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Narrative Therapy and Neurodiversity

A quick peek into two of my favourite topics and greatest specialities as a therapist. How do they fit together? What's so great about them, anyway?


 

In This Article:

 

Large tubs of gelato lined up beisde eachother, with chocolate/hazlenut and mango flavours front and centre.

As a neurodiverse narrative therapist, I’m a little biased in my opinion that these two fit together like chocolate gelato and lemon sorbet: weird on paper but delicious in practice. (The reason is that I’m 85% sure Michael White was on the spectrum, but that is pure speculation on my part based on reading any of his papers. Do not quote me on this, you will fail your exam.)


What is it all about?


An easier to cite reason is that Narrative Therapy is all about personal interpretations of experiences, and taking people seriously when they describe how they think and feel. If there’s one tragic quote shared by most of my clients, peers, and friends, it’s “my therapist didn’t get me”. It’s not always a brain difference thing, but it’s often enough to be noticeable that neurodiverse people can be misunderstood by professionals, labelled as noncompliant, pathologised, or expected to change essential (and harmless) parts of who they are. In theory, Narrative therapy is about recognising and honouring your experience, and “de-centring the practitioner” by focusing on your interpretation of events, not theirs.


Neurodiversity, viewed through the lens of narrative therapy, invites us to challenge cultural assumptions about 'normal' behaviour. Normal isn’t the goal, sometimes it’s even the problem. It’s about unravelling stigmatising and marginalising stories, and replacing them with stories that respect our identities.


But isn’t Neurodiversity the “problem”?


This was my number one biggest struggle when I started learning about Narrative Therapy. Because Michael White has heaps of case studies working with ADHD kids and their parents, and in many of them, ADHD was the “problem” they were working on. I reallllly struggled with that. Luckily for me (and hopefully for you) it isn’t so black and white as “your diagnosis is your problem”.


In those cases, parents would walk in with a kid and say “Sam is driving us crazy. He’s out of control, he refuses to listen, he’s a menace.” Talking about the kid like that painted a picture of the kid being helpless - or an agent of chaos - that needed to be fixed or reined in. From that perspective, taking those “negative” traits and giving them a new home, ADHD, gave the kid back his agency to make choices about his behaviour, and the parents could talk about what was difficult without complaining that their child was difficult.


Even then, ADHD might be the first label to come up, but it was important to find a name that fit the kid’s experience. A kid who named their problem “Jumping Thoughts” would be telling us that the problem, for them, was the way their thoughts jumped from topic to topic, making it difficult to focus. A symptom of ADHD, yes, but the problem isn’t the diagnosis, it’s the specific experience.


A long queue of people standing outside of a large, old-looking building. There is a sign for Louis Vuiton high above them.

I identify strongly with my label - I’m an ADHDer, or a neurodiverse person, not a person with ADHD, because I can’t separate my experience of the world from my identity. So when I talk about my experience, it’s not me vs ADHD, it’s me & ADHD, united against the world. It’s my brain fighting against Pointless Social Rules or Nightmarish Boredom. When I jitter out of my skin while standing in a long line, I don’t blame ADHD, I blame the line, and try to find ways to cope with standing in it, instead of hating myself for not being able to stay still.


Connecting the Personal and the Political


Narrative therapy is as much about the political as the personal, and it had a huge impact on my own ways of viewing the world. While I’ve always leaned into recognising the impacts of society, this got so much bigger and stronger and complicated when I got into narrative. Sitting in that weird in-between space of “do I have a mental illness, or is my brain just different? But if I’m just different why is everything so hard?” I found it comforting to look at all these different practitioners talking about neurodiversity as a way to exist that is beautiful and valuable in itself, but is fighting to exist in a system that wasn’t designed for it. Changing the conversation to questioning the systems in place, and why we should change ourselves to fit the system instead of the other way around, is pretty life-affirming. Narrative approaches are about empowering us to reclaim our narratives, and to contribute to a collective reshaping of societal narratives, and rules, and beliefs.


Does this sound like a way of working that would suit you? Or that you’d like to learn more about? Come chat to me about it or set up a session to try out narrative work for yourself.


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