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  • Writer's pictureAmy Duffy-Barnes

The Shortcomings of "Autism Spectrum Disorder Certified Specialists" as Therapists: A Neurodiversity-Affirming Perspective

*All of Heartstone Guidance Center's therapists who see autistic clients are autistic. As licensed mental health professionals who are also autistic we can provide you with compassionate therapy and support. Our therapists have lived experience with autism and other forms of neurodivergency. Autism is a complex neurotype and that neurotype is a language onto itself. Autistic people deserve to have therapists who speak their language.

In the evolving conversation surrounding neurodiversity, it is crucial to examine the qualifications and effectiveness of those who claim to be experts in autism. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Certified Specialist (ASDCS) training, offered by organizations such as PESI, has garnered attention for its approach to certifying professionals. However, a closer look reveals significant shortcomings that raise questions about the appropriateness and effectiveness of these certifications, especially when the majority of these "specialists" are not autistic themselves.

The Issue with Non-Autistic "Experts"

The ASDCS training, priced at $300, primarily features allistic (non-autistic) professionals who claim to be experts in autism. While these individuals may have academic knowledge or professional experience, their lack of lived experience as autistic individuals raises concerns. Autism is a deeply personal and nuanced neurotype, and understanding it fully requires more than theoretical knowledge—it necessitates lived experience and genuine empathy.

Non-autistic professionals often lack the firsthand understanding of what it means to navigate the world as an autistic person. This gap in understanding can lead to misinterpretations and misrepresentations of autistic experiences. When non-autistic voices dominate the conversation about autism, the result is often a distorted view that fails to capture the true essence of what it means to be autistic.

The Need for Autistic Therapists

Autistic individuals deserve therapists who can genuinely understand their experiences. Autistic therapists bring an invaluable perspective that goes beyond textbook knowledge. They offer a level of empathy and understanding that non-autistic therapists simply cannot replicate. This connection can be crucial for building trust and fostering effective therapeutic relationships.

Moreover, autistic therapists are more likely to adopt a neurodiversity-affirming approach, which respects and values autism as a natural variation of human diversity rather than a disorder to be fixed. This approach contrasts sharply with the often pathologizing perspective of non-autistic professionals.

Behavior Modification and ABA: Harmful Practices

The ASDCS training includes modules on behavior modification, reminiscent of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA has been widely criticized within the autistic community for its focus on altering autistic behaviors to fit neurotypical standards, often through methods that are considered coercive and harmful. The core issue with behavior modification and ABA is that they do not respect the autistic individual's natural way of being. Instead, they prioritize making the autistic person appear "normal" at the expense of their well-being and autonomy.

Neurodiversity-affirming practices reject these harmful methods. Instead of trying to change autistic individuals, these practices focus on understanding and supporting them in ways that honor their unique neurotype. This shift from a pathologizing approach to an affirming one is essential for truly effective and respectful autism support.

The Inappropriateness of the Term "Disorder"

Language matters. The term "Autism Spectrum Disorder" is problematic because it frames autism as a disorder—a deviation from a supposed norm. This terminology is not only inaccurate but also offensive. Autism is a neurotype and a disability, but it is not a disorder. Using the term "disorder" perpetuates stigma and reinforces the idea that autistic individuals are inherently flawed or broken.

A neurodiversity-affirming perspective recognizes autism as a natural and valuable part of human diversity. It emphasizes the strengths and unique contributions of autistic individuals while also acknowledging and addressing the challenges they may face.


The current model of Autism Spectrum Disorder Certified Specialists falls short of providing the neurodiversity-affirming support that autistic individuals deserve. The reliance on non-autistic "experts" and the inclusion of harmful practices like behavior modification highlight the need for a paradigm shift. Autistic individuals need and deserve therapists who are not only knowledgeable but also share their lived experiences and understand their unique perspectives.

It is time to listen to autistic voices and prioritize their leadership in conversations about autism. By doing so, we can move towards a more inclusive and affirming approach that respects and celebrates neurodiversity.

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