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Reflections on being an Autistic Psychologist

I was very recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 24 years of age. It was quite an emotional day for me - I predominantly felt relieved that I had validation and an explanation for the lifelong social and emotional difficulties I’ve faced. I have always felt different, and in a room full of people I constantly feel I am being watched. When I speak to people, my mind races with thoughts such as, “am I giving enough eye contact?”, “do they think I’m weird?”, “please don’t ask me to speak about myself”, and “I’d love to escape this conversation right now and go home to my cats”.

Upon receiving my diagnosis, I also experienced self-doubt. What if I had read too much into my characteristics, and over-identified as having symptoms of autism? After working in the autism space for quite some time, I worried if maybe I was too “caught-up” in this world. However, this certainly wasn’t the case. Sitting in front of my psychologist, I finally felt my “mask” drop and that I was able to behave more authentically as my autistic self, rather than the more socially capable version of myself that I present as in my everyday life. And so, when I received the diagnosis, I felt the weight lift off of my shoulders. With my diagnosis, I feel that I can be more forgiving and accepting toward myself for being socially awkward and for getting frustrated at interruptions in my very routine-based life. I’m also glad to finally be able to explain to people why I act the way that I do. With this new level of acceptance, I hope that I can drop my mask a little bit and act more genuinely me.

I also feel sad that I received my diagnosis so late in life. If I had been diagnosed earlier, how different would my life have been? I may not have struggled with depression for so many years of my life, and perhaps I wouldn’t have wasted so much time beating myself up for being socially awkward and preferring to spend time alone with my cats. Also, I may have been able to develop a positive identity of myself as an autistic individual during those formative teenage years when a strong sense of identity really counts.

Truthfully, being on the spectrum gives me some doubt about my capabilities as a psychologist. There is a stereotype about autistic people that they cannot experience empathy, which I find to be the complete opposite of my experience (and so too for many other people on the spectrum). If anything, I have too much empathy! I carry my clients around with me constantly, causing many sleepless nights and significant compassion fatigue. After a day of back-to-back clients, I will come home, cocoon myself in a blanket and essentially become unresponsive to the world. What is also challenging is having to work extra hard to read not only the social cues of my clients, but also those of my colleagues. It is nearly impossible for me to work in open office environments – the slightest sound distracts me, but I also don’t want to appear rude or weird by locking myself up in an office to work alone. If there are any benefits of COVID-19, it's that I have been able to work alone in my house and get so much work achieved! It’s also far less confronting to speak to colleagues over Zoom. In a way, Zoom acts like another mask through which I can protect myself.

Despite the challenges that accompany being an autistic psychologist, it certainly has its benefits, and I definitely view it as being more of a strength than a deficit. Prior to being formally diagnosed, I was always interested in working with clients on the spectrum as a psychologist. Early in my career, I worked with young boys on the spectrum and seemed to find myself so in tune with and empathic toward them. I just “got it”. Later in my studies, my interest in girls and women on the spectrum developed. I was fascinated by how girls and women often present quite differently to males on the spectrum, and disappointed to learn about how they are often misdiagnosed (often with personality disorders), diagnosed later in life, or not diagnosed at all. As I began working with girls on the spectrum and learning more about them, I just thought, “this is me. This sounds exactly like me”. After being self-diagnosed for a while, I actively sought my own formal diagnosis this year.

Given this interest and attraction toward working with autistic clients, having autism myself is a massive advantage. I understand completely the experience of trying to navigate a world that is not designed for autistic people. Reflecting on my own adolescence, it would have been hugely beneficial for me to have access to an autistic psychologist. I bounced from psychologist to psychologist who would try their best to treat me for anxiety, depression, and self-harm, however, nothing ever really got “fixed”. It is difficult enough being a teenage girl and feeling that no one understands you. When you are an autistic teenage girl, however, this sentiment is absolutely true. I love that I get to provide this to my clients on the spectrum – someone who actually does get it.

What is also advantageous is that my autistic mind is obsessed with psychology. I am forever reading and attending professional developments in order to be the best therapist I can be. I’m interested in learning a variety of therapy modalities and keeping up to date with the most recent developments in the field. As such, I think this profession will keep me very excited and passionate for a long time, as there is always the opportunity for continuous learning. Interestingly enough, I find myself more comfortable consulting with clients than I do engaging in small talk, even with people I love and have known for a long time. In therapy sessions, there is somewhat of a ‘social script’ that I can follow, and I’m confident in helping clients because I research so intently how to assist them. I also feel that my autism has given me the most beautiful gift of active listening, and in sessions I rarely speak about myself unless I feel that self-disclosure will be beneficial to my clients. I truly believe that listening with genuine openness, empathy, and curiosity to clients is the first step toward helping them, and my autism allows me to do this exceptionally well.

Another special interest of mine is people, which obviously has its benefits for working in this field. I think my special interest in people began when I was enrolled in drama classes from an early age and acting has been something I’ve passionately engaged in throughout my life. Acting is the ultimate form of masking. Once I have a character and a script in my hand, I feel invincible. As someone who is inherently introverted and hates speaking about themselves, it has always been extremely surprising to me how confident I am on stage. I think being involved in acting throughout my life has been a blessing and a curse regarding my autism. I think acting taught me how to be a “normal” person by providing me with a variety of facial expressions, voices, and personas that I could adopt. The downside of this was that I have always found it incredibly difficult to be myself, and perhaps if I had never been involved in acting, my autism would have been suspected and diagnosed earlier. Acting has also taught me how and why other people act the way that they do, which is very helpful for someone on the spectrum as these things don’t come naturally to us. And so, people are a special interest of mine. I feel that because of this, I am quite unique compared to some others on the spectrum who may not be so aware of social cues. Because I have spent such a long time investigating and being fascinated by people, I feel that I’m quite good at reading into what is going on beneath the surface for my clients. Not only is this helpful for treating clients, but it is also very helpful for conducting assessments and diagnoses. I see the assessment process like a detective investigation – my autistic mind loves the structure and routine involved with conducting assessments, and it also loves figuring out what is going on for my clients.

As my career progresses, I hope to be as loud and as proud as possible about being an autistic psychologist. I hope to break the stigma about autistic people all looking and acting in exactly the same way, and to show that those on the spectrum can do wonderful and amazing things, like becoming psychologists. Most importantly, I want to be an advocate for girls and women on the spectrum. I strongly believe in changing not only the public perception about autism as being a male condition, but also changing this perception within the health profession itself. Although I am at an incredibly content place in my life, I have definitely experienced significant challenges along the way that I know would have been lessened if someone had recognised I was autistic earlier on. I hope that through continued advocacy and developments in the field that girls receive their diagnoses and subsequent supports sooner.