Neurodivergence – A Guide for Professionals

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Are you a therapist or support worker working with neurodivergent people? Are you looking for ways to help them explore and reflect on their neurodivergence? I wrote this article to help counsellors, support workers, SEN teaching staff and anyone working with neurodivergent people to find creative ways of engaging and exploring their neurodivergence.

If you are working with neurodivergent people (Autistic, ADHD, dyslexic, dyspraxia etc.) read on for ideas to creatively engage clients in a discussion about their neurodivergence from an affirming standpoint.

As a neurodivergent (ND) therapist working with ND people, I found that many clients are coming to me after the diagnostic process, feeling conflicted. On the one hand they may be relieved that the diagnosis finally provided answers – perhaps they had always felt different than others and never known why. They had been given a new way of looking at things and there was a lot to learn about themselves. But alongside this positive experience people also tell me they left the assessment process feeling exhausted and conflicted about the implications of such a diagnosis. In my opinion this is, in part, because the assessment process is largely made up of deficit based questionnaires and tests. The process is designed to quantify people’s struggles and difficulties rather than recognise their strengths and talents. Indeed one of the criteria for diagnosing autism for example (as referenced in the DSM V) is listed as ‘persistent difficulties in the area of social communication and interaction’.

Moving Away from the “medical model”

Any professional working with autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people should familiarise themselves with the neurodiversity paradigm and how it exists to offer an affirming alternative to the pathology paradigm (or medical model). For a detailed and thorough explanation of how the neurodiversity paradigm challenges the dominant narrative, please see Dr Nick Walker’s work. She has a collection of essays on her website here (as well as her excellent book “Neuroqueer Heresies”) which cover a variety of topics including a comprehensive explanation of affirming language.

Dr Nick Walker writes about how the neurodiversity paradigm is an “approach which boils down to these fundamental principles 1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity. 2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture. 3.) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.” (Walker, 2023)

Of course, following my earlier point around communication for autistics, there are challenges that an autistic person will likely face in the area of communication. But the difference is, the medical models suggest that they have these difficulties because they’re autistic (communication deficits), but the neurodiversity paradigm suggests they only have them because the rest of society has different expectations of their communication and interaction.

Neurodiversity, like biodiversity is essential for nature to thrive. We need diversity amongst our minds just as much as we need it amongst our flowers

Amy Peters
‘Eye contact’ Neuro card

An easy example of this is eye contact. A (probably neurotypical) person somewhere once decided that, because they use eye contact as a form of communication to show they’re listening, the rest of society needs to do this too. And it became a ‘social norm’, to the point that people often now find it rude when someone doesn’t make eye contact when conversing. So maybe at home or at school, neurodivergent children get told off for not listening, or for being rude when they are found to be looking around the room or down at the floor. When actually for a lot of ND people, eye contact is uncomfortable at best, acutely painful at worst. Over time then, to avoid being told off or being perceived as rude, they gradually learn to mask the discomfort and pain and force themselves to make eye contact.

But I’d hope we wouldn’t force a person in pain to walk without a walking aid, just because the majority of people walk a different way. So why insist on eye contact when there are a multitude of different ways in which we communicate?

Take ADHD as another example (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) Far from having a deficit of attention, many ADHDers will tell you that we can pay a massive amount of attention to something for a long time, at the exclusion of all other activities. Called Hyperfocus, this neurodivergent trait can be an awesome thing to behold.

‘Hyper Focus’ Neuro Card

However because ADHD brains are interest based brains, hyper focus can rarely be controlled. The hyper focus can come out of nowhere and we can be just as likely to be a focus on what new notebook to buy, or even on a person as we would be able to focus on a work task. Because the word deficit is used in the title, this immediately brings negative connotations and contributes to the stigma that is often found.

In The Therapy Room

Amy’s therapy log cabin

So then, when thinking about working with neurodivergence in the therapy room, or in support work, we need to avoid trying to encourage that person to behave or think in a more neurotypical way. In order to be neurodivergent affirming, we need to find ways to help them embrace, accept and celebrate their neurodivergence and work with it not against it.

Of course this isn’t usually a quick process, particularly with people who’ve had a diagnosis in teenage or adulthood. Years of masking, being misunderstood and the associated shame that builds up will no doubt have taken its toll and need some unpacking.

So providing a non judgmental, validating, safe space is the most important thing you can do.

But, with neurodivergence, this isn’t always enough. Many therapist may say they treat everyone as an individual regardless of their diagnosis. Whilst this may sound like the perfect way to work, it is discounting the many struggles that neurodivergent people have experienced. If you discount the neurodivergence then you could accidentally invalidate someone’s experience. So learning more about how autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc can present in therapy is crucial.

Although I don’t believe a therapist has to have had the same experience as a client to be effective, there are some things for which having a shared, lived experience is preferable. I believe it is a benefit for a ND client to see a ND therapist. The fact that our brains work slightly differently means that this provides the sort of understanding that would be difficult to achieve for a neurotypical therapist.

Sadly though, there aren’t enough knowledgeable ND therapists out there for all the ND clients (and there are many who may be knowledgeable but work from the medical model standpoint which can end up further traumatising and invalidating ND clients). With an estimated 1 in 5 of the population being neurodivergent, it’s highly likely that the majority of therapists, support workers and social workers are working with neurodivergent clients (whether they know it or not).

So how best to explore the idea of a client’s neurodivergent traits if you don’t have first hand experience or expert knowledge? Firstly I would recommend that you seek out additional training and ensure this is provided by a neurodivergent trainer. But further to this, you may need some additional tools to help you in sessions with ND clients – a way to help educate both you and your client about the way their brain works but also provide a platform for reflective discussion.

When first specialising in working with ND clients I found there was a serious lack of good, ND affirming resources out there for professionals to use with clients. So (using my hyper focus!) I got to work developing one and my Neuro Cards © were born.

Using my experience as a therapist, a neurodivergent person and as a parent of ND children, I developed a set of 42 double sided therapy cards. Each with a different neurodivergent trait or experience that might resonate (together with associated image). The cards also have an explanation plus discussion points on the back so a professional can explore with the client what this trait might mean to them.

I quickly found the Neuro Cards were not only helpful to other therapists and counsellors but also to youth workers, SEN staff, teachers and other support workers. They work well as a conversation starter for those who were perhaps more reluctant at first or like to have something tangible to hold. I have also found that individuals themselves are using the cards and reporting how helpful they’d been, or how they’d been able to identify traits they hadn’t realised they had.

The cards have also been used successfully in psychoeducational groups for teenagers and adults, youth groups and more informal settings. And parents have also found them immensely helpful to be able to explore and understand their children’s experience.

If you want a great resource for educating, affirming and validating ND experiences, take a look at my Neuro Cards in my Etsy shop below.

I also have a neurodivergent affirming therapy audit checklist for purchase as a digital download if you wish to take a reflective look at your own practices.

Light blue background with image of Neurodivergent affirming therapy audit in the middle with grey writing showing Newglade written across the page. Grey circle containing black text which reads digital download and at the bottom another grey circular save with black text reads neurodivergent affirming therapy audit - checklist for your therapy/coaching practice.

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us here.

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