Kerry Schroeder is a neurodiversity-affirming Registered Clinical Counsellor and parent coach based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She empowers parents of neurodivergent children with science-backed education and strengths-based strategies. We asked Kerry to share some of her perspectives as both a parent and a professional in the field who is working to promote healthy inclusive communities.
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When my oldest child was diagnosed as autistic at the age of two, I experienced a tornado of conflicting emotions. Foremost, I felt validated: I now had 20 pages of proof from a psychologist that showed I wasn’t just “making it up.” But I also felt overwhelmed—nobody gave me a roadmap. Before I knew it, I was operating what felt like a small business, hiring and firing, planning, organizing, scheduling. I was totally burnt out by therapy, and my kid was too.
I’m not saying all therapy is bad—I’m a therapist, after all—but I am saying that I was trusting others over my instincts and over my kid’s voice. And when I’m feeling unsure about something, I cope by collecting information. So that’s what I did: Neck-deep in autism research, I decided to make a Masters degree of it, and in the process I also studied my kid.
Long story short – I learned not only the head-knowledge necessary to become a registered therapist, but also the heart-knowledge necessary to trust myself and my child. I discovered a way to support him that finallyfelt right. Now, I run a small business of a different nature: A neurodiversity-affirming private practice.
What does it mean to be neurodiversity-affirming?
To be “neurodiversity-affirming” essentially means to embrace neurodivergent individuals—kids and adults—as neurodivergent. If the therapy or activity is attempting to change neurodivergent folks in order to make them look neurotypical or in order to make neurotypical folks feel more comfortable, it’s not affirming. But if it’s instead celebrating their uniqueness, understanding their challenges, and offering necessary accommodations, it likely is.
What does neurodiversity-affirming counselling look like?
Environment The waiting room and counselling space must cater to neurodivergent individuals’ sensitive sensory profile, which often means quiet, low-lit, uncrowded, uncluttered, and with several seating options.
Tools It is important to have regulating items available, and to welcome objects the client may bring to therapy. In my office, I have fidget toys, stuffed animals, sensory materials, and a sand tray, and some clients choose to bring in show-and-tell items.
Modalities A neurodiversity-affirming clinician will offer options in addition to traditional talk therapy, and modalities can be adapted to become more affirming. Drawing, stimming, walking, and sitting on the floor may allow the client to feel more safe and regulated. Eye contact is never expected!
Communication Neurodivergent clients may prefer online, phone, or in-person sessions, or they may feel more comfortable writing, texting, emailing, drawing, using body language, communicating in metaphor (e.g., through play, sand tray, narrative, or art therapy), or require an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device
Culture I am yet to see a neurodivergent client who does not share about their Special Interests (SpIns) in therapy. This is a huge aspect of neurodivergent culture, and it can be utilized to build connection and titrate between sharing difficult emotional material. Therapists can normalize neurodivergent ways of being, for example, by stimming together in the course of a session.
What can professionals offer to become more neurodiversity-affirming?
Above all, neurodiversity-affirming clinicians must offer their clients a sense of agency. They can take a client-directed stance by default, but also offer a directive approach (e.g., having activities ready) if clients prefer. Collaboration is important to ensure that therapy is achieving what clients want, not what the therapist dictates as necessary. A focus on goal-setting and measuring progress may put too much pressure on neurodivergent folks, so it is best for the therapist to avoid placing such expectations on clients unless they directly ask for it.
Neurodivergent clients may wish to have an educational dimension to therapy, which can involve science-backed explanations of their strengths and challenges, or stories from others with lived experience. They may also require advocacy: Therapists can meet with teachers or employers to offer neurodiversity education and ask for specific accommodations. Equipping clients for self-advocacy may be a part of the work, but only if a client is able to speak up for themselves without assistance.
How to find a neurodiversity-affirming therapist in BC
Finding a counsellor that you or your child feels safe with can feel like a daunting task. In many areas, they can be difficult to locate or have long waitlists. There are some excellent parent-led free resources for finding an affirming therapist on Facebook. Some groups have lists of practitioners and agencies with information and ratings from group members. Wherever you look make sure you feel listened to, believed, and respected.
As you find potential candidates, here are some questions you can ask:
What does it mean to you to be neurodiversity-affirming?
How is your waiting room and therapy space neurodiversity-friendly?
What tools and activities do you have in your therapy space that will help me (or my child) regulate in-session? What activities are available if talk-therapy feels less accessible?
What options do you offer for communication besides talking face-to-face?
Is goal-setting and measuring progress a part of your practice? Is this necessary if it feels uncomfortable?
What therapy modalities do you utilize, and are you open to using session time to share Special Interests?
While and after receiving answers to these questions, as it feels comfortable, tune into your responses.
Does this counsellor feel like a fit?
Do I feel nervous or apprehensive?
Do their answers make me feel safe?
Can I sense a power dynamic that feels intimidating?
A little nervousness is normal when meeting someone new, but if you get the sense that the therapist thinks they understand your (or your child’s) needs better than you, it may be an indicator that they aren’t a fit.
What it really comes down to is a sense of safety with the professional. They can have all of the “correct” training, but if there isn’t genuine connection, then the experience may not feel supportive. Trust your gut!
Overall, I view my work as a neurodiversity-affirming therapist as a love letter to my former, less-resourced self. Seems selfish, perhaps. But this letter’s equally for my children, my clients, and the disability community as a whole. How I operate in my family and work may feel insignificant in the big picture, but I believe that over time all the micro-impacts join together to create macro change. So, here’s to making the world a more neurodiversity-affirming place, one practice, one classroom, one workplace, and one family at a time.
Kerry Schroeder is a neurodiversity-affirming Registered Clinical Counsellor and parent coach based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She empowers parents of neurodivergent children with science-backed education and strengths-based strategies. Sign up for her free weekly e-newsletter and follow her on Instagram for free digestible and implementable parenting tips.
The Mental Health Literacy Guide for Autism is meant for Autistic adults, family members, professionals, policy-makers & leaders. The goal of the guide is to provide knowledge about the factors that can impact Autistic mental health. It highlights how context & individual experiences play roles one’s mental health, and how societal acceptance and appreciation of autism is critical for the better support and well-being of Autistic adults.