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.