‘Contributing’ Is Not Just a DBT Skill, It’s a Life Skill: Volunteering With Autistic Women

Last week in my DBT Skills Group we learnt about the acronym ACCEPTS, which is a distraction skill from Distress Tolerance module. One of the ‘C‘s in ACCEPTS stands for Contribute, a skill that can be used during times of medium distress in regulating oneself and distracting healthily from difficult emotions.

Contributing can be self-regulating as it requires you to look outside yourself and your current state of distress, by focusing on external causes, perhaps with those in great need or with a certain level of vulnerability. Contributing does not just help others though, it also increases positive emotions within oneself at the same time. Furthermore, it can help build feelings of mastery, purpose, self-efficacy, gratitude and compassion for the world around us.

Contributing doesn’t just have to be used during moments of discombobulation. As long as it is done in a balanced way, there are numerous benefits to Contributing to people, animals, nature and other causes, whenever an opportunity arises. In fact, it can be used as a great Emotion Regulation skill, too.

I recently decided that I wanted to take on some volunteering roles to help Contribute in some way to vulnerable people in society. Today was my first day volunteering with a charity for children and adults with learning disabilities and developmental disorders. This afternoon my role was to go to a care home where two woman in their 20’s with low-functioning autism live and are supported.

I was incredibly anxious beforehand and worried that I would be a ‘bad’ (*ding* – judgement!) volunteer because I have no experience and limited knowledge around autistic-spectrum disorders.

However, literally as soon as I arrived I was greeted by the two ladies in the most welcoming way I could have imagined. (The carers were not so friendly and in fact I was surprised at how uncaring and dismissive they appeared towards the two women they were supposedly there to look after.) As for the two lovely ladies, I could not feel more honoured to have met them this evening and be treated with them so gently and lovingly right from the moment I arrived until the moment I left.

One of the women, T, is non-verbal and uses her iPad and iPhone to communicate with pictures. She was very comfortable with touch, leading me from room to room by the hand, stroking my face and welcoming me with a kiss on either cheek. The other woman, R, is verbal but in a limited way, and she is less touchy than T and struggles to make eye-contact. She does, however, have a great sense of humour which is clear from interacting with her early on.

I said the Jewish prayers for them to welcome in the Sabbath, as part of the volunteering role, and R joined me. She continually thanked me and told me what a pleasure it was to have me there with phrases she repeated in a way I believe can be typical of people with autism. I continually thanked her back because I felt so honoured and grateful; I was so appreciative of how welcoming they were and how they treated me like a friend they had known for years.

After the prayers, T asked me to paint her nails (using instructions on her iPad) so I did. Her favourite colours are pink and purple. It was genuinely some great bonding. The carers practically shoved me out before we had even finished painting T’s nails, which I found very upsetting. T has a repetitive behaviour of hitting her head with her hand very hard, however when I was painting her nails, she was the calmest she had been all evening. I was surprised that the carers tore her away from the task which she was so clearly enjoying and more relaxed within.

As I left, R thanked me profusely and repeatedly announced ‘A pleasure a pleasure a pleasure’ and similar phrases. T kissed me again goodbye and pointed to my necklace and then to her watch. I told them I would be seeing them soon and I mean it. It was the highlight of my week!

As I left I felt truly happy inside. How I felt reminded me of a quote from ‘The Imitation Game’ that I would like to share here because I feel it is especially pertinent:


And the thing that they did which most people would not imagine (especially not those rude uncaring carers!), is that they inspired me and touched my heart and evoked so much gratitude and joy within me.

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