Benjamin Meyer, LCSW

benjaminmeyerlcsw@gmail.com | PHONE 347-768-3909


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A Two-Pronged Approach: How and Why Individuals with Learning Differences Benefit from Coaching and Emotionally Focused Psychotherapy

 

A call with a potential client yesterday reminded me why I provide emotionally focused psychotherapy to individuals with learning differences instead of exclusively coaching them. He described how his challenges meeting deadlines and finding a professional path have provoked symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, and that while he was looking for concrete strategies to improve his organization, he did also genuinely want to rebuild his self-confidence and overall well-being. Experience and research tell us that learning differences are often comorbid with mental illnesses and other conditions (Silver, 2013). Therefore, mental health treatment is often highly indicated when working with these individuals. Unfortunately, there is a false dichotomy among mental health professionals between coaching and psychotherapy, one that may often lead someone to receive these services from different providers. However, I have found that treatment for individuals with learning differences is often most effective when both methods are offered by a trained psychotherapist, ultimately helping that person to achieve the success and outcomes he or she desires.

Many of the individuals I have worked with have stated that they found either exclusive psychotherapy and or coaching to be ineffective. When I discuss this with them, they may make statements such as “I felt like we talked about the same issues over and over again, but I never learned how to change my situation,” or “I feel like my coach wanted me to make all of these changes without understanding why it was so hard for me to make them to begin with.” In other words, while psychotherapy was helpful for exploring the emotional impact of a learning difference, it offered little in the way of concrete strategies for helping this person to manage the practical challenges they faced on a daily basis. On the other hand, coaching that does not take into consideration the emotional impact of a learning difference, may be met with understandable resistance, especially if that person faces mental health challenges that interfere with implementing the strategies mentioned by the coach. Emotionally focused psychotherapy, when it is combined with coaching, helps an individual to identify the emotional impact of his or her learning difference, while also offering some concrete solutions to help achieve his or her goals.

A young woman I work with illustrates why it is effective to combine emotionally focused psychotherapy and coaching. When her parents originally contacted me, they explained that she had been recently diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), but still wanted to become a nurse. The beginning of my work with her centered on helping her to, as she put it, “Understand how my mind works.” In other words, she reported that she never had the opportunity to fully understand her specific strengths and weaknesses, and how they might impact her during her nursing school training, from the visual spatial aspects of administering medications to passing a test of her professional nursing duties. I was able to provide her with some concrete strategies for achieving success in nursing school, including finding a mentor. As treatment progressed, she was able to explore some of the anxiety she experienced regarding her potential academic performance, which included deep-seated fears of letting down her parents, whom she described feeling indebted to since her adoption. A combination of psychotherapy and coaching helped me to better understand not only the practical challenges she faced, but also the anxieties and internalized pressure she experienced in pursuing her professional dream. Combining psychotherapy and coaching provides her with comprehensive services she needs for reaching her goal.

I want to be clear in stating that I am not suggesting that psychotherapists become coaches or vice-versa. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, my training is primary in psychotherapy and mental health services, and not in coaching. However, I am suggesting that as a therapist who works with individuals with learning differences, I do think it is critical for me to provide some form of concrete support when appropriate, especially as I have come to understand how a learning difference may impact a person’s everyday functioning. I suggest that therapists not only become more knowledgeable about learning differences, but also that they become more open to making practical suggestions that can help their clients to achieve success. Ultimately, emotionally focused psychotherapy that includes some coaching is most effective for assisting a young adult to overcome his or her obstacles.


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Finding the True Man Within: Masculinity and Mental Health Challenges for Men with Different Types of Learning Differences

As a Bergen County psychotherapist and coach, I see many young men who are struggling with some aspect of their masculinity. For young men with learning differences, social rejection, challenges in school, and later difficulties maintaining employment can not only be acutely painful, but also shake the foundation of their manhood.  The intersection of disability and masculinity is eloquently captured by Erin Kelly when she states, “When you have society constantly telling you. ‘You can’t do that!’ It eats away at your soul-no matter who you are. When you have a disability, people aren’t telling you that because they think whatever you are doing is wrong or against the law. They’re most likely telling you because you don’t ‘look the ‘part,’ due to the fact that you have a wheelchair or what have you…for a disabled man to hear these things, I think it would be worse than any pill to swallow” (Kelly, 2015) Young men with “invisible” learning differences might “look the part,” but also feel emasculated when friends and family members shoot them slightly disapproving glances when they discover that  they are living at home after college, for example. As an individual and family therapist who often works with young adults with nonverbal learning disabilities, I know how important it is to support these young men reconnect with their masculinity. These are a few of my techniques.

Some of the young men who come to my practice feel “stuck.” They may feel overqualified for their job, unable to afford moving out from their parents, or missing meaningful social connections. These feeling infringes on a traditional sense of masculinity that emphasis self-agency and personal responsibility. Therefore, it is helpful for them to reclaim their personal power where they can. For example, one male client who was interested in exploring outdoor activities with other men described the satisfaction he would feel when he cut down a tree, finally seeing the tangible results of hard work and feeling as though there was something he could change in his tangible environment. Other young men describe feeling most competent when they go to the gym and build their strength and endurance, while some others become involved in developing new hobbies, such as fishing or music. In general, encouraging the young men I work with to imagine their own efficacy and power outside of their work lives has been helpful for them to develop their sense of masculinity and power.

In addition to encouraging self-efficacy and personal power, I have found that some young men respond positively to reframing their experiences as uniquely masculine. Indeed, for many of these young men, it took tremendous personal sacrifice to graduate from high school and college, for example.  I may often ask them, for example, to consider the fact that they never gave up and that they pushed through, characteristics that are traditionally associated with masculinity.  Some of the young men I work with are able to consider that overcoming challenges has led them to become more resilient and better able to face down what life throws their way, like a boxer who has taken multiple hits but keeps on fighting. This image has resurrected a sense of masculinity in some of the young men I work with.

I recognize that some concepts of masculinity include aspects with which I strongly disagree, such as sexism and patriarchy. However, while I do at times present alternative concepts, I think that it is important to keep in mind that some of these young men have felt beaten down, misunderstood, and not even recognized as whole and complete individuals. For them, an identity that includes traditional ideas and concepts of masculinity are essential for developing a wholeness to their identify, something that may have been stripped from them. In this context, exploring how they can define a masculine identity for themselves solidifies a therapeutic alliance, as part of their identify is validated by another male.

 

 


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Dating Skills Group

 

Dating can be stressful for anyone, but for young adults with Asperger Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disorder, it can seem especially challenging. Through the implementation of a six- week curriculum, each participant will have the opportunity to support one another in exploring the world of dating, collaborating on new strategies through role-play and discussion, and trying out recently acquired techniques between sessions. This group emphasizes that dating can be fun and provides an open and supportive place in which to explore the process with others.

When: Thursdays at 7:30 PM
LOCATION: Spectrum Services 303 5th avenue Suite #1003 New York, NY 10016

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

Benjamin Meyer, LCSW
Bilingual Psychotherapist/Coach

 


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The Present and the Past: How to Navigate the Complexity of Learning Differences in Couples Therapy

As learning differences have become better understood, a wider array of coaching and dating services have become available for young adults facing these challenges. However, what has been less researched, but is equally important to understand, are the long term emotional impacts of learning differences on a relationship. Many couples in which one or both partners have learning differences will not only face challenges in their daily lives: taking care of chores, leaving adequate time for activities, and managing finances, to name a few. In addition, they will confront challenges in navigating difficult and potentially emotionally charged conversations. I suggest that therapists working with these couples develop strategies for allowing these difficult issues to be expressed and shared during therapy sessions.

Although underlying emotional challenges are important to identify and discuss, with many couples, it is more helpful to begin with the practical. As suggested by the writer and editor Kate Kelly, there must first be an agreed upon time to meet and delegate daily responsibilities (Kelly, 2014-2017). During their busy lives, couples may forget to assign each other responsibilities, but doing so is especially important when one or both partners may easily forget, or become disorganized. These meetings are also helpful if they allow the time to consider the strengths and challenges of each person, and how to assign tasks accordingly. For example, if one partner struggles with folding laundry but enjoys reading, then maybe he or she would be best suited to the task of reading to the children at night. It also important to use a written schedule that will help with memory and keeping track of progress, as well as taking care of other daily responsibilities, such as finances.

While it would be ideal if every couple could communicate regarding navigating daily tasks, doing so may require a mutual level of trust and commitment. However, learning differences can create a unique strain on a relationship that can make even a more practical conversation difficult to have. Brita Miller, the Adult Issues Chair for the Learning Disabilities Association of California, states “A person with Learning Disabilities may be frustrated about the way a partner provides assistance by feeling stifled when too much is provided, which may give rise to the perception that he or she is stupid or being treated like a child.” She also states that the person without the disability “may experience resentment at having to continually tend to the needs of the other, while many of his/her needs seem to go unmet” (Miller, 2017 ). A couple may benefit from creating ground rules that guide difficult discussions, such as respecting and encouraging autonomy by asking before providing help, actively listening to a partner’s explanation of his or her needs, and refraining from advice giving. However, it is also important to acknowledge that being the significant other of somebody with learning differences presents unique challenges. At times, it may be a nuisance to have to pick up your partner’s socks on a regular basis, or return to the grocery store to pick up items your partner forgot, for example. The art of effective therapy with these couples is to provide a space for both the person with learning differences and his or her partner to express and listen to one another’s needs and frustrations, but reaching this place does take time, and it may help to start by analyzing the impact of past events.

Many individuals with learning differences are impacted by the past. For example, the feeling of being treated like a “child,” may stem from previous experiences of infantilization by educators, family members, and even in past relationships. However, if a person with a learning difference has the opportunity to explore these feelings with a significant other, not only will he or she feel more validated, but the partner may also begin to understand the sensitivity of someone with a learning difference, and what may be done to alleviate it, simply by making a conscientious effort not to repeat the perhaps well-intentioned but misinformed behaviors of others in the past. However, it is never easy to acknowledge these past feelings and experiences, and a therapist should be careful to allow each person to do so on his or her own timeline.

Part of what may make it a challenge to discuss the past for some couples in which one or both people have a learning difference are feelings of inadequacy and shame. Individuals with learning differences have often received the message that they are not good enough, whether at school, on the job, or in social relationships or dating. In fact, some individuals with learning differences may wonder if their partners would still find them attractive if they fully understood their struggles to read, tie their shoe laces, navigate social relationships, or even remember and follow through on directions. When an individual with a learning difference has the opportunity to express these feelings in therapy, his or her partner has the opportunity not only to express understanding, but also to look for ways to reassure him or her of their attractiveness despite whatever challenges he or she may have.

While it is critically important for a person with a learning difference to feel comfortable identifying and expressing how past challenges have impacted him or her, the reverse is also true. The partners of individuals with learning differences may at times not only feel frustrated by the challenges of their significant other, and the possible delays, reminders, and even arguments that they seem to cause, but may also be reminded of the times that they too may have felt ignored, burdened, or had to care for others. Although it may be a challenge for a person with a learning difference to hear and empathize with the partner’s own experience, doing so is important for building mutual understanding and compassion. A couple’s therapist, in this context, would be wise to reassure the person with a learning difference that validating how his or her challenges impact the partner does not take away or minimize his or her own personal challenges. Therefore, an effective couple’s therapist will work with both individuals on how the past impacts the present, creating a safe space for these painful experiences to be identified and explored.

 

 

Bibliography

Kelly, K. (2014-2017). 9 Ways to Keep Your Challenges from Affecting Your Relationship. Retrieved from Understood: For Learning and Attention Issues : https://www.understood.org/en/family/taking-care-of-yourself/do-i-have-learning-attention-issue/9-ways-to-keep-your-challenges-from-affecting-your-relationships

Miller, B. (2017 ). Dealing with Learning Disabilities in Relationships. Retrieved from LD Online: http://www.ldonline.org/article/6007


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Unseen Challenges: The Unique Needs of Young Adults with “Invisible Disabilities” in the Work Place.

 

As learning differences are increasingly studied and new interventions have been created, a relatively new term has been devised to describe those with less noticeable cognitive, mental health, and health-related challenges: “invisible disabilities.” (Association, ND). While historically these individuals may have been under-supported in the academic context, as a result of increasing research and the breadth of understanding and applicability of the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act people with “invisible disabilities” are accessing higher education at a higher level than ever before, and universities are providing more services to accommodate them. As of 2016, 67% of students with learning differences are enrolling in college within eight years of high school graduation, which is similar to the percentage of the general population (Casteneda, 2016) However, what happens when these students graduate and enter the workforce, where the accommodations they may have grown accustomed to are no longer available? With only 46% of individuals with learning differences reporting full-time employment (Cortiella, 2014), it is clear that more support is needed. While there are comprehensive programs, both privately and publically funded, designed to help young people on the autism spectrum and with visible cognitive and physical disabilities to prepare for and maintain employment, fewer services are available for those with invisible disabilities, whose challenges may require less clear or explicit accommodations. However, these individuals, who are frequently not diagnosed until early adulthood, also face challenges in the workplace, and although these challenges may be subtle, they can also be devastating. They may pertain to understanding the nuances of interpersonal relationships in the office, integrating into a workplace culture, or demonstrating the executive functioning skills essential to multitasking. I offer a few tips to help these young adults become successful.

A common complaint I hear in my practice is: “I interview so well,” but then when I start the job I have all of these challenges.” Some clients also report feeling that they have deceived and disappointed their employers, who may have picked up on a candidate’s intelligence and interview skills but discover later that he or she is struggling to integrate into the office culture, multitask under pressure, or simply understand his or her role in a specific positon.    Unfortunately, these deficits may lead to poor performance reviews and ultimately job termination. However, there are specific supports that these individuals would benefit from that are not offered in traditional employment training programs.

Individuals with invisible disabilities will sometimes feel overwhelmed by their job requirements, but this often stems from situations in which their job role is not clear. At times, employers will expect their employees to intuitively figure out the requirements and limits of their specific positions, as well as when to ask for guidance. Due to the nuances of job roles in today’s economy, employment training that would help those with invisible disabilities to gain confidence in asking for role clarification is a critical but often neglected service.

Individuals with invisible disabilities may feel anxious in the workplace when they are asked to multi-task in a fast-paced environment. Compounding this is the challenge that many face in understanding their employer’s implicit priorities. For example, an employer may view finishing an expense report, which is critical for the bottom line, as more important than working on the company website, but may assume that the employee understands this rather than communicating it directly. The employee, however, may have missed this message. Support programs therefore should work with employers as well as employees to facilitate clearer communication.

The challenges in the workforce are made more complex by increasingly nuanced social norms and expectations, which young adults with invisible disabilities may not pick up on. Specifically, they may be a challenge for them to figure out how and when to join a conversation or what topics are appropriate to bring up in a work setting, as opposed to a university or more informal setting. Some of these individuals may not realize that revealing personal information may be inappropriate at work, while others may not know how and when to contribute to a collegial conversation at work. Self-advocating and asking for support when assignments or tasks seem overwhelming, as well as handling criticism from a boss or colleagues, are critical tools that must be practiced over time. Working with a therapist or another kind of service provider who can help to address these issues through role-play and collaborative brainstorming is a critical step for developing strategies and self-confidence.

While there are many challenges that young adults with invisible disabilities face in the workforce, there are services that should and could be developed to assist them. I have outlined a few suggestions that may be helpful.


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How to Be Honest: Discussing Physical Attraction Towards Others and Pornography Use in Relationships

Some of the most sensitive and challenging topics for couples are physical attraction towards others and pornography use. Couples will frequently avoid these topics for fear of provoking each other’s insecurities and jealousy. However, the truth is that the guilt and embarrassment that stop couples from sharing also hinders emotional and physical intimacy. With a Canadian study finding that women whose partners openly disclose pornography use are more likely to report relationship satisfaction and lower levels of distress (Borreli, 2014), many relationship experts are stating that discussing pornography and outside physical attraction is an essential ingredient for healthy relationships. However, what is less well-known is how to discuss this topic with your significant other. While every couple is different, and there is no prescription for everyone, I offer a few tips below.

  1. Make Sure It’s Not Just About You

Clarity in your intention plays a major role not only in helping your partner to hear that you may be attracted to others or use pornography from time to time, but also in preserving the trust and intimacy of the relationship. One simple step is to ask your partner how he or she feels about your sharing these topics, while realizing that doing so may elicit feelings of shame, embarrassment, and inadequacy. It is also important to ask yourself why you want to share. Do you want to deepen your trust and intimacy level with your partner by being honest, perhaps expressing your own feelings of guilt or shame, or do you simply want an occasion to objectify someone else? Are you also willing to hear from your partner about his or her attractions or pornography use? When we love somebody, that person may be able to intuitively discern what our motives are, so sharing, especially in the beginning, is best done by couples when the goal is to promote intimacy and connection. For example, there is a significant difference between stating that you always thought your co-worker was sexy and stating that you would like to be more open about your fantasies and desires to build honest and healthy communication between you. Choose your words wisely and make your intentions clear.

It may also help to empathize that your attraction may vary quite a bit; sometimes, you might admire someone who is skinny, and sometimes you might find somebody attractive who is slightly overweight. Explaining to your partner that the diversity of your attraction may lead you to be attracted to others, including those who are not glamorous or models, may humanize the process for both of you. One might say, for example, “I really find him/her attractive, even if they’re not skinny or athletic, although I appreciate those qualities in you.” The idea is not to take away from what your partner’s attractiveness, but to celebrate another person’s distinctive style and beauty as well, which does not make your partner any less beautiful in your eyes.

At times, there may be attractive qualities in someone else that your partner is also happy to develop. You may point out, for example, that a mutual friend is wearing a nice sweater, and that you believe it would look gorgeous on your partner as well. You can even suggest that a mutual acquaintance has developed a healthy physique and that you would like to begin working out with your partner so that both of you can get in shape. Again, the key is to articulate steps that empower you and your partner to engage in activities together that would increase your attraction for one another.

  1. Make Sure the Pornography Is Something You Can Share

Pornography can be many things: degrading, sexy, empowering, and kinky are some adjectives that come to mind. However, if you are into porn, think about how your fantasies may be able to include your partner. At times, it may be something you can share in the bedroom. If you have a fantasy that is ignited from a pornographic video, ask your partner if he or she might like to act it out with you. Sharing a voyeuristic fantasy, for example, may actually be a turn-on for your partner, especially if you are able to imagine viewing a specific act together. However, it is much too challenging to include your partner if the material is degrading and/or if you impose your porn use and fantasies without first exploring your partner’s openness to these topics. Ask your partner if your fantasy is something he or she is willing to explore with you and even if it may be exciting on some level.

  1. Reaffirm Your Love

There is a special reason why you choose a particular person. Yes, there may be attractions to others at different times, but there is really only one person that you choose to be with. However, we often forget to express this. When your partner feels loved and understands that he or she is the only one you have deep feelings of commitment for, insecurity is less likely to arise and can be more easily soothed. Therefore, it is important to articulate why you chose your specific partner over everyone else. Attraction does come and go, but love is something that can last if we bring our true and honest selves to it, difficult as that may be at times.

 

Borreli, L. (2014, January 7th). Why Couples Who Confess To Watching Porn Are Happier And Have Better Relationships. Retrieved from Medical Daily : http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-couples-who-confess-watching-porn-are-happier-and-have-better-relationships-266505

 


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Dating and Asperger’s

Dating Success: Strategies for Those on the Spectrum And With NVLD

It is well-know that young adults on the autism spectrum and with Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD) often struggle with understanding nonverbal body language and social nuances such as humor, figures of speech, and sarcasm. The difficulties of dating for those with NVLD and on the spectrum have been documented, with blog posts stating that due to deficits in understanding body language and emotional reciprocity, young adults will often struggle to establish and maintain relationships.[i] Less well-known are the strategies that young adults on the spectrum and with NVLD can use to build on their strengths and ultimately find a long-term partner. I outline some of them below.

Before specifying  strategies for dating success, it is important to recognize the  many strengths that these young adults have. Tony Atwood, the world-renowned expert on Asperger Syndrome, asserts that many young people with Asperger have attractive qualities, such as openness and honesty, loyalty, and attentiveness.[ii] These qualities are shared by many young adults with NVLD.

Practice Won’t Make Perfect, But It Helps a Lot If it’s Fun.

When a young person practices his or her dating techniques through role-playing, the fear of judgement can create significant discomfort. However, when the process is fun, involves laughter and excitement, and affords creativity, young adults on the spectrum and with NVLD can learn to develop what is known as a “theory of mind,” or an understanding of how others think and feel. Dr. Lana Pena Morgans writes not only does she allow the teenagers she works with to lead social skill building activities, but she also helps them by having them engage in dramatic performances, building their understanding of characters and the audience. Furthermore, she states that “it is so much safer getting directions as an actor, than receiving direction on your own personal social skills!”[iii]

If young adults can also imagine dating as a play, during which they act out different dating situations, learning skills and supporting one another in the process, this can be an effective strategy for acquiring skills while having fun.

 

Try Places To Meet Like-Minded Individuals

It is also important to point out that online dating, although an increasingly popular resource, may not work well for young adults on the spectrum or with NVLD, especially if it requires them to understand nuanced social rules. As stated by the New York City dating coach Jeremy Hamburg in The Atlantic, “Online dating is its own world. How can you expect someone with autism, who is already poor at picking up on rules, to succeed in a world that has a totally separate set of rules?”[iv]  However, some young adults may prefer this dating method, especially if it allows them to avoid immediate face-to-face interaction. Also, it is important to note that there are websites available for those who wish to date on the spectrum, such as Aspie-Singles and AutisticDating.Net.

Practice and Take Pride in the Small Steps

 

   Work on Accepting Yourself

Perhaps one of the most painful challenges for any young adult on the spectrum is a history of past rejection. Therefore, one of the areas that is important to work on is self-acceptance. For many, this is easier said than done, especially after multiple rejections. It has also been my experience that many individuals with NVLD and on the spectrum need not only to be reminded of their strengths, but also to consider how they can use them while dating. At times, this process may be facilitated by working with a therapist or somebody who is trained to work with NVLD or those on the spectrum and who understands the specific challenges that this population faces. There are a variety of organizations that  work with this population, including the group practice I am affiliated with, Spectrum Services of New York, and the Asperger Autism Network, AANE.

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Weaver, Rheyanne (2016) Tips for Being in A Relationship With a Man Who has Asperger’s or Autism.[blog post] Retrieved from http://www.empowher.com/mental-health/content/tips-being-relationship-man-who-has-aspergers-or-autism.

[ii] Atwood, T (2009). Romantic Relationships for Young Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism.  Interactive Autism Network: Linking the Autism Community and Researchers. Retrieved from https://iancommunity.org/cs/articles/relationships.

[iii] Pena Morgens, L (2014). Not Another Role Play!  Asperger/Autism Network.

[iv] Al-Nasrawi, R (2013, November). Online Dating, on the Autism Spectrum. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/online-dating-on-the-autism-spectrum/281710/

[v] Atwood, T (2009). Romantic Relationships for Young Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism.  Interactive Autism Network: Linking the Autism Community and Researchers. Retrieved from https://iancommunity.org/cs/articles/relationships.