Mental Health Awareness: A Client’s Journey Pt 2

Mental Health Awareness

The Association of Virtual Assistants continues to bring awareness to mental health during the month of May with the help of guest experts.


Georggetta Howie, licensed clinical social worker, life coach, and expert on an impressive range of subjects related to high achieving adults, emotional management,  trauma, managing mental health, and mindset shared 7 Tips for Managing your Mental Health as an Entrepreneur.


Nicole Neer, founder, and CEO of Bloom Admin Services, a full-service virtual support agency shared 3 Strategies for Success as a Virtual Assistant. As a VA and an agency owner with fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder, Nicole knows what it takes to not merely survive but thrive.


Dr. S.D. Shanti is a psychologist, public health professional, and the founder of Prescriptions for Hope reminding us that Relaxation Is A Necessity Not A Luxury.


These last two weeks of May we wanted to provide you with insight into what it’s like to work with clients who have a mental illness. If you haven’t already, statistically it is very likely you will be working with a client who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. A client’s perspective gives virtual assistants great insight into how to work with their clients better.


Last week we read about Clay’s story of being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as an adult. This week Clay is sharing how virtual assistants can serve their clients.

The two most important ways a VA can serve a client on the spectrum are trust and communication. These are important for all clients, to be sure, but acutely necessary when working with an autistic professional. 

And not “trust” as in “can I trust you with my stuff” but more “can I trust you to give your honest opinion and proactively candid.” Having lost the last vestiges of faith in my social intuition, putting my trust in others is incredibly difficult until a person makes a tangible offer of putting trust in me. 

As for communication, operate under the assumption that I do not infer, neither do I imply. I infer and imply stuff all the time, but it’s unwise to make assumptions, especially that I will “get the hint.” You don’t need to worry about hurting my feelings, even if you do. I much prefer the metaphorical two-by-four upside the head to somebody trying to soft-pedal bad news.

Aspies are notoriously bad at reading people, especially in real-time situations, but we can with enough effort. I would venture to guess that if I focus intently on reading the body language of someone, I catch around twenty-five percent of what their body language is saying. Now, it would be the most important quarter, but most is lost or unknown to me, and if I don’t purposely, intentionally focus on and think about it, I’ll notice less than five percent. Watching someone’s body language in conversation doesn’t naturally occur to me. An intuitive understanding of nonverbal cues is non-existent.

As a virtual assistant, in-person discussions will be rare if ever by definition, but this can be a problem. The social and emotional intelligence deficiencies aren’t a problem when relaxing with friends, or in strictly business phone conversations or e-conversations. People find me very different in person—I find them very different, too. Sensitive topics must be discussed in person for me because my sensitivity to tone of voice has me reading too many things into phone conversations. Meeting in person has the advantage of being able to gauge the other person’s reaction, but autistics need time to prepare and get into the mindset to discuss a topic. 

On a phone call, the problem is reversed. I can prepare my mind, and my notes, to talk about a topic, even rehearsing (I rehearse for in-person talks, too), but I get no sense of the non-verbal reaction to what I have to say. So then, videoconferences are ideal! 

I must go away and replay, rewind, and analyze conversations, the way it was said, et cetera. Most interactions with me are followed in the next few hours or days with a follow-up email or conversation after I’ve broken down what happened. 

“I should probably add that…” 

“It occurred to me after we talked that…” 

“I was thinking about what you said concerning…” 

A client on the spectrum is likely to be intensely introspective. They have overcome many struggles but carry a great deal of emotional baggage. They will have difficulty expressing wants and needs, or perceiving the wants and needs of others. 

A tough aspect of Asperger’s for many, and for me, is considerable difficulty understanding and expressing my own emotional state, a condition known as Alexithymia. I had to be taught or learn that a given feeling is joy, grief, depression, anxiety, et cetera. Likewise, I’m deficient in theory of mind—detecting and discerning the emotional state of others. This causes me no end of trouble. Connecting with the emotional state of another person is difficult when I struggle to identify my own emotional state. As with all this stuff, I can be empathetic and certainly have truckloads of empathy, but it takes effort for me to get into that frame of mind, while 98% of people never give it one thought their entire lives.

Although curiosity about the condition and how it affects me is always well-received, talking about the difficult aspects of Asperger’s is tough. For me, it’s a dark topic—many people diagnosed midlife, myself included, have PTSD characteristics. You cannot always tell someone has a disability by the way they look, or even how they act, or how a disabled person can seem normal on the outside but be suffering anxiety and depression beyond a normal person’s capacity to understand. That said, talking about it is always preferable to avoiding the topic, because you can avoid making assumptions that are probably wrong.

From a practical standpoint, workers on the autism spectrum are ideal clients for a virtual assistant. Autistics are master organizers, because of the combination of repetitive behavior characteristics and superior visual/spatial ability. However, being an exceptional organizer is not the same as being organized, or staying organized, which is a struggle for autistics on account of the executive function deficiencies. ‘Deficiencies in executive function’ explains why I spend thirty minutes trying to gather my things to take to a meeting, and I still forget three things I need when I arrive. An assistant can add significant value by attending to or monitoring other aspects of the work or the business so the client can hyper-focus on the task at hand. 

Silly as it sounds, transitions are tough for autistics, none more so than a transition from an analytical frame of mind into an emotional frame of mind.  Autistics don’t do well when put on the spot, and while I’m sure I do not speak for all autistics on the point, I detest situations that place form over substance.

Saying ‘that’s the way it has always been done’ to an autistic is unwise. The autistic has already spotted the flaws in the process and is probably going to tell you anyway, but say ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and you’ll hear it for sure, both the ones you already know about and several others that never would have occurred to you.

A smart move would be to tell the autistic client how you plan to accomplish a difficult task, not only because we are naturally curious about how things work, but also because we will figure out a way to accomplish the task more efficiently. Improving efficiency is one of those ‘no effort’ things.

Autistics use the phrase ‘putting on the mask’ to describe conforming their behavior to their best rendition of ‘normal’ with unfamiliar people or new situations. This consumes an autistic person’s energy. The ideal assistant for an autistic professional would, thanks to the aforementioned patience and curiosity, understand his/her challenges, and thanks to the aforementioned trust and communication, make the client feel comfortable that he/she doesn’t need to expend the energy of ‘wearing the mask.’ 

What it boils down to, is, despite the VA/client being a professional relationship, when working with an autistic client, the assistant needs to be a genuine colleague and friend.


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