Alina’s superpowers

Grad draws on personal experience to run Guelph counselling centre

Bees do math? Cool. That’s what Alina Kislenko thought when she took a first-ever course on human-insect interactions as an elective during her French and drama studies as a university student. “It was my first good grade ever,” she says. From their geometric hives to their navigational skills, bees fascinated her – so much so that she decided to change her program to pursue entomology.

And not just her program: Then in second year, Kislenko decided to change schools. That’s how she ended up leaving York University and starting her third year in environmental sciences at the University of Guelph in 2006. It didn’t take long to figure out that she didn’t like the new program after all. She switched to geography, but that still wasn’t right.

It was a boyfriend at the time who steered her toward her ultimate course: “He said: ‘All you talk about is psychology.’” About a decade later, the U of G alumna is still talking psychology as the head of the ADHD and Asperger’s Centre, a counselling service in downtown Guelph.

“When you have ADHD, you have to work two times as hard to get half the return as others.”

It turned out that Kislenko’s fascination lay less in human-insect interactions and more in interactions involving humans – both “Aspies,” her pet term for people with Asperger’s, and “neurotypicals.” That interest also lay in her own experience.

It was at U of G that she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Three years later, she was also diagnosed with Asperger’s. That syndrome was removed from the diagnostic manual of mental disorders in 2013 and folded into the high-functioning end of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), although it still has common parlance among practitioners and clients. Typically, people with the disorder have difficulty with social interactions and show limited interests or repetitive behaviours.

Kislenko says she’s learned to manage her Aspergian traits through withholding judgment about others, listening closely and checking assumptions or explaining her condition upfront to new acquaintances – what she calls “radical transparency” – rather than risk misunderstanding.

Her own diagnosis sparked mixed feelings: sadness that no one had pinpointed her condition earlier, tempered with relief at finally having information she could work with. Not only that, but the news suggested a way to harness her interests and insights as a counsellor.

Hanging out a counsellor’s shingle was hardly what she envisioned when she arrived in Guelph in 2006. She was born in Ukraine and moved to Toronto as a preschooler. Although she was bright, she endured bullying and ostracism at school and felt misunderstood at home.

At university, she had difficulties with time management, organization, dealing with peers and study skills. Even though she was fascinated by psychology, she initially earned poor marks in the subject. “It took me longer to read the textbooks, it was hard to interpret the teachers’ instructions,” she says. “I didn’t understand what they wanted. When you have ADHD, you have to work two times as hard to get half the return as others.”

Getting on track involved a lot of experimenting. Not surprisingly for a psych major, she leaned on Skinner’s reinforcement model – “fining” herself whenever she failed to complete homework or other assignments and rewarding herself for sticking with a task.

Along with a few friends, she created a self-improvement group. Joining the mature students association – even though, at 21, she was among the youngest members – also helped. She practised radical transparency with her roommates.

And she turned to the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD), where she got accommodations and services. To improve notetaking in class, she obtained a Livescribe “smartpen”(“so magical,” she says) and learned to listen for context and relationships among concepts and ideas. She obtained textbooks in audio form and arranged to write exams at her own pace at the CSD.

Recalling Kislenko from one of his classes, psychology professor Karl Hennig says: “From the outset, she struck me as a very curious individual with a great deal of infectious enthusiasm.” As a member of his lab group, she developed curriculum materials for a dating violence and sexuality program intended for high schools. Says Hennig: “She had a lot of creative ideas and put together some great material.”  

Having finally been diagnosed with Asperger’s and perceiving a lack of local counselling services for Aspies and ADHD-ers, she launched the centre in Guelph in 2010. There, counsellors and therapists – all themselves with ADHD or ASD – offer diagnostic and counselling services to clients from Guelph and nearby cities.

As a registered psychotherapist and coach, Kislenko has seen many of those clients herself. She also worked at widening public understanding of ADHD and Asperger’s, including hosting a former show called “Strange Brains” on U of G’s campus radio station.

Her main message – also contained in her Asperger’s handbook – is that people with ADHD and Asperger’s are not problems needing fixing but instances of neurodiversity. If anything, she says, the conditions confer “superpowers” such as hyper-focus, curiosity, innovativeness and humour – not to mention higher-than-average IQ. “We’re huge limit-breakers,” she says. “We’re visionaries. The rest of the world says, ‘This is how it is,’ and we respond: ‘But can it be better?’”

Her main message is that people with ADHD and Asperger’s are not problems needing fixing but instances of neuro-diversity.

She now oversees the operations of the Guelph centre, leaving more of the hands-on counselling to staffers, including her husband, Matt Goetz. Goetz, also a psychotherapist with the centre, has ADHD and Asperger’s as well. They met while taking an online master’s program in counselling psychology through Athabasca University.

In 2014, Kislenko received the Mayor’s Award for empowering women and people with disabilities. She was named in 2017 among the Guelph Y’s Women of Distinction. Says Hennig: “Her motivation for wanting to help others was single-minded so many years ago. It is a great delight to see that she has become such a great force in our community.”

Besides running entrepreneurial groups in Guelph, Kislenko has worked abroad. In 2017, she launched the Women Trailblazing Fellowship intended to help women in developing countries to acquire entrepreneurial skills. That project took her to Bali for two months early this year to teach business and mentoring skills to women in poverty.