So ahead of my forthcoming Book on Counselling clients on the Autism Spectrum I wanted to share few blogs taken from its content. The first part of my book will cover the Myths of Autism, the wrong belief that we have as a society about Autism which can affect how we work with this group of clients and affects the progress of the therapy.
I am not on the Autism Spectrum and will never pretend to know what it is like. My aim here is to tell other counsellors of my observation through 20 years of personal and professional experience of Autism. Also to be noted, is that these are generalisations. Things that seem to come back in the counselling room a lot. They may not apply to all individuals, and each client on the Autism Spectrum needs to be treated independently as it should be with any clients.
Autism and Empathy
How many times have I heard people say individuals on the spectrum ain’t able to have empathy ! If I had a pound for every time, I would be very rich indeed !
In my experience it is the opposite. People on the Autism Spectrum have too much empathy and this is being misunderstood because of how it presents.
I would like you to stop a minute and think of a sad personal event. Now observe what you feel for a minute or so. Now imagine you feel this 100 times more strongly. What do you think may happen ? What do you feel like doing ? Maybe you feel like doing anything to make it go away. Maybe your body is doing all it can to shut it down. Well that’s what happens to many people on the Autism Spectrum. They are such empaths that many report not needing facial clues to know what a person feels, they can actually feel others emotions. Some clients even reported seeing people’s moods in colours or smells.
So people on the Autism Spectrum feel, strongly. They have empathy. And because it is so intense it often leads to shutdowns, where the person will isolate him/herself, will not be able to converse with anybody. Where recovery time is needed. And this may come across as the person not caring and can be confusing in the counselling room.
By the way, clients will pick up on your mood too and will know if something is up. So without self disclosing too much, also never try to hide if something is wrong and your client senses it and directly ask you…because ask they will and they will know you are lying !
Another thing to bear in mind it that the Autistic brain can be a very practical brain. So if an event happens, the Autistic brain will have to work out everything the event disturbs. Let’s say a client loses their nan where they use to go every Thursday, as part of their routine. The Autistic brain may need to know how it will impact that routine. Will they go and see somebody else instead ? Who will cook their tea that day ? etc….This can come across as uncaring and lacking empathy. But there is a genuine need to calm the anxiety brought on by the change of routine before being able to grieve and deal with feelings. It can be disconcerting in the therapeutic process to witness this.
The third behaviour which can create confusion is inappropriate reactions. Many clients have mentioned being scared of attending funerals for the fear of laughing. When experiencing strong emotions, it isn’t unusual for people on the Autism Spectrum to react in what would be deemed an inappropriate way. They are not being disrespectful, it is the overload of overwhelming emotions acting up. But again, such behaviour can lead a Neurotypical counsellor to misread what is going on for the client.
This is a very simplified overview of why I believe often people with Autism are misunderstood when it comes to empathy. I feel it’s extremely important for counsellors to be aware of the many ways empathy actually affect Autistics. It’s not that your client doesn’t care, it’s probably that he/she cares too much.