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  • Writer's pictureHelen Dempsey-Henofer

Why being imperfectly affirming matters

Updated: 5 days ago

If you're a trusted insider (friend, family member, or professional in the "helping" professions) to a neurodivergent or LGBTIA+ person and are struggling with how to be affirming, I want to let you in on a little something: You don't need to be an expert to be affirming of another's experience. In fact, being an expert might actually not be as helpful as you imagine.

When I was starting out in private practice, I heard myself say over and over again in consultations, "I know some things about some things, but as committed as I am to being affirming I might not always get it right. While I have some information, and am committed to ongoing learning about transgender and nonbinary experiences, that won't necessarily fit your individual experience. I know it can be a difficult thing to do, but I sincerely invite you to tell me if I get it wrong."

At that time my practice's focus was on gender-affirming therapy. Later (not very much later as this grew out of wanting to affirm many of my TGNB+ clients) I began learning and focusing more on neurodivergence and neurodiversity-affirming practice. I also began exploring religious trauma beyond my own contextual "always an outsider" experience of being a lifelong Atheist in the Southern U.S. While contextual trauma is 100% valid and real, it's a different experience than that described by Maureen Winell's Religious Trauma Syndrome. My practice specializes in those areas: neurodivergence, religious trauma, and LGBTQ+ experiences with a commitment to informed, affirming practice. Still, same spiel. I'm committed to ongoing learning and doing my best to affirm my clients. I won't always get it right. I don't have an expectation of myself, or of other mental health therapists, that we're going to be experts in other people's specific experiences. In fact, I believe pretty firmly that the only expert on your experience is you.

Now, on what not to say. I've read on Reddit channels and articles in online neurodiversity-focused spaces that high-masking people often hear the following from therapists:

  • Everyone's a little bit on the spectrum

  • I don't think you're Autistic

  • You must be high-functioning

Despite knowing that people are having these experiences, it came as a considerable surprise to me to hear those all used consecutively - in a row - in my own initial session in which I was the client with a new therapist. Mirroring the internal conflict I've read others express time and again, I experienced uncertainty, questioning whether to continue with them. I try to hold a lot of grace for people not knowing what they don't know. All eventual "experts" had a point at which they weren't (and some just make shit up as they go along, but that's a different rant altogether). I do know that there are some basics for what I'd like them (and therapists generally) to know about Autism:

While everyone may have traits we associate with Autism, everyone is not "a little Autistic" or "a little on the spectrum." The idea of a spectrum is not a linear scale with some people being "a little" and others "completely, very" but rather a range of areas that are different in Autistic experiences compared to non-Autistic experiences which include areas of information processing, communication, and sensory differences. Here is a useful visual to help understand this. Finally, functioning labels are generally not appreciated by the Autistic community as they are often applied in a stagnant way, "this person is high-functioning" (yuck) when in reality we all have support needs and those needs vary across the lifespan and, sometimes, from one day to the next or moment-to-moment. Support needs are not unique to Autistic people. We all need various types of support throughout our lifetimes.

I want to invite you to let go of the pressure to be an expert. One of the areas in which mental health and medical professionals have done incredible harm has been in positioning themselves as experts on others and upholding the idea that their studies can tell them more about another person's experience than the person themselves. This isn't to poo poo studies. It can be useful to have an educated starting point, but it is never a substitution for a person's lived experience or your own respectful curiosity.

In my own experience, one example of the ego-driven "expert" position has repeatedly come up in my mental health career (and my college education) with the insistence of my colleagues that "spirituality" is a need of all humans. There are studies! Yet you're likely to encounter a different perspective if you listen to folks that don't call themselves spiritual about their experiences. I find it unlikely, possible but unlikely, that nonreligious people initiated studies on how much they needed spirituality. I've seen similar studies presented by PhD candidates at Liberty University. Studies are not absent of bias and sometimes they are designed to justify preexisting prejudice. It's usually worth exploring: who's funding this "research"?

My personal annoyance about the norming of spirituality as a universal good, as irritating as I find it to be, is a minor irritant compared to other harms done by healthcare professionals who minimize the relevance of self-reported lived experience. How many Black people have suffered in medical settings because their pain wasn't taken seriously? Too too many. While this is attributed to implicit bias and inattentive care, it could also be described more generally (without the essential context of racism) as being neglected by "experts" who see themselves as authorities. The expert position is dangerous.

Consider this: A bunch of cisgender people talking amongst themselves about what they think about transgender people's experiences are not actually qualified to tell you what it is like to be transgender.

Similarly, neurotypical perspectives on how they see, describe, and imagine neurodivergent people's experiences do not actually represent neurodivergent experiences.

Annoyingly; this is how many of the assessment instruments read: How weird are you? Really? And then I find myself trying to answer these ridiculous questions imagining myself from an outsider's perspective... I digress.

To know what someone's experience is like... you have to ask them. It's better if you have some foundational knowledge, informed by others' lived experiences, to start with. Books, podcasts with an affirming, liberation-oriented, anti-oppressive lens is a place to start. I just finished reading Alondra Rogers' Autistic Thinking and would highly recommend it. It can be tiring for people to continuously teach the basics about their identities. Use your resources. You're not going to know everything about another person's experience and that's okay. No person can do this (therapist or not). Willingness to learn and humility go a long way. Rather than attempting to be an expert, I invite you to commit to being a learner.

I've been told many many times that I'm not myself by people who intended it to be a compliment or considered my self-described identity to be a deficit.

Oh honey, you're not an Atheist. You're a good person.

You can't possibly be Autistic. You're way too adept at socializing.

Are you sure you have ADHD? You're so bright!

and there's always the plain ol' refuting bi/pan sexuality. Spoiler: We exist! While all the above statements are misinformed (ADHD is not a deficit of intelligence, Autistics don't lack relationship skills, and Atheists aren't missing morality), the people who know me know me know... that I'm one smart, but scattered, easily overstimulated, interest-focused Autistic ADHD person who struggles significantly with non-interesting tasks and both dislikes being boxed in by labels while also begrudgingly accepting (sort of) that labels can be useful for describing experiences and finding others who do get it, at least generally.

Rather than "I don't think you are..." when another person shares some part of their identity or experience, in building relationships a better place to start might be:

Tell me about it.


Helen Dempsey-Henofer LCSW, ADHD-CCSP

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