As an autism therapist, I have been asked by clients and other professionals to describe my approach to autism therapy. Throughout my career, I have researched many different therapeutic approaches to determine what would be best for the neurodivergent clients I serve. I have found Internal Family Systems or IFS to be a powerfully effective way to help clients manage anxiety, and improve mood, self-esteem, and interpersonal communication, and treat trauma.
I am passionate about the IFS model and am excited to share with you how I use it to help teens and adults who are neurodivergent. My hope is that understanding the IFS model will provide you with a necessary framework to better understand yourself or a loved one with ASD.
What is Internal Family Systems
The Internal Family Systems model, or IFS for short, recognizes that all people have a Self and parts. Take a moment to think whether you have ever heard someone say something like, “Part of me feels hurt, but another part of me feels angry”. Naturally, we refer to “parts” when describing our own inner experience.
Richard Schwartz developed the IFS approach after listening to many people in his therapy office describe their inner parts. He learned that the inner turmoil people experience is often from parts that are polarized (e.g., part of me feels lonely and wants friends, but another part of me avoids people for fear of rejection). Richard Schwartz also came to realize that all people have a Self, which includes qualities like Self-compassion, non-judgmental curiosity, and calm. The Self, he discovered, can help resolve inner turmoil and bring balance to our inner system. This allows a person to feel more comfortable and confident, less torn about decisions, less anxious and depressed, and more hopeful.
Three Types of Parts
All people have three types of “parts.” These types are: vulnerable parts (exiles), firefighter parts, and manager parts. Below, I will break down the different types of parts and give some examples. As you are reading, I invite you to think about your own parts and how they may be impacting your thoughts and actions.
Vulnerable Parts (Exiles):
All people have vulnerable parts, which are sensitive, and deeply desire intimacy and connection with others. Your vulnerable parts are wonderful because they are courageous and help you to have vulnerable conversations that build intimacy. But, because they are vulnerable, they can be hurt easily. Especially when they are criticized, exploited, ignored, shamed, abused, bullied, or invalidated. When this happens they internalize negative feelings and beliefs.
For instance, imagine you are getting to know someone, and then suddenly they stop talking to you and you don’t know why. You might immediately notice a vulnerable part of you that feels rejected and hopeless, believing it’ll never make friends
When vulnerable parts are hurt by others, they experience painful feelings and thoughts, such as:
- “I am not good enough”
- “I’m defective”
- “I must be broken”
- “I never get things right”
- “No one likes me”
… and so on
Your vulnerable parts carry the weight of your painful thoughts and beliefs like a heavy backpack.
Imagine a little kid with a big backpack. The backpack looks as big as this kid. Imagine the backpack carries all of these painful feelings and beliefs. In this metaphor, the vulnerable part is not the backpack, it actually carries the backpack.
For many of my neurodivergent clients, they have experienced countless times where they were socially rejected, criticized, invalidated, or neglected. Metaphorically speaking, their vulnerable parts are carrying heavy backpacks. So heavy it’s like they are dragging on the ground. Now imagine trying to live your life that way! How much energy would you have at the end of the day? How open would you feel to connecting with others? Would you be willing to take chances and risk being vulnerable and open to criticism?
Unburdening your vulnerable parts
The good news is that a vulnerable part is not stuck with these painful feelings and beliefs for a lifetime. A vulnerable part, using the IFS model, can release these burdens and lighten the backpack. Then the vulnerable part can help you to connect with others and build relationships. Most of my neurodivergent clients tell me they long for close relationships, in which they feel understood and are accepted for who they are. Vulnerable parts are key to helping my autistic clients develop such great relationships.
Where real problems arise for my clients is when one of their vulnerable parts starts to accumulate emotional pain. The backpack keeps filling up. At any given moment, we are usually only aware of one or a few parts. So, when that vulnerable part takes over the seat of consciousness, the person suddenly becomes painfully aware of the burden that the vulnerable part is carrying. The person may feel flooded with feelings of sadness, shame, etc., that stem from that vulnerable part. Then firefighter or manager parts, the other two types of parts, step in and try to protect you from becoming totally overwhelmed by the pain. They try to protect you by exiling the vulnerable part, or suppressing it so you are not consciously aware of the emotional pain it carries. This is why vulnerable parts are often called Exiles.
The name firefighter conjures the thoughts of a first responder who acts fast to help or save others. This is essentially what these parts are designed to do. The overarching goal of firefighter parts is to put out emotional fires to keep a person from becoming overwhelmed by these feelings. Unfortunately, their actions are not always thought through fully and they are rather impulsive.
Imagine a loved one verbally attacks you by saying, “Why don’t you just get it!”, “You never understand me, what’s wrong with you!” or “You never listen to me. You don’t care about me”, Likely a vulnerable part within you will immediately feel hurt. But, very quickly a firefighter will jump in to stop the emotional pain. The firefighter part might cause you to stop talking and walk away. Or, a firefighter part might impulsively yell and say hurtful things to push the loved one away so that can’t hurt you anymore.
Here are some common firefighter reactions:
- Leaving the room during conflict
- Becoming mute
- Becoming defensive (arguing)
- Seeking distractions (watching tv, special interests, playing on your phone)
- Zoning out or mind-wandering
- Becoming numb, cold, or unemotional
- Suicidal behavior or self-harm
Unfortunately, some firefighter reactions actually don’t work well to extinguish emotional pain, and instead throw fuel on the flame. In IFS, we work with clients to help their firefighter parts, if needed, shift into roles that are helpful. For instance, shifting an argumentative part into an assertive part.
If firefighters are the parts that try to stop emotional pain only after it has been triggered, manager parts try to prevent the pain from ever surfacing. Managers, like firefighters, might try to exile vulnerable parts.
Manager parts try to anticipate problems and control situations and people, to prevent hurt. Manager parts try to help you function in your day-to-day life, and keep you from emotional overwhelm. Additionally, manager parts help you plan and think through situations.
If you get hurt in a situation, manager parts try to come up with strategies to prevent you from getting hurt again. For instance, you might have a manager part that helps you be introspective and consider how your actions affect others. This could be a very helpful part.
Manager parts really want you to be accepted and validated by others, so they work really hard to prevent criticism and rejection from others. In the case of my autistic clients, their manager parts work really really hard to learn all the unwritten social rules. When social interactions go badly, they try even harder to figure out why in order to prevent it from happening again.
Your manager may be your worst critic.
Many of my neurodivergent clients have a manager part that ruminates and causes them sleepless nights worrying about what they should have done differently in a past conversation. This can be an excruciating experience. However, it makes sense why this part has taken on such an extreme role. The neurodivergent person has a long history of painful social encounters that did not go well. The resulting hurt, shame, fear and rejection carried by the vulnerable parts has grown in intensity. So, their manager parts have taken more and more extreme measures, such as overanalyzing and planning for every eventuality, hoping to prevent the intense pain from the vulnerable parts from surfacing.
However, when the manager’s efforts don’t pay off and the vulnerable part gets hurt by someone, then the manager gets more extreme and works even harder. It’s a vicious cycle. This is how someone’s inner system is thrown out of balance and inner turmoil magnifies. You can also see how this would lead to autistic meltdowns and autistic burnout.
Although manager parts can be extremely beneficial, if they take on extreme roles, they can lead to problems like:
Self can be a guiding force that brings inner harmony. It is not a part. And, it has qualities, such as self-compassion, non-judgmental curiosity, calm, courage, confidence, and patience. Through these qualities, Self is able to establish trusting and nurturing relationships with parts. For many people, their parts are not even aware of the Self. If you notice, when you feel hijacked by a part, such as a part that feels angry at a loved one, at that moment your part is not aware of all the wonderful things that loved one has done for you.
Parts tend to have limited perspectives. That angry part might feel like it’s the only one that can stop that loved one from hurting you. Self has a greater perspective than all parts combined. Self listens to the pain of parts and brings compassion to them, which helps release their burdens. When exile burdens are released, naturally manager and firefighter parts settle into less extreme and more effective roles.
When autistic or allistic (non-autistic) clients first start to learn about the Self, I hear them say things like, “I wish it were more concrete, it’s too vague”, or “I’m not really sure what you mean by the Self”. These responses make sense to me because many of my clients are so used to their parts taking over the seat of consciousness, they haven’t had much experience sensing Self within.
Self is like the sun and parts are like clouds, even if a cloud is in front of the sun, the sun is still there waiting to be revealed.
I believe all people have access to Self qualities, such as self-compassion, non-judgmental curiosity, and calmness. Many of my neurodiverse clients live in a constant state of anxiety and tension. It’s hard for them to imagine tapping into Self qualities, such as calm. But, they can and they do.
To help you better understand Self, think of a real person (whom you may or may not know) who demonstrates Self qualities. Think of someone who has a loving and comforting presence, who does not judge, and who makes people feel safe. They demonstrate qualities of Self.
Accessing Self usually takes practice. A lot of practice. There are many ways to cultivate the presence of Self. Stay tuned for a future blog on this topic.
Your Inner System in Balance
Self helps keep your inner system in balance. When your inner system is in balance, you will notice your parts have the following qualities:
- Vulnerable parts can be curious, sensitive, empathetic, trustworthy, open to others and new experiences, and more.
- Firefighter parts can be assertive, advocates for fairness and equality, courageous, passionate, and humorous.
- Manager parts can be problem-solvers, organizers, collaborative, passionate about self-growth and awareness, and parental.
IFS is powerful because it can help bring balance to your inner system. Take a moment just to imagine what life would be like for you if your inner system were in balance. What would your self-esteem be like? How open would you be to connecting with others or taking courageous risks when it comes to relationships, work, etc?
Autism Therapy Using the Internal Family Systems or IFS Model
The focus of Internal Family Systems and autism therapy is to help release your exile parts from the emotional pain they have been carrying for years, shift your manager and firefighter parts into more helpful and less extreme roles, and help cultivate the presence of Self in your everyday life. For my autistic clients and their neurotypical family members, the IFS model has helped reduce their anxiety and worry, increase self-esteem, improve mood, and create a more hopeful outlook on life.
Many of the parents I work with who have a neurodivergent child find the IFS model helps them in two ways. Firstly, it brings them greater inner peace and confidence in parenting. Secondly, it gives them a greater appreciation for their child’s inner struggles and how this impacts their behavior. After learning IFS, parents usually notice that when their child does something that would have triggered them in the past, they now are able to access their Self qualities and remain patient, calm, and compassionate with their child. This usually reduces power struggles and improves the parent-child relationship.
Curious About Internal Family Systems and Autism Therapy?
Curious about autism therapy and want to know if it can help you, then reach out to our autism therapy clinic. Our autism therapists would love to share with you some techniques to help you cope with the challenges that accompany your autistic traits and help you tap into your unique strengths and gifts. To begin autism therapy in California follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our client care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Other Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.