- Apr 28, 2023
4 min read
Inclusivity & Neurodiversity in Mental Health: Insights from an Autistic Mental Health Professional
Mental health is a critical aspect of overall well-being, and it affects everyone, regardless of their neurodivergence. As the field of mental health is constantly evolving both traditionally and digitally, it is important to have diverse range of perspectives to fully understand and address the needs of every individual.
In honour of Autism Acceptance Month in April, a time to celebrate and recognise the strengths and perspectives of those with autism. We interviewed our very own ThoughtFull Professional, Ch’ng Bao Zhong, who is an autistic working to change the game and break down stigmas around autistic individuals.
Source: Ch'ng Bao Zhong
Personal Background & Professional Experience
1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background, what inspired you to pursue a profession in the mental health field?
My name is Bao Zhong, you can call me Bao. I am an autistic, licensed and registered counsellor in Malaysia (KB, PA). I received my autism diagnosis at the age of 27, after a long pursuit of validation as getting an autism diagnosis as an adult can be difficult due to diagnostic services being inaccessible and unaffordable. I currently work in a private practice at REN Counselling Centre, Penang.
I never imagined myself becoming a mental health professional when I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology back in 2015. I found mental health services to be inaccessible and unaffordable, hence I had not considered a career within the mental health industry to be a viable career choice. It was not until my struggle with depression that I coincidentally found out that I am autistic through a volunteering programme. It was then that I realized that everything in my life finally made sense – my friendship struggles, my sensory system, the way I think, my emotional outbursts, etc.
This prompted me to question myself: what does self-realization mean? Should I follow that path of the world which has treated me harshly, and constantly failed me with a lack in empathy? OR Should I be kinder to the world considering how cold I know it can be? And lo and behold, here I am.
To quote Viktor Frankl: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” I believe the meaning in my personal experiences of suffering, is to help other autistics navigate their mental health journey.
2. How does being an autistic shape your approach as a mental health professional, and what unique perspectives do you bring to your practice?
I believe that being an autistic made me a better counsellor who’s more receptive to diverse ways of living. It made me realize that there is no ‘one’ standard or perfect way of living and that is totally fine to be different from others or have negative feelings due to trauma.
Having experienced being invalidated throughout my life, I learned the importance of not invalidating others.Treat others as how you want to be treated. Putting the needs of my clients first, I always ask myself: “How can I be the friend or help that they need right now in their lives?"
3. In terms of client care and professional development, what measures do you believe the mental health field can take to better support neurodivergents?
Undoubtedly, there are lots to be done.
Firstly, there is a tendency for women to be under diagnosed or misdiagnosed when it comes to autism. Studies have shown that women are more likely to autistic-mask or autistic-camouflage by blending into societal norms. Recent studies show that most autistic women were initially misdiagnosed with personality disorders, schizophrenia, and anxiety. It is only by luck that a small proportion of autistic women were eventually detected of their autistic traits and diagnosed.
Second, is to have greater awareness on autism-affirmed therapy. Autism-affirmed therapy consists of respecting and accepting autistic clients' stance, despite how disagreeable we are (unless when harm is involved). Based on memoirs from several autistics, some autistics do find it hard to communicate in therapy sessions due to the ‘reset’ we experience every time we attend therapy, where each session feels like it’s the first time meeting the therapist.
Third, is to practise a perspective shift from a traditional medical model of disability, which focused on the “deficits” in autistics, to a social model of disability, which focuses on how societal attitudes, labelling, non-acceptance and barriers to services and accommodations affect us.
Fourth, it’s important to move away from stereotyping all autistics as having the same characteristics, such as hand-flapping, non-verbal communication, poor eye contact, and inability to work independently. There are autistics out there who are in the workforce, struggling, and at the same time need support. While some may be able to make eye contact, it doesn’t mean that it is easy or comfortable. Personally, I still find it hard to make eye contact with others, but when in a professional setting I have learned to adapt by looking at the nose bridge or the gap between the eyes.
Source: Ch'ng Bao Zhong
Addressing Challenges and Providing Support
4. What are some unique challenges you have faced in the mental health industry?
Personally, in my home country, Malaysia, I did feel discriminated against in the health profession. I understand why some autistic medical professionals choose not to disclose their diagnosis or reach out for support.
When I disclose my autistic identity, I am met with downplaying statements like “Everyone is a bit autistic” or “You can overcome your autistic traits”, “You are just using an excuse with your autism”, and “I also struggle what, didn’t see me complain?”
5. What advice would you offer other autistics who may be interested in pursuing a career in mental health?
Being in the mental health industry is internally rewarding. It does not matter what others think of autistics, or what they say. It is our opportunity to work together to change how the industry perceives autism.
But most importantly, take care of yourself! Autistics are more prone to compassion fatigue due to the high level of masking needed to be a mental health professional. Therefore, know your boundaries and remember to call for a rest! I am also learning to pace myself too!
6. What message would you like to share with autistics and their loved ones during Autism Acceptance Month, and what can we all do to support deeper understanding and acceptance of neurodivergents?
I would say that I understand that having an intimate relationship with us autistics can be challenging with all the accommodations needed for sensory, schedule, and interest.
At the same time, we can all adjust our attitudes towards autistics. By stereotyping that autistic individuals are “problematic” or “having fixations”, our individual identity is taken away. Instead, try to understand us as individuals as you would with any other neurotypicals. We are human too!
To all autistics out there – Hey! You are not alone! Remember, you have a community, you have us, we are in this together!
We’re Here to Help!
💼 Want to build healthier and more resilient organizations and communities with ThoughtFullChat’s evidence-based coaching and curated mental well-being programs? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get a free assessment and demo.
👤 Looking for a professional to support your personal mental wellness journey? Be sure to download our app on the App Store and Google Play to connect with a certified ThoughtFull Professional today!