Adult Autism Treatment: Therapies & Support Systems

Navigate the world of adult autism treatment with this comprehensive guide, from therapies to support systems.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
March 1, 2024

Adult Autism Treatment: Therapies & Support Systems

Understanding Adult Autism

As efforts to understand Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) evolve, it's increasingly clear that adult autism requires distinctive considerations. Autism in adults often presents unique challenges and may be associated with other concurrent health conditions. Understanding the nature of autism in adults and the potential for comorbid conditions is crucial for effective adult autism treatment.

The Nature of Autism in Adults

Autism in adults often continues from childhood, as the condition is typically lifelong. As indicated by NCBI, approximately 70% of individuals with ASD are less than 14 years old, suggesting there will be a significant increase in adults with ASD in the coming years.

Adults with autism may face distinct challenges compared to younger individuals with the disorder, including societal expectations for independent living, employment, and social interactions. Moreover, adults with ASD are at a higher risk of experiencing adverse events and trauma, which can often go undiagnosed and untreated [1].

Comorbid Conditions in Adult Autism

Adults with ASD often experience comorbid psychiatric conditions. They may suffer from depressive and anxiety disorders at potentially higher rates than both the general population and individuals with other developmental disabilities.

Exposure to adverse events and trauma is also associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with ASD. These symptoms are found in 50-70% of adults with ASD [1]. Additionally, adults with ASD are more than four times likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than adults without ASD.

Understanding the potential for these comorbid conditions is crucial in tailoring effective treatment approaches for adults with autism. It allows for a comprehensive approach to care that addresses not only the symptoms of autism but also any concurrent mental health conditions. This understanding is a critical step towards effective adult autism treatment.

Behavioral Therapies for Adult Autism

When it comes to adult autism treatment, behavioral therapies play a crucial role. These therapies are designed to help individuals with autism improve their social, communication, and adaptive learning skills. Three commonly used behavioral therapies are Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Social Skills Training (SST), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis, often referred to as ABA, is a type of therapy that utilizes positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors and reduce undesirable ones. ABA has been shown to help both children and adults with autism improve their social skills, communication skills, and adaptive learning skills. This approach is particularly beneficial for adults with autism who may struggle with social interactions and independent living skills.

Effect of ABA Effect Size
Improving social skills d = .14 - 3.59
Enhancing communication skills d = .14 - 3.59
Boosting adaptive learning skills d = .14 - 3.59

Figures courtesy NCBI

Social Skills Training (SST)

Social Skills Training, or SST, is another important type of behavioral therapy used in adult autism treatment. SST focuses on improving social skills in adults with autism, including making eye contact, conversational skills, and understanding nonverbal cues. This therapy can help adults with autism navigate social situations more effectively and build meaningful relationships [3].

Effect of SST Effect Size
Enhancing eye contact d = .14 - 3.59
Improving conversational skills d = .14 - 3.59
Understanding nonverbal cues d = .14 - 3.59

Figures courtesy NCBI

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT, is a widely used therapy for a variety of conditions, including autism. CBT can help adults with autism manage anxiety, depression, and other emotional challenges by teaching them to recognize and change negative thoughts and behaviors. This can greatly improve their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Effect of CBT Effect Size
Managing anxiety d = .14 - 3.59
Handling depression d = .14 - 3.59
Changing negative thoughts and behaviors d = .14 - 3.59

Figures courtesy NCBI

It's important to understand that while these therapies can be highly effective, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each individual with autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Therefore, it's essential to work with a trained professional to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses the individual's specific needs and challenges.

Support Systems for Adults with Autism

Treatment for adults with autism goes beyond therapy and medication. It involves comprehensive support systems that act as pillars of stability and progress in their lives. This section will explore two significant areas: Supported Employment Programs and Transitioning from Pediatric to Adult Care.

Supported Employment Programs

Supported Employment Programs are designed to help adults with autism prepare for and succeed in the workplace. These programs provide job training, coaching, and ongoing support for both the individual and their employer. They play a crucial role in helping adults with autism maintain employment and navigate workplace challenges effectively by providing job coaching, social skills training, and accommodations tailored to individual needs.

Employment opportunities for adults with autism are expanding, with more companies recognizing the unique strengths and talents that individuals with autism can bring to the workplace. Initiatives such as job coaching, supported employment, and workplace accommodations have shown success in helping adults with autism find and maintain meaningful employment.

However, it's important to note that many adults on the autism spectrum face unemployment, and as a result, have limited or no access to health insurance coverage for autism treatments [6].

Transitioning from Pediatric to Adult Care

The transition from pediatric to adult healthcare services can be challenging for individuals with autism. This transition often requires careful planning, communication between healthcare providers, and support to ensure continuity of care for adults with autism spectrum disorder.

This period of transition is critical, as it may involve changes in healthcare providers, adjustments in treatment plans, and shifts in the individual's support network. Therefore, it is paramount to ensure a smooth and successful transition to adult healthcare services to maintain the effectiveness of the adult autism treatment.

In conclusion, establishing robust support systems is a vital part of adult autism treatment. Supported Employment Programs and effective transitioning from pediatric to adult care can significantly enhance the quality of life and independence of adults with autism.

Medication Management in Adult Autism

An integral aspect of adult autism treatment is medication management. While behavioral therapies are often the primary focus, medications can play a significant role in managing certain symptoms associated with autism in adults, such as anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior.

Addressing Coexisting Conditions

Adults with autism often experience coexisting conditions like anxiety and depression. Medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be prescribed to manage these conditions, particularly in cases where therapy alone is not sufficient to address symptoms effectively. However, it is crucial to note that while medication can help manage some symptoms of autism in adults, it is most effective when used in conjunction with behavioral therapies.

An important point to consider is that medications and behavioral therapies that work well in children with autism may not always be as effective in adults, as stated by Dr. Francesca Happe of King's College London [6].

Precautions and Effectiveness

The use of medications in adult autism treatment warrants careful consideration and monitoring. Anti-anxiety medications, for instance, may have side effects that can exacerbate certain autism symptoms. Therefore, it is recommended to work closely with healthcare providers to find the most appropriate and effective treatment plan for managing anxiety in adults with autism.

Effectiveness of medication in adult autism treatment can vary, and it is important to regularly monitor and adjust medication plans as necessary. Regular check-ins with healthcare providers can help to track progress, manage side effects, and ensure that the medication is contributing positively to the individual's overall treatment plan.

Medication management in adult autism treatment is a complex process that requires careful consideration and ongoing assessment. By working closely with healthcare providers, individuals with autism can find a medication regimen that effectively manages symptoms and improves quality of life.

Addressing Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities can be a significant challenge for many adults with autism. These sensitivities can affect various aspects of daily life, such as responses to certain sounds, textures, or lights. Two key strategies in managing these sensitivities include occupational therapy and the development of sensory diets.

Occupational Therapy for Autism

Occupational therapy is a significant component of adult autism treatment. This therapy can help adults with autism develop essential skills for daily living, such as self-care, vocational skills, and sensory processing.

Occupational therapy focuses on helping individuals develop practical skills required for daily living and work. The goal is to improve fine motor skills, sensory integration, and self-care abilities, ultimately enhancing independence and promoting vocational opportunities [8].

Moreover, for adults with autism who experience sensory sensitivities, occupational therapy can be beneficial in teaching coping strategies. Occupational therapists work with individuals to manage sensory challenges and reduce anxiety levels.

Developing Sensory Diets

Alongside occupational therapy, developing "sensory diets" can be a useful strategy in managing sensory sensitivities in adults with autism. A sensory diet is a personalized activity plan that provides the sensory input a person needs to stay focused and organized throughout the day.

Occupational therapists work with individuals to develop these sensory diets, which can include a range of activities such as deep pressure exercises, exposure to various textures, or balancing activities. These routines can help regulate sensory input and reduce anxiety levels [1].

In conclusion, addressing sensory sensitivities is a crucial aspect of adult autism treatment. Through techniques such as occupational therapy and sensory diets, individuals can learn to manage these sensitivities and improve their ability to navigate daily life.

The Impact of Social Factors

Understanding adult autism treatment requires more than just knowledge of medical interventions. Social factors, such as access to care, awareness of autism, and societal acceptance, play a critical role in the quality of life for adults with autism.

Access and Awareness of Autism Care

According to a study published in PubMed, families living outside metropolitan areas often have less access to care for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to a shortage of specialists. This shortage can result in long wait times for diagnosis and treatment and can lead to clinician burnout.

Further compounding this issue is a lack of specialized knowledge among physicians. Many individuals with ASD, their families, and even physicians have reported that physicians can lack the necessary knowledge to screen, diagnose, and refer individuals with ASD. However, initiatives that improve physician awareness in screening and diagnosis of young children show promise in increasing access to services.

Another critical issue is the high cost of healthcare for individuals with ASD in the USA. Recommended ASD services are often excluded from insurance plans held by families with lower socioeconomic status (SES). However, mandated insurance coverage for diagnostic and treatment services for ASD has increased healthcare service utilization.

Reduced awareness of ASD and related services is more common in groups with lower SES, less education, and limited access to health professionals. Caregiver Skill Training programs have been implemented in over 30 countries to boost family awareness of ASD needs and services in local contexts.

Stigma and Acceptance Issues

Stigma surrounding ASD can contribute to feelings of rejection and isolation among parents of autistic children. This stigma can also prevent individuals with ASD from engaging with the healthcare system at all stages of life. Initiatives that reduce stigma around ASD, such as public awareness campaigns and community-based programs, have been effective in increasing knowledge, acceptance, and inclusion of autistic individuals.

While social factors can present significant barriers to accessing and utilizing adult autism treatment, continued efforts to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and improve access to care can help to ensure that all individuals with ASD receive the care they need.

Emerging Approaches in Autism Treatment

In the field of adult autism treatment, new approaches and methodologies are continually emerging. These innovative techniques offer alternative options for addressing the unique needs of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This segment explores two such methodologies: mindfulness-based therapies and trauma treatments specifically developed for individuals with ASD.

Mindfulness-based Therapies

Mindfulness-based therapies have shown promising results in the treatment of adults with ASD, particularly in addressing symptoms of anxiety. According to a randomized controlled trial published in 'The Lancet Psychiatry' and referenced by Autism Speaks, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was found to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in adults with ASD. The study involved 74 adults with ASD and significant anxiety, with the MBSR group showing greater improvements in anxiety compared to the control group.

Additionally, a meta-analysis published in the 'American Journal of Psychiatry' examined 17 studies involving cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies for adults with autism. The findings suggested that these therapies were effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Trauma Treatment for ASD Individuals

People with ASD are at a higher risk of experiencing adverse events and trauma, but these experiences are often undiagnosed and untreated. It is important to recognize trauma-related symptoms early and initiate trauma treatment [1].

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a trauma focus, and Prolonged Exposure are recommended treatment methods for adults with ASD and trauma-related symptoms. EMDR therapy has shown promising results in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress in individuals with ASD.

For adults with autism who experience sensory sensitivities, occupational therapy can be beneficial in teaching coping strategies to manage sensory challenges. Occupational therapists work with individuals to develop sensory diets and routines that can help regulate sensory input and reduce anxiety levels.

These emerging approaches in adult autism treatment are contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of ASD care. As research continues, it is hoped that these innovative therapies will provide improved outcomes for adults with ASD.