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Autism and IFS Therapy

Updated: Jan 5


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy, no matter your neurotype. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is no different. It is a perfect fit for some, and for others, it just doesn't land. IFS does land for me and it's the lense which all of my work is done with my clients and with myself. I'll share with you a brief overview of what it is and why I use it. I'll specifically share with you how it can be helpful for the Autistic wiring and experience and what to look out for in modifying this approach. If you're already familiar with IFS and are just interested in how to use this with Autism, scroll to the second half.


What is IFS Therapy?

IFS, or Internal Family Systems, therapy was created by Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D., through his work with his own clients, as a therapist. He listened to his clients describe different parts of themselves and noticed how when these parts felt safe they were able to relax, heal, and feel connected to something greater within themselves.


What do we mean by parts? You can think of parts as a sub-personality, an aspect of yourself, a quality of yourself, different thoughts and feelings, different viewpoints and opinions, and so on. A simple example is saying "A part of me wants to go on a walk and a part of me wants to sit on the couch." You are one person, but with different thoughts, feelings, and opinions; your mind is not singular, but multiple. There is a part of you who wants to walk, maybe because it loves the outdoors, or maybe because it wants to keep you healthy. And there is a part of you who wants to sit on the couch, maybe because it's tired and wants you to rest, or maybe because it feels self-conscious about your fitness abilities.


Schwartz describes two categories of parts, those that have been wounded and are carrying pain (Exiles) and those that are working hard to protect us from old and new pain (Managers and Firefighters), more on those later. Given the above example we might then see how both parts (the one who wants to walk and the one who wants to sit on the couch) are both protecting you. They are both trying to help you and keep you from further pain. If your health deteriorates, you have more pain, and if you keep pushing yourself when you're tired, you have more pain. And then we may see that underneath these protectors are old wounds; maybe a memory of being bullied for your weight as a child, or a scary hospital stay because of illness. These parts do not want you to experience this pain again, so they have found tactics to keep you from this- walking and resting. Then further, the quality within us that is not a part, but is the "something greater" I mentioned above, Schwartz calls the Self. This is our true-self, our essence, our soul, our centered place within, or insert another name to describe this more central or spiritual inner place. This is not a part, but the place within us that has always been there and will always be there. The Self is full of great qualities that keep us connected, grounded, open, curious, and safe.


IFS aims to unburden and offer healing to our system (our parts), to release the pain and wounding we have endured and are still carrying. Through this process we can better show up in our lives with more access to Self energy, creating inner and outer peace. We don't have to be on-guard in the same way, feeling triggered, reactive, disconnected, lost, unhappy, and so on. Through this approach we have the opportunity to build a relationship with ourSelf, have more self-compassion, understand why we do the things we do and feel the way we feel, and let go of the weight and pain of the past. Here's a video to explain this further.


What does an IFS Session Look Like?

IFS can look different for each person and with each therapist. This is particularly true if you are Autistic. The Autistic brain is wired different and therefore engages in and processes experiences differently. There are some key components and steps to an IFS session, however they can be delivered in unique way and modified to meet each person's unique experience and neurotype.


Your IFS therapist will listen to you with curiosity, openness, and compassion. They will then reflect and reframe what you are saying into "parts language." This means they will help pick out the different parts that are present in what you're describing. There will likely be mixed feelings, mixed opinions on why something happened, and mixed ideas on how to solve it. Your therapist will help to label each of these as a way to organize and pinpoint specific "points of a map" of your internal map. Your therapist may then ask which of these parts feels the heaviness, strongest, or most important to start with. They may check in to see if there are any reservations or worries about going to this particular point on the map. As the session progresses, your therapist will help you identify how you are feeling, what you are thinking, how your body is responding, and any memories or images that are associated with this experiences. You begin developing a relationship with this part of you; learning why it shows up, what it does for you, what it's scared would happen if it did not do this thing for you, what its hopes are for you, how long it's been doing this for you, if there are burdens it's holding that it would like to release, and if it would like to do anything else for you instead. Through this process you are connecting with this part inside from your Self. This means you are able to have a conversation with this part of you from a place of care, compassion, safety, and healing. You are able to see the part as a piece of you, an aspect of your experience, but not You. It is a part, not the whole.


To put this more simply, during an IFS session you will identify a part or multiple parts to work with. You will connect with this part in whatever way is available (talking, feeling, imagining, creating, etc), you will learn about the part, you will offer it safety and healing, and you will help it release the pain and burdens it has been holding. You may do all of this within one session or it could carry over into several. Each person, each inner system, and each part is different and needs something different. During your session you could expect some of these elements: mindfulness, imagery, identifying and feeling emotions, cognitive processing, verbal processing, sensing into your body, externalizing through creating art or using objects, and other outlets. This is particularly relevant in the context of Autism and the differences in how you brain and body experience and process the world. Here's a video to explain this more.



What are the Three Types of Parts and the Self?

As the above image shows, each internal system is made of three parts: Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles. And we each also have a core Self. Managers and Firefighters protect us from past, present, and future pain, that's their goal anyways. Exiles hold our past pains and wounds. The core Self is our always present, deep seated, perfect essence.


Managers: Manger parts protect by being proactive. They manage our day to day life in ways that keep us from ever touching the pain. These parts can look like people pleasing, being a perfectionist, overthinking, being self-critical, caretaking, and more. They may be the parts you and others see the most. When you think of your personlity or when others describe your qualities, some of those qualities are likely your manager parts.


In an Autistic system, many of our managers may be described as "masking" parts. We often have a whole team of parts who protect us by making us appear acceptable, put-together, in control, regulated, social, friendly, calm, keep our body still, etc. In many cases, the parts who mask our Autism may dominate the system. This is especially true if you were taught to do this as a child through interventions like ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) or did not realize you were Autistic until later in life. In both cases, you learned that who you were, what you did, how you said things, and how you were in relationship with others was wrong. You had to develop these masks to make it through.


Firefighters: Firefighter parts are reactive. They come to the surface and take over in extreme ways when we have gotten too close to the pain or are actively in pain. These parts use things like feeling numb or dissociated, disordered eating, addictions, yelling and conflict, self-harming, being suicidal, and more. Their job is to get us out of and away from the pain as quickly as possible.


In an Autistic system firefighters may show up when we have entered emotional overwhelm, sensory overstimulation, or some kind of rejection within a relationship. In an attempt to help us and because the part feels they have no other choice, they may react by melting down, shutting down, over or under eating, dissociating, having suicidal thoughts or actions, drinking or using drugs, or staying in bed and sleeping all day, to name a few. What's tough for an Autistic system is that responses like melting down and shutting can seem totally out of our control. And in many ways they are. These are responses of our sensitive and responsive nervous system. Our body and mind cannot take in any more and it has to find a release, either by letting it out externally (meltdown) or by turning everything off inside (shutdown). This is not always fueled solely by the past, but by living in an overwhelming world now and maybe always.


Exiles: Exiled parts often are young, although they can happen at any age. They are the ones who experienced the pain, wounding, or trauma. They hold the pain from the experience(s) and developed beliefs about themself as a result. They may believe things like "I'm unlovable," "I'm no good," or "I'm too much." They often feel things like shame, loneliness, sadness, fear, and abandonment. These parts want to be seen, comforted, and helped, but feel too vulnerable or are buried by the protectors.


In my experience, Autistic people often have many parts, wounded ones and protective ones. Exiles can start from a very early age, in fact, even before we're born. Autistic people often feel chronically overwhelmed and confused, which can lead to an exile developing. It is also common to have chronic painful relational experiences. Things like never being included, being deceived and manipulated by others, being bullied, never feeling understood, sensing how different you are from others, and being put in situations which are overwhelming, scary, and confusing, are all examples of pain points which can develop on our internal map.


Self: The Self is not a part, but is who we are deep down. It's the core qualities we were born with and will always possess. It cannot be damaged, but can get hidden and hard to access. Some qualities of the Self include: compassion, creativity, openness, clarity, groundedness, connectedness, patience, and understanding. Our parts need to be in connection with our Self in order to heal and relax. That is much of the work we do in IFS therapy- connecting with Self and building a relationship between our parts and our Self. This is where the healing takes place.


If you are Autistic, your Self is also Autistic. That means you have always been and always will be Autistic. Parts did not develop which make you Autistic, or more Autistic. You cannot unburden parts to make you less or not at all Autistic. Some parts do, however, try to hide and change certain Autistic traits (as a way to help and protect us), and they may also cause a more reactive or extreme version of a trait. However, even within a system which has built a relationship with and unburdened these parts (ie- the parts do not need to protect us in the same extreme way any longer), the Self will still be Autistic and have Autistic traits.


What is Different about IFS with Autism?

There are several factors an IFS therapist should consider when working with an Autistic client. And as an Autistic person, there are many ways you may experience IFS differently, including the ways your parts show up, how you interact with them, and the qualities of your Self. I'll list some of these below. It's important that your IFS therapist understands Autism and understands that you are Autistic at your core (your Self). Helping you to navigate your Autistic system, connect with your Autistic Self, and support your parts in the ways that are best for them, is the role of your therapist.


Brain wiring / Neurobiology:

Simply put, not everything is a part. There are aspects of being Autistic that may be perceived as a part, but are in fact just your neuroology. You may also notice your Self energy is experienced different from what may be typically described. For example, I believed that my Self needed to be warm, super lovey and compassionate, and kinda fluffy or gooey (those adjectives make sense, right?). I later realized that when I'm experiencing Self energy it is very clear, calm, grounded, and spacious. It just is. It's not overly warm, it's secure and open, without judgement. Another example involving mislabling a part happened during a personal IFS session. I was unable to access any part and my brain just felt drained and blank. It turned out to not be a part, but just an overworked brain who needed a break. This can be a common experience for an Autistic brain, especially if you're in or recovering from burn out.


Emotions:

Many Autistic people experience something called alexithymia. Alexithymia is an experience of being "without" emotions, or more realistically, being without the ability to connect to, identify, have a word for, or understand your emotions. This can show up in many ways, it could be that you're having feelings and sensations, but you're just unsure what it is, why it is, or where it's coming from. For instance are you sad or are you just tired? Are you anxious or are your just hungry? It's hard to know if it's emotional or physical at times. It may also be that you don't feel the emotion at all, like you're totally numb or somehow there's a wall between the emotion and your awareness. So if I have no idea the emotion is there, how could I speak to it or work with it? Another way this could show up is in the slow processing that is often present for Autistic people. In the moment there may not be awareness of an emotion or even the "need" to have an emotion. Later that day, that week, that month, or longer, your brain has finally processed the situtation and now the emotions have emerged. There are actually many ways emotions can be experienced differently by Autistic people, but I'll list just one more. Many Autistic people may be able to have awareness of or connect with an emotion, but it can't be identified as a word. It may be an image, a color, a long explanation and story, or creative adjectives that are not the traditional emotion words.


Visualizing:

Using imagery is a common part of IFS, although it does not have to be. There are many Autisitc people who are exceptionally visual and imaginative. In fact, their inner worlds are so complex with images it's like stepping into a book or movie. And at the same time, there are other Autistic people who do not see images whatsoever. Neither experience is better than the other, they are just different. This is important to know, however, becuase it will impact your IFS experience. If you are not able to see images in your mind and your IFS therapist continues to ask you what you see, what your part looks like, if you can imagine _____, well, that will be frustrating at the least, and worse, you may end therapy prematurely, feeling like it's not working or you can't do it right. You do not need to be visual to connect with your parts. Parts show in many ways, body sensations, thoughts, emotions, energy, and others. The only "right" way to do this is be open and curious and to continue paying attention to whichever way your parts are showing up.


Interoception:

Interoception relates to what was discussed above about emotions. Interoception is one of our body's senses that lets us know what is happening inside. Interoceptions helps us to know when we're hot or cold, hungry or thirty, when we need to use the bathroom, when we're tired, when we're hurt or sick, and so on. Many Autistic people experience interoception differently. They may not get the message that they need to drink something or need to use the bathroom until much later. This can impact being able to regulate your body, meet your body's needs, and within IFS may provide challenges in connecting with your parts. To highlight my message from above, there is not right or wrong way to connect with your parts. If you do not sense your parts within your body, you may very well hear them in your mind or have a visual of them. And again, if your IFS therapist does not realize this and they continue to ask or even push you to find the body connection or describe what's happening on the inside, it can lead to problems in your therapy experience. I've found that interoception awarenss can be improved over time, but must be done in a gentle, compassionate, no pressure way.


Concrete Thinking

Last but not least, Autistic people often have a more concrete or "black and white" thinking style. This usually means there are many logical, analytical, thinking, and problem solving parts in an Autistic person's internal system. It's important that these parts feel welcome in therapy and that they have a place. It can be easy for an IFS therapist to dismiss these parts and continue to ask them to "give space" inside. In doing my own work and getting to know my parts, my appreciation for these parts has grown. Many of my thinking and analyzing parts are always present. They like to watch me work with other parts, they like to make connections and analyze what's happening inside, they like to organize and keep up with information, and they like to share stories and go on tangets at times. Working with an Autistic intenal system means working with many helpful and insightful cognitive parts. I will bring us back to the first point - brain wiring and neurobiology- and make the argument that some of the concreteness of our internal experience may not be a part, but just our Autistic wiring.


Why is IFS Effective with Autism?

IFS is a modality which treats trauma by helping create mindful awareness of our internal experience, grow self-compassion and understanding, release our burdens, and increase our connection to our internal resources. Becuase of the impact of living in a world not designed for us, Autistic people experience a level of chronic trauma. Many Autistic people experience very overt trauma where their life, safety, and/or wellbeing has been threatened. It might be safe to say that all Autistic people experience covert, or less obvious trauma over the entire course of our lives. This includes being excluded from social groups, experiencing constant sensory assaults, being misread and not understood by others, feeling confused and left behind, relationships ending without knowing why, feeling lonely and without relatioships, needs being unmet, experiencing burnouts, shutting down or melting down, and so many more. Even without these experiences, Autistic people have hyper responsive nervous systems. So your nervous system has much less filtering than non-Autistics, which means you are taking in loads of information in your environments all day, every day. And that is a lot of work for your brain and body to process... hence slower processing and easily overstimulated. All of this to say, even if you are an Autistic person with the more covert trauma experiences, you will likely benefit from a trauma-focused treatment.


There are many trauma-informed approaches out there. Here is why I like IFS, specifically. IFS encourages an internal awareness and connection, which can be challenging if you are Autistic. It is not reliant on someone else understanding me, but on me understanding me. At it's core, it is curious, compassionate, and non-judgmental. All parts of me are welcome, there are no "right" ways of being and experiencing things, so I'm able to show up as me and speak for all aspects of me. This is not a common experience for Autistic people, and therefore very healing to receive. Although there is a frame, the work is not linear and is not controlled by the therapist. I have autonomy and choice in where I go inside. The approach has a slow, steady pace, with no pressure. It allows time for exploring and space for my slow processing to unfold. The approach is gentle and focused on remaining safe, regulated, and preventing overwhelm. I also like the creative approach to conceptualizing my inner experience and actually experiencing it, rather than just talking abou it. I could name more, but maybe you get the point.


What's Next?

There are many ways to connect with your inner world and engage in IFS therapy. You can read books, watch videos, take courses, and listen to meditations to engage on your own. You can also work with an IFS therapist or practitioner for more guidance and accountability. If you are interested in working with me, please reach out! Here are a few resources to get you started on your own.


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