Autism Affirmation Week (also known as Autism Acceptance Week) is March 27th through April 2nd!
I have been practicing as a mental health professional since 2018. I am also autistic. I want to observe Autism Affirmation Week by giving non-autistic mental health professionals some insight as to how they might be supportive to their autistic colleagues.
For me, the hardest part about publicly disclosing that I am a mental health professional who is also autistic is knowing that not all of my colleagues will be supportive. I'm sure every therapist I know would say they are supportive, but I'm also sure that some of them are hesitant to refer non-autistic clients to me because they assume that I will only be able to connect with non-autistic clients. However, I am just as skilled working with non-autistic clients as I am working with autistic clients and I enjoy working with both populations.
I could tell you countless stories about inappropriate things my colleagues have said or done to me because I am autistic. I think most of these interactions are the result of assumptions that manifest into unintentional or unconscious behaviors. If you are one of my non-autistic colleagues, I believe you have good intentions and I am hopeful that you will take a few minutes to learn about how to be more effective as an autistic ally.
I can’t speak for every autistic mental health professional, so if you want to know how to support an autistic colleague it’s best to ask them how they want to be supported. But since I have your attention right now, here is MY wish list for how I would like to be supported…
Image description: A rainbow infinity symbol spray painted on a brick wall
The Top 5 Things My Non-Autistic Colleagues Can Do To Support Me As An Autistic Therapist:
1. Catch yourself when you are making assumptions
It is human nature to make assumptions, but it is exhausting for me to always be the one to point out when a colleague is making an assumption about what it means for me to be an autistic therapist.
If you catch yourself making an assumption, first pause before saying it out loud. Next, ask yourself where you picked up your assumption. After that, find ways to challenge your assumption (like doing some research).
2. Do research using autistic affirming sources
If you are going to do research, make sure you are researching sources that are autistic affirming. Want to know my favorite ways of finding out if a resource is autistic affirming? First, I find out if the resource is primarily organized by autistic individuals. If you find an organization that looks like it might be autistic affirming, do a Google search for "controversy around [insert organization name you are researching here]." I especially recommend Googling "controversy around Autism Speaks" (spoiler alert, Autism Speaks is not autistic affirming...)
[Edited to add... Pro tip: consider puzzle pieces in reference to autism to be a red flag. Autistics are not broken, we are not a mystery, and we are not "puzzling."]
I remember disclosing to a previous employer that I am autistic. Months later, my employer mentioned that she had been researching how to be an ally to autistic employees. This made me feel incredibly seen and I still think of this person when I think of colleagues who have been truly supportive of me as an autistic therapist.
If you want an autistic affirming resource where you can learn more about the autistic community and how you can be an autistic ally, I would suggest exploring the NeuroClastic website: www.Neuroclastic.com
3. Communicate clearly
It is unfortunate how so many of my colleagues know I am autistic and still communicate with me using hints or passive aggressive comments. When this happens, I can often tell that my colleague wants to communicate something, but I am usually not sure what they want me to do.
For example: let’s say one of my colleagues is hinting that my emails are too long. However, I am not sure if they want me to send emails that are 50% shorter, 90% shorter, or avoid email communication altogether. What’s worse is that when I ask them a direct question like "Are the emails I’ve been sending you too long?" they might respond by saying "Oh no, your emails are totally fine!" but later they will continue hinting that my emails are too long.
I understand that in some situations, my colleagues might not know what they want me to do. When this happens, I recommend that my colleagues share how they feel. Here is an example: "I appreciate your attention to detail, but my schedule has been super packed the last couple of months and I think this makes me overwhelmed by the length of some of these emails..."
4. Take anti-autistic discrimination seriously
I have had colleagues make comments that me being autistic must make it hard for me to work as a therapist (it doesn’t). Once a colleague suggested that me being autistic might make me too compromised to work with autistic clients (they never did explain why they came to this conclusion). I could go on and on with stories like this. Unfortunately, I am not confident that all of my past employers would have taken me seriously if I had disclosed that one of my coworkers was making anti-autistic comments to me.
There have been times in the past where I would explicitly point out that one of my colleagues was being anti-autistic towards me and sometimes my concerns were not taken seriously (or outright ignored). While I appreciate my employers who did take situations like this seriously, this doesn’t undo the harm caused by my employers who failed to intervene.
5. Be open minded
If your autistic colleague says something about their autistic experience that seems strange to you, try to approach with curiosity instead of suspicion and judgment. Remember, what you learned about autism when you were at university might be outdated or inaccurate. I understand it can be uncomfortable to find out that some of the things you learned at your (most likely expensive) university education program is inaccurate. But we are healthcare professionals, and healthcare is an industry that rapidly updates every year.
It’s also important to remember that even the most cutting edge research might be tainted with anti-autistic bias. Too much of the research being done on the subject of autism does not include autistics in the formation or execution of that research. I really appreciate the times where I have taken a moment to educate my colleagues about a myth or stereotype about autistics and I could tell they were really listening to me.
A note for my autistic readers: What makes it all worth it…
Some might question if it is even worth it for a therapist to publicly disclose their identity as an autistic person. I don’t have advice on whether or not to disclose something like this because it is an incredibly personal decision. What I can say is that I find value in publicly disclosing my identity as an autistic person because it gives me more opportunities to connect with other autistic mental health professionals, and that makes it all worth it.
When I disclose that I am autistic, I find that autistic therapists who have not publicly disclosed their autistic identity are more likely to disclose their identity to me. I feel so happy when I meet someone who can relate to my experiences and few things bring me as much joy as being in a group filled with autistic mental health professionals.
When I am with other autistic people, I feel like I can stop masking and be myself ["masking" means either suppressing autistic traits or pretending to have more NeuroTypical traits]. When I am with other autistic therapists, I feel like I can talk about my special interest with people who understand my perspective in unique ways (my special interest is mental health/psychology).
One way I have had success gathering other autistic mental health professionals is starting a virtual consultation group for Queer + NeuroDivergent mental health professionals. Not all of the group members are autistic, but many of them are. I hope to see others starting different types of consultation groups or support groups for NeuroDivergent mental health professionals. This sense of community is incredibly fulfilling and I hope every autistic therapist is able to find as much connection and solidarity as I have.
Final thoughts for my non-autistic readers…
Because of increased awareness and acceptance regarding autism, autism diagnoses are on the rise (which is why I say being autistic is a fact, not a fad). If you are a non-autistic mental health professional, it is incredibly important that you find ways to be an autistic ally because you will start encountering more autistic clients AND more autistic colleagues. Your allyship means a great deal to me, and I look forward to observing Autism Affirmation Week with you.
How do you plan to observe Autism Affirmation Week?
A terminology note: "allistic" is the technical term for people who are not autistic. However, I am dyslexic and when I am reading I find it hard for my brain to tell the difference between the words "allistic" and "autistic" so I usually write "non-autistic" when I am writing about allistics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa Stricklin, MA, LPCC (any pronouns are fine) is a licensed therapist practicing in Minnesota. Melissa is NeuroDivergent (autistic + ADHD), Queer, and has lived experience with disability and chronic illness. Melissa is passionate about educating mental health professionals about anti-ableist practices. Melissa is the owner of a private practice counseling agency where they provide individual therapy via telehealth. To learn more about Melissa visit
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