I had previously qualified as an art psychotherapist so I knew that such trainings did not include autism but that did not stop me feeling an undercurrent of rage against therapists for their ignorance about neuro diversity. I developed autism awareness sessions specifically for therapists because I was aware from my own experience, (and from the many stories I heard from others in the autistic community), how ineffective, and indeed damaging, therapy provided by therapists without knowledge of autism could be.
It took Corrina Gordon Barnes, who ran an online course “From Passion to Profit”, repeatedly telling me that I needed to empathise with the people I wanted to educate to overcome my anger. Actually the anger was both justified (I had spent a lot of time and money and experienced much misery consulting therapists who failed to help me) and unreasonable (they did their best with the information available to them at the time, it just turned out that the most relevant information was not available to them).
There is still a long way to go until autistic people can consult health professionals with reasonable confidence that they will be treated appropriately (and in this I include autistic people who are unaware that they are autistic).
I think a question asked by a therapist at a short talk I was giving recently illustrates this - she asked why I found my autism diagnosis helpful. I welcome questions and am happy to share my own life story in all my talks and trainings as personal experience is a valuable resource in understanding the impact of any condition. Most humans naturally respond to stories, we need a coherent narrative that we can connect with. So I answered the question from my experience and shared a recording of Charles Burns, a successful silhouette artist who tells how his life has dramatically improved since his diagnosis. This helped him to become aware that the ways he compensated for challenges where a sign of intelligence not stupidity. Knowing this he was able to relish and hone his coping strategies and his self-esteem improved exponentially. The questioner found the response helpful but I was unsettled by the question.
I always stress in my education sessions that all autistic traits are human traits; it is the way they are configured and their intensity that defines autism. The idea that understanding oneself and one’s motivations is empowering and enables reflection understanding and change is one of the foundation stones of psychotherapy. It seemed to me this therapist’s question implied that this basic tenant of therapy, the idea that accessing a deeper knowledge of the self is useful might somehow not apply to autistic people. Accepting an identity that includes autism reframes a person’s understanding of themselves. Given that autistics are human I would have expected it to be self-evident to therapists that autistic people would benefit from having an appropriate lens through which to examine their experience of life .
Therapy addresses personal issues faced by diverse individuals existing in varied and constantly changing contexts. I believe it is necessary for therapists to deeply understand the various forms of diversity, including neuro-diversity, if they want to help clients different from themselves.
When I designed my “Exploring autism” sessions to enable therapists and other health professionals to understand autism I thought it was a no-brainer. Autism was not included in the training therapists clearly need to know about autism so there should be no trouble interesting training institutions in some education sessions. I missed the obvious point that before we seek out information we need to know it will be useful and relevant to us. The myths about autism are still so prevalent, that many generalists are unaware this is something they need to know about, they believe they have no autistic clients or patients. As you have read this far however presumably you realise that autism is something you or others need to know about, if you are interested in learning more do consider coming to one of my sessions. If you have any questions or thoughts on what is written here please feel free to comment below, I’m always interested to read others' ideas.