Counselling for Adults on the Autistic Spectrum
Every client I work with is different: each has individual problems they wish to tackle and has very different lifestyles and fluctuating levels of support around them. No matter who you are, what your background is or whether or not you have a disability, counselling can be very productive and life-changing. I work with clients who are on the autistic spectrum to help them better understand and work through the problems they are facing. This is a different challenge to take on for me as a therapist. No matter the situation I want to provide the best service possible for each of my clients. Often, people with autism can find it more difficult to adapt to new surroundings, a new person (such as me the therapist) or, they may find it difficult to communicate their feelings. I strongly believe in inclusivity, and because of this, I have worked hard to cultivate a specialist set of skills when it comes to helping my autistic clients be more open about their emotions through communication, the environment and even the timing of the sessions themselves.
If you have autism or have an autistic family member or friend you think could benefit from therapy, then please read on. I have listed the main ways I have adapted my techniques to make my treatment a safe, honest and open place for people to express their real emotions and thoughts.
As many of you will know if you live with autism, live with a loved one who is on the autistic spectrum or someone with Asperger syndrome, often change is hard to adapt to and therefore some of the more conventional techniques used in a therapeutic setting can make those with autism uncomfortable. Some therapists might assume that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) would be a good fit for their autistic clients; however, CBT usually requires homework tasks like keeping diaries and schedules which can be an added level of pressure rather than a help. Autistic individuals can sometimes find it difficult to manage, priorities and multitask, making homework tasks an added burden they struggle with. Over time, trying to keep up with these dairies and schedules could lead to even more stress and worry in their life.
Counsellors shouldn’t feel like CBT is their only option when treating someone on the autistic spectrum. Through my own experience as a therapist, I have found many other pathways to help work with autistic adults, like person-centred therapy where the client feels like their needs and mental health concerns are being addressed concerning their autism. With knowledge in autism and Asperger syndrome and an awareness of sensory processing issues, I can create a unique therapy structure that engages my clients in constructive and honest conversations.
Communication from the Therapist
As a therapist, the way we communicate with our clients is a vital skill. Some may be more closed off and nervous than others and need a more reassuring persona to help coax the issues and information from them. When dealing with a client who is on the autistic spectrum, we have to consider the way we engage with them during sessions. People with Aspergers, for example, often find it difficult to understand and express their inner thoughts and a professional scenario can be off-putting to them.
When working with an autistic adult, I make sure to alter my approach to the situation, by limiting ‘professional’ language and persona, helping my clients feel more comfortable and relaxed in an environment where they don’t feel alienated or undermined. By looking beyond what the books tell you about mental health struggles and the autistic spectrum, my clients value me for understanding them and seeing them as an individual who has their own emotions and thoughts. Communicating with my clients in a way that invites them to express themselves in whatever manner they find comfortable, it is easier for them to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings they have issues putting into a definitive sentence when they first walked into the room.
Often, many autistic clients of various other counsellors have reported being offered a limited number of sessions, usually around six. This could be for a variety of reasons, but therapists can’t assume that the skills and techniques they learn during these sessions can quickly be put into use straight away like other clients possibly could. Remembering skills is easy enough if a person’s amygdala functions are regular, but an autistic person’s ‘fight or flight’ mode can inhibit their ability to recall these strategies when facing anxiety. Having regular sessions with no defined end date allows these clients to learn to trust the therapist and not feel that they have to face months with no support trying to recall strategies they may have learnt. I offer unlimited sessions as a therapist, leaving myself open to working with clients for as long as they need.
A further consideration when working with autistic clients is the length of the sessions as their cognitive process is seen as ‘busier’ than a neurotypical thinker. Longer sessions can be beneficial for these clients as it allows for more cognitive flexibility and overcomes any issues that may interfere with the counselling process like ‘mind-blindness’ and alexithymia. The ‘mind-blindness’ theory refers to the inability to emphasise, sympathise or associate oneself with another person, while alexithymia is a feeling of remoteness to words which describe mental states and can be inherent in the Asperger syndrome personality. Both of these and more can make working within time-limited therapy difficult and overwhelming for the client and so I offer flexibility with my sessions and longer time frames if needed. Many people with autism struggle to cope with change, and as a therapist, I work to help them understand that life can be unpredictable, and make sure to ask after each session when they would like to see me next. By not attaching a rigid schedule to the therapy, I don’t make them feel panicked if something goes amiss one week or the next, and they are open to moving their sessions earlier if necessary.
Don’t let autism stop you or a family member or friend from getting the therapy they desire. Therapy can beneficial to everyone and only a few considerate changes to the way I approach a client to have to be made to create a safe and inclusive environment. If you want to learn more about my services and my business, then feel free to contact me today.