I’m an autistic art therapist who works with autistic adults who were diagnosed or self-identified as adults.
Therapy is often seen solely as “treating” mental health disorders. While it can do that, I see therapy as a tool to help individuals live satisfying, meaningful lives.
I do not see autism as a disorder or a disease to be healed or cured. Autism is a difference in brain functioning that has incredible benefits, as well as challenges.
When someone knows they are autistic, they can understand their neurodiversity and learn to work with their brain. When an individual does not know they are autistic, they often feel there is something different, wrong, or broken about them.
A late identification can bring relief, but it also means reinterpreting the past and reimagining the future. Therapy can help in multiple ways.
Emotional Processing of Identification
While it is extremely beneficial for someone to know they are autistic, a late identification also brings complex feelings. There are feelings of relief (finally knowing the cause), as well as anger (how did it go missed), mourning (learning there may be some things they cannot change) and more.
Therapy can provide space to ventilate and process the emotions present so that a person can be more present in their daily lives.
Although many people have a general understanding of autism, most late identified autistics don’t fully know what it entails. It can also be difficult for them to know what parts of themselves are due to autism and what are not.
In therapy, we break down the major categories of autism so that a person can understand all aspects of autism. We then look at how these categories uniquely manifest for them. The goal is for a person to develop a clear understanding of themself as an autistic person.
When an individual goes undiagnosed their entire life, it is common that their family and close friends did not see the signs of autism. When an individual receives a diagnosis or chooses to self-identify, it is common for family members and friends to doubt it. Due to mainstream depictions of autism, they often think there is no way their friend or family member could be autistic (I address this in my essays What I Wish Others Knew About Autism and We Need More Depictions of the Interior Experience of Autism).
It can be difficult for an autistic person to navigate tension with friends and family, especially as they are trying to fully understand autism for themselves.
Therapy can help an individual learn how to articulate and dialogue with friends and family about autism. It can also help a person learn how to set appropriate boundaries with people who are not understanding or with whom they do not want to share.
Most undiagnosed autistic adults were able to go undiagnosed due to excellent masking and camouflaging skills. After a lifetime of relying on skills to help them blend in and belong, it can be difficult to know who they are verus what is just masking.
In therapy we work through the layers of masking and camouflaging so a person can know who they truly are. We also explore how to practice unmasking and when it is appropriate or beneficial to mask.
Addressing Co-Occurring Mental Health Concerns
Many undiagnosed individuals, myself included, felt there was something deeply different and wrong with them prior to knowing they were autistic (you can see my essay I Thought I was Broken Until I Learned I was Autistic).
It can be extremely difficult to manage the differences of neurodiversity when someone does not know they are neurodiverse. Many undiagnosed people struggle with depression and anxiety. Others also turn to coping and control mechanisms that lead to substance abuse, disordered eating, and more. Therapy can help a person with these co-occurring mental health concerns.
Healing Past Trauma
Autistic individuals experience a higher rate of trauma than neurotypical individuals. There are multiple reasons for this, such as being seen as “different,” difficulty asserting boundaries, and more (I’ll save those for another essay). Therapy is the perfect place to gently revisit old traumas to bring healing and peace.
Identifying Strengths and Challenges
Autism brings some pretty great benefits. As an autistic person, I love getting lost in making art, reading, and other projects. I enjoy thinking deeply about things and appreciate how I see and experience the world differently than neurotypicals. I enjoy sharing my thoughts in essays like this one. My autism also helps me deeply connect with people, as I pick up on subtle tones, nonverbal language, and more that others often miss.
While all of these things are great, there are also challenges, such as experiencing sensory overload or overthinking to the point that it interrupts my quality of life.
In therapy, I help autistic individuals identify their unique strengths and challenges. We then explore how to capitalize on their strengths and how to navigate the challenges.
Prevent and Cope with Overload
One of the most common challenges of autism is overload. This can occur due to senses (such as a strong smell that leads to a headache), social situations (the overwhelm of navigating a group), or general exhaustion from taking in so much information throughout the day.
In therapy, we explore what leads to overload. We then create plans to prevent overload (to the extent possible) and what to do when overloaded.
Thank you for reading. If you are interested in art therapy for late-identified autism, you can learn more here.