The mental health experts who believe their autism has turbocharged their work
Steph Jones jokes that she used to think she was psychic. The psychotherapist says she can often tell instinctively what a client’s issue is before they’ve even sat down. “I can say to them: ‘All of a sudden my throat is tightening,’ or: ‘I feel dizzy,’ or: ‘I can see a particular image – does this mean anything to you?” she says. This is because Jones has the ability, she explains, to experience not just other people’s emotions but their physical sensations in her own body. And it is a skill that has been invaluable for her work.
It was only after she was diagnosed with autism that she realised this was simply part of her neurodiverse profile. “It’s called mirror-emotion or mirror-touch synaesthesia and is part of what being autistic means for me, as well as having hyperawareness, hyperperception, hyperempathy and hypermemory – all of which come in very handy as a therapist,” she says.
People with mirror-touch synaesthesia vicariously experience other people’s emotional and physical sensations in their own bodies. The condition, which is believed to affect 2% of the general population, varies from person to person: it can mean individuals feel the same sensation – like touch – in the same part of the body that another person feels the sensation. Others describe it as an “echo” of the touch.
Some clients, understandably, are disconcerted by Jones’s reading of their issues. “But once I explain what it is and it makes rational sense to them – rather than it seeming frightening or paranormal – they usually feel completely elated that someone gets them on that kind of deep level.”
It is, she says, “fast-track rapport-building …Being able to tune into someone so quickly means it can feel like we’re skipping the starter and getting right into business, whereas other therapists may need to spend much longer building relationships. I can only describe it as some kind of instant resonance. Clients will often describe how it feels like we’ve always known each other – and it’s just as intense for me as it is for them.”
There are more ways, Jones believes, that having autism can turbocharge a mental health specialist: autistic people often excel at problem-solving, enabling them to pick up cues that neurotypical therapists might filter out. They’re unlikely to judge people, enabling clients to feel genuinely accepted, and often have intense interests, which can lead to an obsession with research, training and further education.
Jacqueline also feels her autistic traits have helped in her job as an advanced nurse practitioner in a 24-hour crisis assessment team – especially being open-minded. “I am very good at remaining neutral when doing urgent crisis assessments of highly distressed people and their families, which often involve the police and emergency services,” she says.