Experiential learning comes from cultural immersion & autism

Experiential learning comes from cultural immersion & autism

By Gwendolyn Barnhart, Ph.D.
August 1, 2021 - Last updated: August 2, 2021


While completing a graduate program in clinical psychology, there come difficulties, and with them come opportunities for growth through experiential learning. One growth opportunity for me is through navigating this training process while on the autism spectrum.

For most people, social aspects of navigating the world come naturally, but I have to learn as though it were math or history. This is one of the reasons I find psychology so fascinating: I study and learn about human behavior, which helps me to help others while also helping me navigate the world.

One of my favorite clinical training experiences has been through an internship in Nome, Alaska, where I have worked with Alaskan Natives in Nome and surrounding villages. No roads connect Nome to any major city. All resources are obtained through subsistence activities or the costly practice of flying them in or shipping when the sea isn’t frozen. The nearest city is Anchorage, which is 500 miles away, again, with no roads.

I enjoy being in a rural setting, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. City life is daunting for me as the noises are too loud and the lights are too bright. Too much sensory input can be difficult for me. Nome is quiet – no freeways, no large crowds, no sensory craziness – or at least it is minimized.

As an autistic, I have learned to navigate these overt aspects of sensory overload, but it can still be emotionally exhausting to constantly work to regulate my own emotions, cognitions and behavior. I “mask” often; heaven forbid anyone find out that I’m different. In Nome, those from the lower 48 are different. It gives me comfort to no longer be the only different one in town.

Living within this region gives me the opportunity to experience the basic framework of what it means to be human in the context of the environment, the ecosystem and the planet as I am not exhausting myself regulating my sensory and social difficulties. I enjoy the simplicity of life on the tundra, learning about subsistence living and what it means to truly rely on the environment for survival and become an active part of the ecosystem.

I also enjoy immersing myself in other cultures. Within a cohort model, my fellow interns are tasked with learning about a new culture and being immersed in it. Since this is my experience nearly every day, I feel as though we are on a level playing field, which is comforting.

While in Nome and working with those in the surrounding villages, humility is needed as it is imperative to put our Western cultural lens aside and look through the lens of the lived experiences of those we serve. Some cultural aspects of those in the region have been adversely impacted due to colonialism and negative assertions of Native cultural practices.

People who live in this region often rely on traditional ways of life to survive. Some people do not have running water and regularly have to haul water as part of their daily life. Others do not have plumbing facilities and use “honey buckets” for hygienic purposes. Some do not have internet or cable. In the region, hunting seals, walrus, caribou and other wildlife are essential for survival. To many Westernized eyes, hunting seal and whale are unthinkable acts, while here, to Native eyes, the practice is necessary to feed their families.

As an autistic, I enjoy identifying parallels and threads in culture that create the fabric of what it means to be human.

As psychologists, it is imperative to put aside our Western lens and our own personal biases, opinions and expectations, since these can hinder therapeutic relationships when working with those in the region.

For me, as an autistic, I can relate to some degree; being judged for being autistic is common. People have their biases and opine about what autistics are supposed to be like, about what I am supposed to be like. When I don’t fit their narrative, people often do not understand and attempt to assert their expertise on the subject. I feel as though Westernized culture has done this same thing to Native cultures.

I am fairly good at masking, or playing the “pretending to be normal game.” For me, psychology is the instruction manual. When I live by the manual, I can pass.
Much of my psychological training has been through the lens of Westernized culture, based on Western norms and values. This same culture has victimized those I serve. In a way, this culture has victimized me and others with neurodivergent minds.

Cultural sensitivity is needed when serving a population that has undergone such a tumultuous change in its way of life, especially since the adverse ramifications of it are present in the lives of those that come into my office as they actively experience the trauma associated with colonialism.

My job is to sit alongside my clients, acknowledge and process the past, its adverse effects and how it coincides with an ever-changing world with cultural sensitivity all whilst masking and playing the “pretending to be normal game.”

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Gwendolyn Barnhart is a Psy.D. student from Antioch University – Seattle Clinical Psychology program who is finishing her internship in Nome, Alaska, through the Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium. She holds a Ph.D. in general psychology with an emphasis in research and is also finishing her Ed.D. through Walden University concurrently with her Psy.D at Antioch University. Her email is: gbarnhart@antioch.edu

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