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Why IFS is an excellent therapy for neurodivergent clients, as a neurodivergent therapist.

Unlocking the Power of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) in neurodiversity affirming psychotherapy


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Internal Family Systems is a relatively new model of therapy, discovered by Richard Schwartz less than 40 years ago; it’s an infant compared to Freud’s psychoanalysis. However, the concepts within are shared and echoed in many ancient spiritual practices and have similarities to many other models of therapy, too. 


In this blog post, I’m going to delve into why I think IFS stands out as a model of therapy generally and why I think it fits neurodivergent minds so well. It is important to say that no therapy is a miracle cure, and no therapist is perfect, so while I say this is a great fit, if IFS isn’t working for you and you are neurodivergent, then you are not doing anything wrong. I talk more about this on Pasha Marlowe's wonderful Neuroqueer Podcast.


Understanding neurodivergence 


Neurodivergent, as a term, is not synonymous with autistic or ADHD. The neurodiversity umbrella covers much, much more. This is a great graphic from Lived Experience Educator - and you can check out more of their work by clicking on the image.





Both autism and ADHD fall under the umbrella, and sometimes the term is used synonymously, which it is not. I am not using it in that way. Although my work is mainly with autistic and ADHD clients and therapists, this is not the whole picture. Many of my clients are multiply neurodivergent, with combinations of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, EDS, POTS and other chronic conditions. I don’t see the way different neurodiversities are defined and delineated in medicine as that helpful, beyond getting the right treatment and support, as there is so much overlap. 


For example, between ADHD and autism, there is a high chance of having clinically significant traits of each. And many people who were diagnosed as dyslexic or dyspraxic also have traits of autism and ADHD. Dr Ned Hallowell, who has written many books about ADHD, uses a metaphor of different colours, which overlap in unique ways in the individual to have different shades of neurodiversity. 


Nick Walker defines neurodiversity as "the diversity of human minds, the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.""


"Neurodivergent, sometimes abbreviated as ND, means having a mind that functions in ways which diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.”"


"Neurotypical, often abbreviated as NT, means having a style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the dominant societal standards of “normal.”"


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Understanding Internal Family Systems Therapy


IFS is a therapeutic approach that views the mind as a complex system of Parts, sometimes called ‘sub-personalities’, each with its own unique characteristics, emotions, and beliefs. IFS posits that these Parts often operate quite autonomously, depending on their own agendas, leading to inner conflicts and emotional distress. 


What are Parts?


There are no bad Parts, and this is something I love about IFS. But in a system that is Parts-led, our Parts can be stuck in extreme roles, and their behaviour might be problematic, but their intention is always good. That can sometimes be hard to believe, but it is true. Protective Parts want the best for us, but they may have learnt how to try to protect us in ways that themselves become an issue over time.


For example, an inner critic feels like a burden, always telling you to do better or finding your fault. But that inner critic might have started doing that to protect you from a bigger external critic, probably when you were a lot younger. Parts like this often think “better coming from me than them.” With an IFS lens, we can get to know the Part and find out its positive intent, and help it to update and change in time. Critics can become cheerleaders. I’ve seen it happen. 


Where there are Parts, there is also Self, our undamaged core of being. What is Self? It’s the essence of who we truly are. Often, Parts are running the show because, in the past, they had to; IFS is about finding our Parts and working with them, but it is also about finding Self and connecting to Parts from there.


What is self, anyway?


Self can often be a foreign concept to us and our Parts, who are so used to running the show. Some people experience the Self as a spiritual experience, some feel it as a place of calm and openness, and others feel it as their wise and knowing Self. By working with our Parts from this place of Self, we get to heal and let go of burdens. 


Burdens are carried by more vulnerable parts of us who are exiled, pushed almost out of awareness, but always there carrying the pain and trauma from the past. When our protectors can learn to trust the Self, they can give way to allow us to reach these parts and heal them, unburdening the whole system. This is a move to a Self-led internal family. 


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Why IFS for Neurodivergent Minds?


Here are a few reasons IFS works well for neurodivergent minds. 


  1. Meeting Parts: Meeting Parts can be especially powerful as it provides a tangible way to identify and engage with different aspects that might be hard to reach with traditional talk therapy. For example, parts that might be involved in masking to appear more neurotypical can share their fears without having to give up their roles. By meeting these parts, individuals can develop a deeper sense of self-awareness and more opportunities for choice of when Parts need to do their jobs. 

  2. Non-pathologising: IFS adopts a non-pathologising stance, viewing each part of the system as valuable and serving a protective function. This inclusive approach fosters self-acceptance and reduces stigma. Even a self-harming Part can be understood in terms of what they are trying to do to help a person, rather than a ‘bad’ behaviour. 

  3. Empowering Inner Harmony: Through IFS, clients learn to cultivate inner harmony by fostering communication and cooperation among their parts. This process of self-leadership empowers individuals to navigate life's challenges with resilience and authenticity.


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What does neuroaffirming IFS therapy look like? 


In addition to the above, here are a few extra points that make IFS great when practised by a neurodivergent affirming therapist 


  1. Embracing Complexity: Us neurodivergent folk often experience heightened complexity of thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. With increased sensory sensitivities and deep analytic thought and rumination, IFS offers a framework that validates and honours this complexity, allowing individuals to explore and understand their inner world with compassion and curiosity. You are not broken, and you do not need to be fixed.

  2. Harnessing Strengths: Neurodiversity is characterised by a wide range of strengths, including creativity, hyper-focus, and unconventional thinking patterns. IFS helps individuals tap into these strengths by fostering a deeper connection with their inner resources. By acknowledging and amplifying their unique gifts, neurodivergent individuals can thrive in various aspects of their lives.

  3. Less focus on the ‘frame’ of therapy: Traditional therapeutic approaches are not designed for neurodivergent folk. The emphasis on eye contact, sitting still, and concise and clear thought can pathologise neurodivergent traits, framing them as deficits, disorders, or resistance. In IFS work, there is usually the choice to close your eyes or, depending on the therapist, use art or other ways to express Parts and their relationships with each other. 


Conclusion 


Internal Family Systems Therapy offers a holistic and empowering approach to healing. By embracing complexity, meeting parts, and fostering inner harmony, IFS helps individuals unlock their full potential and live authentically.


In my practice, I have supported many neurodivergent folks navigate their inner worlds, creating more space and more room for choice and helping hard-working protectors to relax a little.


This isn’t about getting rid of Parts. That isn’t possible; they’re part of us, and we still need them; autistic, ADHD and other neurodivergent folk still live in a world not designed for us, and we still need our Parts, but with neuro-affirming IFS; there’s a lot you can do to heal and understand yourself. 


I am not currently taking on new clients, but I am passionate about supporting other therapists working with neurodivergent clients in supervision, consultation, and training. Please get in touch to find out more about this, or visit my website!  


I hope this has been helpful!








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