Why Crafting Positive Psychology Practice for Neurodivergent Clients Matters – And a Workshop to Explore This

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My name is Dr Rebecca Jackson. I am a positive psychology coaching research practitioner who coaches ADHD and autistic adults on zest and self-regulation. I am ADHD and autistic.

I first trained as an executive coach in 2018. I loved it. But my accredited course simply taught goal-setting and the standard GROW model of coaching. I also received coaching at the time, but it didn’t seem to click fully for me – and it felt like “just talking”.

At the same time, although I didn’t yet know it, I was neurodivergent, meaning that my ways of understanding and experiencing, and being in and communicating in the world differ from those of the neuro-majority.

These factors combined to lead me to ask: is this ALL that coaching is? Is it that simple? And why is coaching sometimes less effective for me, as both a coach and a coachee?

Of course, I was still undiagnosed at this time, and so I didn’t take that thinking any further. I also moved away from academia, thinking there was something wrong with me, and that I would never be able to meaningfully contribute to research. This hugely dented my confidence and my zest for life.

Fast forward to the first COVID19 lockdown.

I found myself working reduced hours at home and, therefore, bored.

One day, drawing on my strength of love-of-learning, I realised that studying would help me keep going during the pandemic.

I recalled how I had enjoyed researching interest and enjoyment in learning environments when I was a university lecturer, and also wondered if there was anything more I wanted to with my coaching skills…

One serendipitous Google rabbit-hole later, and I signed up for my diploma in positive psychology coaching with the Positive Psychology Guild.

I began the course and devoured all the theories and models I was learning, discovering a deep interest in the strengths of zest and self-regulation. As I was studying my diploma, I experienced a small burnout. A pattern of wellness followed by burnout had played out my entire adult life, and I couldn’t understand why my life was punctuated by such ups-and-downs, seemingly for no obvious reason.

I decided I wanted to get to the bottom of this. I called the first local therapist in the search results, who happened to be autistic herself. She listened to my life story, and gently suggested I be assessed for autism. I was diagnosed, and received my ADHD diagnosis shortly after.

Not long after, a lightbulb went off. I was studying positive psychology coaching at the same time as I was being diagnosed. I realised I had a unique opportunity to understand if and how a positive psychology coaching process could work for a wider range of brains. I was also able to bring my research skills and my neurodivergent strengths to this work – curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. It was the perfect nexus of who I authentically was, what I loved, and purpose.

Coaching came alive again for me at this time. I pivoted my coaching work to create a completely neurodivergence-focused practice, and gave all my diploma essays and projects a neurodivergence lens to see what I could discover. I tested a wide range of interventions on myself, and began developing neuro-affirmative psycho-education, re-imagining key positive psychology ideas for me and my clients. As such, being research active became a real possibility for me again, and my confidence and zest levels soared.


When you buy a new car, you suddenly see that car everywhere.

Realising I was neurodivergent and working with more neurodivergent people, I similarly recognised everywhere the extent of variability in brains and ways of being, further convincing me of the need to create positive psychology tools and processes that work for as many brains as possible.

I hope that you can have a similar realisation now.

Whether you realise it or not, you have neurodivergent clients in your coaching, therapy or training practices.

I would even venture that you’re more likely to be working with them than people in other sectors.

As many as 1 in 5 people may be neurodivergent in some way.

Autistic and ADHD adults are more likely to have a diagnosis of anxiety and depression (see Hargitai et al. 2023; Hollocks et al., 2019) or a learning disability (Autistica, 2023) than the neuro-typical population. Difficult early life experiences are, sadly, also a common part of many neurodivergent people’s life experiences (see Lugo-Candelas et al., 2021; Yoshikawa et al., 2022).

Furthermore, many neurodivergent people have experienced socio-economic barriers in earlier life (Federico et al., 2023), and, for those of us working, we are at great risk of workplace burnout, especially if reasonable adjustments are not put in place (Willis Towers Watson, 2023).

Finally, a recent study (Kriegel et al., 2023) showed that autism underpinned a high number of psychiatric admissions, with the prevalence rates 6 times higher than in the general population.

As Dr Suzy Green (Happiness and its causes, 2011) has noted, many people who approach positive psychology coaches exhibit psychological distress. There is a good chance that a significant proportion of these adults will be neurodivergent, whether they know it or not.

Furthermore, I suggest this applies even more to therapeutic contexts, while adult education is all about being able to learn something new, perhaps something that you found yourself unable to engage with before due to not knowing what your brain needs.

Therefore, I suggest that any positive psychology practitioner working in coaching, therapy or adult education probably encounters more neurodivergent adults than in other sectors.

If that is true, I then think that part of applying positive psychology values and principles means recognising, welcoming, and adapting to neurodivergence in our client work. This requires us to stop, reflect, and ask ourselves:

  • Do I know enough about these topics?
  • Do I know how I might adjust my practice?
  • What are my legal obligations in terms of avoiding discrimination and offering reasonable adjustments?
  • Do I have any hidden bias, and why?
  • How can I build up my skills?
  • Am I the best person to support this client, or should I refer them to a practitioner with lived experience?

If we don’t craft our offerings to support neurodivergent people, at best, we render our services less effective and valuable. At worst, we risk doing harm, perhaps through inadvertently creating “yet another” life experience where the client believes they do not belong or cannot succeed.

This is why I now research effective, inclusive, accessible and enjoyable positive psychology coaching practice, and why I share my observations at learning events.


At the Positive Psychology Summit 2024, I am delighted to bring you an autism-focused interactive workshop for coaches.

The aim of this workshop is to help positive psychology coaches discover how autistic clients may respond and what needs they may have in the coaching space, and make a plan for what coaches can craft, embed or say to meet these clients where they are and offer inclusive and effective coaching to them.

Along the way, we’ll identify together points in the positive psychology coaching process that can be especially crucial or may need particular adjustment to support coaching outcomes and client engagement and well-being.

Using coaching questions, vignette case studies, and reflective exercises, participants will also have the chance to review where they are at with working with autistic clients, and will have chance to craft their own CPD journey to better support autistic adults in coaching in an inclusive, effective and enjoyable manner.

If you have identified in reading this post that you wish to better craft your coaching practice to support your autistic clients, then you can discover more about the workshop and how to book onto the conference here.


Bio

Dr Rebecca Jackson is a positive psychology coaching research practitioner who specialises in researching effective, inclusive and enjoyable coaching for autistic and ADHD adults like herself. In her coaching, she works on generating zest through self-regulation, with a sprinkling of authenticity and motivation support along the way. She is currently writing a dissertation on the positive psychology process through an autistic lens. Her top strengths are humour, curiosity, love of learning, creativity and appreciation. Rebecca recently walked to Everest Basecamp, just to see if she could. When she is not eating, sleeping and breathing coaching, she can be found hiking with her dog Mossy or planning her next travel adventure.

Rebecca’s website is www.thequirkybrain.coach

For any follow-up questions on this post, email yourcoach@thequirkybrain.coach


References

  • Almost three quarters of neurodiverse employees suffering with mental health issues. (n.d.). WTW. https://www.wtwco.com/en-gb/news/2022/09/almost-three-quarters-of-neurodiverse-employees-suffering-with-mental-health-issues#:~:text=Only%20a%20quarter%20(25%25),at%2038%25%20for%20neurotypical%20employees.
  • Federico, A., Zgodic, A., Flory, K., Hantman, R. M., Eberth, J. M., McLain, A. C., & Bradshaw, J. (2023). Predictors of Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD: Results from the National Survey of Children’s Health. Disability and Health Journal, 101512. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2023.101512
  • Happiness & Its Causes. (2012, April 16). Suzy Green “Positive psychology coaching – optimising your potential” at Mind & Its Potential 2011 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y0TZcKlrTk
  • Hargitai, L. D., Livingston, L. A., Waldren, L. H., Robinson, R., Jarrold, C., & Shah, P. (2023). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder traits are a more important predictor of internalising problems than autistic traits. Scientific Reports, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-26350-4
  • Hollocks, M. J., Lerh, J. W., Magiati, I., Meiser‐Stedman, R., & Brugha, T. (2018). Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 49(4), 559–572. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291718002283
  • Kriegel, G., Paul, S., Leonard, K. H., & Sandor, P. (2023). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in inpatient adolescent psychiatric population. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-023-05923-w
  • Learning disability – Autism | Autistica | Autistica. (2023, November 17). Autistica. https://www.autistica.org.uk/what-is-autism/signs-and-symptoms/learning-disability-and-autism
  • Lugo‐Candelas, C., Corbeil, T., Wall, M. M., Posner, J., Bird, H. R., Canino, G., Fisher, P., Suglia, S. F., & Duarte, C. S. (2020). ADHD and risk for subsequent adverse childhood experiences: understanding the cycle of adversity. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 62(8), 971–978. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13352
  • Yoshikawa, H., Kitamura, S., Matsuoka, K., Takahashi, M., Ishida, R., Kishimoto, N., Yasuno, F., Yasuda, Y., Hashimoto, R., Miyasaka, T., Kichikawa, K., Kishimoto, T., & Makinodan, M. (2022). Adverse childhood experience is associated with disrupted white matter integrity in autism spectrum disorder: a diffusion tensor imaging study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.823260
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