If you are reading this blog, chances are the title has intrigued you. Perhaps you have heard words such as neurodiversity, neurodivergence or neurotypical being used but have no idea what they mean. Maybe you know someone who has recently been diagnosed with, say, AD(H)D, or Autism, and want to understand more about these differences. Or perhaps you yourself are neurodivergent. My hope is that this blog will be informative for a wide audience with an interest in this topic.
It's important to state from the outset that I am approaching this topic from a person-centred, neurodiversity-affirmative perspective. Therefore, I avoid using terms such as disorder or disease, which are indicative of ableism and the medical model. As someone with dyslexia and probable dyscalculia, I hope to bring insight from my own experience, as well as valuable learning from my work with neurodivergent adults and children during the course of my teaching and counselling careers.
I think it's also important to clarify the meaning of some terms which I will be using in this blog:
Neurodiversity - the expected range of variations across all human neurocognitive functioning.
Neurodivergence/neurodivergent - a person whose neurocognitive functioning differs in one or more ways from what is considered within the typical/expected range of human neurocognition.
Neurotypical – a person whose neurocognitive function most closely resembles what is considered to be in the typical/expected range.
*Taken from Free2bMe's Neurodiversity 101 training resources
What brings so many neurodivergent people to therapy?
As well as genetics, it has been shown that environmental factors- such as the quality of attachment with the primary caregiver in early infancy- can greatly affect the development of our brains. While this is a likely component in neurodivergence, I also believe that much of what is seen as disability or deficiency in neurodivergent people is in fact their difficulty in navigating a complex, fast-paced, one-size-fits-all culture that has neither acknowledged nor accommodated difference very well.
While I understand that the notion of diagnoses can jar with person-centred thinking, we do live in a world that functions by categorising people in this way, and sadly often the only way to be seen, understood and supported is by being assessed and diagnosed. However, by the time they reach an age where their differences may have become noticeable enough to be assessed, many neurodivergent people have already mastered the art of masking and adapting, to exquisite perfection.
The fact is, the effects of being unseen, unsupported, misunderstood, conditioned to behave in "acceptable" ways, and expected to meet the same expectations as neurotypical people can be CATASTROPHIC for the neurodivergent person. They might seek counselling because they feel they have lost touch with their core self in a way that leaves them asking "who am I?" Their self-esteem can be extremely low, and there may be a deep-seated sense of shame.
I would argue that until fairly recently, there has been no framework in society for understanding and accepting neurodifference (except in the more pronounced cases), so the neurodivergent child felt they must try to hide their differences to fit in. Parents and teachers may have compared them- explicitly or implicitly- to their neurotypical siblings or classmates. Indeed, the school system still measures all children with the same yard-stick, branding those who perform less well in exams and tests as "lower ability", "less able" or "the bottom set" (I too am guilty of getting sucked in to using this language while working as a teacher). The neurodivergent child will probably have internalised these messages that they are somehow less than others, despite their many strengths. They might even believe that they are incapable, leading to a sense of learned helplessness. Sadly, the many strengths they possess are overlooked.
As awareness about neurodiversity spreads, many adults are now seeking assessments for conditions such as AD(H)D and Autism. Many are also considering therapy because they want to make sense of their differences, how these have impacted their lives growing up, and how their experiences might have shaped core beliefs about themselves and others.
How can person-centred therapy help?
The person-centred therapist is interested in how the client experiences the world as a unique individual. Even if there has been a formal diagnosis of neurodivergence, the therapist will not make any assumptions about the client. Instead, they will listen intently and try to understand what is has been like to be that client living with neurodivergence. They will also open up space to acknowledge and celebrate the many strengths that neurodivergent people possess. This is hugely validating when a client may have had people down-playing, undermining or dismissing their differences all through life.
The therapeutic relationship is at the heart of person-centred counselling; it is this that brings healing, rather than techniques or behaviours. This is hugely important for a neurodivergent person who may have great difficulty trusting others, and may struggle with relationships. Obviously trust does not come overnight, and it can take time to form this alliance, but once a sense of safety is established, the client can begin to remove the mask and allow their true self to be seen by another who will accept them just as they are.
It is crucial that the therapist has an understanding of neurodivergence, so that they can understand how the sessions may need to be adapted to meet the client's needs. For instance, the environment may need to be adapted, extra reminders given for sessions, information and resources be given in different forms. This opportunity for the client to voice their individual needs and have them responded to is all part of the work and can help build confidence and autonomy.
Another way in which therapy can help is by giving the client space to explore what a diagnosis might mean for them. Not everyone wants the expense, or the potentially long wait for formal assessment- in this case a self-diagnosis may suffice. For others, the possibility of receiving financial, learning or workplace support can bring relief and hope. Counselling gives an opportunity to explore thoughts and feelings about these different options.
Neurodivergents have so much to offer the world as sensitive, creative, determined, insightful people, often with a great capacity to delve deeply into a particular area of interest. Imagine a world where neurodifference was valued and championed!
If this blog has resonated with you, perhaps because you are neurodivergent, or think you might be, please do get in touch via the contact page of my website for more information or to discuss booking a session.