A professional on LinkedIn recently shared her frustration with people questioning her “qualifications” to work with autism. She is an autistic coach who is autistic herself. She draws from her life experience and self-education on the topic of autism.
I am also an autistic individual who works with autistics and relies on my lived experience and self-education.
I’m also a therapist. I have a masters in mental health counseling and a post-master's certificate in Expressive Art Therapy. I’m a licensed professional counselor, a board-certified art therapist, and a registered international expressive arts therapist.
And yet, for all of the education and fancy titles, I don’t rely on them when it comes to autism. All of my “education” on the topic came outside of graduate school. Why is that?
Autism is barely taught in graduate school. Furthermore, the little that is shared relies on the DSM-5, which is woefully limited when it comes to autism. It focuses on external behaviors when autism is far more about a lived internal experience (you can read my essay Your Therapist Doesn’t Know as Much About Autism as You Think They Do).
The education about autism in graduate school is so poor that I didn’t even recognize I was autistic until AFTER graduate school.
All of my education about autism started with my own therapist, books, continuing education classes, and online research. I also worked with an autistic coach to better understand myself and autism.
My education continued to expand as I specialized my private practice to autism and worked with autistic clients. I learned, and continue to learn, a great deal through their experiences.
Everything worthwhile I know about autism was learned outside the classroom.
So why do I even bother telling people I’m a therapist?
My graduate school education informs HOW I approach people. While I may not have learned about autism, I learned a lot about how to work with people. I learned about expressive art therapy and numerous techniques to promote healing, inner growth, and the change that many people seek.
Furthermore, my education informs how I absorb information about autism. I’m able to compare/contrast the existing understandings and theories I know. I’m able to pull strategies and ideas from adjacent theories to apply to autistic clients.
I’m not trying to cure or reduce autism. Instead, I’m trying to help newly identified autistics understand their new identity and how to best work with their brain. I want to enhance the quality of their lives. I want to have an arsenal of knowledge and techniques so that I can tailor a unique plan and approach to each client I have.
My education also becomes quickly relevant as I work with complex, highly intelligent people who didn’t know they were autistic most of their lives. Most of my clients have experienced trauma, battled depression and anxiety, and struggled with some pretty significant mental health issues. My training as a therapist enables me to meet people where they are at. We can process through these experiences. We can also discern connections. For example, many autistics discover that their unidentified autism fueled their depression and anxiety. In other instances, autistics find that their unidentified autism contributed to feeling isolated, being bullied, and being exposed to traumatic experiences.
For all of these instances, I’m glad I’m a therapist. I’m glad I don’t have to pause someone and say, “Hey, we’re supposed to be just talking about autism here.” I think everything is related.
Does this mean I think I’m better than a professional without formal education? Absolutely not. I’m saying that for my approach, my training serves me well.
There are MANY approaches to working with autistic individuals and autism. Autistics are also wide-ranging in their needs. I’m glad there are a variety of professionals providing a variety of services for autistics. We need all of the ideas and support we can get. We’re in the middle of the autistic awakening, a term I created to name our current period of vast expansion of autistic knowledge and self-identification (you can see my essay The Autistic Awakening to learn more). We need more autistics helping fellow autistics.
I trust that my fellow professionals can discern their limitations. I trust that an autistic coach will know when it’s time to refer a client to a therapist. I also have limitations as a therapist. I refer to other professionals when needed, such as when a client wants more specific parenting advice.
This is not the time to relentlessly police and control each other. This is the time to work together and encourage each other.