Autism is a spectrum condition that affects people in a variety of ways. Often described as a disorder, the word “autism” can elicit a range of feelings for many people, who have first-hand experience of the condition. You may be autistic yourself or know of an autistic person and have supported them through the many obstacles that come with having this formal, or self- diagnosis. Either way, autism comes with numerous different challenges, some well-known, and some that are more hidden from society. Sadly, it has been shown that autistic people are at great risk of developing anxiety and depression at some point in their lives. This may be due to communication differences, struggles with feeling misunderstood, feeling as though you have to show the world a whole different character to who you really are; the struggles can feel seemingly endless at times. Below are just a few of the difficulties associated with autism spectrum conditions, as well as reasons why counselling can be so beneficial for people with ASC.
Communication and empathy - Autism affects the way people interact with those around them, and many misunderstandings can occur through communication differences. Autistic people can find both verbal and non-verbal communication difficult and confusing, at times. Literal thinking can create great confusion, as well as differences in communicating with body language and tone of voice can lead to huge ruptures within relationships. Turn taking and not knowing what to say in response can cause conflict in relationships. Many (although not all) autistic people find eye contact difficult and this can create the impression that they are not interested in listening to the other person. Lack of reciprocity in conversations can also lead to the impression that autistic people lack empathy. This is a common misconception of autistic people, and is simply not true. Cognitive empathy can be difficult for autistic people; this is knowing how to identify and communicate feelings, and respond to others. Felt, or affective empathy is different, and is not lacking, and research has shown that autistic people can actually feel great amount of empathy toward both people and animals.
Breakdowns in relationships can happen on such a regular basis that many autistic people have a learnt negative view of relationships and themselves within them, causing an avoidance of building secure relationships altogether. This can further feelings of unhappiness, low self-esteem, and isolation, where there can be a lack of opportunity to practice social skills.
Counselling can offer autistic people a place to explore the misunderstandings in depth, and to practice their social skills, in a way that works for them. A counsellor who understands the struggles and offers an empathic space to talk can be invaluable for helping an autistic person developing self-esteem. As processing time can be slower for autistic people, counselling can offer time for the person to gather their thoughts and express them in a way that is comfortable.
Masking - People may find themselves in a place where they need to hide their autistic behaviours just to get by, for fear that these behaviours can be seen as strange. This is called “masking” and is extremely prevalent amongst autistic and other neurodivergent people. Masking can lead to a person isolating themselves for fear of being “found out”. It can also lead someone to becoming confused about their identity, with difficulty knowing who they are, and how they would truly present in the world.
A counselling relationship is one where the person is encouraged to express themselves at a very real level, without the judgement of others, and with the knowledge that they will be accepted.
Stimming - is a form of repetitive movement that autistic people use, to cope with everyday life. Though almost everybody, whether autistic or not, stims in different ways, the movements of autistic people can appear peculiar to some. Stimming is a way to process emotions, to drown out sensory overload, to cope with judgement they feel, and also to relax. This can involve complex hand movements, head banging, spinning, repeating sounds or words, rocking, touching objects; there are many forms of different stims. Stimming can sometimes become dangerous or detrimental to the individual, or those around them, and they may need support in swapping to a different stim if it is harmful. A counsellor who understands autism will understand the need to stim and encourage safe expression of self.
Autism as a celebration - Temple Grandin (2014) speaks about finding the individual strengths of autistic people, and working with these, instead of focusing on the deficits. An important thing to know is that it’s OK to be autistic. There is not something “wrong” with you, and there are people who can take the time to listen to you. Autistic people can have an amazing sense of humour, and can be talented and gifted in a variety of ways. Often autistic people make excellent writers, poets, artists and actors, as they can feel very deeply. There seems to be a shift in how we view neurodivergent people; instead of seeing them as lacking, we are starting to see the qualities in the differences they bring. Counselling can help a person explore who they are and be able to grow in accepting themselves. To have 50 minutes that is all yours, where you have time to speak without feeling rushed, can help you to fully understand yourself, in relationship with both yourself and others.