Recently, I connected with Emily Oliver, LCSW, via Facebook. She has a therapy practice and offers telehealth in New York and Vermont through her private practice. She also founded the Therapy for Therapists Collective, an awesome organization that helps therapists who want their own therapy connect with a qualified provider and receive affordable treatment.
In addition to all of that, Emily recently published the ADHD & Autism Unmasking Workbook, a fantastic resource for anyone who wants to learn more about unmasking and living authentically.
1. Tell me about yourself and your clinical background.
I’m a licensed clinical social worker and therapist practicing in New York and Vermont through my private practice, Inner Lakes Therapy. Our team is dedicated to safe, accessible, and affirming care for clients from marginalized communities. I specialize in trauma treatment utilizing EMDR, somatic techniques, and parts work, particularly for people with attachment trauma, people struggling with self-esteem, self-concept, or internalized ableism. I also specialize in working with late-diagnosed and high-masking neurodivergent clients.
I’m the Founder and Director of the Therapy for Therapists Collective, which is a nationwide organization founded in 2021 that seeks to address clinician burnout and its impact on quality of patient care and sustainability of the mental health field. It offers a pro-bono psychotherapy network, support groups, supported access to continuing education, a clinician referral directory, and more.
I’m a trauma survivor and was late-diagnosed Autistic and ADHD. I have been high-masking for the majority of my life.
My pronouns are she/her, I’m a mother of two young children, and I live in Savannah, GA.
2. How did you end up specializing in ADHD and autism?
I suspected something was different about me since early childhood, but no one was able to label my experience correctly until my mid-20s. I was generally friendly enough, I was intelligent enough, performed generally well in school (except for gym which was my personal hell) and didn’t inconvenience others much. I flew under the radar.
Experiencing a traumatic event in my teens made it harder to mask, and as I finished high school and went through undergrad, I often struggled with my mental health. Going to graduate school for social work was my first opportunity to experience an environment that invited authenticity and affirmed differences.
Sometime after I began practicing social work in my internships, things began clicking together as I had words for symptoms and experiences. Skipping ahead through a few years, I had advocated with my own therapists to consider neurodivergence, but these requests were quickly shut down as being influenced by social media. This was quite discouraging and invalidating.
I finally found an affirming provider and received my diagnoses, but it was very expensive and a bit traumatic going through the whole process. Since that time, I have been working hard to deepen my understanding of how ADHD and autism can show up in people other than white boys and men. I have been striving to build a practice that is affirming and that values lived experience and treats the client as the expert of their experience. I have found that exploring the intersections of trauma, gender, household labor inequity, attachment, and neurodivergence keeps me really excited about and engaged in my work, and I have built a niche of clients with whom we do amazing unmasking healing work together. I offer more affordable options for diagnostic evaluations and supportive coaching around unmasking. It has been very rewarding.
3. How did your workbook come into being?
After finally getting my own diagnoses, the reality of how much I am masking has been hitting me in waves. I have worked with many clients who are facing the same thing, and am often thinking about how to approach something as complicated and interwoven with trauma as unmasking, in a way that feels more structured, supportive, and reflective. The workbook was born from that goal. Additionally, I found that a lot of the research I tried to do on unmasking and neurodivergence as a whole felt like it was behind a wall for me due to the nature of my neurodivergence. The ability to read a dense book (that isn’t fiction) front to back is simply a huge challenge for me. I wanted to create something visually dynamic and engaging, something that helped with focus and retention. The book is designed with that accessibility in mind.
4. What is unmasking, and how does it happen?
Unmasking is such a personal experience. However, for me, I know it has required for me to dig deep and identify the beliefs that are tied to my masks. For example, fears of being labeled as weak, worthless, incompetent, dramatic, attention-seeking, and selfish have kept me locked in a pattern of performing for others. These beliefs have been simultaneously layered and interwoven with trauma and internalized ableism. I have needed to identify these, and find a way to pick and choose the masks that are serving me (such as the ones that contribute to my being able to feed myself and pay bills) and the ones that are not. It’s pretty heavy sometimes, and can be a bit isolating.
From the outside, others can observe the unmasking process and see things that inconvenience them (such as taking more time off work, or holding boundaries on our time), or are otherwise not favorable to them (like stimming in public). Dealing with these reactions by others is another huge challenge. Some will support you when they learn about what you’re trying to do, and others will not. That sometimes means some additional hard work on your boundaries is needed.
5. What do you hope people will gain from using the workbook?
The workbook seeks to help ND individuals identify and process their own beliefs like those I mentioned, connecting them to internalized ableism and trauma, and cultivating self-compassion. It also seeks to identify specific masking behaviors, identify unmasking goals, identify steps toward those goals, and process barriers to taking steps toward unmasking. I hope that it acknowledges how hard it is to mask everyday, and that people will hear that being exhausted (and often traumatized) from doing that is valid.
6. What do you wish people knew about autism/ADHD/neurodivergence?
That their preconceived notions and beliefs about these things are likely wrong, and that they should try to be open-minded in accepting education about these things in order to best support and affirm those they care about. Historically, providers have really missed the mark in providing affirming care, access to diagnosis and services, etc. Many of us are late diagnosed, and have a voice inside us that says “maybe you’re just faking it.” This comes from interacting with a huge system that feels like it’s gaslighting us every day. Being affirming of our experience before everything else is incredibly powerful and is the best way to support these clients.
I also want to say that these things are not “bad words” or “bad news.” In fact, I had an incredible experience during which a client diagnosed with significant depression that was resistant to other forms of treatment saw real, life-changing improvement simply by us realizing that he was neurodivergent, and being able to label his experience in a way that was affirming and was able to replace his beliefs that he had these life-long moral failings. For some, a diagnosis can be paradigm-shifting in positive ways. When we act like we are “dancing around it” or don’t want to tell them we suspect they are ND, we are telling them we think it’s bad.