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Autism Therapy and Support Groups
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a profound impact on individuals on the spectrum and their loved ones, but treatment is possible. While you can’t “outgrow” autism, the earlier the intervention, the more likely it is for someone with autism to learn the social skills necessary to thrive. That being said, there is still hope for adults with ASD to become more confident in interacting with others. At New Transitions Counseling Center, we offer autism therapy as well as autism support groups for adults and children. We want to help individuals with autism to live as independently as they can, which is why we create these programs where they can learn to be more confident in their communication and social skills.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that impacts a person’s ability to interact socially. It is typically first seen in early childhood, though signs can develop slowly over time and not be noticeable at first. The specific symptoms and behaviors vary greatly between individuals—there is no “one-size-fits-all” autism. This is why it is diagnosed on a spectrum per the most recent version of the DSM. For example, individuals who previously were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (previously considered essentially high-functioning autism) are now included under the umbrella of ASD instead of a separate condition.
Because the specific behaviors vary so widely from individual to individual, you aren’t going to see all the same symptoms in every person with autism. The two main types of behavior seen in autism fall under “restricted/repetitive behaviors” and “social communication/interaction behaviors.”
- Repeated unusual behaviors
- Being hyper focused on things
- Intense and unwavering interest in a specific topic
- Extreme reaction to change in routine or being in a loud, stimulating environment
- Little to no eye contact
- Tendency to not look at or listen to others often
- Strange reactions to others being upset or showing affection
- Not responding when their name is called
- Difficulty with the natural rhythm of conversation
- Talking at length about their interests without regard to the other person’s level of interest
- Repeating what they hear (called “echolalia”)
- Using words in an unusual way that doesn’t make sense to people outside of those used to communicating with them
- Gestures and facial expression that don’t match the content of conversation
- Odd tone of voice, often monotone or sing-song
- Difficulty empathizing and understanding another’s perspective
In addition to the challenges inherent to ASD, there are also a number of ways autism can enhance an individual’s abilities. For example, people with autism often have above-average intelligence. In addition, they often have incredible memories and are able to recall many details. They tend to be strong auditory and visual learners, and often excel at music, art, math, and science.
By the age two or three, a doctor can usually diagnose autism based on the behavior and development of a child. Autism should be addressed as a possibility when any issues with communication or socialization come up. Typically, diagnosing a child with autism comes in two parts. First, it’s recommended that children are screened for ASD at their two-year checkup. The doctor will ask the parents about behavior and will observe the child themselves. Should there be reason to suspect autism, a secondary evaluation will be necessary by specialist, such as a child psychologist, a speech pathologist, or a developmental pediatrician.
If a child grows to school age before being diagnosed, it’s typical for parents to first raise the issue when they start to notice difficulties with communication. Their child might struggle to make friends or understand humor or sarcasm. They might struggle to read body language or understand tone of voice. If this is the case, it is typical for ASD to be first diagnosed through interactions with the special education team at their school.
Diagnosing an adult with autism is significantly more difficult. This is because there are many different mental health disorders that share symptoms of autism, such as ADHD or schizophrenia. That being said, diagnosis can be empowering for adults with autism, as it can explain a lot of their difficulties in the past and help connect them with the resources they need. The exact process of evaluating an adult for ASD is still being developed, but in general, a psychologist can help if you suspect you have autism. The psychologist will want to get as much information as possible about your development, as well as any social/communication issues and repetitive/restrictive behaviors.
The exact causes of autism are unknown, but there are certain risk factors that research shows may play a role in the development of ASD.
Risk factors of autism include:
- Being male—boys are diagnosed with autism more frequently than girls
- Having a sibling with autism
- Having older parents (mother who is older than 35, father who is older than 40)
- Certain genetic conditions—20 percent of children with ASD have comorbid genetic conditions such as Down syndrome
An increase in the number of children diagnosed with ASD has been a point of debate among experts, with some believing that it is due to an increased number of people with autism. On the other hand, this could be credited to the changes in diagnostic guidelines in recent history. This could also be due to the fact that there is more awareness about the disorder, leading to more parents seeking ASD screening and more doctors being able to recognize the signs.
There are more than 3.5 million Americans with ASD
About one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism
Autism is four times as prevalent in boys than girls
Around 40% of children with autism do not speak
Despite being the fastest growing developmental disorder, it is the least funded
Most research and awareness around autism is focused on children with ASD. This makes it all the more difficult for adults and adolescents with autism to find the resources they need. People also tend to have a very specific idea of what autism looks like, so it can be difficult to recognize the signs as autism. If you are an adult and you believe that you might have ASD, you may benefit from coming into New Transitions Counseling Center in Palatine to meet with one of our therapists and see what we can do for you.
At New Transitions Counseling Center, we are passionate about connecting individuals with autism with treatments that can genuinely work for them. Every person is unique, which is why autism treatment doesn’t look identical for two individuals. We incorporate different psychological theories and therapy techniques according to each client’s needs and strengths. The goal of our treatment is to promote more independence and higher quality of life for people with autism and their families alike.
One of the most important programs we offer here at New Transitions Counseling Center is our support groups for autism. We offer three social therapy groups for people with autism, one for adults, one for adolescents, and one for children. The goal of these groups is to help people with ASD to practice their social skills and to form friendships. With social support from peers and an arena in which to practice communication, people with autism are more able to thrive with the introduction of these support groups. We incorporate several types of therapy into these programs, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), social thinking, sensory integration, and emotional training.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most well-researched forms of therapy that has shown to be effective in helping people with a variety of disorders, including ASD. CBT is based on the idea that the way we think impacts how we feel, which in turn impacts how we behave. People get stuck in certain negative thought patterns, and cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to break people free of those thoughts so they can approach life in a more rational way. By shifting their perception through therapy, an individual is better able to coach themselves through a difficult situation and replace their negative thinking with more realistic thoughts. This has proven to be highly effective for people with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Recently, CBT has been adapted to help people with ASD with promising results. People with autism often also experience anxiety due to the struggles of going through life without the same social skills as neurotypical people, particularly in adolescence. Because cognitive behavioral therapy has proven so effective for anxiety disorders, we may incorporate CBT into your autism treatment plan.
One challenge of traditional CBT for people with autism is that they often struggle with abstract thinking. To adapt, researchers have made CBT for ASD more repetitive, visual, and concrete. The therapist may also use a person with autism’s special interests to connect with them and keep them engaged. Also, if sensory over or under activity is a concern, the therapist may incorporate frequent breaks for movement or other sensory activities. CBT can be conducted in a group setting or with family, which can often reinforce the social support that is so important in treating autism.
The social thinking approach to treating autism was first developed by speech pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner. For neurotypical people, social thinking is automatic. We are able to intuitively understand other people’s emotions and perspectives. For people with autism, however, this social information does not come naturally. In order to understand other people, individuals with ASD often must to taught how to use social skills. The social thinking approach teaches how to think socially and how to respond to a situation appropriately. The idea is that learning these skills enables people with autism to more freely move through the world. Because this is a language-based approach, it’s best for individuals who have near-normal to above-normal verbal intelligence. What makes social thinking different from simply teaching social skills is that the therapist teaches the meaning behind the action. Instead of just telling them to “make eye contact,” social thinking teaches why we make eye contact with others.
For children who struggle with processing sensory information, sensory integration therapy can be an effective treatment. Having difficulty with sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights, and movement can make it challenging for people on the spectrum to move about the world. Sensory integration therapy uses play activities that are specially designed to restructure the way the brain processes movement, sound, and sight. Sensory integration therapy is structured around the specific goals of the child. For example, if a child’s sensitivity to sound prevents them from getting sleep, the objective of therapy will be to help them be more tolerant to noise.
There are also several developmental models we subscribe to that help inform our work with individuals with autism. By using an approach that is based in what we know about human development, we are better able to provide individuals with customized care based on their needs. Using development models, we build on their specific interests, engage with any attempts to communicate, create goals based on their unique needs and strengths, and instruct in a natural environment. The goal is not just to form relationships with these children, but to use these relationships to help them learn emotional regulation, communication skills, and to build to more complex social interactions.
Because many people with autism struggle with empathy, one area of focus that we have in our programs is emotional training. The inability to understand another person’s emotions impacts an individual on the spectrum by making it more difficult for them to connect with others, which often results in social isolation. By teaching people with ASD how to recognize other people’s emotions and the appropriate behavioral response, we can help them more readily connect with others.
In our autism support group for children, we also incorporate art therapy into treatment. Art therapy is beneficial to individuals with autism because it helps them to express themselves. As many people with ASD are more visual (many describe “thinking in pictures”), art gives them a way to speak about how they feel without words. This allows them to connect with others in a way that makes sense to them as opposed to with face-to-face conversation.
At New Transitions Counseling Center, we pride ourselves on our autism therapy programs that enable individuals on the spectrum to live more independently with a higher quality of life. If you wonder if you or your loved one could benefit from our autism support groups or therapy services, contact us to schedule a consultation.