The Autistic psychologist: How my identity enhances my practice

Written by Raelene Dundon

CW: ABA

I have been a psychologist for almost 15 years and looking back over my career so far, I think being Autistic has always influenced my practice, I just didn’t know it. Now, with an official diagnosis at the age of 45, and the insight that comes with it, I am starting to see how my neurodivergence has shaped the clinician I am today.

I have always considered myself an advocate of the neurodivergent community, even when I didn’t know I was part of it. It has been a journey of learning and unlearning right from the beginning, steering myself according to what felt right for my clients and changing my practice when I learned about different approaches that made more sense.

While I was studying Psychology at university 20 years ago, the discussion of Autism and other disabilities was deficit based and negative, and certainly didn’t involve Autistic voices or neurodiversity. Methods of supporting children were focused on behaviour management and compliance, not neurology and relationships.

Out in the real world it soon became clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting children using reward charts and schedules wasn’t going to cut it, but at that stage I didn’t know what else was possible.

When my son was diagnosed Autistic at the age of 4, I was right at the beginning of my career and working in early childhood services with children with developmental disabilities. It was at this time that I was first introduced to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) through several of the families I worked with. This was before NDIS, so families were having to re-mortgage their houses and go into significant debt to fund hours and hours of structured therapy when children should have been spending time just being children. Even then, before I had the knowledge I do now about the damage ABA causes, I was appalled at the impact on the children and families. Fortunately, through those early years I was working with clinicians and teachers who were quite forward in their thinking, working in ways that were mostly child-centred and play based. This was an approach that made sense to me. What I learned from those wonderful colleagues gave me the knowledge to support my son as he grew and the foundation on which I have built my career and my philosophy for supporting children and families.

In more recent years, the urge to search for more affirming and effective ways of working with my neurodivergent clients has coincided with a growing awareness of my own neurodivergence.

The more I learned from Autistic individuals about their experiences and needs, the more I recognised myself in their stories. And this year, I finally sought out a formal diagnosis.

The decision to seek a diagnosis was not an easy one. Being a psychologist created some challenges for me, as I felt quite vulnerable speaking about my history with a colleague, and I needed to find a professional whose expertise I trusted immensely so I felt confident whatever the outcome. Thankfully an Autistic psychologist I highly respected was able to complete my assessment, and confirmed that I was indeed Autistic. It was such a relief.

Receiving a diagnosis was important to me for many reasons, not least of which was confirmation of what I had been feeling for some time. But besides the personal need to better understand myself and my life experiences, I wanted to be able to advocate even more strongly for the neurodivergent community.

As someone with both lived experience and professional knowledge, I hoped that I could make a difference in the lives of my clients and my neurokin.

Although I think discovering my Autistic identity will continue to be an evolving process, there was one significant change when I received my diagnosis that I do think made an immediate difference to my practice – being openly Autistic. I was very public in sharing my diagnosis as I felt it was important to be open about it, so I decided to write a blog about my journey. Some of my clients read the blog themselves, others were told by their parents and, where appropriate, I told clients myself in session. The response from my clients was overwhelmingly positive, and I think it helped our therapeutic relationship for them to know I understood them on a different level to other adults in their lives.

Feeling more at home with my Autistic self has given me more confidence to have open and sometimes challenging discussions with my staff, and to educate them further about neurodivergence, trauma-informed practice and child-led approaches that respect the individual and their specific needs and wants.

I have also sought out different therapy approaches to find better ways to support my Autistic clients, finding some answers and new skills to enhance my approach through training in play therapy.

I have found myself more regularly questioning long-held therapy methods and beliefs, and encouraging parents and my staff to do the same, to create a more collaborative and meaningful therapeutic process for everyone involved.

I am now much more aware of the ingrained ableism that has at times in the past clouded my judgement and led to therapy goals focusing on what a well-meaning parent or teacher wanted for a child, or pathologising behaviour that wasn’t a problem for the child, such as vocal stimming or playing alone, instead of taking the child’s wishes into account.

This awareness has allowed me to advocate more strongly for my clients and empower them to have their voices heard and really listened to at school and at home.

Being openly Autistic as an individual, and as a psychologist, is a privilege that not everyone is offered, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Developing an understanding of myself and my Autistic Identity has seen me grow as a psychologist and be better able to support my clients, and I am hopeful that as I continue to grow as an Autist and as a clinician, I can advocate for better understanding and acceptance of neurodivergence, both in the field of psychology and in the wider community.

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