October 28

Interview with illest autist – Posted on 10/28/19

Recently, I caught up with illest autist, who is a behavior interventionist, consultant, and creator of his own method of autistic engagement. He is from Canada and has trained the government of Canada so that their citizens can have autism supports funded by the government. He is the author, artist, and musician. He has Autism but his Autism does not define him. He has found a way to use his gifts and knowledge to help others like him.


1) What was your experience like being an Autistic individual? When were you diagnosed with Autism? Do you recall the first time that you noticed that you were different? How were you treated by your peers?


I’ve had an amazing experience!  My life has been extremely rewarding and full of adventure.  Sure, there have been rough spots due to my autism, but overall I can’t complain and I wouldn’t change a thing.  Being born in Canada, surrounded by many different cultures, relative peace and so much nature, helped me to become who I am today.  I was diagnosed a few years ago.  I’ll be forty-five in just over a month.  I knew I was different way back when I was three.  I had hyperlexia but could read with full comprehension, I preferred to play alone, and I had pretty prominent sensory issues.  My interests didn’t align with my peers’ interests but we got along.  Imitation was my thing in social settings.  I had friends who had cool characteristics and I guess they thought I was cool enough to hang around because they thought I was smart.  My peers were tough on me but we were all tough on each other.  We grew up in a tough environment.


2) What supportive services did your parents put in place to support you as you were growing up with Autism? When looking back, were there some services that you wish you had that were not available at that time?


There were no services that we were aware of.  I grew up in an underprivileged area.  There were always kids to learn from and I had my siblings.  My older brother and sisters taught me everything they knew.  I remember following them everywhere.  They’d ride their bikes and I’d run along behind them.  They said I had limitless energy.  I see that now in many of my clients.  My parents put me in activities to help me socialize with a variety of people.  We had this pastor in the area who would gather up all the low-income children and take us places as well as teach us arts and crafts.  He was a good guy and a god-send in my area. However, my biggest influences were my family members.  My mother has 11 siblings so my siblings and I were always with aunts, uncles and cousins.  They taught me life and had very high expectations of me.  They accepted me for who I am but always let me know I could achieve whatever I set my mind to.  My father used to look at me with so much love and tell me I was a strange kid.  Weird, but my father loved my different ways.  It made me feel great about myself.  I come from a long line of leaders, artists and professionals.  I didn’t get any special services but I think I got the best “therapy” which was reality with a healthy dose of encouragement to be the best I could be.


3) What inspired you to get into your line of work? What steps did you take? What do you find to be the most rewarding? Most challenging?


School was always easy for me.  I actually applied to university at the end of the tenth grade but was rejected.  Long story short, I was offered a spot in a gifted school, when I was in the first grade.  I would have graduated med school at eighteen.  My parents refused.  They wanted me to live a normal life, and I’m thankful.  I had my first child at sixteen and I wanted things to move a little faster once I became a father.  After high school, I moved to Toronto with my sister and brother in-law to attend college.  I took medical courses in hopes of becoming an oceanographer focusing on orca whales.  At the same time, I took a psychology course but didn’t take it very seriously.  Later, I realized that this course would change my life.   After community college, I was accepted to a university for applied chemistry and biology. Chemistry was always my highest scoring subject but biology is my love.  The day I went to register, I received a letter from the university that rejected me in the tenth grade.  They invited me to study psychology with them and I’d get a year and a half off of my degree requirements because I did so well in that college psych course.  I accepted their offer just to show them they made a mistake by rejecting me years before.  I ended up falling in love with psychology.  I was on tour, promoting my album as I finished my studies at university.  I knew I didn’t want to do another full album and was ready to focus on my psychology career.  I took a vacation after touring and when I got back home, I picked up the newspaper and there was an advertisement for behavior therapists.  I went and that’s where I met my mentors, two psychologists.  There were so few males in the field at the time in Toronto so a male mentor took me under his wing and two months later I was promoted to senior therapist.  Four months after that, I was offered a promotion as a clinician.  I prefer to work directly with the children because they never place judgement or expect you to be something you’re not.  So I declined the promotion and parted ways with my mentors.  We remain friends to this day and I still have the utmost respect for them.  There are the most amazing psychologists I’ve ever worked with.   I just wanted to go in a different direction.  I joined up with a few large government agencies in Ontario and learned a lot, and accomplished even more, but it wasn’t what I wanted.  I needed to do more and know that my service was actually helping.  The most rewarding thing about my career is seeing the families grow together.  I’ve met parents who told me their child isn’t human.  I’ve had extremely wealthy parents who work excessive hours just so they didn’t have to be home with their child.  All great people who simply didn’t know who their child was/is.  By the time my work is finished those same families are completely turned around. They are so full of respect and understanding, and actually excited to take time off to vacation abroad with the children!  It’s the most amazing feeling to know I’ve played a part in making their dreams come true.  The most challenging part about my career is working with adults who don’t have their child’s best interests at heart.  I’ve worked with kids with no limbs, no vision, no words and ample aggression.  That’s challenging but it’s nothing compared to an adult who isn’t focused on making life enjoyable for a child.


4) Where do you think there is room for improvement when it comes to supportive services for those with Autism?


There’s a lot of room for improvement in delivering services that actually help. Families feel alone, helpless and unheard.  I’ve listened to so many accounts of how speech therapy does so little or don’t target exactly what their children need.  I’m told of behavior teams who implement changes but don’t even know the child or the family.  It’s rough out there for services.  There are incredible therapists getting amazing results but there are so few and far between.  I was trained to write curriculum.  Why aren’t teachers and classroom assistants being valued enough to lighten their workload and get them the training and help they ask for?  There are so many ways services can be improved but I think the only way to do that is to ask autists and their families.


5) Tell us about your method of autistic engagement. How did you come up with this method? What success have you seen with the individuals you work with?


My method is quite gentle.  I developed it based on what made the kids happiest and most engaged.  If a child is interested in what you’re doing, you never have to ask them to look at you.  If you play games they like, you don’t have to ask them to play.  They’ll ask you.  If you make a child smile, they’ll make others smile.  I incorporate all of the things we need to be well- rounded, productive, active individuals into games.  This is nothing new and there are many who attempt it.  It usually works for me.  I truly get to know the person and their lives.  I live it with them.  I help them fill in any skills they need to become better people, as defined by them.  I simply ask them what they’d want life to be and then I help them get there.  I’ve traveled the world, to places others might refuse to go, working with different cultures.  So I’ve created a method that respectful to all people.  I focus on home first.  By making sure home is good, we build the confidence to venture out into the community successfully.  Given what we know about autism, sometimes I need to listen with my eyes, see with my hands and feel with my heart.  This might mean I spend the night on the couch so I understand what mom means when she says Billy hops at night.  Sometimes I need to go grocery shopping with the family to understand dad’s anxiety.  I enroll in swim class just to understand how the instructor speaks to his students.  I live it with them.  I can’t even begin to understand if I don’t live it.  Because of my experiences with autism I’m better able to give insights about why stimming is so helpful or what it’s like to hear things others can’t. I’ve had tremendous success over the years.  I have seen so many empowered, loving families all over the planet.  I feel so welcomed by each family member.  I’ve attended graduations, and witnessed many achievements with my clients/friends.  Each success I witness is a success of mine.  It’s an unbelievable feeling to see a kid I met when they were a baby, now heading off to college, getting a promotion at work, or even just taking the bus for the first time.  Success for some may seem simplistic to others but the things I see my clients achieve means the world to them and everyone who cares for them.  I’ve heard so many kids say “mom” for the first time!  I have seen others ride a bike after being unable to walk most of their lives.  Success is everywhere in my life and I’m so incredibly thankful to be able to see it.  I’m still friends with most of the families I’ve worked with.  I get updates all the time and it makes me unimaginably happy.


6) How do you find visual supports such as picture schedules, Augmented Alternative Communication apps, etc. to be helpful in working with individuals who have autism?

I love them!  I’m such a visual person myself.  Visuals reduce a lot of anxiety, for me.  My wife would tell you that I list everything and if she needs me to remember something and tell her later, I tell her as an image I recall. I use visuals all the time, we all do!  Road signs, clocks, logos, visuals are everywhere and are extremely helpful.  Why not use them?  I sit on the advisory board for an international AAC app.  I love it all.  It helps everyone to communicate with each other.  Communication is key to getting goals accomplished.


7) What are your thoughts on the increasing rates of diagnosis of Autism, especially in the African American and Latino communities?


I think autism has always been here in large numbers.  We just didn’t know what to look for.  I’m not alarmed by increasing numbers of incredible people to learn from.  How would we ever know what it means to be human without knowing all humans?  As for rising rates of diagnosis in the black and brown communities, it means we are finally taking mental health seriously enough to seek professional help!


8) I know you are a musician and artist and that your chosen name is illest autist? What is the story behind that name? Where did your passion in the arts come from?


I come from a time where autism was considered a sickness (it still is). Well I’m the sickest of us all.  The illest!  I’ve seen a lot of people bullied because of their autism. The streets taught me how to handle bullies.  I had a friend at about five years old.  His name was Tommy.  He was small, rocked all the time and always played a little guitar.  People picked on him for being different.  The name illest autist is my way of saying my arms are longer, my skin is thicker, so come bully me if you think you can.  Also, in hip hop, ill is a good thing.  I love myself.  I celebrate my autism.  As I mentioned before, I come from a long line of greats.  My passion for the arts comes from my people.  The rhythm of our hearts.  My grandmother led a thirty piece band back when she had to go through the back entrance even though she was headlining.  My father engineered for Motown records, at the age of fifteen, at the famed Hitsville USA studio in Detroit.  The history is deep on my father’s side but also on my mother’s. Two of my mother’s cousins you may be familiar with are Billy Henderson from the Spinners (musical group) and dear cousin Artis Lane (sculptor and artist extraordinaire).  It runs deep in me so it’s natural for art to flow from my mind in various forms.  My brother and I released the first full length independent rap album in Canadian history on our own record label.  I consider my professional work as a behavioral consultant to be art, that’s why it was easy to make the transition from music to psychology.  I create skill-builders and lesson plans, even school curriculum, from an artistic standpoint.  It’s who I am.


9) If there is one thing you could tell parents of a child with Autism, what would that be?


Believe.  Believe in your child, yourself, and your family.  Be patient with each other and have the same expectations for everyone.  We have good days and bad, ups and downs but when we believe we can achieve more we do. Believe you can.


To check out more on illest autist, he is on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/illest.autist/


You can also view his artwork at https://www.pinterest.ca/illestautist/


You can find his music on YouTube at  https://youtu.be/L_MkUjCP0rQ


Please don’t hesitate to comment below. Your thoughts and questions are welcome and safe in this space.


Thanks again for viewing my blog. It warms my heart to see so many visitors that come on here from all around the world. I hope to continue hosting more guest bloggers in the future.


Love and light,



autism stimming, Billy Henderson, black autism dads, black autism families in NC, black autism mom support, black autism moms, black autist creatives, black autistic artists, black autistic men, black autistic musicians, illest autist, illest autist music, The Spinners

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