Why do autistics need therapy?
Alright, I admit, it’s a poorly constructed question.
Autistics don’t NEED therapy. Autism is a different neurotype. It cannot be “cured,” nor does it need to be “treated.”
How do I know this?
Well first, I’m autistic. Before I was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD in my 30s, I tried all the therapies out there to try and “fix” my brain. I knew something was clearly different about me. I had overwhelming amounts of emotions and thoughts - far more than other people. I was often labeled by others as “sensitive” or “overly emotional.”
Years and years of therapy didn’t change that. When a therapist suggested I look into autism, I couldn’t believe it. I was already a mental health therapist at this point. Wouldn’t I know if I was autistic?
I clearly didn’t.
In graduate school, mental health professionals are taught very little about autism. We basically receive a cursory overview of “Autism Spectrum Disorder” from the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM-5). I received no education about neurodivergence or how autism symptoms can present differently in women, adults, and other populations.
Once I began to learn more about autism from autistic educators, I could clearly see I was autistic.
Learning I am autistic opened new doors for me. It helped me to understand how my brain works. I could finally see why all of my efforts to “change” my brain were in vain (you can see my essay “Common Therapy Advice That is Counterproductive for Autistics”).
My autism diagnosis started my journey of accepting my brain as it is and learning to work with it.
Here’s the tricky part: no one has a one-size-fits-all manual for how to work with an autistic brain…and if they do, don’t trust them.
It took immense amounts of research, educational courses, and working with professionals (like therapists and coaches) to learn how to work with my autistic brain. I now feel dramatically better than the years spent suffering and battling against myself.
I’m still learning. Sometimes that looks like “unlearning” things - like the neurotypical norms and beliefs that do not serve me. For example, I no longer adhere to hustle or productivity culture. I work at a pace that suits my brain.
It took a lot of work to be ok with that.
Which brings us back to our original question: why do autistics need therapy?
We don’t NEED it, but it sure as hell helps.
Therapy can help us learn how to work with our brains. It can also help us to implement what we learn.
It’s one thing to KNOW what we need to do, it’s another thing to implement it.
For example, I know that it is best for me to only see 3 therapy clients a day in my private practice. However, I could not make that change immediately. The average therapist sees 7 clients a day. It took work for me to restructure my private practice so that I could financially survive while seeing less clients. It also took mental and emotional work to be ok with doing less than the average therapist. I worked with therapists and coaches to help me feel good about the changes I made and shed beliefs that held me back (like “You’re smart, you should be able to do more” or “You should spend at least eight hours a day at work.”)
Therapy can also help autistics to process their new diagnosis, navigate telling friends and family, learn to unmask, and much more (you can see my essay: 8 Ways Therapy Can Help With Late-Identified Autism).
The key thing I always stress to newly identified autistics who want therapy is to make sure your therapist understands autism from a neurodivergent lens and has experience working with autistic adults. You want someone who understands the interior landscape of autism - what it feels like to be autistic, not just the external “symptoms” of autism. It’s even better if you can work with someone who is neurodivergent themselves.
The same goes with seeking a formal assessment for autism. You want an assessor who understands how autism can present in adults, women, and individuals with normal to high intelligence. This will increase your chances of an accurate diagnosis.
Once you know you’re autistic, it’s your choice whether you pursue therapy or not. You may find that you don’t need additional support, or you may realize that some outside expertise and input can help you make sense of your new identity and learn how to work with your unique brain.
Bio: Jackie Schuld is an autistic art therapist that specializes in late-identified autism. She runs a virtual private practice (www.jackieschuld.com) and writes daily essays about autism (https://medium.com/@jackieschuld)