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April 15, 2024

Fostering Growth: The Importance of Neurodivergent Affirming Therapy

“Isn’t everyone a little neurodivergent?” This line was delivered to me (Hasasha Hasulube) in good faith. The individual wanted to demonstrate to me that they supported the idea of neurodivergence and did not think of me as any different than them. But I was different than them. By disclosing my brain differences, I had hoped to find some support and understanding. Instead, I was met with a phrase that made the other person feel better. If they, too, were a “little neurodivergent”, they would not have to learn about supports I needed or understanding how my life experience differed from theirs. I took this experience to my therapist at the time (yes, therapists have therapists too!), and she asked me “what matters most to you about the label of neurodivergent? What does that label give you permission to do?” That was compassionate empathy. And it made all the difference.

In the world that is constantly facing several different disasters and complexities, finding the right therapist can be akin to discovering a guiding light in the midst of darkness. However, for individuals who are neurodivergent, this journey can be fraught with additional challenges. Neurodivergence encompasses a spectrum of neurological differences, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more. These differences shape the way individuals perceive and interact with the world around them. Therefore, it becomes paramount for those seeking therapy to find a therapist who not only acknowledges but also validates their neurodivergent identity. Here, I delve into the crucial importance of finding a therapist who understands and affirms neurodivergence, the potential harm of working with therapists lacking this understanding, signs of an affirming therapist, and how clients can broach the topic effectively. It may feel overwhelming, but I know personally the difference an affirming therapist can make.

Understanding Neurodivergence

Before delving into the significance of affirming therapists, it’s crucial to grasp the concept of neurodivergence. Neurodivergent individuals possess neurological differences that may deviate from the societal norm. These differences are not inherently good or bad but reflect the diverse ways human brains can be wired. However, societal norms often stigmatize neurodivergence, leading individuals to feel misunderstood or marginalized.

Growing up as a little black girl in the suburbs of Chicago, several adults in my life encouraged me to observe how others acted and remake my own actions and personality. I existed in primarily white spaces, and my loud questions, chaotic laugh, and visible stims made many white people uncomfortable. Black girls are already seen as disrespectful, loud, and unworthy of care at an extremely high rate. Adding neurodivergence often makes these microaggressions even more pronounced. Not only was my blackness a liability, the way my brain functioned made me even more susceptible to prejudice. Many parents of neurodivergent children of color opt to aid their children in acting as neurotypical as possible. They want to protect their children, but the result is adults of color who no longer know who they truly are under the mask. Reclaiming the label of neurodivergent can be a first step to removing the assimilation.

The Importance of Validation

Validation is a fundamental aspect of therapy, especially for neurodivergent individuals. When a therapist validates neurodivergence, they acknowledge the client’s unique experiences, challenges, and strengths without judgment. This validation fosters a sense of acceptance and understanding, creating a safe space for clients to explore their thoughts and emotions.

When my therapist asked me what the label meant to me, what it gave me permission to do, I responded: “I feel free to finally be myself.” I had spent so long trying to appear quieter, more palatable, agreeable, someone who took up absolutely no space. If neurodivergence was really a common brain difference, I was not alone. Lots of other little girls of color also had been told that they were too much, that they needed to change everything about themselves in order to make it in the world. Taking on that label allowed me to begin asking for what I needed, support systems I desperately required to function in an ableist world. My therapist helped me recognize what parts of myself I hid, letting them out only when I was alone. Everyone deserves to be fully known. I shouldn’t have to hide myself in every space I entered. I needed to find spaces that saw all of me.

Harm of Therapists Lacking Knowledge of Neurodivergence

Unfortunately, not all therapists possess extensive knowledge of neurodivergence. Working with a therapist who lacks understanding can lead to various harms, including:

Misdiagnosis: Without proper knowledge of neurodivergence, therapists may misinterpret neurodivergent behaviors as symptoms of other mental health disorders, leading to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment. Many neurodivergent women of color receive diagnoses of Bi-polar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and/or Major Depressive Disorder. All of these disorders can definitely be comorbid with brain neurodivergence, but they are additional symptoms and traumas that occur, not the primary source of the client’s experience.

Invalidating Experiences: Therapists who are unfamiliar with neurodivergence may inadvertently invalidate their clients’ experiences by dismissing or pathologizing their behaviors.

Ineffective Treatment: Without understanding the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals, therapists may offer treatment strategies that are ineffective or even detrimental to their clients’ well-being. Additionally, many clinicians are still being educated on dismantling their bias. Hearing that a client is autistic or neurodivergent in any way can cause the clinician’s bias to flare up, treating the client without truly understanding how that experience presents.

Signs of an Affirming Therapist

So, what to do? Identifying an affirming therapist can be a daunting task, but there are several signs to look out for:

Knowledge and Understanding: An affirming therapist demonstrates knowledge and understanding of neurodivergence, including its characteristics, challenges, and strengths. If they do not have knowledge upfront, they are open about their need to understand more. They take on this task outside of your sessions, not asking you to educate them.

Empathy and Compassion: Affirming therapists approach their clients with empathy and compassion, validating their experiences and emotions without judgment.

Collaborative Approach: Affirming therapists collaborate with their clients to develop treatment plans that address their unique needs and goals.

Openness to Learning: An affirming therapist is open to learning from their neurodivergent clients, recognizing that they are experts in their own experiences.

Initiating the Conversation

Broaching the topic of neurodivergence with a therapist can feel intimidating, but it’s essential for ensuring effective therapy. When I brought it up with my therapist, I was extremely hesitant. However, I felt that we were talking around my neurodivergence without acknowledging it. This led to being given resources that weren’t actually helpful for me, such as pathologizing my meltdowns as emotional dysregulation, when really, they were signs of burnout and overstimulation. Once she knew about my neurodivergence, we were able to create a toolkit for burnout that helped me decrease stimulation in the moment. Immediately, my heightened emotions were taken care of instead of needing to explore interventions around emotional dysregulation.

Here are some tips for bringing up the subject with your therapist:

Be Direct: Clearly communicate your neurodivergent identity and the importance of affirming therapy to your therapist.

Share Resources: Provide your therapist with resources or literature on neurodivergence to help them better understand your experiences, according to your comfort level. Of course, it is not your responsibility to help your clinician explore their biases or lack of knowledge.

Advocate for Yourself: Don’t hesitate to advocate for your needs and preferences in therapy, including the type of support and validation you require. This can mean switching therapists if you feel that your therapist is not understanding where you’re coming from. However, sometimes having the hard conversation and staying in the therapeutic relationship can be beneficial as well! Remember, your therapists are human too!

Seek Feedback: Ask your therapist for feedback on how they perceive your neurodivergence and whether they feel equipped to provide affirming therapy.

In conclusion, finding a therapist who validates neurodivergence is paramount for the well-being and success of neurodivergent individuals in therapy. Affirming therapists create a safe and supportive environment where clients can explore their experiences and work towards healing and growth. By recognizing the signs of an affirming therapist and effectively initiating conversations about neurodivergence, individuals can ensure they receive the validation and support they deserve on their therapeutic journey. Remember, you are worthy of affirmation and understanding in therapy, and it’s essential to advocate for your needs to find the right therapist for you.

As a neurodivergent therapist, I have been blessed to walk alongside clients as they realize their own neurodivergence. They stop pressuring themselves to make eye contact throughout the sessions if they find it uncomfortable. We pursue creative outlets that help them stim throughout the session. I am always comfortable with self-disclosure that helps them my own personal journey. Seeing clients finally use tools that help them focus, reframe thought patterns, and encourage self-acceptance, means the world to me. I hope to see you in session to help you embrace all of who you are. Contact | WOC Therapy