The neurodiverse therapist - being other and finding my place
“Why would you want an assessment? You are doing really well in life.”
My GP had a point, on paper I was doing well. I was successful in many ways and I had a great life. My children were happy and healthy and I had an excellent co-parent and ally in their father. I was doing a PhD on a topic I loved. I was a qualified counsellor, with a steady stream of clients. I had good friends and spent my days filled doing things I loved. My life was good. My health was good and my career was developing nicely. All appeared fine, for the most part.
But some areas of my life didn’t feel fine, they felt horrific, tumultuous and chaotic. Life had often been tough and even though I had come out of major trials, traumas and tragedies intact I was sometimes confused as to how people treated and reacted to me. I had been bullied by many people and I knew that I was often misunderstood and misrepresented by others.
I thrived in my role as a therapist as people were authentic and honest in counselling. However, I struggled in relationships with other people and had a tendency to feel continually disappointed by family members and friends. I think this disappointment often went both ways. I knew I was different and I wanted support to understand this divergence better.
I have been described as an enigma, a tornado, a catalyst for change, an inspiration, a leader and on occasion a mess (and sometimes worse). I have been celebrated for being honest, kind, quirky and feisty and condemned for these traits too. I experience life intensely and as a result of this intensity had struggled with my mental health throughout my twenties and the first half of my thirties.
My career had been in constant flux because I would easily lose interest in jobs and would quit jobs if I didn't agree with the company ethos and practice. Integrity was important to me and I was unwilling to compromise with management and bosses when it came to morals and honesty.
I found self-care routines and coping mechanisms that suited me well, but they often involved doing things differently to others, going against the grain and retreating to places where I could recharge and avoid people for a while.
I was congratulated on doing things that others found almost impossible to do or at least found difficult. Things like public speaking, stand-up comedy, acting, travelling alone, quitting unfulfilling jobs and talking with strangers wherever I went.
Things seemed back to front, chaotic and very little made sense to me in certain situations. To some, I was too much and, to others, I was wonderful. The scary part was not knowing how each person would respond to all that I was. And all that I am appears to be lots of whatever it is.
Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. …But autism… is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an over-expression of the very traits that make our species unique.
- Paul Collins
The interpretations of others were difficult for me to process. It was difficult to know who to trust. I had a sense of who I was when I was alone but within social interactions with other people I would feel confused, ridiculed, criticised, celebrated, revered and rejected.
Medical and healthcare professionals weren’t much help either, they didn’t know what to do with me. I wanted a label. I wanted to know what was ‘wrong’ with me and why I struggled to function the way others did. I was never believed when I told many people how scared I was, I didn’t look terrified. Not being performative has meant I was often not believed or listened to. Many people, including my own family, thought I was lazy and not trying hard enough, and because they thought it and refused to support me, I ended up believing it (for a while).
I saw many doctors and know many doctors, not one of them ever mentioned autism, not one even came close. It is well known that medical professionals struggle to spot autistic women. My experiences are textbook in that respect.
Autism/ASD/Asperger’s is an invisible disability. I feel disabled by societal expectations of me. I have felt disabled by how others have treated me, disrespected me, abused me, ignored me, dismissed me and devalued me. Reflecting on events I now believe none of their behaviour was about me, it always reflected them.
I understand that now, but all of it impacted me and a lot of it traumatised me. I am good at recovering from trauma, but still, I wish I didn’t have to experience the trauma in the first place. This trauma and the years of therapy I had led me to train as a therapist and helped me to learn how to help myself and eventually led to me referring myself to a private psychologist for a diagnosis.
It’s difficult to try and articulate how it feels to finally have it confirmed you are neurodiverse at 42 years old. Even though I am coming to terms with my diagnosis, I know I’ve always been autistic. I know nothing has fundamentally changed but yet so much is changing because of that label. I feel relieved and proud, very proud. I'm not entirely sure why I feel proud, but I really do. I feel like I have found myself and I identify with the neurodiverse community online so strongly, it feels like coming home.
I’ve always felt different and I’ve often struggled with things most people don’t struggle with. The reason many didn’t notice is hard to fully understand. It is well known that women are often undiagnosed and I think unhelpful stereotypes and misconceptions about autism have meant that I have been overlooked. I haven’t been masking, hiding, camouflaging. I have been trying to survive and sometimes that has been tougher than others. I have been hiding in plain sight.
This feeling of otherness and difference is something I’ve felt my entire life. It has been both a blessing and a curse and I see this condition as being something that I am accepting as opposed to a part of me I feel ashamed of. What I am hoping to do is help others like me and use my privilege, education and voice to advocate for increased awareness on neurodiversity, particularly in women.
...everybody wants to make a difference, but nobody is willing to be different.
- Andy Andrews
Labels and diagnoses are supposed to help people reach their potential and in a perfect world, they would. I wouldn’t need this diagnosis if we lived in a perfect world, but I feel this diagnosis will help me navigate life and this imperfect world better. To experience the world in high definition is something I am grateful for and have come to learn is one of the ways in which I am different.
I notice things most other people don’t, I often process information very quickly and my empathy is huge. It is in counselling and helping others that I have come to see just how much my openness and authenticity has helped others to be more open and authentic about their struggles, their imperfections and their flaws.
Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It's that you're destroying the peg.
- Paul Collins
I’m not going to end this article by saying that being neurodiverse is easy and the best way to be, because that would be unhelpful. I have hope though, I have incredible hope. I believe that as our awareness of neurodiversity increases that neurologically diverse people will have significant and important roles to play in developing more humane, compassionate and just societies.
I want to help people achieve their potential and create a space for themselves in society. I want to be someone involved with improving society for those who are other, who are different, who are diverse. That is my hope as a neurodiverse therapist. I believe the future is bright, I believe the future is neurodiverse.
Thank you for reading.