I’ve identified I’m autistic/an ADHDer… now what?

This blog has been prepared for you by Dr Nick Mumford.

The increased visibility and understanding of neurotype variations, such as Autism and ADHD, among others, we’ve seen in recent times has led to a greater interest in services to help people assess if these might be relevant for them. But what comes after that? Is ‘getting assessed’ the end result, or the start of the next stage of your journey? For me, as a practicing psychologist whose caseload can be up to 75% neurodivergent clients, I always see it as the latter. And to be clear, it’s not a journey you’re expected to navigate all by yourself. Accordingly, engaging in psychological therapy can be an excellent next step.

As a starting point, let’s acknowledge that it’s pretty common for people to refer to a neurotype assessment/identification as a ‘diagnosis’, with various traits and experiences being ‘symptoms’. Following advocacy from neurodivergent communities, we’ve come to understand that many neurodivergent people find these terms to be basic, pejorative, and obsolete, so I won’t be using them. It may even be helpful in developing a more positive view of yourself and your neurotype if you don’t either. For now, let’s just say that here we’ll use terms like ‘assessment’, ‘identification’, ‘category’ and ‘neurotype’. These are more flexible, expansive, and inclusive. This is important because, in the end, what a neurodivergent identification means to you, and your future, is very individual, and your therapy will end up being that way too.

Therapy with neurodivergent clients

Ultimately, the aim with therapy, as I see it, is to help you understand yourself, and your experiences in a way that empowers you to engage fully, and flexibly, with the world around you, in your own way. That said, there are some commonalities I’ve encountered working with people figuring out ‘now what?’ after identifying a neurotype that fits for them.

Initial reactions to identifying as Autistic or an ADHDer.        

How people feel initially about identifying a neurotype like Autism or ADHD can be pretty varied. For many there may be a sense of relief, and validation in not being the only one who fits this category. That it ‘explains so much’, and it’s not just them being broken, weird, lazy, difficult, irresponsible, disobedient, or whatever labels other people have applied to them up to this point. However, it can also bring a great deal of sadness, and sense of loss. About how things may have been different if this had been picked up earlier by someone, anyone, and supports enacted. So, it’s probably not a surprise that working on these initial reactions is often a starting point in therapy. From there, things usually move into some longer-term processes. Two key elements to this are mapping out what your version of your neurotype looks like, and then how to apply that understanding going forward.

Mapping out your version.    

There is a great deal of variability amongst autistic people and ADHDers, just as there is amongst neurotypical people. What one person’s experiences, and needs are can be vastly different from the next person. This means that early on working out what ‘your version’ (past, present, and future) looks like is important. Where are the challenges and difficulties you might face? Doing which tasks? Where are your strengths and advantages? What have you managed to figure out thus far that’s helpful and successful? What methods are longer helpful? A common one here being ‘masking’. What are the challenges that come simply from the environment you find yourself in, or in dealing with the views/behaviours of other people? Answering these kinds of questions can lead to a better understanding of how your individual neurotype looks, works, and from there, how you might engage with it.

Thinking strategically vs learning strategies.            

I often hear the idea of therapy being about ‘learning strategies’ (usually grouped as ‘tools and strategies’). While this isn’t wholly wrong, and there may be instances where specific strategies are useful, it’s a bit limited. Realistically, you’re not going to have a specific strategy for every situation that can/will take place in your life. That’s why, for me, the more viable idea is to strengthen your ability to ‘think strategically’, rather than devising specific strategies. By this I mean developing your overall flexibility, and confidence in dealing with real life and its challenges, expected or otherwise. The heart of this is factoring what you’ve mapped out as ‘your version’ in, not out. For instance, if you know your ‘social battery’ gets drained really easily, how do you factor that in to your life? What might the early signs be that you’re almost ‘over’ a particular social situation, and need to consider taking a break, or leaving? What might you need to put in place before hand to allow for that? What might be useful after the event to help you recharge? Or, if you find at work it’s hard to concentrate on ‘boring tasks’ and do them properly, how do you factor that in for when you unexpectedly get one? What’s your initial reaction? How do you structure your workday or week to account for such tasks? How do you engage with/manage other people’s expectations? In the long run, the hope with this is that if you’re factoring in the things you know about yourself, you won’t have to react quickly and randomly in the moment, and can give yourself more time and space to respond in the kind of ways you would ideally want to.

So where does this leave us?

So, you’ve taken the step to identify your neurotype – you’re autistic/an ADHDer. That’s quite a lot in of itself. Now with this as a useful guide, it’s time for the next stage of the journey to start. But how? Well, as we said, you’re not expected to know, and/or figure that out all alone. 

Engaging in psychological therapy with someone you feel comfortable with, understanding what your neurotype means to you, how it works in your life, and how to utilise that information moving forward, is an excellent next stage in your journey.

Where your journey will ultimately lead you, of course, remains unknown. And there’s no guarantees. But at least you won’t be stuck in the same old place anymore…

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