autism spectrum therapies

Imagine moving through life with a diminished ability to recognize the synchronicity of your own body parts. For a teen with autism, a lack of spatial awareness can cause them to be a bit clumsy, not fully grasping how their body position or movements might impact their environment or the people in it. This can result in such missteps as bumping into people, playing too rough at a game, or generally uncoordinated movements.

Experiential therapy can teach the teen within the autism spectrum to challenge the muscles and develop more coordinated movements by engaging in physical activities or hands-on tasks. The skill we’re building with this therapeutic approach is proprioception, or the subconscious sense of body position and self-movement—also referred to as a sixth sense. Combined with talk therapy, experiential therapy helps teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) better sync with their limbs and become more spatially aware.

When working with neurodiverse adolescents it is common to learn that talk therapy alone may not net desired clinical results. In general, including neurotypical teens, this particular age group tends to clam up when sitting face-to-face with a therapist. There is an innate reluctance to open up and reveal personal struggles or emotions, especially to someone outside the family.

The Benefits of Experiential Therapy

Working with autistic teens in a traditional talk therapy session, the therapist finds their client struggling to pick up on common metaphors or other verbal syntax. Instead the teen may become hyper-focused on one particular word, unable to follow the line of reasoning. For example, after a rock climbing session, a therapist might comment during a follow up talk therapy session that the climbing gym was a “zoo” today, which neurotypical individuals would recognize as a metaphor for a busy, crowded environment. The autistic client will instead zero in on the word “zoo” and begin to describe in great detail how a zoo differs significantly from the climbing gym.

By focusing therapeutic efforts on movement and experience through experiential therapy, the teen will benefit in the following ways:

  • Improved sensory integration and motor skills
  • Better connection with the movement of limbs by using the weight of the body
  • Improved spatial awareness while navigating the physical activities
  • Improved coordination and balance
  • Physical benefits, such as weight loss and improved strength
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Teaches team-building skills and enhances trust as activities are navigated

In addition to these benefits, the experiential therapist has an enhanced opportunity to introduce therapeutic concepts while engaging in the activity, which may be absorbed and processed better than when sitting in an office setting where the teen may be resistant. In my professional experience I have found that adolescents are much more open to conversing and sharing while in motion, offering inroads to psychological issues the teen may be grappling with. In essence, experience-based therapy augments the overall clinical treatment results.

About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition—in essence a disorder of socialization or social functioning. In the U.S., approximately one child in 59 is diagnosed with ASD. ASD is a complex condition that is referred to as a “spectrum” for the range of levels of functioning and diversity of features.

Autism is generally identified in early childhood, usually by age 3, when a child fails to reach certain developmental social benchmarks. Symptoms may include:

  • A lack of eye contact
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Unusual sensitivity to sensory input
  • Deficits in verbal communication
  • Intense preoccupation with specific topics
  • Difficulty in emotional regulation
  • Difficulty in interpreting social cues
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Rigid need for routine

Teens with autism have, by this point in their lives, likely suffered from bullying, social rejection, and loneliness. Most of these adolescents fervently desire to be accepted for who they are and to be included in social events with their peers. Instead, after experiencing social rejection, many teens with ASD will self-isolate. Other common responses include reduced physical activity.

In fact, according to a study published in BMC Research Notes [MacDonald, et.al.], kids with autism will engage in less physical activity as they age. This will naturally lead to high rates of obesity among older children with ASD.

Experiential Therapeutic Approach for Autism

David A. Kolb developed the experiential learning theory in the 1970s. Kolb’s theory of applying experiential concepts, hands-on experiences and physical activities, includes four stages:

  1. Concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation
  3. Abstract conceptualization
  4. Active experimentation

Utilizing experiential therapy for teens with ASD may be realized through a variety of activities. An experiential therapist is tasked with determining the best fit between the teen’s level of functioning, their gender, age, clinical needs, and interests and targeted activities. Some examples of therapeutic activities include:

  • Rock climbing, usually in a climbing gym setting
  • Hiking
  • Workouts in a gym
  • Tai Chi or yoga
  • Trampoline centers
  • Cycling
  • Swimming

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a therapeutic technique that helps the therapist determine which activity is best suited to the client. MI allows the teen to direct treatment towards those activities that will resonate with them, helping to keep the therapy relevant to the teen’s interests, which can result in a higher level of cooperation. In turn, treatment becomes something the teen looks forward to engaging in, helping them become stakeholders in their own journey towards better spatial functioning and overall wellness.

Alliance Experiential Provides Activity-Based Treatment for Autism

Blake Ruble, LPC, NCC, is the founder of Alliance Experiential, a movement-based mental health therapeutic approach serving the greater Denver metropolitan area. For more information about the program, please reach out to Alliance Experiential today at (720) 990-5033.

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