Over 900 therapists, social workers, case workers, and community members from across the country virtually joined and participated in Charlie Health’s first webinar event specifically focused on neurodivergence. The event, “Super Neurodivergence!”, featured guest speakers passionate about the field. The goal of the webinar was to help participants better understand how to care for the mental health of neurodivergent individuals.
Guest speakers included:
- Dr. Chelsi Clark, Ph.D. (she/her) is a licensed therapist, public speaker, and writer with over fifteen years of experience working in the field of mental health. Dr. Clark is the Director of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Programming at Charlie Health.
- Megan Lederman, MA, LPC (they/them) is a licensed therapist and the Director of Clinical Programming at Charlie Health.
- Sara Tippey, MSW, LSW (they/them) is a licensed social worker and therapist who specializes in LGBTQIA+ advocacy at Charlie Health.
This event comes at a time when children and adolescents across the country are facing a national mental health crisis. According to data collected in 2020, one-quarter of survey respondents ages 18-24 had contemplated suicide in the past 30 days; significant increases in anxiety, mood disorders, and self-harm have also been reported in recent years. This national emergency is only exacerbated by the limited number of child mental health specialists and long wait times for families to access care. For neurodivergent teens, these statistics could be even worse. Charlie Health is leading the way in combating this crisis. In fact, a new neurodivergent cohort was recently developed in Charlie Health’s virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) to directly address the unique needs of neurodivergent teens, young adults, and families.
Be sure to check out the full recording of the webinar below!
Charlie Health Director of Clinical Programming Megan Lederman began the webinar with an introduction to the concept of neurodivergence. The term “neurodivergent” was coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer as a way to describe how the brain functions differently in different individuals. Throughout Singer’s career, she strived to promote equality among people who she felt were neurological minorities.
“Neurodivergent” can be defined in many ways. It is not an official medical diagnosis, but rather a sociological term. As mentioned above, neurodivergent refers to individuals who may have brains that function or operate differently from what is believed to be the “norm.” These individuals may have strengths and challenges associated with their neurodivergence. Common conditions among those who would describe themselves as neurodivergent include Autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, Down syndrome, Tourette syndrome, and certain mental health conditions.
Identifying someone’s neurodivergence as a deficit or a negative trait that needs to be “treated” is not helpful, speakers warned. In fact, this othering can lead to stress, stigmatization, isolation, and discrimination.
Just like superheroes, neurodivergent individuals can claim and celebrate their uniqueness and diversity.
“The notion that a neurotypical brain is healthier or more desirable than other brains is not really any more valid than saying that one culture, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is more desirable,” emphasized Lederman.
Instead of encouraging neurodivergent individuals to change to act neurotypical, neurodivergent-affirming care should be the appropriate response. This is part of the work that the broader neurodiversity movement hopes to accomplish. The title of the webinar reflects this idea.
Delays in care for neurodivergent people of color
Research shows that young people of color are more likely to have significant delays in receiving an autism diagnosis. Without a formal diagnosis, it can be very difficult for families to access treatment or interventions that would help their child.
Some eye-opening statistics shared include the following:
- Black children were 5.1 times more likely to be misdiagnosed with conduct disorders or adjustment disorders before being diagnosed appropriately with ADHD or autism
- Latino children are diagnosed with autism approximately 2.5 years later than white children and are often missed in diagnosis despite meeting diagnostic criteria
- Indigenous children are 13% less likely to be diagnosed with autism.
What might cause these delays?
A number of factors play a role, explained Director of BIPOC Programming at Charlie Health, Dr. Clark, who led this second portion of the webinar. Racial bias plays a large role in diagnostics. For example, ADHD and autism are commonly described in young white boys, but these same conditions may go unnoticed or punished in young girls or young people of color. Health care access, language differences, judgment within one’s own community, and high costs of testing add to the barriers that families of color face. And finally, according to Dr. Clark, while resources for neurodivergent youth do exist, these resources are disproportionately allocated to white communities.
Caring for neurodivergent individuals of color
To combat racial bias and shine a light on neurodivergent people of color, Dr. Clark called for the following changes in our societal approach to neurodivergent people of color:
- Elevating voices of color
- Challenging established organizations to include autistic or neurodivergent BIPOC voices
- Combining anti-racist training with neurodiversity and autism training
- Increasing the number of BIPOC professionals
Additionally, she asked participants to think twice before calling the police on a neurodivergent individual acting out who may need mental health care instead.
Caring for neurodivergent LGBTQIA+ individuals
Neurodivergent individuals are more likely to identify as LGBTQIA+ than neurotypical individuals, Sara Tippey, an LGBTQIA+ advocate, shared with audience members. Autistic people are 3-6 times more likely to identify as genderqueer or transgender. It is not understood why this occurs; however, experts feel that individuals who do not conform to societal norms and expectations may also be more open to exploring non-heterosexual relationships.
Rather than dismiss this as a “phase” or a symptom of a condition they may have, Tippey recommended that parents and others embrace the fluid experiences of their neurodivergent loved one. Remaining open and asking the client about their experiences, goals, and self-expression is important. Finding other individuals who are older or the same age who have also successfully navigated similar experiences or feelings in the past may also be helpful. Finally, psychoeducation and social support are important components of embracing a neurodivergent individual’s identity.
At the end of this section, participants were asked to share how they plan to incorporate their client’s intersecting identities in treatment plans. A wide variety of answers from the viewers, including “validate,” “ask questions,” “open communication,” and more were provided.
Understanding special qualities of neurodivergent individuals
While coverage of neurodivergent individuals is often negative, the last portion of the webinar aimed to focus on the strengths and unique qualities many neurodivergent individuals share.
Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which a person with autism or another mental health issue demonstrates astonishing abilities in a specific field or practice. It occurs more commonly in males than females, and skills can appear or disappear suddenly. An example of an individual with savant syndrome is Stephen Wiltshire, an individual who can draw and paint detailed landscapes from memory.
Splinter skills include behaviors such as the obsession with trivia, maps, or facts. Talented savants are those who have honed skills in music, math, the arts, or more. And the term prodigious savant is reserved for individuals who would be classified as a genius even by the standard of a non-neurodivergent individual.
Another example of special qualities seen in neurodivergent individuals are twice-exceptional students often referred to as “2e” students. These are students who are gifted and knowledgeable in one or more domains but these positive qualities are often overshadowed by struggles in other areas. Helping these students at home and at school means supporting both their strengths and struggles.
Practice tips while working with clients
The session ended with broad tips for neurodivergent affirming practice. Lederman provided the following recommendations:
- Ask an individual how they would like to be addressed. For example, would they like to be addressed as “a person with autism,” acknowledging that one condition does not define them. Or would they like to be addressed as “an autistic person,” celebrating and strongly identifying with their diagnosis. Client- and identity-first language can help the client feel safe and supported.
- Reconsider using the word “disorder” and defer to the preferences of the person with the neurocognitive difference in your care.
- Avoid broad categorizations like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning.” Make sure to think about your client as an individual in an ever-changing environment rather than as someone in a vacuum. Perhaps the individual needs more support at school but requires little support at home.
- Understand that diversity equals potential. Try to focus on the unique talents and gifts of your client.
Affirming approaches are not meant to minimize the challenges faced by neurocognitive individuals, Lederman shared. Rather, this type of care allows neurodivergent individuals to form healthier thought processes, feelings, and behaviors. As mentioned above, Charlie Health has developed a neurodivergent cohort as part of its virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP). If you or a loved one feel that treatment may be beneficial, reach out today.