A Therapist Told me That Treating Autism is Like Treating Depression
Finding a competent therapist who understands autism from a neurodiverse framework is hard. REALLY HARD.
Hard enough that I, a mental health counselor AND art therapist, couldn’t find one in my home state.
I have a VAST network of therapists, list-servs, directories, and more.
If you’re the doubting type, you might be jumping on Google right now to see if you can find a autistic therapist in my home state of Arizona.
Here’s where it gets insidious: you’ll find them. You’ll find therapists who state that they work with autism.
However, just because they state it doesn’t mean they actually have the training or experience to make it a safe, effective therapy for a newly identified autistic.
I learned in my 30’s that I am autistic, which is called a late-identification (you can read my full explanation in my essay: what is late identified autism).
I eventually realized I needed extra support to navigate my new identity and develop strategies to work with my autistic mind.
I began searching for therapists online, and was frustrated by how difficult it was to find an autistic therapist, let alone a therapist that specialized in adult autism. The one that I could find told me that she was full.
So I expanded my search to therapists who work with autism. I found one that I thought might be a good fit and emailed her. I specifically told her that I was autistic and asked if she had relevant experience to provide therapy for me. She suggested we set up a consultation call.
In the consultation call, it became quickly clear she knew VERY little about autism.
I asked how much experience she had working with autistic people. She said “a handful.” RED FLAG.
I asked what her understanding of autism is. She said, “Well, why don’t you tell me about how you view autism.”
I explained how I want a therapist who already has an understanding of autism, especially a neurodiverse perspective. She knew I was a therapist, and explained, “It’s like working with depression. Depression is different for everyone, so you tell me what autism is like for you.”
This is where my brain short-circuited with a hundred thoughts at once:
Depression is NOT like autism. Depression can come and go. Autism does not. Working with autism is NOT like working with depression.
I was new to autism and needed someone who could help me fully understand autism more. I wanted to learn more about what aspects of myself were autistic and what aspects were not. I didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to educate MY THERAPIST about that. I wanted her to help me.
I was frustrated with her dancing around my direct questions. I wanted to know how much she knew about autism. From her responses, I was guessing very little.
I felt empathy for this therapist. She was doing what she felt best, based on the education she received. She genuinely wanted to help me
I did not want to work with a generalist therapist. A generalist therapist is one who feels they can work with anyone who comes through their doors. I needed someone with more specialized education.
Given I had so many thoughts in my brain at once (a very autistic characteristic), I don’t remember exactly what I told her. I believe it was, “It’s important to me that my therapist know more than I do about autism given I am newly identified. Thank you, but I don’t think we’re a good match.”
What I do remember was how frustrated I felt after the consultation. I was frustrated by all the aforementioned thoughts, and also had leftover uneasy feelings. It felt uncomfortable to justify myself to a fellow therapist. I was mad I would have to keep looking for a therapist. I was dismayed by how hard it is to know if a therapist is actually educated enough to help.
I never did find a therapist within my state. I ended up working with an autistic coach from another country.
I still would have preferred a therapist. There were topics and experiences and experiences I wanted to dig into that coaches simply are not equipped to do, such as examining past trauma.
For all the frustration, a few positive have come from it:
It fueled me to write essays for fellow autistics about how to ask questions during a consultation call. It also inspired essays calling out therapists for how little they know.
It helped me to tailor my therapy services for late-identified autistics. When I became a therapist, I didn’t know I was autistic. My personal journey with late identified autism led me down a path of research, self-education, formal coursework, and more. My private practice is now fully devoted to late-identified autistics. I seek to provide the kind of therapy I wish I could have found.
While I’m all for negative experiences producing positive results, I still mourn for my fellow newly identified autistics who will go through similar experiences. It’s one of the reasons I write so many essays about autism. I want autistics to have better access to relevant, accurate information and for the mental health field to change.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.