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The Art Of Autonomy- Chapter Excerpt from the Book "Extraordinary"

The creative arts are the keeper of authenticity. What you create, how you create and what you choose to create with are windows into a deeper layer of humanness. There is no place to hide in the creative process. You are in conversation with yourself with every decision you make. Play, doubt, confidence and the inner critic can all be found here, and anyone who has ever sat down, paintbrush or pen in hand, can attest to the duality of joy and frustration in creating art. From the moment the paint meets the canvas, your essence is imparted. There is an internal tug-of-war of self-doubt and curiosity that edges you forward to create, and it's somewhere here that the magic happens. The intimate relationship with the 'self' is unveiled, whether intentional or not and this vulnerability of this is infused in every mark. Every reaction, emotion and thought is areflection ofreflects so much more than the finished product. There is a depth that is unspoken and only felt. I could think of no better way to gently encounter the edges of your identity and experience of this world. This is Expressive Arts Therapy and the world Ipsarty curates for every client and this is my extraordinary. 

'I'm often asked, "what is arts therapy?" or met with preconceived ideas of what people think it is. Most people know the relaxing therapeutic benefits of art making, but few know its powerful role in therapy. Arts therapy is so much more than just creating art. The art itself acts as the third in the therapeutic relationship buffering some discomfort in sharing vulnerability. It helps to tell the story of its creator without the need for words. Every time we create, we place elements of ourselves into our creation, not for others to see or to analyse, but to witness ourselves. We can interact with ourselves this way while being safely held within the image, poem, song or play. Therein lies the power of arts therapy, respecting agency and the intuitive cues of readiness. At Ipsarty's core is the philosophy of agency, a person's fundamental right to be respected as the expert in their own lived experience. Ipsarty, the name of my business, comes from the word ipseity, which means selfhood and our sole focus is supporting the client to connect with their sense of self. In essence, our approach is based on giving autonomy and agency to the client, and giving them a safely held space to process their world at their own pace. We empower them to problem solve, challenge inner stories with self-compassion, build confidence, connect with intuition and find comfort within themselves. I've made it our mission to challenge the traditional modes of therapy and offer a new way of supporting people that recognises that there is no one size fits all approach. There is no single form of therapy that suits everyone.

Expressive Arts Therapy is therapy done differently. We don't conform to traditional ideals of therapist-led, solution-focused interventions. Because put frankly, there's nothing "wrong" with any child or adult, and no one needs us to fix, improve or change them. The clients decide to transform the parts of their life if they choose, when, and how they choose to. We invite them to be exactly as they are, and accept them in that season with open arms. Unfortunately,  somewhere along the line, therapies subscribed to a deficit framework that seats professionals in the expert chair, while parents (and individuals) are expected to put aside their natural intuition and follow the ‘expert’  advice to the letter. Sadly, this therapeutic medical model approach leaves people disempowered and attached to the unachievable goal of ‘perfection’. If you 'can't already tell, I have some passionate views about how professionals support people and even more so when it comes to children. It's time we stop sending the message to kids that they are not good enough the way they are. As a therapist I see these damaging messages seeping into the inner voice of our littlest souls and it is truly heartbreaking. The words that are said to them and even the ones that are implied become their inner narrative. It is our job as professionals to protect the sanctum of their developing sense of self, not dictate how they should fit into the world around them. The only disabling aspect of a disability is our culturally limiting attitude towards people's differences and autonomy. Where there is belief, self-belief grows. 

I've learned this not only through my work as a therapist but on a much more personal level as a neurodivergent. My diagnosis of ADHD and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) announced itself at 30 years of age, after being informally diagnosed by a six-year-old client in the studio who pointed out I had "a brain like'' hers while furiously scribbling her many busy thoughts in different coloured texters. She told me that her mind was like a busy shopping centre and as I looked at all those lines darting across the page in different directions, it dawned on me that she was right. My six-year-old ADHD/ASD client knew I was one of her people before I did. A few weeks later, I arrived at my official diagnosing appointment 10 minutes late with no shoes because I forgot to put them on before leaving the house that morning (an embarrassingly common occurrence). Needless to say, all the evidence pointed to ADHD. Until then, I believed I was just a quirky, forgetful, clumsy, useless adult that shouldn't really be trusted in a kitchen. Looking back at my life with this new knowledge wasn't easy because the signs were always there, and I was left unsupported, feeling like there was "something wrong with me". This diagnostic label wasn't about medicalising my struggle or seeing myself from a deficit lens; it was the puzzle piece that always felt like it was missing in my identity. I remember the labels given to me as a child and the ones I gave myself. Lazy, unreliable, impulsive, reckless, stupid, sensititve, daydreamer, useless and the ever-present phrase of "not living up to my potential". Having this inner narrative caused havoc in my early adulthood with a string of traumas, as it does for many neurodivergent folk. But realising my brain was just processing the world differently quietened my inner self-critic and allowed space for genuine self-compassion. I finally knew how to begin supporting myself, and it started with finding the confidence to trust what felt right for me. If that means I hire a cleaner, or I have to use post-it notes all over my house to remind me to brush my teeth/hang washing out/drink water or have to keep a pair of spare shoes in the car in case I forget to wear them, then that's ok. I've learned to honour my unique rhythm and way of being. I also learned to celebrate the remarkable things my brain is capable of and how it views the world. I was always different, but finding my stride and wearing  my uniqueness proudly, changed my life. We were never meant to be carbon copy humans; every difference shared with another enriches their life through the gift of widening perception. That one little six-year-old client gifted me this. It's funny just how much my professional work has impacted my life.

In all my years as a palliative, mental health and disability nurse in the community, before training in psychotherapy, I have come to know that we can never truly understand what someone else's lived experience is. We can have all the theoretical knowledge in the world (thinking we know what's best for people) but genuinely miss the mark by thinking we are the experts. After years of witnessing the rawest side of being human, I have a humble appreciation for those who are brave enough to share their vulnerability with me. I've seen the immeasurable strength and love humans are capable of, and it changed me. Every patient/client changed me a little every day and continues to. There's one, however, that will forever stay with me and deserves a named place among these words, with his family's permission, of course. 

Jamie Ellis was a firecracker, and when I cared for him, he was a palliative client with a neurodegenerative disorder ('Friedreich's ataxia) at 19 years old, only a few years younger than me at the time. He had the most ferocious wit and equally matched temper. His dark humour was unlike any I've seen since, and he lived beyond the body that was failing him with his rebellious spirit. As his speech slowed and slurred more, and he lost the use of his hands, he never once allowed his autonomy to be taken away from him. He fiercely protected his right to choose and do the things he could. Jamie taught me the most valuable lesson as a professional; to witness and to really listen. Only a handful of people could understand him as he spoke in the later parts of his life, but it was here that I learned to listen with my whole body. Attune to the nuances of another person and observe more than just the words. He taught me how to take a back seat and hand the reins over even if the task would take an hour longer. This patience was more than just that; it was a form of honouring him as a person. His journey out of this world was difficult to witness at times as his own grief played out in front of me, but even as I grappled with the injustice of it, he taught me to accept that it is not my role to fix. I was forced to confront my discomfort in feeling helpless. On his worst days, he would be overcome by anger and lash out at everyone verbally and physically, which coined him the "behaviourally challenged client" label. Where others saw behaviour, I saw pain, anxiety, and a deep need to be seen. It was those days that he desperately needed the people he pushed away most. These lessons he gifted me helped me to carve out the therapist I am today, and I will be forever grateful that he graced this earth with his fiery presence. His tenacious value of autonomy was always in my mind as I designed our beautiful studio space.

The Ipsarty studio is truly an extension of who I am as a neurodivergent human and professional. 

The foundations of our practice were laid by my lived experience of never quite feeling like I fit anywhere and the need for people to have a space to not only belong but just to be as they are. Somewhere they feel held and free from expectations. A place they can claim as their own for that short period of time that cradles them and softens the jagged edges of what they are experiencing in their life beyond our walls. When I set out to build my own therapeutic studio space, I envisioned it as a part of the therapy session, to come alive when someone entered the front door and to nurture them with its soothing energy. As professionals, we are quick to forget the potency of an environment on someone's mental landscape. And so, our studio beams with beautiful natural light and showcases my plant-buying addiction. It is a work of art that offers spaciousness. Walls are plastered with all manner of artwork to incite curiosity and inspire the creative soul in everyone. I designed every aspect of this space intentionally to support the needs of our clients; physically, energetically, emotionally, psychologically and on a sensory level. The environment sends gentle messages of safety and regulates those heightened nervous systems. It holds its own therapeutic presence without needing to "give therapy". Maybe my nursing origins influenced our holistic approach, but when we see each client as a whole, they begin to feel whole themselves.

So far, the studio lives up to my vision and is now a sanctuary for many clients (kids and adults alike). Much of our client base is neurodivergent kids and their families navigating their way through their own diagnosis. And boy, do we get to witness some extraordinary families. Something magic happens when kids are given the green light on autonomy and agency. They begin to connect with who they are, and the more they learn about themselves, the more self-compassion they develop and the more confident they feel in communicating their needs and what feels right for them. They are supported to find their own rhythm and to learn to trust it. Kids need to be kids. They shouldn't feel pressured to live up to any therapist's expectations or goals. When they are given a chance to explore and process their world through play and their natural curiosity, they build skills from a base of empowerment and ownership over their own experience. Play, imagination and creativity are how children process their inner and outer worlds, especially when words don't match their complex thoughts and feelings. Arts therapy moves what they are experiencing into a more fluid expression where any judgement of finding the right words or fear of being misunderstood is lifted through play. Through the arts, each child explores who they are, how they see themselves in their relationships, their environment and how they see themselves in the big wide world. And best of all, this happens how they choose and at the pace they need. We want to teach kids that this is ok and to lay the foundations for self-advocacy. 

Our approach doesn't change from child to parent because the fundamental aims are the same; connecting to identity, cultivating self-trust and replacing the inner negative narrative with self-compassion. The difference is that their patterns are often layered with guilt and shame that have been carried for many years. If I could wave a magic wand, I would wish for every parent of a disabled child to receive fully funded mental health support (and nourishing respite services). These parents are expected to shoulder too much alone. So many are merely surviving day by day and giving every ounce of themselves to nurturing their children and advocating for them. We choose to work closely with the whole family unit for this reason. Each child's parents are invited to engage in their own therapy or one of our parent support programs. With so many other professionals in their ears about what they should be doing, we focus our attention on boosting their confidence and trusting their instincts. This also extends into how they choose to support themselves. 

So often, when we become parents, we shuffle ourselves to the side to meet the needs of our children first. And when burnout comes knocking at the door, everyone is quick to say you need to practise "self-care", and "take time out for yourself" with all the free time you have. Breathing exercises, meditation and exercise suggestions are printed on flyers and handed out as a bid to help regulate these fried nervous systems. While all of these options have their place, I want to acknowledge that when it comes to regulation, it can look as unique as the individual themselves. There are so many tools and strategies, but what works for one person may not work for another. Each of us holds our unconscious blueprint guided by our own sensory wisdom, the smells, textures, sights and sounds that comfort us. Sometimes we must be reminded that the "body" has a language of its own and carries an undeniable honesty in the human experience. Listening and attending to the little messages it is whispering takes practice and is something we often need to teach parents. Trusting the body and honouring its intuition after years of only valuing it for its pragmatic role requires a great deal of unlearning, but a regulated parent can coregulate a family. The incidence of carer burnout is staggering, and it's time that our wider community learns how to become the village these families so desperately need. Our reframe on 'self-care' is simply pausing with self-compassion in the micro-moments offered to us in everyday life. Children who see parents modelling self-compassion are far more likely to adopt this way of thinking for themselves. With my magic wand, I waved earlier; I'd also bestow this self-compassionate thinking onto every child. A generation of self-compassionate kids could change the world. But for now, we will concentrate on ensuring our mamas and papas know they are worthy and extraordinary and watch the ripple effect. And continue to encourage the inner artist in all parents and children.  

The arts are a place of healing and transformation if chosen to be. As Expressive Arts Therapists, our role is to witness the humanness in another and meet that with our own authenticity. We aren't the guide; we are just the support crew. The lessons that have found me over years of journey alongside people have readjusted my professional identity, and humbled my soul. To be seen and heard is everything but to amplify the autonomy of another is truly honouring the human in them. This is what Ipsarty is all about, and what an extraordinary privilege it is.

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