The Authentically Autistic Health Files are a celebration of health and wellbeing practitioners who, like myself, are both autistic and working with clients who are autistic. As you might expect, our unique life experiences, understanding and skills give us particular insights into many of the challenges that our autistic clients may have.
Please do contact me if you would like to me to send you a questionnaire so that you can be featured on this blog. You are welcome to remain anonymous and I will always get you, as the featured practitioner to approve copy before I post.
In her own words, here is Laura Z. Weldon:
Laura Z. Weldon
Health Coach, specializing in supporting clients with chronic mental and physical illness and people who identify as highly sensitive or neurodiverse. I am also a Pilates instructor and have completed Cranialsacral II and Reiki II trainings. I am halfway through my education to become a naturopathic physician (we are primary care doctors in 20 US states) with an additional masters in integrative mental health.
Laura Z. Weldon, business name Weldon Wellness, neurodiversity work under Autistic Empaths
I grew up in Kentucky, a Southern state in the US. I was diagnosed as an adult, so I grew up being called “shy, sensitive, and gifted” rather than autistic, which I am both grateful for, as I was able to establish my identity outside of diagnosis, and regret, because I needed support in ways no one recognized.
My childhood memories are coloured by my sensory experiences – grade school was coarse pig hair carpeting, fluorescent lights and the smell of fluoride. My weekends in the country with my grandparents were spent reading books alone in trees and swimming in the river while never touching the bottom.
After high school, I moved to NYC to complete a BA in English Literature at Columbia University. I was always fascinated by how people thought, I suspect because I knew that my own experience was different from others’, and this is partly what drew me to literature – it offered a way to glimpse into the thought processes, interactions, and insights of others. I lived and worked in New York City for six years.
I was never someone who was certain about my path; as a child, when someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say “5 feet 9 inches tall.” My vague intention after undergrad was to pursue a MFA in creative-nonfiction, but I waited because it didn’t feel like quite the right fit. In time, like many others who work in health, I came to this field through discovering what helped me heal myself. I attended a 2-year post-bac pre-med program at the University of Louisville in KY and then applied and was accepted to naturopathic medical school.
I moved across the country 3 years ago with my partner and our Doberman Huxley. My partner has been one of my best friends since middle school; he is not quite neurotypical, but not autistic. I call him my partner rather than my boyfriend to reflect both my queer identity and the fact that we share our lives together. We now live in Portland, OR while I attend the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM), the oldest naturopathic medicine program in the United States. I am pursuing both the ND degree and an additional master’s degree in integrative mental health.
I turn 30 this year. I first had a counsellor suggest I may be autistic 5 years ago, while discussing my difficulties in social situations at parties and other overstimulating environments, but I did not pursue a diagnosis at that time. After several years of gradually coming back into my body after a lifetime of what I call “functional disassociation,” the underlying sensory triggers became clearer.
I first went for an evaluation for sensory processing disorder, and then after reading memoirs by autistic authors and learning about the differences in the female phenotype I found myself resonating with other aspects of autism. I saw a psychologist who specializes in women on the spectrum last February, and after a few rounds of tests and interviews was diagnosed autistic (what would formerly have been Asperger’s). I felt that getting an official diagnosis was important for several reasons for me personally. As a future mental health professional, I wanted to know how mainstream practitioners would identify traits I found in myself.
I wanted to be open about my diagnosis to show that autistic people are not all one pattern of experiences and behaviors, and that even if I “do not look autistic” my experience is still similar to others who may fit a more stereotyped definition (typically the male phenotype). I wanted to be able to get the accommodations I needed at university to attend lectures remotely and wear sunglasses in conference rooms in the clinic. The bonus I did not expect to come with my diagnosis was finding community and connection around shared experiences, particularly through the #ActuallyAutistic community on Twitter.
Health Business and Specialism
I have worked as a health coach and Pilates instructor since 2012. My “special interest” has always been humans, our minds and emotions, and over time it has evolved from literature to psychology to medicine (and what a beautiful combination those fields are together; see narrative psychology/medicine in traditional or indigenous practices, for example).
I love working with people one-on-one, learning and exploring together how their thoughts and emotions impact their behavior and lifestyle choices. I strongly believe that there is a way for everyone (who is not in an acutely stressful situation, like extreme poverty or other traumatic contexts) to find a way to live a balanced, healthy, and enjoyable life. (Yes, even people with disabilities and chronic illness – health does not mean without challenge and there is no one “perfect” way to be healthy.)
My role is in supporting people to make these changes, gradually and experimentally, to improve self-awareness and discover what dietary choices, movement practices, and other forms of self-care work best for them as individuals. The fact that there is no one right answer for every person or even for a single person over a lifetime means that this work is always interesting and personalized, a journey of learning about another person’s way of being in the world.
Every suggestion I make to a client is an experiment. I offer an idea and if it fits for them they try it out. If they do not follow through, or find that they did not like it or for any other reason it wasn’t right for them, then that suggestion is either something they need greater support on OR it simply isn’t right for them and their lives, so we move on and try something new. Lifestyle changes should never be a question of willpower.
Specifically, I do a lot to support GI health and emotional balance. Many clients work with me to support them on elimination diets to discover underlying food sensitivities, do Candida protocols, or switch to therapeutic diets like low-fodmap for SIBO. When appropriate, I incorporate mindfulness practices (as they suit the client) and suggestions for maintaining an enjoyable movement practice (I don’t talk much about “exercise” because our bodies are made to move; it should not have to be a task on a to-do list.) I work with vitamins, minerals, and herbs as appropriate and in conjunction with clients’ physicians.
My decision to pursue a degree in alternative healthcare through naturopathic medicine, instead of allopathic or MD medical school, grew from a frustration with the medical system. I am in no way against pharmaceutical medicine or allopathic care; in acute situations it is truly a miracle of modern medicine. With chronic conditions and mental health, however, I found those approaches overly reductive and algorithmic, and I was frustrated by the lack of initiative to seek out true underlying causes of imbalance and disease. In addition, many doctors seem to have lost their role of “physician as teacher”; I hold this aspect in highest regard, as I believe it is our duty to help patients understand their bodies and how to care for them, even if it takes a little extra time.
As a result, much of my work with clients also involves some degree of patient advocacy. We talk through questions to ask their physicians, what symptoms are important to bring up and have addressed, and how to maintain a sense of agency in an interaction with such a strong power dynamic.
While in medical school I do not take on many clients at a time, but I love this way of working with people and find it powerful and educational for both client and myself, so I intend to continue working in this capacity part-time throughout my education and even once I am a physician.
How Being Autistic Impacts My Health Practice
I am still working out exactly what being autistic means to me and what aspects of my personality and thought process are attributable to being autistic and which are simply me. I know that I pick up on patterns easily and can think of “out-of-the-box” solutions, which is helpful when clients feel like they have tried everything and there is nothing left, and which will be helpful in diagnosing patients in the future.
I am less likely to make assumptions about someone else’s experience because I am very aware that how we seem on the outside and what we feel inside can be vastly different. Many practitioners are unfamiliar with or even judgmental about the idea that someone can be “highly sensitive,” whether that is a personality trait or as aspect of neurodiversity, so people who know that they are more reactive to their environments and even supplements and medications often feel relieved to have that recognized and addressed.
Ironically, I think that my high capacity for empathy is part of being neurodiverse; I experience some degree of mirror-touch synaesthesia or emotional and physical empathy which allows me to have a glimpse into other people’s internal experience and connect with them more intimately and authentically. (Just don’t ask me to talk to a group of people at the same time!) I am also frankly honest about myself, so when it will serve the client to hear something about me I share it without hesitation, which I find helps build trust and communication.
One of the practical ways being autistic has impacted my work is that I see the majority of my clients online, using video chat services. While I am in medical school I am expected to be out in the world more than my system finds ideal, so being able to work with clients from the comfort of my own home is immensely helpful. I also find it is helpful for my clients, as many of them deal with social anxiety, movement or transportation challenges, sensory overload, and other things that may it easier for them to communicate from their own homes. I suspect telemedicine will become more common in the future.
What Considerations I Take Into Account with Autistic Clients
While science is frustratingly lacking in explanations, there are many physical and neurological aspects to being autistic that are often ill-addressed. Common “co-morbidities” as they call them include anxiety, depression, migraines, digestive issues/IBS, epilepsy, connective tissue disorders and so much more.
I think that the connection between sensory overload and anxiety is incredibly important and better addressed when seen as a neurological response to a context the body does not feel safe or comfortable rather than a mental health issue (although simply being autistic in a neurotypical world can certainly have mental health repercussions).
My approach with an autistic client would be similar to all of my clients in that I always work in a personalized, individualized way (“If you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic), but it would certainly have more of an emphasis on GI health and the gut-brain connection, as well as managing sensory input and unique dietary challenges, including texture sensitivities, lack of appetite awareness, and executive function difficulties with preparing meals.
I think it is always easier to understand a shared experience, so being autistic myself I think helps both by being able to offer suggestions that have worked for me and to allow my clients to feel more comfortable to be their unmasked selves. For example, stimming during a session, not making eye contact, or preferring to have the session by chatting/typing instead of speaking would all be perfectly okay with me.
My Own Specific Health Challenges
After undergrad, the stress of the education and living and then working in such an incredible but overwhelming city took its toll. I became quite ill for several years with the early stages of a (still undiagnosed) autoimmune disease, and other symptoms that I now understand were autistic traits and processing challenges emerging because my body was under duress.
By discovering and eliminating my food sensitivities, healing my gut lining, and rebalancing my microflora I was able to enter remission. My primary challenges now are SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) which limits my diet considerably, migraines, and sensory dysregulation. I use my sensory toolkit and a lot of GABA supporting herbs to decrease my migraine frequency and intensity and keep the volume of the world at a reasonable level.
I have a primary care doctor who monitors my physical symptoms, but I work primarily with a Chinese medicine practitioner who uses acupuncture and tuning forks to improve my processing and help me stay grounded in my body. He thinks of digestive issues and sensory issues as one and the same – they are both challenges with taking in and integrating the outside world.
Health and Wellbeing Routines; and Non-Negotiables
I am not as attached to routine as many others in the autistic community, but there are certainly practices and boundaries that have helped me thrive. My strongest routine is that I stop working by 8pm every night to eat and relax on the couch with my partner and dog. I need this time to switch off my hyper-focused brain or else I will have difficulty sleeping.
I have switched almost entirely to online shopping and delivery, which eliminates the excessive sensory input and stress of shopping in stores. I go to a sweat lodge ceremony once a month to support myself spiritually. I take a few yoga classes a week, because they keep me flexible and strong while offering an hour of quiet and grounding movement. I eat only things that don’t aggravate my body, but don’t restrict anything else (translation: I eat a lot of chocolate).
Finally, I have realized that my periodic hypersomnia (needing to sleep more than 10, 11, or even 12 hours a night) is directly correlated to overstimulation and simply being out in the world more than I can tolerate, so I allow myself this sleep and recovery time without judgment or self-criticism. Also, herbs, herbs, herbs (see my toolkit).
I never leave the house without a valerian root tincture. Valerian is a GABA (inhibitory neurotransmitter) supporting herb that is traditionally used for sleep, but I find that if I take it before entering an overstimulating environment my tolerance is considerably higher and my anxiety much less (and, interestingly, I don’t get sleepy). I take several other less intense herbs that support GABA as well, including gotu kola, damiana, and skullcap.
My noise-cancelling headphones have literally changed my life, especially for air travel. I keep sunglasses in my bag for fluorescent lighting, and an earthy essential oil blend that helps me feel more grounded and can block out unpleasant smells. I wear very soft clothing, down to wire and clasp-free bras. I wear a puzzle ring when I leave the house that I use for discrete stimming. At home, I have a weighted blanket that helps during meltdowns. I’m also hoping for some special earplugs for Christmas that reduce background noise rather than block sound!
Meltdowns and Shutdowns
Shutdowns for me are almost entirely sensory and show up in very graded ways. Some days, after too much input/processing the day before, I feel this “veil” sensation that makes me feel like everything I am interacting with is far away, as though behind plexiglass. True shutdowns, when speech becomes more challenging and my face becomes less expressive, are rarer now that I know and respect my limits most of the time, but are common when shopping, after being in a fluorescently lit clinic for several hours, and during the holidays when I am in a home with 20+ family members.
The only way to come out of a shutdown for me is to check out of the world temporarily, either by staying home for a day or two or preferably going camping. Meltdowns for me are a result of an overtaxed system (again, usually sensory, but can also be too much social interaction) with the addition of an emotional stimulus, even a small one that would not normally upset me very much. This then implodes into a rush of overwhelming feeling and tears. Not much can be done during a meltdown other than wait it out, but I do really like deep pressure from either a weighted blanket or a hug from someone very close to me.
My primary focus of research is on sensory processing sensitivity. As a personality trait this can be called “high sensitivity” or “HSPs (highly sensitive people),” and I believe it overlaps with emerging diagnoses like sensory processing disorder and many people on the autism spectrum, myself included. I have a survey up on my website where anyone (they don’t have to be neurodiverse!) can explain what their sensory experience is like that I am using to guide my research into areas that will be directly applicable to clients and patients.
For now, while in medical school, I am not trying to expand my business so much as the people I work with. I would love to have more neurodiverse clients so I can continue to learn how best to support our community.
After I graduate, my intention is to return to my home region and practice as a natural/integrative psychiatrist and bodyworker. I would love to have half of my practice online as it is now, working as a health coach or naturopathic consultant for highly sensitive and neurodiverse clients, and have the other half be an in-person practice supporting the local community. The region where I am from deals with high rates of opioid addiction and poor rural mental health services that I feel would greatly benefit from an integrative mind/body/spirit approach.
Within the scope of bodywork, I am also learning how trauma shows up in our bodies and our disconnection from our physical experience, and how bodywork can be used (gradually and safely) to help re-establish a safe and healthy connection to ourselves and our inner experience.
My Health Inspirations
I’m afraid this list is too long to go into! (I’ll start with you Flo, for taking steps to change your career and help in this way!) I have a goodreads list of books I recommend you can see here: https://www.weldonwellness.com/laura/. If anyone wants a suggestion about a specific condition or topic I’d be happy to offer them by email.
This past year I found Aspergirls by Rudy Simone very reassuring and full of useful information.
General Advice and Closing Words (Prompted by my question: What advice do you wish you had been given? What advice do you give yourself? What one great piece of advice would you like to give readers of this post?)
Be unapologetically, authentically you, because only you can offer that to the world.