We were very grateful to Caroline Hearst for introducing us to the topic of autism in counselling. In her view, it is a condition that is often under-diagnosed. Caroline stressed that therapists should be raising their awareness of what autism is. This will enable them to empathise with, and help, their clients.
If you missed our workshop on autism and counselling, fear not! Some of the key issues are brought up in this article.
What is autism?
Autism is a neuro-developmental condition. It occurs when atypical brain connections lead to atypical development and information processing. This means that autistic people tend to experience the world atypically, which affects a variety of aspects of autistic people’s lives.
There is a tendency for overgeneralisation when discussing autism. Please note that for every autistic person, there is a different way of experiencing the world. These experiences can differ hugely.
Therefore, points listed below come with the caveat that they cannot be applied to everyone with autism. However, most autistic people will tend to experience at least some of the following differences.
Social interactions and communication can be difficult
It is generally believed that over half of communication is non-verbal. Autistic people tend to have more difficulty in picking up non-verbal cues. This means that some autistic people can feel extremely isolated and have difficulty being part of group conversations. It may be helpful to imagine being part of a group conversation with your back to the group. How does it feel to be part of a conversation without the ability to pick up on the non-verbal queues?
Autism can cause emotions to be overwhelming
There is a common misconception that autistic people are ‘unfeeling’. Autistic people may have trouble knowing what they are feeling at a given moment – but they are definitely feeling.
For a lot of autistic people, emotions can be overwhelming and unmediated. This is because it can be difficult to connect the physical experience (a tightening of the chest) to the emotion (anxiety). This can leave feelings as a puzzling and overwhelming experience. Autistic people can also experience thoughts as repetitive.
Lots of autistic people develop coping mechanisms for when emotions get overwhelming. These can appear ‘abnormal’ to somebody who does not understand the autistic person’s emotional experience. However, these behaviours should be understood as ways to manage overwhelming emotional experiences.
Sensory hyper and hypo-sensitivities
Autistic people can be either very sensitive, or have low sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as touch, visual, sound, proximity, smell, proprioception, taste, and circadian rhythms. Senses can be felt extremely strongly, or very weakly.
Autistic people can benefit from having hypersensitivity in certain situations, yet it can be difficult for people too. For example, a person who had a hypersensitivity to sound might find being in a loud club overwhelming, but might have an aptitude for making music.
Autistic people often have an uneven profile of abilities and tendency to extremes
Autistic people can be extremely able at certain things, which require certain strengths, yet can find other things extremely difficult. An autistic person might have extremely advanced music skills, yet low functioning linguistic skills. It is common for autistic people to have extremely high skills in certain areas and have a lot of trouble with other areas.
Autistic people can have atypical executive dysfunction
Autistic people can have trouble with executive function – the set of abilities that enable people to work towards goals. These include time management, initiating appropriate actions, inhibiting inappropriate actions, flexibility and selecting relevant sensory information. This can make it difficult to organise an every day task.
Instead of visualising a list of tasks, an autistic person might remember everything they need to do at random and at different times, which can feel chaotic. Imagine getting ready to go to the beach without a clear list of the tasks you need to complete in your mind, and what order to complete them. Every day tasks such as this can feel very tiring for autistic people, which might mean that autistic people struggle with persevering at such tasks.
What is the autistic spectrum?
Often, autism diagnosis is described as a spectrum. Caroline argued that rather than talking about an autistic spectrum, we should be talking about an autistic constellation. Autistic people have widely varying experiences of autism, and it is not as simple as “from low to high functioning”. If you mapped the experiences of every autistic person, it would look more like a constellation in the galaxy – with every star having a new set of experiences and abilities.
A final thought when it comes to counselling and autism
Autistic people have found ways of coping in the world – and this often manifests in finding ways of fitting in. This may involve learning behaviours that fit into social norms, but do not come naturally to an autistic person. This can be exhausting. Caroline’s talk highlighted that therapists should be more aware of these strains that may be on their clients.
Therapists should strive towards enabling autistic clients to be how they are in the therapy room. This means providing an environment where they no longer have to fit in to the norm.
For further information, visit Caroline Hearst’s speaker’s page.
You can also visit Caroline’s blog for more on counselling and autism.