I’m an autistic therapist who specializes in late-identified autism. My clients are typically people who were just diagnosed as autistic, recently self-identified as autistic, or want to explore if they might be autistic.
Why might someone from this group come to me for therapy?
Learning you are autistic is life-changing. It shifts everything: from how you see yourself to how you understand the past to what you imagine for your future.
It is also A LOT to process. It can bring up a lot of complex emotions, overwhelming thoughts, questions, and trauma.
I know because I’ve been through it myself. I’ve designed my therapeutic process to provide the clarity, processing, and integration I wanted when I was newly identified autistic.
While therapy is tailored to each client’s unique needs, I follow an overarching methodology to ensure that every client leaves feeling they fully understand their autistic self. I’ve created a visual model of my methodology pictured here. Not every client will want or need every aspect of it, but it illustrates what I hope to accomplish for every client.
How does therapy begin?
Therapy begins with a discussion of what the client would like to get out of our work together. With those goals in mind, we then dive right in.
We typically start with a discussion about how an autistic brain functions and WHY such a myriad of expressions are experienced. I find this foundational layer helps to explain and normalize the different autistic expressions people experience.
We then explore that person’s unique autistic expression. We review the main ways that autism can impact a person, and explore how it uniquely presents for the client. We look at the categories of senses, body, learning/thinking, emotions, and social.
This is one of my favorite parts of the process because it provides clients with so much clarity and insight. I frequently here, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that was an autistic thing!” or, “Wow, I guess I really am autistic.”
This part of therapy also resolves the question, “What is autism and what is normal behavior?” It also helps clients to dig beneath masking and camouflaging to see their true selves.
Clarifying and Processing the Past, Present, and Future
We then move into processing and integrating the client’s autistic identity. This includes the past, present, and future.
Late-identified autistic people often felt they were “broken” or “weird” throughout their childhood and adult life. Learning they are autistic can bring an immense amount of relief and understanding for their past. It can also bring grief for their childhood self and anger at how they were treated. For some, it also brings up traumatic experiences tied to their unidentified autism.
In therapy, we process the past together. During this phase, I bring a lot of art into the process, allowing a client to express and move through the intense emotions that come up.
We also examine how their auistic identification is impacting the present. We address any current challenges, such as explaining autism to friends or family. Many newly identified autistics also experience a period of overwhelming thoughts and emotions as they grapple with their new identity. We devote space in therapy (and lots of art!) to navigating these thoughts and emotions so that a client can experience peace and presence in their everyday life.
We also look at how autism impacts a client’s imagined future. Many autistic people spent their entire lives trying to “fix” themselves or fit into neurotypical standards and expectations. Learning one is autistic creates a cataclysmic shift from “fixing” to “accepting.” While this shift brings great joy and peace in the long-run, it often brings pain, fear, grief, and many more emotions in the short run. It means accepting certain challenges and letting go of neurotypical standards.
Fortifying the Autistic Self
We then look at how the client can fortify their autistic self. This typically begins with accepting who they are and what they enjoy. Many autistic people carry deep shame about their differences due to a lifetime of being othered. We work together to release the shame and fully embrace who someone is.
For example, one client felt bad that she didn’t want to socialize on the weekends. She preferred to stay home and work on her woodworking. Although she enjoyed it, she always felt a little guilty and that she “should” be socializing. We worked to release the “shoulds” and let her fully enjoy her passions.
I also work with clients to help them recognize and honor their needs. For example, many autistic people experience sensory sensitivity. We look at ways they can express their needs (such as telling a partner they prefer to not drive at night due to the bright headlights) or meet their needs themselves (such as wearing noise canceling headphones).
We examine all areas and environments of life to develop strategies to maximize the client's strengths and work with their challenges. We look at how they can prevent autistic burnout, cope when they are burnt out, and recover afterward.
We also pay special attention to the unique goals and challenges someone faces. For example, one client wanted more friends, and we looked at how she could find people with whom she could be her full self and fully connect.
By the end of therapy, clients fully understand what autism looks like for them, how it has impacted all periods of their life, and how they can best work with who they are. It is my goal that by the end of therapy a client feels confident to continue on their journey without me.
While I’ve presented this methodology in a chronological format, therapy does not always occur in this order. I tailor what we do in a session to what is most alive for a client and their desired goals. For example, if a lot of trauma from the past is surfacing, we may spend extra time and attention in that area. In contrast, a client may be facing pressing current problems and we’ll jump to strategies for working with their autistic mind.
Whatever wonderful meandering joy we take, by the end the client has the clarity and integration to embrace a fully autistic life.
Thank you for reading. If you would like to explore your autistic identity
in art therapy, you can sign up here.