Therapy and Neurodivergence

As a neurodivergent therapist specialising in this area (as well as a parent of autistic and ADHD children), I have taken a particular interest in how autistic and ADHD clients may experience counselling and what might work best for them. This article explores some of the possible barriers to counselling for autistic and ADHD individuals and offers some suggestions for those thinking about seeking therapy.

Being familiar with the joys and challenges of living in a neurodiverse family, I decided to specialise in counselling for both neurodivergent people and their families. I found that traditional counselling/therapy didn’t always hit the mark for my family and have found it was a similar story for some of my clients too.

In my experience, neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, dyslexic etc) clients often say they have had different types of therapy that didn’t seem to help. Particularly if the neurodivergence had gone previously undiagnosed, it’s probable that a “one size fits all” approach to an issue such as anxiety for example, didn’t hit the mark. I think one possible reason for this is that you can try to “treat” the anxiety with a method such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It may even start to make a difference, in the short term.

But for neurodivergent people, rather than anxiety being the main issue that needs addressing, the anxiety can often be a symptom of their needs continually not being met in their environment.

If this resonates for you, you may feel that the main issue is trying to navigate a world that’s not built for you. The education system, work, and even shopping can often be an overwhelming experience as you may feel you’re expected to mask your true self to fit in. And it’s likely you won’t tell many people of the true level of your anxiety or overwhelm. Maybe for fear of judgment or rejection.

So, in this instance, therapy for the anxiety itself (coping strategies, grounding techniques) may help a little and give you some tools. But, for those who are neurodivergent, it only scratches the surface because it doesn’t deal with what is underlying. The anxiety isn’t straightforward, it is anxiety as a result of years of masking, years of not feeling good enough, and years of battling to fit in and belong. Often the shorter interventions that are offered via the NHS etc are not in depth enough to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

That’s why I try to be as flexible as I can with my clients. Offering counselling which fits for you. I spend time getting to know you and what you need from me. It’s about working with your amazing, neurodivergent brain, not trying to find ways to change it.

It’s about working with your amazing, neurodivergent brain, not trying to find ways to change it.

Amy Peters

For some neurodivergent clients I find it can be helpful to introduce some elements of coaching to the sessions. It’s particularly useful for those who may have executive functioning difficulties or need some practical tips for the challenges of day to day life. With this flexible approach I can use different tools and strategies to best support you as an individual.

Masking

Masking is when neurodivergent people hide what they are truly feeling or experiencing, and attempt to fit in (often by moulding themselves to fit what they think others want or expect from them). They are having to hide their true selves in order to fit into a neurotypical world. To be able to do this all day at school or work takes incredible focus and energy. And it can be absolutely exhausting.

If not diagnosed you may not even know it as masking, you might just find life exhausting sometimes as you try to “get it right.” Or maybe you feel drained by social occasions and need some downtime alone to recover. This then can have a massive impact on your self esteem and self worth, slowly eroding any confidence as you wonder why you can’t cope.

If you’ve had to mask your true thoughts and feelings for many years at school or work, anxiety can become a crippling addition to your daily life. What will people say? What will they expect from me? What are they thinking? Constant thoughts about fitting in can go round and round and drown everything out.

In counselling the aim is to allow you to feel as comfortable as possible, to work together to explore what type of therapy works for you. This doesn’t mean you’d be expected to ‘unmask’ if you’re not ready to, it just means you feel safe enough eventually to talk about it. As a counsellor specialising in this area, I’m especially mindful of going at your pace, and never making you talk about anything you’re not ready to.

Strengths and Challenges

Neurodivergent brains are thought to be ‘wired’ differently to that of a neurotypical person’s brain. You may be great at hyper focus and attention to detail, but maybe not so great at looking at different perspectives. Counselling can help with this as it draws on your strengths and uses them to help you figure out the other stuff.

Maybe you find it very easy to be honest and like rules, but find it more difficult to interpret or understand your own feelings and emotions. Counselling can help you to develop that emotional literacy and give you tools to identify what’s going on for you. You might also want to look at my article What Is Interoception? to build on this.

Maybe you have an amazing amount of energy but find your mind is going at a hundred miles an hour, with a hundred thoughts simultaneously in your head. Counselling can help you create some calm when you need it and capitalise on that energy in the best way possible.

Rejection Sensitivity

Another common issue that some autistic and ADHD people have is RSD, or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. This is where any rejection, even a change in the tone of voice for example, can be felt acutely. To the point it can actually be painful. Having experienced many small (or larger) rejections over their life, it can leave many people feeling confused, overwhelmed and even shamed. See my article Are You Sensitive to Criticism? to find out more about RSD.

It follows then that, in any relationship, rejection could be an issue. And the counsellor/client relationship is no different. If this is something that you struggle with, I’ll work with you to explore what’s happening. If you’ve perceived or felt a rejection in the therapy room, we can talk it through, with no fear of judgment or shame, to help you figure out your own thoughts and feelings. Having a safe space to do this can be incredibly healing and help you to apply what you’ve learnt about yourself to the rest of your relationships.

I am also aware there could be other issues which go alongside your Autism or ADHD. Hypermobility, dyspraxia, eating and sleep issues being just some of the things we might touch on in therapy. It may also influence how you need to be in the room with me – where you sit to be comfortable, or how you might need to move around in a session or even take a walk in the garden or a break from the screen. These are all things we can discuss and make a part of our sessions if it will help.

Special Interests or Hyper Focus

If you are autistic or ADHD it’s quite likely that you’ll have intense passions and interests or be able to hyper focus on something you enjoy. These passions may change over time, or maybe you’ve had the same interests for years and have much knowledge about them.

As part of getting to know you, I like to find out about what motivates you, your passions and interests, and then use these in the counselling room wherever we can.

Using these special interests in counselling can be a good way to draw comparisons with what is going on for you in your life and, as I’m an integrative counsellor, I can use different techniques to help you with this.

Stimming

Stimming, or self stimulatory behaviour, can come in many forms and can be a way for neurodivergent people to self regulate and cope with sensory overload.

As a counsellor I completely understand the need for stimming for focus and self-regulation and the range of behaviours involved. I always have a range of fidget toys available for you to use if you would like.

A Comfortable Experience

Counsellors aim to be empathic and non judgmental and, whether it’s in my log cabin face to face, or over zoom, I endeavour to make the experience as comfortable as possible. Not all clients who are neurodivergent need adjustments but I am happy to discuss this with you if you do. If there is a way I can help your sensory sensitivities for example, maybe by playing some music or white noise in the background, or dimming the lights I will be more than happy to do this.

Being heard in a safe space is one of the most empowering things that counselling can do for a person. And particularly for someone who is neurodivergent, it’s quite possible that you have not always felt heard in your life. So all the more important that you get that in counselling.

And, as someone who has struggled with figuring out how you fit in the world, counselling can help build your self awareness and self esteem, helping you to appreciate your unique identity.

I work with people at all stages of referral/diagnosis and you may also find my article on Diagnosis/Assessment What now? useful.

Whatever the issue or concern that you originally seek counselling for, crucially you need to feel comfortable. This is why a lot of counsellors including myself offer a free chat before booking any sessions to see if you think it might be the right fit. Contact me below for more details.


And For Parents Of Neurodivergent Children…

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

As parents of neurodivergent children you may well have a lot on your plate. Not feeling listened to by professionals, having to fight for support, spending years on a waiting list – sadly an all too familiar story. Of course there are many, many joys of having a neurodiverse family but the design of the systems we have to live with; education, benefits, health and social care, can cause a lot of stress.

Although I don’t believe counsellors have to have been through everything that their clients have, I believe it helps to have someone who understands a little of what your life might be like. Having supported family through many assessments, including the EHCP process, I have great empathy for anyone going through similar.

Being an integrative counsellor means I can tailor my counselling to you. Once we know each other, and you are feeling comfortable, we can begin to work through some of the more difficult things. But here, as always in counselling, the relationship is key. Please look around for a counsellor that suits you. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. That’s why I offer a free 15 minute consultation so you can see if I am the right fit for you or your loved one.

Sometimes young people may not be ready for therapy themselves but parents may feel they would like some help with finding coping strategies or just help with understanding their child’s neurodivergence. For this reason I also offer one off parent coaching sessions for those that would like some support and guidance. See my parent support page for details.

You may also find the resources on my Etsy shop useful for exploring neurodivergence and building self esteem.


Amy is a qualified counsellor working in Kent and online with adults and adolescents. Amy works with a range of issues and specialises in working with neurodivergent individuals and their families.

Contact Amy below for more details or to book a free consultation.

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