Autism Treatment for Adults

Explore innovative autism treatment for adults, from therapy options to lifestyle changes & support services.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
May 31, 2024
Published On
May 31, 2024

Understanding Autism in Adults

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that can affect individuals across all stages of life, from childhood to adulthood. Understanding the characteristics of autism in adults and how it differs from childhood autism is crucial for effective autism treatment for adults.

Autism Diagnosis and Characteristics

Autism can manifest differently in children and adults, with children showing early signs as young as two years old, experiencing difficulties in social interaction and communication. In contrast, adults may struggle with societal expectations, employment, and maintaining relationships. These differences highlight the evolving nature of ASD in different life stages [1].

While children with autism often act with a natural, unfiltered expression of their symptoms, largely unaware of how their condition sets them apart from their peers, adults with mild to moderate levels of autism are typically more aware of their differences and societal expectations. They adapt to social norms and environments, sometimes at the cost of their comfort and authenticity [1].

Autism in Different Stages of Life

Early intervention in children with autism is crucial, as tailored support can significantly enhance learning, repetitive play, and routines. However, adults with autism may face obstacles in navigating social situations, employment opportunities, and independence, which emphasizes the need for tailored adult-focused interventions and supports.

Understanding the different ways autism can manifest in various life stages helps healthcare providers, caregivers, and individuals with autism themselves to develop personalized strategies for managing autism symptoms. This understanding is key to promoting the well-being and quality of life of individuals with autism throughout their lifespan.

Therapeutic Approaches for Autism

In the realm of autism treatment for adults, several therapeutic approaches have proven effective in managing the condition. These techniques include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and other forms of therapy.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found effective in treating anxiety and depression in adults with autism. Despite its effectiveness, many autistic adults do not receive CBT due to factors such as attitudes, normative pressure, and self-efficacy.

CBT-based interventions have shown promising results in improving social functioning in high-functioning autistic adults. These improvements include enhanced social skills, interactions, responsiveness, and empathy. Programs such as the PEERS YA and ACCESS have been particularly effective in augmenting social skills knowledge, overall social skills, social engagement, and reducing social anxiety and loneliness [3].

In addition, CBT-based interventions have proven effective in reducing co-occurring symptoms such as anxiety and depression in high-functioning autistic adults. Both CBT and mindfulness-based interventions have led to significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and rumination, with some maintaining effects observed [3].

Online interventions, such as those involving CBT and mindfulness-based techniques, have shown promise in addressing co-occurring symptoms in high-functioning autistic adults. These interventions have resulted in reduced anxiety levels compared to control conditions, although the effects on depressive symptoms, daily functioning, and overall wellbeing have been less consistent [3].

Finally, CBT-based interventions in high-functioning autistic adults have demonstrated improvements in quality of life. These include increased wellbeing, understanding of difficulties, and ability to express needs. These interventions have also shown lower drop-out rates compared to control conditions.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is another widely recognized approach in the treatment of autism in adults. It involves analyzing and understanding behavior to develop appropriate social, communicative, and learning skills. ABA uses positive reinforcement strategies to encourage positive behaviors and reduce those that may be harmful or affect learning.

ABA therapy can be tailored to meet the unique needs of each individual, making it a highly effective approach for adults with autism. It can be used to improve a wide range of skills, including social skills, communication, reading, and academics, as well as adaptive learning skills, such as fine motor dexterity, hygiene, grooming, domestic capabilities, punctuality, and job competence.

Other Forms of Therapy

In addition to CBT and ABA, other therapeutic approaches may be beneficial for adults with autism. These could include occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, and physical therapy, all tailored to meet the specific needs and abilities of the individual.

For instance, occupational therapy can help adults with autism to develop skills necessary for independent living, such as cooking, cleaning, and job skills. Speech-language therapy can help improve communication skills, making it easier for adults with autism to express their needs and interact with others.

Physical therapy can help improve motor skills and physical strength, which can be particularly beneficial for adults with autism who have physical impairments or coordination difficulties.

Choosing the right therapy for an adult with autism depends on their unique needs and circumstances. It's important to work with a healthcare provider to determine the most appropriate and effective treatment strategy.

Co-Occurring Conditions in Autistic Adults

Understanding the co-occurring conditions in autistic adults is crucial for developing effective strategies for autism treatment for adults. Among the most common conditions are mental health issues and substance misuse.

Autism and Mental Health Issues

Autistic adults often experience high rates of anxiety and depression. However, they frequently do not receive quality mental health care to manage these conditions [2]. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapeutic approach known for its efficacy in treating anxiety and depression, is often not utilized with autistic adults.

Community mental health clinicians often hold more favorable attitudes, experience greater normative pressures, and exhibit higher self-efficacy to start CBT with non-autistic adults compared to those with autism. The only significant predictor of intentions to begin CBT with clients experiencing anxiety or depression is clinicians' attitudes, with more favorable attitudes predicting stronger intentions.

Although CBT has proven effective for anxiety and depression in autistic adults, intentions to start CBT with this population are not strong, possibly due to limited training and experience in working with autistic adults [2]. Increasing the adoption of CBT for autistic adults may require targeting these attitudes.

Autistic Adults and Substance Misuse

Autistic individuals may be at a higher risk of drug and alcohol misuse compared to the general population. However, they are underrepresented within drug and alcohol support services. Therapists perceive barriers to successful outcomes, such as a lack of autism-specific training, the need to adapt therapy for autistic clients, and a lack of shared perspective between the therapist and the autistic client.

Alcohol misuse is the most common presenting issue among autistic clients for drug and alcohol therapists. Therapists reported making between four and seven adaptations to treatment or support techniques for autistic clients. However, around a third of therapists did not report making any adaptations.

Therapists' confidence in their ability to deliver effective therapy to autistic clients is moderate. This confidence is enhanced by receiving both practical and theoretical training and making more adaptations for autistic clients [4].

These findings highlight the importance of providing therapists with the necessary training and support to effectively treat autistic adults. This includes not only learning to manage co-occurring conditions but also adapting therapeutic techniques to better suit the unique needs of this population.

Role of Healthcare Providers

Healthcare providers play a significant role in autism treatment for adults. They face unique challenges in providing care and support to this population but can also contribute significantly to improving the quality of healthcare interactions for adults with autism.

Challenges in Autism Healthcare

Healthcare interactions for adults with autism can be complex due to a variety of factors. These may include challenges related to the patient's autism, the training and skills of the healthcare provider, and the navigability of broader healthcare systems. A lack of necessary accommodations, support, and respect for the autonomy of adults with autism can lead to unmet healthcare needs, less utilization of preventive services, and lower satisfaction with patient-provider communication as compared to non-autistic adults. This can result in reduced medical and mental health service utilization in adulthood.

Improving Autism Healthcare Interactions

Improving healthcare interactions for adults with autism requires a multi-faceted approach. A study on healthcare interactions for adults with autism utilized a Community-Based Participatory Research approach, where autistic individuals, family members, and care providers all contributed equally to the project's design, data collection, and interpretation.

Key recommendations to improve healthcare for adults with autism included accommodating unique communication needs, such as dimming lights, asking specific questions, and ensuring providers have personalized information about their clients. Providing resources for system navigation and preparation for healthcare visits was also suggested.

The findings emphasize the importance of enhancing healthcare interactions for adults with autism through increased training for care providers in adult autism, along with improved accommodation strategies and resources to promote patient independence [5].

In conclusion, healthcare providers can play a key role in improving the quality of life for adults with autism by addressing these challenges and implementing suggested improvements in their practice. These steps can help ensure that adults with autism receive the respectful, personalized, and supportive care they need.

State and Federal Support for Autistic Adults

The transition from childhood to adulthood poses significant challenges for individuals with autism, particularly in terms of accessing necessary services and support. This section explores the changing landscape of state and federal support for autistic adults and the critical transition from child to adult services.

Transition from Child to Adult Services

Once autistic individuals turn 22 years old, the entitlements to free programs and services received under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) disappear. This abrupt end to services is often referred to as a "services cliff".

Unlike the obligated services provided to children under IDEA, adult services for autistic individuals are eligibility-based rather than entitlement-based. Government agencies may or may not determine eligibility for specific services or funding for adults, adding a layer of uncertainty to the transition.

In addition, autistic adults are often grouped with individuals who have different developmental disorders. This can pose challenges, as their abilities, challenges, and needs vary significantly. This grouping often occurs after a childhood of receiving customized classes, therapies, and programs based on their specific needs.

State Variations in Autism Support

The level and type of support for autistic adults depend significantly on the state in which they reside. Different states have varying approaches to administering adult services for autistic individuals, resulting in different budgets, programs, and options available. This state-dependent approach impacts the availability of services and resources [6].

For example, autistic adults who qualify for Medicaid also qualify for insurance-covered therapies, including behavioral, cognitive, speech, occupational, and physical therapy. However, families may have limited control over the choice of provider. Many practitioners are now "private pay only," restricting access to services for those reliant on Medicaid coverage.

Understanding the state and federal support available is crucial for adults undergoing autism treatment. It enables them to navigate the transition from child to adult services effectively and to advocate for the appropriate level of support.

Lifestyle and Autism

Beyond medical and therapeutic interventions, considering lifestyle aspects such as nutrition and sleep quality can also have a significant impact on the wellbeing of adults with autism.

Autism and Nutrition

The importance of a nutritious diet cannot be overstated, especially for adults with autism. According to Psych Central, autistic adults are less likely than non-autistic adults to follow dietary recommendations for healthy eating. A nutritious diet can protect against illnesses like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer. It can also improve the immune system, and help the brain function better.

While each individual's nutritional needs may vary, some general recommendations include:

  • Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting the intake of processed foods
  • Consuming lean proteins and whole grains
  • Drinking plenty of water

In some cases, dietary interventions may be recommended for autistic adults, such as the elimination of certain food groups or the addition of specific supplements. However, any dietary changes should be made under the advice of a healthcare professional to ensure the individual's nutritional needs are being met.

Autism and Sleep Quality

Sleep is another crucial aspect of overall health and wellbeing. Many autistic adults may struggle with sleep issues, which can exacerbate autism symptoms and negatively impact their quality of life. Therefore, addressing sleep quality is an important part of autism treatment for adults.

Creating a consistent bedtime routine, ensuring a comfortable sleep environment, and addressing any underlying sleep disorders can all contribute to improved sleep quality. If sleep problems persist, it may be beneficial to consult with a healthcare provider or a sleep specialist for further evaluation and treatment.

Moreover, certain therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help address sleep issues. These interventions can provide individuals with strategies to manage stress and anxiety, which can often interfere with sleep.

In conclusion, lifestyle considerations like nutrition and sleep quality can significantly affect the wellbeing of autistic adults. By addressing these aspects along with traditional treatments, individuals with autism can improve their overall health and quality of life.