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Hello, everybody, this is Dr. Stacy spielen Gonzalez with the thoughtful counselor. I am really excited to introduce to you all my guest for this particular podcast. We are actually going to be talking today about working with neurodivergent clients, what counselors should know. And so I'm here with Natasha VillaLobos from San Antonio, Texas. And Natasha, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast today.
Well, thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here.
I'm so excited to have you. I'm a big fan of detoxes. So without further ado, I guess it's most appropriate since I know a lot about you. I want to go ahead and just introduce you to my audience. So I'm going to start out by asking you tell us a little bit about your educational backgrounds.
Yes. So I attended UTSA. I graduated from UTSA in 2020. And I am a licensed professional counselor in the state of Texas. Yeah.
Wonderful. And you where do you currently work? Do you work for a practice? Do you work for an agency?
Yes, I currently work for a private practice called salient clinical services here in San Antonio. And I am the clinical team lead counselor yet salient.
Wonderful. And one of the main reasons that I wanted you to come on board as my understanding is that you have not only worked with clients who identify as neurodivergent, you've also presented on this topic in different in different settings to educate counselors, a little bit more on just how to work with understand and conceptualize the experiences of you know, clients who identify as neurodivergent.
Yes, this is a big passion population for me. And it has been really important for me to educate others, and especially clinical professionals on neuro divergence on what to expect with neurodivergent clients and how working with these clients can be different from what clinicians might typically expect with the average client. I
think that's a great place for us to start, before we even begin going down this path that you've already led us on so beautifully. Could you begin just for maybe audience members who are newer to the clinical profession? Can you start by defining what neuro divergences?
Absolutely. So neuro divergence is, it describes the natural diversity of human minds. It's much like other kinds of diversity, including racial or ethnic or religious diversity, but this is more a kind of a biological and emotional kind of diversity. And the term neuro diversity really emphasizes a non judgmental and non pathologizing approach to diverse ways of processing, cognitively processing, emotionally processing, and uplifting these diverse ways of experiencing the world as equally valid. And it takes a huge step away from the more pathology based model that does judge or assign a kind of positive or negative view to behaviors or emotion. This is more a movement that's based on recognizing uplifting and supporting different ways of experiencing the world and experiencing the internal world.
And I so appreciate how you've really conceptualize this as a movement and talked about this more from a multi multicultural perspective as opposed to a diagnostic perspective. And can you tell me just from your experience, why that's important with this population? Why is it important? We look at this more as than a non Pathak pathological way.
I think this is so important, because of what history really has demonstrated to us. We have seen how historically in our profession in the mental health professions and world, there has been a lot of abuse and pathology and ostracism and stigma for those with different ways of processing and experiencing the world. And I think that a movement really not just a kind of school of thinking, not just a modality. But a philosophy is really supportive to people who historically have felt oppressed, or ostracized or rejected by the medical model in the medical system that has viewed their symptoms. I quote, symptoms and experiences in a negative way, because they are different from what's considered the, quote, normal way of thinking and engaging with the world. So I think that this movement really uplifts and validates so many people who have been shut out or have been the victims of violence. And I think this really highlights a huge chunk of our society that has not felt included.
So vital and so important, and everything that you're saying just really motivates me specifically to just kind of feel more compelled to know more, and how we can help. So in what ways do you think it's important, like how should counselors, Counselor Educators, people in our field, who are either doing this work or educating those who are going to do this work in the future? What is important for them, when they are looking at their clients experiences, or even discussing how to conceptualize their clients experiences in a classroom? What do you think is important?
When I think about this, what really comes to mind for me, is the person centered idea with all clients, we are taught in school and it is so highly emphasized to be person centered, to understand the client's point of view the to understand how the client experiences their own world. And I think with neurodivergent clients, this is so much more essential, really, considering how neurodivergent clients may experience the world differently, may experience their internal worlds differently, really stepping into that way of understanding things, and deconstructing some, maybe preconceived notions about what it looks like to interact with the self in a healthy way to interact with others in a healthy way to interact with needs in a healthy way, what are valid needs, what are valid ways of expressing those needs, we all have our own preconceived notions about these things. And we often are educated, even in college and in our formal training, to view certain, quote, healthy behaviors as correct. And we guide our clients more to embodying these healthy behaviors to embodying these healthy goals. And for some neurodivergent clients, the goals don't necessarily align with this, quote, healthy way of interacting of communicating and relating of expressing. So firstly, starting by deconstructing those ideas that we have about what is right and what is healthy for a client, and really viewing that. And understanding and immersing in their world of understanding what healthy, what goals, what these things look like for them and their brains.
And so based on your experience in your work, what do a lot of clients tell you or share with you that you think is important for for the counseling profession to know? What are some of the things that they find maybe not so favorable about the way that we have traditionally or historically worked with them?
Clients have really shared with me how oppressed they have felt by institutional expectations. And these really do include the expectations and externally decided on treatment goals, objectives, that Our presence in mental health treatment centers or institutions, more in counseling as well. Clients have really expressed to me that they have never truly felt entirely understood. They felt that they've had to pretend or to modify their own goals to suit what others think is rights and is healthy, and what they are supposed to do. And that has caused them a lot of harm in a lot of different kinds of institutions, schools and, and larger systems, and with no exception, mental health treatment and other practitioners as well.
It's very sad to hear, because what I'm hearing you say is, there is this maybe perceived ideal that clinicians have that is more based on our vision, or our internal philosophy of what it looks like to have a healthy, full, compelling life. And we're expecting our clients to fit into that mold. And when clients conceptualize experience, cognitively, or emotionally process the world in a different way, that that may not be congruent with their own internal vision of what their happiness or their overall well being would look like. If given the autonomy and the freedom to approach their mental health or to approach healing in the ways that they would find to be relevant important to them.
Absolutely, one of the examples that really comes to mind for me here is for clients who have different kinds of sensory needs. And in mental health, we often have the idea that we're supposed to help our clients overcome things, get over things move past things. And this is how they demonstrate strength and resilience and how well they can use their coping skills. Um, all these things are good markers of progress. And I think about how this can apply to something like a sensory need or something that is so inherently present for a client, that we ended up encouraging them to stifle that inner voice to stifle those needs to conform more to a societally appropriate or acceptable ideal for clients who may be may experience, auditory overwhelm, or may feel overwhelmed in large crowds with bright lights or things like this, we can see how these difficulties can get in the way of them accessing opportunities. And that's the part we as clinicians might cling on to, like I want to see my clients succeed, I want them to attend that interview, I want them to go see their friends at that restaurant, they've expressed to me that they want to see people more they want to get this job. And we may go about it the wrong way with supporting and guiding them, we may encourage them to, quote, get over these things or move past these things, that it may not be their ultimate goal to move past, it may be more beneficial to seek accommodations for these things, to rely on their social support system to make some concessions or some compromises to include them better, as opposed to the change being purely internal. So they can then fit into a world that they often don't really feel like they fit into.
Which to me seems like it aims not intentionally, but it almost reinforces the feeling of separation and other eight as opposed to what we would really want as counselors that we would really want clients to feel more connected with ourselves but also with the world around them, right connections are so important. And what we're almost implying, feels more consistent with our non clinical self help community that says just change who you are and people will accept you. You know, the problem is you if you present yourself authentically, then people aren't going to like you so the answer is to not be authentic answer is to surrender parts of yourself that are real and congruent because everyone else finds this to be not not favorable. You know, which creates further separation further divide and, you know, more internalized pathology, a pathology for this community.
Precisely. And this exactly what you're describing, does build a really difficult trap to get out of, right, because when we think about neurodivergent, people, when you recognize that their processing expression experience is different from a neurotypical person or someone who is not neurodivergent. This causes a lot of distress for neurodivergent people who are navigating a neuro typical world. And this does end up meaning or looking like a profound disconnection from the self and the environment, you were expressing how that connection is so important, and how building that connection is such an important goal for clinicians to support their clients with. But often with neurodivergent clients, what we do see is a very huge divide between self and accessing emotions as well. Something that I've noticed with neurodivergent clients is many of them do have difficulties with recognizing their emotions, or recognizing when emotions are building up. And part of this is due to that constant repression of itself of feeling in favor of what would be societally acceptable to do or by how the external environment has really pushed this idea of behaving in this way of expressing feelings in this way of responding to others in this way of not doing this, of not doing that, that really builds a huge rift between neurodivergent people in their own inner worlds. And in my work with clients, this has been a huge portion of the work that we do is rebuilding that relationship with self tearing down the walls of shame, that have come up around those more natural, more, quote, irrational and neurodivergent types of responses, and really deconstructing the stigma that then becomes internalized as well for clients.
Really appreciate the fact that you just talked about how there is an element of shame for this community or these individuals, when it comes to their experiences within the social constructs. I think sometimes there can be a perception that because someone processes the world in a different way, that there is also the absence of very humanistic emotions. In other words, this idea that they don't experience shame for that because the world seems more black and white, that there is no emotional processing, whatever. As opposed to the idea that it's processed in a different way, or it's experienced and conceptualized and externalized in a different way.
Absolutely. So famously brings up the idea that I've seen come up so many times with empathy in particular, or the expression of empathy or understanding of others, there are pretty rigid ideas societally about what empathy looks like, expressed appropriately, how want to suppose to express empathy, and with neurodivergent people who may not socially respond to events to emotional events of others, in typical ways, that does result in that stigma, right of viewing neurodivergent people as non empathetic or antisocial.
Yes, almost like a personality issue, more than just a different way of looking at the world. You know, I keep going back to that, because I just so appreciate. I just appreciate your worldview of of this, you know, of this experience, and to be able to really frame it in a way that I think just broadens it a lot more, you know, just broadens it. When I first started in the field, which was a long time ago, there was a time when we work with worked with persons with autism, persons on the spectrum. And one of the goals that we put in the treatment plan was for them to make eye contact with us. And that was before we fully understood that eye contact could be a little difficult in operating other senses, you know that when someone is making eye contact and maybe difficult to hear. But we did that for our own comfort level, because somehow we thought that made them, you know, more likely to be successful in the world was to kind of, you know, a culture ate themselves or assimilate might be a better word to assimilate to what other people would find appropriate. You know,
yes, and that assimilation has been historically so oppressive and so harmful. And so many of the clients that I work with, do so much work to untangle what that means for them what that means in their relationships. And it is really, really challenging in so many ways. Like is that kind of decolonizing work really, that we're doing now, completely goes against all of these systems and societal structures and norms and rules that have built social safety for these clients, but have left them in incredible emotional turmoil. Often, one of the things that does happen when I first start working with a neurodivergent client, who has these kinds of challenges, and was trying to deconstruct these things for themselves and rebuild their own norms redraw their own boundaries, establish their own social connections, is, there is an intense period of interest in emotional turmoil. Partially because the grief of realizing a lifetime of not being understood is finally being being bite being processed. And it is very distressing for them to suddenly introduce things that now their brains and their bodies have built up a lot of negative experiences with doing those very formative experiences with experiencing meltdowns or overwhelm or expressing needs in non neurotypical ways. Those are so powerful for them, that later on to actively engage in those things to engage in self soothing behaviors to ascertain needs clearly and assertively. Those are really complicated, and painful and incredibly terrifying for a lot of clients to start engaging in when they have been oppressed for so long, by a system that has told them that they needed to express things a certain way, or that they cannot express certain certain emotions at all.
So I'm thinking that there may be people in our audience who may possibly have some experiences of neuro divergence, and maybe not aware, I've certainly encountered when I was an educator, students who thought well, I may have, I may identify somewhat with the neurodivergent community, but I'm not sure that it's right for me to identify, because I might not meet the threshold of what would receive accommodations at my university, for example, or I've been tested. And I've been told, Well, you don't meet this threshold or this threshold, but there are still parts of myself that seem more congruent with what I hear you talking about. And I have had the feelings similar to what you've described. So I'm thinking, whether it be a person who's listening to this podcast right now, who thinks that may resonate for me or maybe wondering if it resonates for a loved one? Could you describe for us what certain neurons what neurodivergent clients experience? How do they conceptualize the world or experiencing emotions or thoughts differently from neurotypical people?
Wow, that's a lot more complicated. So first, I want to explain how neuro divergence is really an umbrella, a very large umbrella that encompasses all kinds of divergence, right, whether that is divergence in emotional processing or what is typically understood as mood related disorders, or divergence in additionally some cognitive processing experiences, what can be autism, ADHD, traumatic brain injuries whether That includes differences in learning, challenges with different kinds of learning, whether that's like dyscalculia, or any of the other kinds of learning disorders, there are so many ways, really to fit within the neurodivergent umbrella. And it I think is easier to take a look at, at what points, people feel that their experiences of the world differ from what they perceive to be the average person's. And this is different from personal opinions or personal philosophies. And it can be kind of hard to conceptualize the difference here. But one thing that many of my clients have always told me of different kinds of neuro divergence or of different neuro types, what they have told me consistently, is that there are ways that they have felt very alien to others. And the ways that they have felt different, or alien have all different I, some of my autistic clients can have told me that they felt more rigid than some of their peers, they adhered more to rules, they had more black and white type of thinking, they became more distressed with change than others. My ADHD clients have told me that they have had persistent challenges with organizing things with organizing are managing their time, or with tasks or with motivation to start tasks. And this has brought up a great source of shame for them. And they've always felt different from others, and that they haven't been able to manage their tasks or their time, with the ease that they've seen others manage things, or clients who have more emotionally based differences, can share with me how they have felt significantly more distressed with certain events or experiences, and they have seen others react to, and they haven't understood why or what this difference is. And so with this particular idea, I think it is important for people to view and explore where their differences from others have been, whether these have been things that have been parts of their lives for a long time, whether other people have given them feedback throughout their lives about ways that they think or ideas that they have, or how they react to things. Whether that's positive or negative. All of these things can point to some sort of experience of neuro divergence. And along with this same idea, I think that deconstructing all of the lines around diagnoses is so so important, as I described, neuro divergence is an umbrella diagnosis is more system of categorization. And this system doesn't necessarily fit all under this umbrella. And neuro divergence is also more than a spectrum. I would call it maybe the most complicated Venn diagram that has already been conceived really, where there are overlaps and experiences and differences and experiences, but they're all part of the same giant system of bubbles. Whereas with diagnosis, there can be multiple diagnoses type we see symptoms or criteria that qualify clients for diagnosis or they do not. So there is a, you have this diagnosis, and you have this diagnosis in a mild, moderate or severe spectrum or with qualifiers or you don't have this diagnosis and neuro divergence does it work in the same way? I very famously do like saying, That man wrote the DSM. So the DSM was designed to describe consistencies that were perceived, and people with similar kinds of experiences. are symptomatic presentations. People are not designed to fit into the DSM system of categorizing disorders or experiences. And I think that's where broadening our understanding of what qualifies as divergence. How mild can this be? And it still is divergence, as opposed to? Is this just a mild presentation of a symptom that doesn't qualify for any anything? It's just an experience. But that can still be just a divergence from the typical.
It's so beautifully said and described. And I so appreciate that. I'm wondering, as counselors, as people who are more commonly interacting with this community, how can we be affirming? How can we be more culturally, have more cultural humility, and be more supportive in this community? Are there things that we should do or things that we should say, for ways that we can interface with this community so that we are more supportive of their needs and more person centered with our experiences, what we bring to them, and what we offer in the way of clinical clinical services?
One of these, my response to this is it I think it starts with recognizing clients as the true full experts have their experiences. We, we do that, and we say that, but there are limitations to this right? We can see clients are the experts of their experiences, but we see them as experts of their experiences, but not have, perhaps how to get better, or how to conceptualize things clinically. And this is fair, right? We're the ones who went to school were the ones who did our training where the like mental health expert portion of the clients and clinician relationship. But with neurodivergent clients who have been so systematically oppressed, specifically related to their differences in processing and thinking and expressing and experiencing, recognizing clients, as the true experts of their experiences of their worlds of what's right for their world, is so, so important. And this can be something as as simple as respecting, and using the language that clients use when it comes to their own experiences, or their own understanding of their neuro type. Traditionally, we are the experts on neuro types, right? We know the diagnoses names, we know, the criteria for diagnosis, and that we do we have a lot of formal training, we stay current on our education, and we can do continuing education. But that is within an academic world. neurodiversity as a movement is more akin to a culture, really, and this culture doesn't just happen with revisions to the to the DSM, we do have to be flexible in our understandings of what is part of this divergence for this client? What does this mean for them, and respecting that. So using clients labels for things or treating those labels as valid and legitimate? There's such a history of clinicians not respecting or not using the terms that clients use to describe their own lived experiences and conditions. And I think starting there is so important for any clinician who is hoping to be truly affirming who was hoping to be truly allied with this community.
Again, just beautiful choice words in what you're, how you're conveying this message to me and to our audience. And I so appreciate it. Are there? Is there anything else that you think is important for us to know I want to just leave the final question to you open, if there's anything that you would like to say, or something that you think is relevant and important
Absolutely, I think I did want to throw in a little blurb here about the medical versus these social models. So I think it is really important in this conversation. Thinking about the medical model of understanding pathology of understanding diagnosis, this is a very traditional way of viewing treatment, right? The medical model views, clients as the individuals who have a problem. And this condition is internal to them. It may be that they have negative kinds of thoughts. There's some cognitive distortions, these results in emotional reactivity, whatever it is, that medical model views the condition as internal to the person. And this model has led so much of our treatments in mental health, viewing the issue, something that is inherent to the client. And that is where the magic happens of counseling and therapy. And we support them with coping skills, we help them change their mindset, and bam, boom, they fit into society, it's different, they get along with others better, they feel more emotionally at ease, their thoughts are more compassionate towards themselves. But the idea is that the problem is internal to the person. The social model really takes a step away from this by viewing society as the agent that has barriers that prevent clients from full actualization. And these barriers are, the power of these barriers are the challenge to clients interacting with their world and relating with their world, in a healthy and meaningful way. And when we shift our perspective, more to this social model, we see that in so many environments, especially for neurodivergent people, there is a huge mismatch between the person, the neurodivergent person and the environment, the environment may have all kinds of barriers, that if changed, if accommodated for, or if eliminated, the neurodivergent person could then interact meaningfully. And when we look at people from that model, we start to wonder if changes to the environment if changes to the external world, if accommodations in the external world can eliminate most of if not all of the challenge for the person is the person then disorder. I think that this idea is so much more affirming and supportive for neurodivergent people. And I think that this model, this philosophy, can be so much more uplifting and opens so many more doors that otherwise have just been shut because everyone else has a key.
Hmm. That really resonated with me the very last thing that you said that the doors had been shut just because everyone else has a key. It makes me think about imagine what the world would look like if we created and built and structured our society around people who maybe we're blind or hard of hearing or, you know, with people who require certain accommodations, what if the world were built for them, as opposed to built for those of us who don't struggle with these these abilities? And how, maybe how their experience in life would be different?
Absolutely, I think that our world, our society, and our norms are structured for the ease of a few groups. And I do wonder how different it would look if they were structured with access to all and I think that the neurodiversity move means is fantastic and starting to explore what access and what accommodation and what support can look like and can make possible for individuals who just need different approaches.
I have to say how appreciative I am of the work that you're doing, of the knowledge that you share with others, the way that you convey it, and your passion for it.
Absolutely, I really appreciate it.
Well, thank you so much for being a part of the thoughtful counselor podcast. And this concludes this episode. And I look forward to hearing feedback from others who, if you're working with this population, I'll make sure that Natasha's information is also included in the podcast links so that others who may wish to correspond with her can do so. Thank you so much Natasha for being a part of the podcast today.
Absolutely. It was my pleasure.
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