Over the years, I have known so many people — both neurotypical and those on the autism spectrum — who have benefited from working with a therapist. There may be times in life when seeing a trained and experienced professional can help in a crisis situation, enhance understanding of yourself and others, and improve interaction with the external world.
But finding a therapist who is a good fit for you (or your child) is very important. I’m not going to address the various types of therapeutic modalities a therapist may use when working with someone on the autism spectrum, but rather what I see are the core principles that should inform a therapist’s approach. Research in this area is sadly lacking, but here is what I have learned to be the most important qualities a therapist can have when working with someone on the spectrum.
Understanding. The first and most important quality a therapist must have is a deep understanding of people on the autism spectrum. If that isn’t possible, the therapist must be willing to learn and recognize that the root of issues may be neurologically based and may require an alternate approach to be effective. They must view issues and work with the person using an Asperger profile lens. This includes:
- understanding how traumatic and exhausting it is for some people on the spectrum to live in a neurotypical world and constantly feel like an alien.
- recognizing the trauma some have experienced going to schools which did not accommodate difference, and where an individual may have faced shame, bullying, and negative messages.
- acknowledging the difficulty of having thoughts in one’s head that one can’t get rid of, which can eventually turn into catastrophic thinking.
- understanding the impact of high and relentless anxiety in every sphere of life.
Method of Communication. The next key area is the way in which the therapist communicates. Individuals on the spectrum tend to have a more positive response to a therapist who:
- can think creatively, and is willing to think outside the box to find ways to address issues.
- knows how to converse in non-judgmental ways, and use concrete and direct language with no metaphors.
- can speak with a soft, calm, non-reactive, gentle tone of voice.
- is mindful of and can accommodate sensory issues, like preferred lighting, sound, and temperature.
Approach. Finally, it is imperative that a therapist working with someone on the spectrum can interpret the areas of life that the person may not intuitively understand. This includes:
- being willing to offer practical, explicit assistance, and not expect the person to reach what may seem like an obvious conclusion.
- acting as a social guide, problem solver, and help make decisions.
- understands how changes in the environment can have a tremendous impact on someone’s emotional state.
- engaging with the person using their interests.
- knowing when to push and when to step back.
It is important for individuals seeking help to like, respect, and feel understood by their therapist. If the therapist/patient relationship isn’t working, it’s perfectly okay to move to a different provider. The key is to find someone who can meet the person where they are, accept differences in communication and behavior styles, and provide the type of guidance needed to help the person be successful.