Autism and ACT

What is autism?

Autism (sometimes referred to as autistic spectrum condition or ASC) is a neurodevelopmental condition that is characterised by pervasive differences in social communication, as well as the presence of restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities. It is referred to as a “spectrum” condition because it encompasses a wide range of issues which are highly variable from person to person and often these issues have different levels of impact on the person’s life. Autism is typically diagnosed in early childhood, although some individuals may receive a diagnosis later in life. The exact causes are still being studied, but it is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Core characteristics of Autism/ASC

It’s essential to understand that the strengths and abilities of autistic people can differ considerably. Some autistic people may possess unique talents such as fantastic attention to detail, excellent memory skills and a strong ability to focus. Some autistic people might have a strong sense of right and wrong and approach relationships with a high level of honesty and authenticity.

However, autistic individuals often find social interaction in neuro-normative environments challenging. This is largely to do with neurotypical expectations about social norms like initiating and maintaining conversations, and social norms, maintaining eye contact and adhering to social niceties. Missing or misperceiving nonverbal cues, including facial expressions or gestures can be a common difficulty.

Autistic people often engage in repetitive behaviours. and sometimes these can include repetitive movements like hand-flapping or rocking (known as self-stimulating or stimming and are often used to manage emotions and cope with overwhelming situations). A preference for routines and a keen focus on specific subjects is also common for autistic individuals. Sensory processing differences are also frequently experienced, which can manifest as hyper- or hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli or difficulties modulating sensory experiences such as sounds, textures, smells or lights. Difficulties with the interoceptive sense can also mean that autistic people might struggle to know when they are full, hungry, thirsty and so forth, but it can also have implications for self-regulating emotions.

Autistic individuals often express that the challenges they face are not inherently problematic, but rather arise within neurotypical environments where they may be perceived as socially inappropriate. This labelling process can contribute significantly to the stigmatisation and distress experienced by individuals on the autism spectrum.

How ACT can support autistic people

Support and interventions for autistic people often involves a multidisciplinary approach which might include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, psychological interventions, or educational support. Early intervention and personalised strategies which are neuro-affirming can significantly improve outcomes.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a comprehensive approach to supporting neurodivergent people through the development of psychological flexibility. Managing distressing thoughts and emotions, and engaging in meaningful, values-driven lives can empower individuals to navigate their unique challenges and enhance their overall well-being.

  • Reducing self-criticism: ACT emphasises the importance of accepting one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judgement. This can be particularly valuable in managing the challenges associated autism. Acceptance encourage individuals to acknowledge and validate their experiences, including difficulties with social interactions, sensory sensitivities, and repetitive behaviours. By accepting these aspects of their neurobiology, individuals can reduce self-criticism and develop a more compassionate and understanding attitude towards themselves.
  • Self awareness: Paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental manner is a core component of ACT. For autistic people, mindfulness can help develop self-awareness, interoception and emotional regulation skills. Through mindfulness practice, individuals can learn to better recognise their thoughts and emotions and be supported to view these as temporary mental events, thereby reducing reactivity, and allowing for more intentional responses to challenging situations. Mindfulness can also help to develop greater sensory awareness, improving the ability to navigate sensory sensitivities with increased ease. Many autistic people experience repetitive, intrusive thoughts that can interfere with their well-being. Through defusion techniques, individuals can learn to relate to their thoughts as passing mental events rather than objective truths. This skill can help reduce anxiety, rumination, and obsessive thinking patterns commonly associated with autism.
  • Building purpose and fulfilment: Identifying and clarifying personal values can help autistic individuals gain a clearer understanding of what truly matters to them and what they want to prioritise in their lives. ACT encourages individuals to take committed action towards these values and goals. For autistic people, this may involve stepping out of their comfort zones and engaging in activities that challenge their social, sensory, or executive functioning difficulties in service of valued-living. With the support of an ACT therapist, individuals can develop strategies and coping skills to navigate challenges as they arise. Committed action also focuses on building resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks, which is particularly relevant for those who may encounter various obstacles in their daily lives. By aligning their actions and choices with their values, individuals can experience a greater sense of purpose and fulfilment. Values clarification can also assist in setting meaningful goals and engaging in activities that promote personal growth and well-being.
  • Improving social interactions: While ACT primarily focuses on individual psychological processes, it can indirectly improve social interactions and relationships. By fostering self-acceptance, emotional regulation, and values-based action, autistic individuals may experience greater well-being thereby improving social functioning. ACT therapy can involve specific interventions to support social skills, such as perspective-taking exercises, communication strategies, and practice in social contexts.

ACT is a flexible therapy approach that can be tailored to suit the specific needs and preferences of autistic people. Alongside an autism-affirming practice, therapists might make use of visual aids, concrete examples, and structured interventions to enhance comprehension and engagement. Additionally, involving parents, caregivers, or other significant individuals in therapy sessions can support the generalisation of skills and strategies to real-life situations.

For individuals:

Working with a trained therapist can provide guidance and tailored support in applying ACT principles to manage autistic challenges.

For professionals:

We offer a range of live training and on-demand courses covering ACT therapy and Autism to support extended learning on this topic. Also take a look at our free resources and blog for additional reading and insight.

 

Upcoming live training

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Stuff that's stuck

Dr Ben Sedley

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ACT for relationships

Dr Russ Harris

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6 hours (6APA CEs / BACB CEUs)
Working with neurodivergent adults

Jennifer Kemp

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