Autistic people are different, not “less”.

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This blog is a little different than most in that it is based on research and my personal experiences working with adolescents and young adults diagnosed with autism.

The autistic community has impacted the way we think about autism, which is necessary if we are going to fully understand how to intervene as mental health professionals.

First of all, the autistic brain is fascinating and uniquely different from the brain wiring of the “neurotypical” (individuals without autism/or other typical behaviors or thought patterns) population.

However, we are just beginning to understand what this means for the functioning of the autistic individual. We have learned that typically autistic individuals experience heightened emotional states, which can be due to sensory regulation (e.g., seeking or avoiding behaviors) and may lead to behavioral or emotional breakdowns.

Although each autistic person has unique personality traits and presentations, many struggle with the awareness of interoception (e.g., feelings in the body or body sensations) and related emotional experiences. For example, if an individual is tired, his/her eyes may be heavy and muscles may be weak or if he/she is anxious, his/her heart may be beating fast or he/she may have sweaty palms.

Furthermore, autistic individuals may have the need to engage in “stims’ (e.g., flapping hands, playing with fidgets), which are ways for them to regulate their internal states. As long as these behaviors are not self- or other-harming, it may be more beneficial to allow them to engage in these behaviors. The awareness of internal states can be a first step in helping with emotional and behavioral regulation

In addition, autistic individuals perceive the world differently. They tend to be immensely loyal to friends and family and have deeper connections to some people more than what was originally believed about autism.

Consequently, when compared to a neurotypical person, who may consider it a small little slight (e.g., a friend not wanting to play with them, a parent taking away a toy they outgrew, or an employer asking them to stop fidgeting) as something to be brushed off or made to make you stronger, the highly sensitive autistic person may retreat into a “protected state” because it is too much for them to handle.

At these times, their heightened emotional state makes it difficult if not impossible to process the situation. These situations may cause trauma and make it tough for them to talk about the situation because they tend to re-experience the emotion of the trauma all over again.

Additionally, these experiences may result in fragmented relationships that deeply impact their future functioning. Preventative strategies may include following the child’s lead, understanding their highly sensitive states, and meeting their interoception needs. Interventions may include Occupational Therapy, Equine Therapy, grounding techniques, or calming strategies.

The social world can be confusing for autistic people. Consider a highly sensitive autistic individual, who is already overwhelmed by internal or external factors, having to engage socially in a world designed by neurotypical people.

Autistic individuals tend to use language literally and struggle with small talk (what is the purpose of talking about the weather, anyway?), humor, or figurative language (e.g., idioms such as “it’s raining cats and dogs”). Although typically, those without autism tend to have inferential social abilities, autistic people struggle to pick up on the nonverbal signals and nuances within the context of a social interaction.

Consider what you typically do when you engage in social exchanges: you watch what the other person is doing, you move closer to them to talk (but not in a creepy, on looking way), and you talk to the person about their interests (which shows thinking about others thinking or perspective taking).

If you have autism, you may not understand these “unwritten rules” of social interactions. Interventions may include teaching the unwritten rules literally (if they are willing or have the desire to learn), perspective taking, and/or finding other ways to connect with the autistic individual. These strategies can provide an autistic individual with confidence and necessary skills and facilitate meaningful social interactions.

Cedar Tree Clinic specializes in autism.  We believe in creating an affirming, safe environment for our clients to embrace the unique person they are.

*please note that “autistic individuals” is used in this blog due to the preference of most of the autistic community and based on the new guidelines by the American Psychological Association. It is not meant to be offensive.

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