Like many speech professionals, recently, I have been doing quite a bit of unlearning about past approaches used in therapy. I have been learning neurodiversity-affirming methods to move away from a medical model approach to therapy that focuses on an individual’s deficits and instead a social model where individual differences are celebrated.
In the past, well-intentioned clinicians attempted to help our autistic clients learn about their and others’ emotions and how to respond ‘appropriately’ to them. However, we missed the mark completely. Rather than teaching emotion vocabulary and what each of these feelings looks like, we need to acknowledge that we all experience feelings differently and that there is no wrong way to feel. This unique process of feeling sensations from within our bodies is called interoception.
Since each of us experiences sensations in our bodies differently, it is problematic for us to label emotions and what they look like in one specific way. For example, suppose we relate or describe anger simply as one’s face feeling hot, furrowed eyebrows, clenched fists or the feeling you get when someone takes away your tablet. In that case, this sends the message that if you are not experiencing those described sensations, then your sensations are flawed. Unfortunately, this has led many autistics to mistrust what their bodies were telling them, and instead, to conform to these taught feeling concepts.
What do we do? Based on what I’ve learned, we need to help our clients connect to their inner experiences and sensations in their bodies. We can help our clients describe feelings by using open-ended vocabulary options with various standard sensations and vocabulary like colours, animals, shapes, etc. We all have different inner experiences and may need different terminology to describe them.
Once our clients develop an awareness of their inner sensations and can describe what they are experiencing, we can help them understand what those sensations may indicate in terms of emotional words. We must keep a balance between validating an individual’s experience and helping them know emotional words to connect with and better understand a broader group of people.
When I reflect, I think about how often I wasn’t supporting my clients in a way that would help them to succeed in real-life situations. For example, they were usually very successful in labelling emotions and explaining what you should do, but when it came time to use what they learned and put it into action in real-life scenarios, they did not have the tools to do so. The concepts I was teaching were not authentically their inner sensations; therefore, the concepts they had learned with me did not translate.
By helping our clients to understand their own inner experience truly, they will be more likely to authentically develop and use coping strategies that work for them in their daily life.