I’m often asked if I have any words of advice for psychotherapists and other professionals, on working with clients who are autistic and/or otherwise neurodivergent

Why, yes. Yes I do. And I’ve been meaning for some time to type up some of those words of advice and make them publicly available.

The push that I needed finally came from Sarah Coenen and Helen Cha-Choe, two grad students pursuing their M.A. degrees in Counseling Psychotherapy at California Institute of Integral Studies (my own alma mater, where I currently teach in the undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies program from time to time). Ms. Coenen and Ms. Cha-Choe are collaborating on an excellent research project, for a Research Methods course taught by my dear friend and colleague Eri Çela.

In this project, Ms. Coenen and Ms. Cha-Choe are exploring the attitudes and perspectives of clinicians who work with autistic clients, and the impact those attitudes and perspectives have on the clients and on the quality of the clinicians’ work. I was delighted to learn that Ms. Coenen and Ms. Cha-Choe are grounding this project in the neurodiversity paradigm – that is, they’re approaching this as a diversity issue, recognizing that treating autistic clients as deficient or “lesser” is a manifestation of prejudice and lack of cultural competency, and recognizing that the pathology paradigm creates condescending and dismissive attitudes which manifest as microaggressions toward autistic clients. 

After reading a couple of my essays on the neurodiversity paradigm (Throw Away the Master’s Tools and Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions), Ms. Coenen and Ms. Cha-Choe sent me a few follow-up questions as part of their research. I was happy to support their excellent research by answering their questions at length, provided that I could also publish my answers for public consumption. 

Below are three of the questions they sent me, and my answers, which I hope will help psychotherapists and other professionals – especially the next generation of professionals, like Ms. Coenen, Ms. Cha-Choe, and the wonderful Psychology undergrads I’ve been teaching at Sofia University – to better understand what it means to integrate the neurodiversity paradigm into their work. 

Ms. Cha-Choe, like myself, has a particular interest in somatically-oriented psychotherapy, so all of you fellow somatically-oriented professionals will be pleased to note that the third question specifically addresses the somatic angle.

I’ll be writing more on these topics in the future. A lot more, eventually.

I commend Ms. Coenen and Ms. Cha-Choe for the great work they’re doing, and for asking all of the right questions. And I welcome similar questions from other students who are engaged in the work of generating research, theory, and praxis based in the neurodiversity paradigm.


Q: How would you address empathy deficits and poor communication skills in neurotypical people working with neurodivergent populations?

The 20th Century political scientist Karl Deutsch said, “Power is the ability not to have to learn.”

I quote this statement often, because I think it’s one of the most important truths ever articulated about privilege, oppression, and social power relations.

When a social system is set up such that one particular group is almost always in a position of social power or privilege over another group, the members of the privileged group never truly need to learn or practice empathy or understanding for the members of the disempowered, oppressed group. Nor do the members of the privileged group need to learn to adapt to the communication style of the oppressed group.

Neurotypical privilege means that neurotypical people interacting with neurodivergent people – particularly when the neurotypical people in question are in positions of professional authority – have the luxury of never having to address or even acknowledge their own empathy deficits or poor communication skills, because they can blame all failures of empathy, understanding, and communication on the alleged deficits of the neurodivergent people.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, writing about learning and power relations in colonialism, observed that “People who don’t wear shoes learn the languages of people who do, not vice versa.”

Bateson’s wording of this insight is especially resonant for the autistic community, because, when autistic activists object to the pathologization and abuse of autistic children by neurotypical parents and professionals, or the murder of autistic children by neurotypical parents, neurotypicals often attempt to silence us by condescendingly admonishing us to “put ourselves in the shoes” of the perpetrators. Yet as neurodiversity activist Kassiane Sibley has pointed out, not only do these same neurotypical parents and professionals never seriously attempt to put themselves in the shoes of autistic people, they do not even “acknowledge that we have shoes,” metaphorically speaking.

Power – or privilege, as we now more commonly call the particular kind of power to which Deutsch was referring – is the ability not to have to learn. There’s a phrase, “check your privilege,” that’s often repeated but rarely understood or heeded by those privileged persons at whom it is directed. If we start from Deutsch’s definition of power or privilege as the ability not to have to learn, we can understand “check your privilege” to mean, at least in part, “Learn! Be quiet, pay attention, and learn. Learn, even though the learning process, and the level of profound humility it requires, is going to be uncomfortable. Learn even though, because of your privilege, this sort of learning and humility is a discomfort that you have the luxury of being able to avoid – a luxury that we didn’t have, when we had to learn your ways. Learn even though you don’t have to.”

Unfortunately, as members of all oppressed groups discover, most privileged people just won’t do that. The states of profound and constant mindfulness, humility, openness to correction, and tolerance for uncertainty that such learning demands are too far outside of most people’s comfort zones. Most human beings simply won’t go that far outside of their comfort zones if they don’t have to. And privilege means they don’t have to.

The system is currently set up so that when neurotypical professionals work with neurodivergent individuals, the neurotypical professional is always in the role of greater authority: neurotypical therapist and neurodivergent client; neurotypical doctor and neurodivergent patient; neurotypical educator and neurodivergent student; neurotypical researcher and neurodivergent subject.

As long as this is the case, as long as neurotypical professionals only have regular, close contact with neurodivergent individuals in situations that are set up such that the neurotypical professionals hold greater authority and power, the neurotypical professionals will never have to subject themselves to the uncomfortable humility of checking their privilege, will never have to learn real empathy and understanding for the neurodivergent, and will never have to learn to understand and adapt to neurodivergent forms of communication.

And if they don’t have to, most of them won’t.

A related consideration is that when a person’s entire experience of an oppressed group consists of situations in which the members of that group are in “inferior” roles, it inevitably shapes that person’s perspective on the group in question. Just look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, for a glimpse of how quickly and powerfully this effect kicks in.

Anyone who understands this phenomenon will be unsurprised to learn that in my experience, the people who have the least empathy for neurodivergent persons, the least ability to communicate respectfully with neurodivergent persons, and the least genuine openness to learning from neurodivergent persons, are the neurotypical professionals who have spent their careers working with neurodivergent persons, in situations in which the professional always holds the authority, and the neurodivergent persons are always in the role of the patient, student, research subject, or “recipient of services.”

It’s nearly impossible for professionals of that sort to make the shift to the neurodiversity paradigm, to learn to check their neurotypical privilege, or to start respectfully listening to and learning from neurodivergent perspectives. They’ve simply become too entrenched in the habit of not seeing neurodivergent persons as equals.

So my answer to the question of how to address empathy deficits and poor communication skills in neurotypical people working with neurodivergent populations? Change the system, such that no neurotypical professional is permitted to work with neurodivergent populations unless all of the following conditions are met:

1.) The neurotypical professional must have received extensive training from neurodivergent teachers, using curricula designed or approved by neurodivergent experts. The neurodivergent teachers and experts in question must themselves be well-versed in the neurodiversity paradigm – and in realms of critical and liberatory theory like Critical Psychology, Liberation Psychology, Disability Studies, or Queer Studies – rather than tame, token neurodivergent persons (like Temple Grandin) who have themselves internalized and accepted the language of the pathology paradigm and the ableism of the dominant culture.

2.) The neurotypical professional must be licensed to work with neurodivergent populations, by a licensing board composed primarily of neurodivergent persons well-versed in the neurodiversity paradigm.

3.) The work of the neurotypical professional must be subject to supervision, input, and audit by neurodivergent representatives of the aforementioned licensing board, who have the authority to make recommendations to the board regarding the status of the neurotypical professional’s license.

None of these suggestions are likely to be implemented in the society in which we currently live, of course. But it’s a solution to the problems mentioned in your question – one of the only solutions to those problems that, if it were someday implemented, would actually work. And even when solutions seem a long way off, one must dare to dream.

 

Q: What advice and or suggestions can you offer psychotherapists working with neurodivergent populations?

Check your privilege.

Empty your cup, as the Zen Buddhists say.

Make the shift to the neurodiversity paradigm, completely. Throw out everything you’ve learned that’s in any way based in the pathology paradigm, all the messages about neurodivergence that you’ve been fed by the dominant culture. Be ferociously, eternally diligent about this: sociocultural programming is a constantly ongoing process, so breaking your sociocultural programming must also be a constantly ongoing process, and you’ll be swimming against the current. And it’s harder for members of privileged groups than members of oppressed groups: the status quo works in your favor, makes you the authority, lets you stay in your comfort zone, so it requires enormous ongoing commitment to stay mindful of the insidious and pervasive influence of the dominant paradigm, and to go against it.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but throwing away the master’s tools is hard – and it’s ten times harder if, within the current status quo, you’re one of the masters.

Recognize that nearly everything written or taught about neurodivergence by neurotypical “experts” is just plain wrong, and is harmful to your neurodivergent clients. The dominant culture’s stereotypes about any oppressed group are not more true just because you read them in a book or article written by an “expert.” Remember that there has been plenty of work published in the past by “experts” – including psychologists – that promoted sexist and racist stereotypes under the guise of “science.”

Remember that an author, teacher, researcher, or other “expert” who refers to autism, for instance, as a “disorder,” is no more of a trustworthy, unbiased, “objective” authority than an “expert” who refers to homosexuality as a “disorder,” or than the “experts” who used to describe non-white peoples as “savage.”

Remember that if you use the language of the pathology paradigm, you are reinforcing a social paradigm that harms your clients, and thus you are working against your clients’ interests.

Seek out neurodivergent teachers, supervisors, and consultants who are well-versed in the neurodiversity paradigm. And pay them for their work. It’s remarkable how many neurotypical professionals and organizations are happy to pay neurotypical “experts” to talk about neurodivergent people, but balk at paying the same rates for the harder-earned expertise of actual neurodivergent people.

Listen to neurodivergent people, and read what we write. Read neurodivergent scholars and activists like me, Kassiane Sibley, Melanie Yergeau, Ibby Grace, and Michael Scott Monje. Read Ariane Zurcher’s Emma’s Hope Book blog, Michelle Dawson’s The Misbehavior of Behaviorists, Julia Bascom’s Quiet Hands, Melanie Yergeau’s Clinically Significant Disturbance, Sparrow Rose Jone’s book No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, Elizabeth Moon’s novel The Speed of Dark, and Michael Scott Monje’s novel Defiant.

Never attempt to cure your client of being neurodivergent. When you have an autistic client suffering from anxiety and depression, for instance, remember that your job is to treat the client for anxiety and depression, not for autism.

Professionals who truly understand the neurodiversity paradigm would no sooner attempt to “treat” a client’s autism than attempt to “treat” a client’s homosexuality, or attempt to “treat” a client’s membership in an ethnic minority group.

Familiarize yourself with the field of Liberation Psychology, and be continually aware that many of the psychological issues with which your neurodivergent clients struggle will be issues created by social injustice and oppression, rather than by the client’s innate qualities. And remember that a good treatment plan is likely to include helping a client recognize this fact – helping the client understand their own oppression, both external and internalized, as a cause of their suffering.

Indeed, remember that your client may have completely bought into the pathology paradigm and may be ignorant of and even resistant to the neurodiversity paradigm. In which case, in order to support your client’s psychological well-being and liberation, it may be your duty as a therapist to introduce your client to the neurodiversity paradigm, and to educate your client by pointing them to writings like the ones mentioned above.

And above all, check your privilege.

 

Q: How does your training in somatics (both as a therapeutic orientation and your aikido background) factor into your work in the Neurodiversity Movement?

I see cognitive liberty as a core value of the Neurodiversity Movement.

The term cognitive liberty was coined by Wrye Sententia and Richard Glen Boire, the founders of an excellent organization called the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. Cognitive liberty as an ethical value boils down to the idea that individuals have the right to absolute sovereignty over their own brains and their own cognitive processes. The good folks at CCLE, and other advocates of cognitive liberty, often break this idea down into two fundamental guiding ethical principles:

1.) Individuals have the right to not have their brains and cognitive processes tampered with non-consensually.

2.) Individuals have the right to tamper with their own brains and cognitive processes, or to voluntarily have them tampered with, in any way they choose.

Those of us who are deeply involved in transformative somatic practices or in the field of Somatic Psychology understand that the psyche is somatically organized, which means that each individual’s distinctive neurocognitive processes are intimately entwined with that individual’s style of movement and embodiment. Changes in movement and embodiment create changes in cognition.

This means that to tamper with a person’s unique individual style of movement and embodiment (for instance, through the Behaviorist techniques that are frequently used to make autistic children suppress the outward signs of autism) is to tamper with that person’s cognition, and thus to violate their cognitive liberty.

In other words, freedom of embodiment – that is, the freedom to indulge, adopt, and/or experiment with any styles or quirks of movement and embodiment, whether they come naturally to one or whether one chooses them – is an essential element of cognitive liberty, and thus an essential area of focus for the Neurodiversity Movement. The freedom to be neurodivergent necessarily includes the freedom to give bodily expression to one’s neurodivergence.

For somatically-oriented psychotherapists, one important implication of all this is that neurodivergent clients will often have acquired habitual unconscious tensions (what Wilhelm Reich referred to as character armor) that prevent them from giving full expression to the movement style that is natural to their particular neurotype. These tensions will tend to be especially severe and deep-rooted in clients who, in childhood, were frequently shamed or otherwise abused for their physical expressions of neurodivergence, or who were subjected to Behaviorist “therapies” or other forms of coerced physical conformity.

An integration of the neurodiversity paradigm into the field of Somatic Psychology would include the recognition of these habitual tensions as somatic manifestations of internalized oppression. And it seems to me that somatically-oriented psychotherapists, once they have embraced the neurodiversity paradigm, are uniquely qualified to assist neurodivergent clients in the task of liberating themselves from the bonds of such tensions, and thus recovering their capacity for giving full expression to their divergent potentials.

 

 

NeuroFly

In my previous post, Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition, I published my answer to a question that the fabulous Steve Silberman asked me as part of the research for his upcoming book, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

Below is another excerpt from that same conversation with Steve – my answers to two more of his thought-provoking questions. 

My aikido dojo, which Steve visited prior to this conversation, is called Aikido Shusekai. Shu means, essentially, commitment to excellence (a more in-depth explanation of shu can be found here, for those who are curious). Sekai means world or society. So Aikido Shusekai roughly (very roughly) translates as Aikido for an Excellent World. This is what Steve is referencing in his first question, when he puts the word “excellent” in quotation marks – he’s citing my own use of the word, in the name of my dojo and in my explanations of the vision that guides my work


Q: Why would a society that honors and celebrates neurodiversity be more “excellent”?

Well, I guess in order to answer that question, we first have to ask another question: by what standards should we measure a society’s excellence?

First, I’d say, by the degree to which the society succeeds in meeting the fundamental needs of all of its members, while simultaneously safeguarding their fundamental rights (including but not limited to cognitive liberty, bodily sovereignty, pursuit of happiness, freedom from coercion, and freedoms of expression and association).

Second, by the degree to which the society is committed to (and successful at) developing the systemic flexibility and complexity necessary to accommodate and integrate the fullest possible range of available diversity into a harmoniously functioning overall unity – a unity that’s based not on conformity, but on heterogenous elements functioning together while retaining differences (the Baha’i – and also the philosopher Edgar Morin, of whom I’m a great fan – refer to this as “unity in diversity”).

Third, by the degree to which members of the society treat others – particularly those who are significantly different from themselves, and those who are in a position of need, difficulty, or distress – with acceptance, compassion, civility, generosity, regard, and respect.

And fourth, by how well the society recognizes, protects, and cultivates its natural resources for the benefit of both present and future generations – and neurodiversity, like most forms of biodiversity, is an essential natural resource – as is the unique creativity of each individual.

Honoring and celebrating neurodiversity (along with the many other forms of human diversity) is obviously essential to meeting any of these standards.

Here’s a bit from another recent interview with me, that’s also relevant to this question:

I’d like to see the eradication of the use of functioning labels — “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” — to describe Autistics or any other human beings. What exactly to we mean by “functioning”? In practice, when people say “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” they generally seem to be using the term “functioning” to mean “conforming to dominant neurotypical social and cultural norms, standards, and demands.” But do we really want to buy into the assumption that such conformity is the proper “function” of a human being?

I propose that instead of rating human beings as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning,” we apply the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to societies, rating the functioning of a society according to the degree to which it succeeds in supporting and furthering the well-being of all of its members; and the degree to which it can accommodate and integrate diversity, and employ diversity as a creative resource, without attempting to reduce or eliminate it, and without establishing hierarchies of privilege.

My preferred term for this approach to neurodiversity is neurocosmopolitanism.

Q: What would be the benefits for all of building a neurodiversity-positive society?

This question troubles me, because in some sense, it’s a question that should never even be asked – a question that is rooted in the attitudes responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history, including some that are still happening. Because the inevitable shadow side of “benefit” is “cost” – so as soon as you start framing the acceptance of human diversity in terms of benefits, you’ve stepped into in the dangerous realm of thinking about human lives in terms of cost/benefit analysis.

And human lives, and human equality and dignity, should never be considered in terms of cost/benefit analysis. It’s far too slippery a slope, because sooner or later, inevitably, one runs into a situation in which the benefits, by the standards and values of the dominant culture, don’t appear to outweigh the costs. And then suddenly we’re in Nazi territory, eugenics territory, Autism Speaks territory, with certain human beings being talked about being talked about in terms of their “cost” – being talked about as “burdens.”

That’s where the dominant culture is right now, in fact, in regard to Autistics and various other neurominorities. That’s a big part of what the Neurodiversity Movement is trying to change.

Of course, there would be many benefits to building a neurodiversity-positive society – or a neurocosmopolitan society, as I’d call it. Neurodiversity is an invaluable creative resource, a problem-solving resource. The greater the diversity of the pool of available minds, the greater the diversity of perspectives, talents, and ways of thinking – and thus, the greater the probability of generating an original insight, solution, or creative contribution.

And in any given sphere of society, we only get the benefit of the contributions of those individuals who are empowered to participate. And we only get the full benefit of a given individual’s unique potential if that individual is empowered to participate without being forced to suppress their differences.

How many potential Einsteins have lived and died without giving society the benefit of their genius, because they were murdered or driven to suicide, or because they were denied the accommodations that would allow them to bring their genius to fruition?

Or because their particular forms of genius, their uniquely brilliant and beautiful ways of knowing the world, their most potentially valuable cognitive capacities, were inextricably connected to their natural Autistic styles of movement, embodiement, and play, and could no longer blossom once those styles of movement, embodiment, and play were squelched with ABA?

So, yes, there would be enormous benefits to society as a whole. A truly neurocosmopolitan society would actively explore, cultivate, and reap those benefits.

But again, if we make those potential “benefits for all” our primary argument in favor of a “neurodiversity-positive” society, we’re still operating in the territory of cost/benefit analysis. And a truly just, moral, and humane society simply can’t be founded on that sort of thinking, because that sort of thinking always leaves the door open to the possibility of someone deciding that the “benefits” of certain lives aren’t worth the “cost.”

One crucial factor that is outside most people’s awareness, when they speak of societal “costs” and “benefits” of neurodiversity, is that these cost/benefit analyses take place in the context of the currently dominant capitalist social paradigm, which tends to define “costs” and “benefits” in terms of financial profit and material productivity. Again, this is not a good way to evaluate human lives.

One of the greatest benefits of building a truly neurocosmopolitan society is that it would call for us to reassess the current capitalist, profit-and-control-oriented paradigm and its values, because that paradigm and those values make ableism inevitable. A society that regarded love, novelty, beauty, laughter, knowledge, and wonder as the most valuable contributions a person could make would not only have a far more positive attitude toward neurodiversity, it would be a better society for everyone.

 

 

NeuroFly

Autism, Aikido, and Systems-Oriented Cognition

September 29, 2014

Steve Silberman is a journalist and wonderful human being who’s done some superb writing on autism and neurodiversity. He’s currently working on a book entitled NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which I’m certainly looking forward to reading.  As part of the research for his book, Steve visited me at my aikido dojo, […]

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Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions

September 27, 2014

New paradigms often require a bit of new language. This is certainly the case with the neurodiversity paradigm – even the word neurodiversity itself is still relatively new, dating back only to the late 1990s. I see many people – scholars, journalists, bloggers, internet commenters, and even people who identify as neurodiversity activists – get confused about the […]

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The Veiled Oasis

September 15, 2014

In my previous entry, I posted an introduction and link to The Hyperlexicon, an online hypertext labyrinth that I created in 2006, as an undergraduate student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies. In December of 2010, I returned to the hypertext medium that I’d used to create The Hyperlexicon, and created a […]

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The Hyperlexicon

September 13, 2014

In 2006 I was a student in the Interdisciplinary Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies (I’m now a faculty member in that same program). At the beginning of our first term, my classmates and I were given the following assignment: Create a lexicon of words that are new, confusing, or of particular interest to […]

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The Process of Emergence: An Interview

September 9, 2014

The following interview with me was originally published on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog on April 22, 2014. It was part of an “Autism Acceptance Month” series that Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism ran over the course of that month, in which they interviewed various members of the Autistic community, representing a wide […]

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Autism and Gender Binarism: A Stern Letter to an Academic Colleague

September 8, 2014

Back in 2011 I was moved to write a letter to an academic colleague in Australia, calling her out on the gender binarism of her online dissertation research survey on autism and sexuality (this was hardly the only flaw in the survey in question – the entire research project was packed with ableism, stereotyping, stigmatizing […]

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Ripples of Goodwill: An Interview About Aikido

August 25, 2014

This is an interview with me about aikido, intended for an audience more or less unfamiliar with the art. The interview was conducted way back in February 2011 by Monika Broecker, a colleague of mine in the field of somatic psychology. Monika had an intention to publish this interview in some local magazine, but that […]

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Advice to Young Autistics: Stick Around and Be Awesome

August 21, 2014

In the summer of 2012, shortly after my wedding to my fabulous wife, someone involved with the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog heard from a teenager who’d been newly diagnosed as Autistic. Learning that she was Autistic had devastated this young woman; because the mainstream discourse about autism is so negative and stigmatizing, she thought that it meant […]

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