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4 things Autistics should consider when choosing a therapist

Updated: Feb 8

Many autistics tend to have a co-occurring condition. When one of these conditions is a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, it can be debilitating for the Autistic person. But when an Autistic finds the courage to seek help, they may come across therapists who are unfamiliar with autism or even dismissive of their client’s perspective.

Hopefully, one day every therapist will be more informed about the range of Autistic experiences. Until then, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are four things Autistic people should consider when picking a therapist.

Individuals aren’t labels

I was talking with a therapist once who said I was “high-functioning” and that I made “great eye contact.” I thought the comment about making eye contact was ironic, because we were talking to each other on the phone. The therapist literally could not see my eyes and still made an assumption about what I could or could not do based off of arbitrary functioning labels.

You do not want to get stuck with a therapist that predicts your experience based on whether they perceive you as "high" or "low" functioning. While Autistic people have some things in common, every Autistic person is unique in their own way! If a therapist feels a need to put you in a specific category to explain the totality of your lived experiences, it would be best to move on. Find a therapist that is interested in hearing about your individual story.

The language of geometry

Fortunately, I have had other, more positive experiences with therapists. In college, I told my therapist that I felt like people didn't understand me when I talked about my Autism as an identity. She responded with a metaphor that has stuck with me to this day.

She said that it was like I was speaking about geometry to people who have never heard of it before. The other people may be interested or want to learn more, but it may take some time for them to learn.

I also expanded this “geometry as a language” metaphor to think of other people as knowing algebra. So, when a new type of math comes along, it may upset some and intrigue others. This made me feel like, even if not everyone understood what I was saying right away, that did not mean that they were not open to hearing what I wanted to share.

Just like my college therapist, your therapist should be willing to learn your language. You may introduce them to new terms, like "stimming", or provide new examples for those terms, like "I twirl my hair in class when I'm trying to process what my professors are talking about." A therapist may not know everything about autism, but if they are willing to learn, then this is a green flag for the therapist-client relationship.

Therapists are like cereal

We have had several Autistic mental health therapists on our Autism Stories podcast. One of my favorite tips is from our interview with Scott Allen, who says that therapists are like cereal. While I personally enjoy many types of cereal, I do have a few favorites that I wish I could eat every morning (any other Cocoa Puffs fans?)

Scott says that if you do not connect with one therapist, it is okay to try another one. Therapists are just people, and some people get on better than others. Therapists are accustomed to people trying out one or two sessions to see if there is compatibility. A good therapist will not be offended if you want to try someone new.

Try therapists with different disciplines

It has been so fun for me to learn from all the different therapists who have been on Autism Stories. You might be surprised to hear that not all of them are doing the usual talk therapy. I remember how art therapist Jackie Schuld talked about how you can help externalize your emotions like anger or grief.

We even had a sex therapist on named Angela Locashio. She said that, even though she is a sex therapist, she only ends up talking about sex 5% of the time. The other 95% of her time is spent focusing on the PG elements of relationships or considering what makes us happy in our lives. If you are looking for a therapist, be open to looking at ones from a discipline outside of talk therapy.

Those of us at APC believe that a kind, skilled therapist can greatly benefit Autistics who are looking to work with mental health specialists. While the autism life coaching we provide is a bit different, one of our Coaches could be another valuable team member for your success. To learn more about working with a Coach on things like executive functioning and self-advocacy, contact us!

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