Brian Middleton is an Autistic Adult, Professional Speaker & Presenter, Behavior Scientist, Advocate for Disability Rights, IBA, BCBA, LBA, and the “Bearded Behaviorist.” In this month’s blog, Brian shared a personal story about his professional journey.

Can you share your journey through your professional career?

I started my teaching career in 2012. I was a special education teacher for 7 years and taught both special education and social sciences at a high school. At the beginning of my career, I taught special education in a middle school as a fill-in, I taught for a year in an elementary school, and I had a night job teaching social sciences, history, and political science at a night high school. I also spent 5 years as a behavior specialist.

I found out about ABA when I attended a special education conference in 2017. I found out the keynote speaker was a BCBA. In her presentation, she talked about things that were clicking for me. After her presentation, I spoke with her, and she asked me if I ever thought about becoming a BCBA. After that conference, I investigated ABA and gained more understanding of what it was and how it is applied. After some consideration, I applied for a post-master’s program certificate for ABA in 2018.

Initially, I wanted to become a school district BCBA to support the students in the town I had been living and working in for over a decade. Unfortunately, the administration at the school I was working as a behavior special education teacher kept adding tasks to my load while taking my resources. I was putting in 60-70 hours per week because of all the paperwork requirements. I could not do both the paperwork and support my students because there was so much that needed to be done. I begged the administrators at the school to stop taking my resources, but when I found out they were adding another class for the 2019-2020 school year, I had enough. At this point even though I didn’t want to, I needed to leave the field of education. It was then that I decided to start applying for RBT positions in Colorado. I interviewed for positions during the 2019 spring break, and then once I had a position secured, I put in my letter of resignation. I completed the 2018-19 school year, then once I finished my obligations my wife and I moved to Colorado to work as RBTs. This was how I officially moved to clinical ABA as my career. I finished my supervision hours in January of 2020. Unfortunately, COVID hit, and I was unable to take the BCBA exam until September 2020.

What are some of the challenges you encountered as a person with Autism in your career and how do you navigate them?

The biggest challenge is the environmental barriers. I figured out I am Autistic due to my students. I was home-schooled and had an IEP through a charter school growing up. I didn’t know I was autistic because I originally had a nonverbal learning disorder diagnosis, which is a common misdiagnosis for male autistics. If I had been appropriately diagnosed at that time, I may have been given an Asperger’s diagnosis, which is no longer a diagnosis since it was rolled into the autism spectrum disorder diagnosis with the DSM-5

While working in education, the struggles I dealt with were related to me being direct and clear with communication and others inferring things from what I said that were not said. I am capable of nuanced/high-context communication styles of allistics, but it is just exhausting. Especially when I am spending more time trying to make sure the people, I am speaking with are not inferring things from what I didn’t say instead of taking what I am communicating at face value. An example of this was when one of the principals I was working with said I had a “PR issue.” This, unfortunately, is a perfect example of the double empathy problem, which is where the autistic person is expected to empathize with the allistic person, yet the allistic person does not give empathy for the autistic person. Regardless, I continued to do my best with my communication and eventually, I encountered more successes than failures. My students were able to thrive, and I was able to work well with many teachers, even ones with whom there were a lot of communication struggles.  

How did you advocate for your students with Autism within the educational system?

I worked with a lot of students with Autism and ADHD. I also supported a student with obsessive-compulsive disorder and another one who was bipolar. My focus was on how we can make these environments inclusive rather than exclusionary. Part of this was influenced by viewing disability as being caused by the environment not matching the student’s needs. Just because they perceive things differently doesn’t mean they are broken. This is why neurodiversity matters. It starts with understanding that neurobiological differences are not what causes disability. Instead, it is the rigid environments that cause disability and most of that disability is eliminated when we accept these differences.

Consider this, when you hear someone say, “a person with autism”, it implies there is something inside of them or perhaps on them that is “the problem.” This is like terms like “a person with cancer” or “a person with heart disease”. No matter how well-meaning, it pathologizes the person because it presumes that autism is somehow a disease that needs to be cured. However, I believe, and research supports, that most disability arises from the interaction between the individual and their environment. For example, when you are in a completely dark room, you can’t see what is in the room so navigating it is more difficult. In this case, you are disabled due to the environment. However, if there was someone blind in that dark room who is trained in navigation skills needed to move around, they would not be disabled by that same environment. It is all about how the individual interacts with the environment. We can see it has a lot more to do with how the environment acts and how the person interacts. This understanding doesn’t magically make everything easier or better, but once we realize that shaping the environment is one of the primary ways we can change things for the better, we begin to move away from areas where we get stuck and into possible solutions that are collaborative and community-oriented.

We need to meet people where they are at. When we do, we see growth. Not everyone has the same level of needs. When we create a social environment where people can thrive, we create conditions for success for everyone. We shape the environment to enable learning and growth.

Some might say what I am talking about is being optimistic. I disagree. Optimists ignore all the negative data. Pessimists ignore all the positive data. I am being a realist. I am trying to point out that when we look at the whole picture, which includes taking in both the positives and the negatives, and we examine the information while asking what is happening, then we open possibilities for a better environment. An environment where we all can grow. We are all a part of the environment. This is knowing and understanding that our actions matter, and it makes a big difference.

Any final thoughts for other Autistic Adults?

We are still responsible for our actions even though the environment does not match up to our needs. When we take responsibility for our actions, we model ways that we can move forward. We can choose to engage or disengage. Hope resides where we can action. It can be incredibly difficult to feel hopeful when you don’t feel like you can do anything. Sometimes when we struggle to find areas where we can act, we need to find community. Especially look for community action allies. These are people who can help you and who you can help. Remember, there is always room for hope. It is not always fair, and it is not your fault. What we can do is to try, and we can be kind and help each other as well. Be human first. Be human always. We can learn and grow together.

If you would like to learn more about Brian Middleton, you can visit on social media on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, or you can listen to the Oh Behave! Podcasts are found on most podcast platforms. For more information on Autism or where to seek additional resources, contact Key Autism Services today.