By D. Scott McLeod, PhD
Executive Director, MGH Aspire

This request sparked a bit of nostalgia. I warmly remember the board meetings of AANE and Elsa’s participation. I was not there from the absolute beginning of the organization, but I remember the issues and the passion of the people there to help understand and support those touched by Asperger Syndrome.Recently, I was asked to write a short note about Elsa Abele. Elsa was a speech and language pathologist and a pioneer in the field of social pragmatics, particularly as it relates to Asperger Syndrome, and in the creation of what is now called the Asperger / Autism Network (“AANE”), based in Watertown, Massachusetts. I am including my note below to share with the MGH Aspire community. We all need to know about her.

We have all come so far. I remember how hard it was to get one grocery store to agree to hire one person from our community. AANE has grown its programs and services immensely and now serves parts of New York. From the MGH Aspire perspective, we have grown from being a therapeutic summer camp to a program that provides direct services throughout the year to folks aged 4-40+ and indirect services in the forms of consultation and training to schools and employers. We now work with over 60 companies who not only provide internships and employment opportunities but also seek training, so they can be a truly neurodiverse company.

A parent recently let me know that she had never heard of Elsa. I guess I must have some Theory of Mind challenges of my own as I was shocked. How could anyone not know of Elsa! I know her well! As a speech and language pathologist, Elsa was one of the first to understand that “skill and drill” instruction has severe limitations in helping persons on the autism spectrum be able to transfer and generalize skills they were learning. She knew about the importance of learning in more naturalistic environments. She knew about the importance of being explicit about the context in which social interactions take place.

There is a tremendous amount of work to be done yet still. However, the community of action and support is growing. It’s a great moment to recognize one of the true visionaries and masters of our field.

“Elsa Abele continues to come up in conversations about working with folks on the Autism Spectrum. She is like Madonna or Cher; only her first name is required for recognition. People tend to respond with a soft purr of “Awwww…” at mention of her name. The sentiment is of warmth and wisdom. It’s: “awwww…. She is the BEST.” I don’t know of anyone actually ever disagreeing with Elsa. She disarms you with her charm, charisma and intelligence.

One pearl of Elsa’s wisdom continues to resonate with me, staff and those with whom I work. She eloquently speaks about the hidden curriculum of social interaction and the inherent challenges. The simple intervention, yet pinpoint in its effectiveness, is to include “the purpose” when asking someone to do something as they may not naturally know the context or reasoning for the request. So, “please shake her hand” becomes “people expect a handshake when they first meet; they will experience pleasure and have a positive first impression of you; and, since you want her to hire you, you’ll want her to like you and feel good about you.” Humor is also a part of Elsa’s repertoire and she might add, “it’s a strange custom and I have no idea who created it; but it’s easier than hopping on one foot and shaking feet.”

Elsa is an icon in our world. The purpose of this brief note is to acknowledge my overwhelming gratitude to Elsa and her continued impact on my work.

Scott McLeod June 7, 2019”