What One Client Taught Me about Embracing Differences

By Kathleen M Sisti, MSW, LMSW, CFSW

We didn’t see eye to eye at first. There was me, the outgoing and animated therapist, and her, the outspoken, strong-willed woman who came to my office each Wednesday at 10:00 am like clockwork with a journal full of complaints. Well, what I labelled as complaints. I soon discovered I was wrong. My new client was trying to show me her world, and once I allowed myself to see it, I learned so much.

As a therapist I’m known for my sometimes “out there” interventions and my passion for connecting with others. But I found it hard to connect with Sally the first time we met; she presented as very angry. She had just gone through a series of life changes, and she was not happy about that. I tried to challenge her all-or-nothing thinking. I tried reframing situations. I jumped into teaching her coping skills. Nothing was working. I suddenly realized I needed to slow our process down.  Sally needed to feel heard before she could trust me, and I needed to understand Sally’s reality before I could help her. You see, Sally is on the Autism Spectrum, and it wasn’t until I stepped into her world and her shoes that I could truly see things from her perspective.

For most of Sally’s life she has been described as difficult. Why? Because she believes in rules, and it genuinely pains her when they are not followed. Also, she needs to stick to a rigid schedule; routine is her calm. Like so many others, I initially challenged these behaviors in our sessions. I tried to support her by offering strategies and theories, but she couldn’t accept them. I struggled to connect with Sally and was frustrated by what I perceived to be her resistance.  Finally, once Sally felt comfortable sharing what she had written in her journal with me, I got it. I had been trying to get Sally to conform to my way of thinking and functioning instead of embracing her neurodivergence, her unique way of thinking, perceiving, and problem-solving as strengths she could draw on to achieve her goals. With this realization, instead of stripping away what is unique and wonderful about Sally, I could begin to see what makes her one of the most amazing people I know. She is extremely kind and intelligent.  She has wonderful advocacy skills, and given the opportunity, she will give you a well thought out opinion on the political field.

Once, I could view life as Sally did, my perception of her changed. The journal of complaints? I now recognized it as her journal of pain, a chronicle of her fears and frustrations. By sharing in her experiences, we were able to begin moving forward together. Using approaches that feel more natural to her, we started to work on expanding her capacity for flexibility and, together, are developing a new schedule that gives Sally what she wants and makes space for things we’ve discussed would help her grow. She has even shown some excitement about the changes, which would not have been the case when I first met her. Our sessions are now more collaborative, there is an exchange of thoughts and ideas.  She questions the world around her, and I try to help her understand reasons why things may happen and to consider other people’s point of view. Because of Sally, I have read many articles and books and attended trainings about Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a very misunderstood condition even though it affects 75,000,000 people in the world. That’s a lot of people that need to be heard, not overlooked.

Even now, there are people who see Sally as unreasonable and demanding, but is it unreasonable to want to be treated with compassion and care? Is it unreasonable to want to feel comfortable in your day-to-day life?  Isn’t that what we all want in our lives?

I am grateful Sally stepped into my world. Through her, I have learned that when we value differences, when we respect and affirm each individual’s potential, our lives are enriched. Sally has taught me so much about compassion and it has made me a better therapist.

Photo of Kathleen Sisti

Kathleen Sisti, MSW, LMSW, CFSW is a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.

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