If you were my therapist when I was seventeen to twenty years old, this letter is for you. In the beginning, I trusted you. I was eager to get help for my anxiety, which had become so severe that I was barely eating or sleeping. I was also glad there was finally a therapist in my rural area who specialized in autism. You seemed so kind, too. When I first arrived in your office as a shaky, timid teenager, you greeted me with a reassuring voice and a bright smile, and told me how much you enjoyed working with autistic people.
Unfortunately, the warm welcome didn’t last. I wish I had realized early on that your sweetness was superficial. Your misconception of autism as a mental illness or disease rather than a developmental disability… The way you and my parents talked about me and over me as if I weren’t there… The way you pressured me to talk about topics I didn’t want to talk about by saying “Come on, it’s just me and you”… All those things should have warned me that you didn’t truly understand my condition or respect my autonomy.
I kept overlooking these bad things because you were usually nice, and because you taught me some useful skills. You walked with me to the library down the street so I could practice independence by applying for a card by myself. You rehearsed conversations with me. You encouraged me to do some volunteer work. However, none of the things you taught me were worth the distress you caused me.
There are so many things I wish you knew.
I wish you knew that stimming is not a bad thing. It hasn’t kept me from making friends, or learning new things, or having a job. In fact, it helps me focus and stay calm so I can do better at all those things. But it’s very hard to focus or relax when a therapist has told you to “hyper-focus on your body language” at an upcoming social event.
I wish you knew that no one chooses to become obsessed with an upsetting experience. I kept talking about a certain bad experience (and waking up in the middle of the night feeling angry about it) for over a year because that experience confused and humiliated me. I wasn’t mentioning it to annoy you. Ignoring me, raising your voice at me, and accusing me of choosing to “be the victim” only added to my distress and made it even harder to move on.
I wish you knew how silly it was of you to discourage me from liking Hello Kitty, and that “age-appropriate” doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. I wish you knew that the doors in my university dorm had Disney character name tags, that nearly all my hallmates had stuffed animals in their rooms, and that it wasn’t uncommon to go into the lobby and see cartoons on TV.
I wish you knew that asking variations of “How do you feel about that?” over and over you until you get a “typical” answer won’t help a person understand their feelings any better. I did my best to describe my real feelings, but for some reason, you seemed to doubt my words. Sometimes you replied, “That’s a thought, not a feeling. How do you feel?” Eventually, I would get so tired of being asked the question that I would say what I knew you wanted me to say… and what you wanted me to say was often very different from how I actually felt.
I wish you knew that the day you threatened to walk out on me because I interrupted you too many times was one of the most painful days of my life. I felt as if a door had been slammed in my face. I cried a lot, my head hurt, and I felt miserable for days. Surely you knew that threatening to abandon a socially anxious client in the middle of a session was counterproductive and cruel. Yet I kept seeing you for a year after that, because my anxious brain wasn’t the only thing that persuaded me to blame myself. Many people whom I talked to suggested that I must have done something really obnoxious to make such a sweet lady react that way.
I wish you knew that because of all these things, it is very hard for me to trust most mental health professionals.
Was I the only one you treated this way? Have you ever tried to make another client stop liking something just because you thought the thing they liked was childish? Have you ever told another client that if they interrupted you one more time, you would get up and leave? I hope you haven’t, but I suspect you have.
I wish you knew that you don’t have to be ableist.
You can learn to respect stimming. You can learn to validate autistic people’s feelings, even if those feelings aren’t what you expect us to feel in a particular situation, and even if it takes us longer to get over a bad experience than it would take you. You can learn that no matter how odd you think our interests are, they aren’t yours to take away. You can learn to be kind even when you feel frustrated with the person in front of you. After all, isn’t that how you would like to be treated?
As I type this, I know that you will probably never read it, but this letter isn’t only for you. It’s for everyone who works with autistic people. Professionals, your words and attitudes are powerful. They can help us, but they also have huge potential to harm us. Oh, how I wish you knew!
About the writer, C.L. Bridge