with my clients but my understanding of autism felt amorphous and spotty. My brain contained what seemed to be a random assortment of discrete facts about autism with no overarching idea or organizing principle that I could use to tie everything together. Elsa's teachings provided me with an understanding that was rich, cohesive, and comprehensive. It gave me a clear, precise lens through which to view the behavior, cognition, and emotions of individuals among this population. This lens has provided far more than an abstract, academic understanding. I have used it every day of my working life since then as a way of trying to understand the meaning underlying the behavior, interactions, and emotions I see in my clients with autism. That kind of practicality and applicability is especially rare in the realm of continuing education, in which you can generally consider yourself victorious if your takeaway from a training consists of 2 or 3 factoids that you might draw upon every once in awhile.

Among my colleagues who know her, the mention of Elsa's name always seems to conjure up a smile. She's like everyone's favorite grandmother - provided that Grandma is an incomparable genius. She has a calming, reassuring style and a sense of caring and compassion that is palpable and infectious. I've contacted her several times when I've come up against difficult challenges or wanted a knowing, experienced partner with whom I could sound out some new ideas. The most memorable instance for me was in 2010, the American Psychiatric Association was contemplating some major changes to the autism diagnosis for the upcoming release of the DSM-5. Their website sought public comment on the proposed changes and, seeing as I didn't think too highly (and, incidentally, still don't), of the changes they were suggesting  I was happy to oblige. Those comments eventually became an op-ed that appeared in the Metrowest Daily. Someone from AANE read it and asked me to moderate a panel discussion on the topic at one of their upcoming conferences. It was a huge honor for me and I approached it with some trepidation. It's one thing to spout off online or in writing but if I was going to help guide a discussion among scholars, practitioners, individuals on the spectrum, and their caregivers, I thought it would probably be a decent idea for me to be sure I knew what I was talking about. I wound up contacting a number of colleagues whose opinions I respected and gleaned some valuable perspectives. But I remember my meeting with Elsa most of all. I knew that she'd have the knowledge I needed to help me organize my ideas but the empathy, understanding, and clarity that she brought stood out among all the people I spoke with. She also seemed to recognize the anxiety I faced at the prospect of leading this discussion and, as always, gave me the confidence and reassurance I needed.

The timing of AANE's decision to name their new training center after Elsa is not coincidental. For the past few years, Elsa has been battling cancer and, unfortunately, the prognosis is grim. In the Jewish faith, when someone passes away, we often say "May their memory be a blessing." Elsa's life has been a blessing to countless people, mine included. AANE's work is dedicated to fostering understanding, support, and connection for individuals on the autism spectrum and they have helped countless people reach their potential. They are the ideal stewards of Elsa's memory, inspiration, and work. Please consider supporting AANE in their goal to help her memory become an abiding blessing for years to come by donating to The Fund to Support the Elsa Abele Training Center.

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