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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Treatment for Adult Autism

Updated: 5 days ago

By Patty Laushman


Children identified as autistic or ADHD have numerous options for therapies and interventions to help them grow and thrive. Unfortunately, once you become a teen or adult, the options diminish significantly, but your challenges don’t necessarily disappear along with the options. Treatment for adult autism is much harder to access, and this is a shame because the invisible suffering you may be experiencing saps your quality of life!


Many people who are looking for interventions that can improve the quality of life of autistic adults are left wondering how to treat adult autism or how to find a therapist for autistic adults. The right people are difficult to locate, and it's often even more difficult to identify what works. Hopefully, this blog post will help!

an autistic woman looking at herself in the mirror thinking about treatment for adult autism

Many autistic adults I work with didn’t even discover they were autistic until their teens, twenties, or even later! They may either self-identify or get a formal diagnosis and think, “Great! I’m autistic. Now what?” They often feel like they missed the boat, but it’s not too late if you know where to look.


A diagnosis, whether self- or formal, is often a gateway to incredible self-understanding, self-acceptance, and ultimately self-advocacy, so you can live your best life, but you may need a little help along that path from a team of people who “get” you and can help you optimize your quality of life.


Every neurodivergent person is different, but their challenges tend to cluster in certain areas of life. Below are therapies and interventions my life coaching clients have actually benefitted from. Perhaps they will benefit you too?


Challenges With Finding a Therapist for Autistic Adults

First, let's talk about what it's so difficult to get treatment for adult autism. Since medical and mental health training programs are not doing a good job of training people on neurodiversity, the result is that many neurodivergent people often experience uninformed medical, mental health, and psychiatry services.


At best they receive “help” that doesn't help (leaving them feeling more broken), or at worst, they experience “help” that is actually harmful, leaving them more stressed, anxious, and traumatized than they started. This is changing, albeit slowly, but in the meantime, you need to do a little due diligence on the front end.


Mental Health Issues

If you are neurodivergent, there is a high likelihood you’ve required mental health services at some point during your life. The world was not built with you in mind, and everyday life is often a challenging minefield that can cause stress, anxiety, and even trauma for many neurodivergent people.

a neurodivergent woman thinking about finding a therapist for autistic adults

The unfortunate reality is that people going through licensure to work in the mental health field do not receive much training, if any, on neurodiversity. It’s just not possible to assume that anyone with a specific set of letters after their names will understand you or how to help.


Finding a Mental Health Therapist for Autistic Adults

If you have experienced medical and mental health trauma at the hands of uninformed professionals, you may not believe there is anyone who can help, but the reality is that a neurodiversity-affirming mental health practitioner is worth their weight in gold in helping autistic adults thrive. I cannot understate how helpful this can be if you find the right person. Working with the right mental health therapist is often the first best step in treatment for adult autism.


I plan to write a whole blog post on this topic later, but for now, here are some quick tips for finding the right therapist for autistic adults:


  • Referrals are your best option. If you can find them, talking with other neurodivergent adults (or their parents) who have had success with an individual therapist is great. Autism life coaches also know who is effective. I'm regularly contacted just for therapist recommendations.

  • If money is tight, the Open Path Psychotherapy Collective has affordable, in-person and online psychotherapy sessions between $40-70. You can read individual bios to find someone who specializes in autism, ADHD, and other forms of neurodivergence.

  • ​Neurodivergent Therapist Directory is a website where therapists who cater to the neurodivergent population can list themselves. You can easily find the people licensed in your state.

  • PsychologyToday.com has a “Find a Therapist” section where therapists and coaches can list themselves and indicate any specializations. It’s convenient in that you can filter by state, insurance, and specific issues you would like someone to have expertise in, but it’s very much a "buyer beware" situation. Many people claim they specialize in autism or Asperger's, and they may actually believe this, but it may not be true. They may want to help, but they may not know what they don’t know. I recommend checking out their website and seeing what they say about themselves there. If their website doesn't have specific information about autism, ADHD, or neurodivergence, I would keep looking.


Psychiatry

Because the world was not built for them, and they struggle with many things other people do easily, many neurodivergent adults suffer from either periodic or chronic anxiety and depression. Many go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD). When mental health counseling is not enough, medication for adults with autism may be helpful.

a neurodivergent woman speaking with a psychiatrist who specializes in treatment for adult autism

Unfortunately, many neurodivergent adults turn to self-medication to ameliorate their struggles. One study found that as many as 50 percent of autistic adults struggle with addiction at some point in their lives. This is particularly true in the case of neurodivergent adults who don’t have access to great health insurance or they live remotely enough that they have trouble accessing the right providers. This can result in incomplete management of their symptoms and serious consequences, including addiction and even death.


Sometimes neurodivergent people end up with a series of incremental (but incomplete) and even incorrect diagnoses, which can lead to negative medication experiences. Autistic people may also respond differently to medications than neurotypical people which is why working with a psychiatrist who understands neurodiversity, who can provide correct diagnoses and make appropriate medication adjustments, is so critical.


When you find the right one, though, help from a skilled psychiatrist familiar with treatment for adult autism can have an astonishingly positive impact on your quality of life. They most commonly help neurodivergent clients with anxiety, depression, focus, and sleep. They can also help with other conditions that tend to overlap with autism like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and others. When these aspects of life are better under control, quality of life is improved.


It's important to know that demand for both therapists and doctors effective with the neurodivergent population far outstrips the supply, so they often have waitlists. Many of them also do not take insurance, so you will likely have to pay cash. But if you are looking to treat adult


Sensory Issues

Many neurodivergent people struggle with senses that are hyperresponsive (extremely sensitive) or hyporesponsive (requires a lot of input to sense it). For example, many autistic people are very sensitive to loud noises, the textures of clothing, or smells in the environment.


They may also be hyporesponsive to the sense of touch and crave deep pressure or benefit from weighted blankets on their lap while they work. As another example, a hyposensitive sense of interoception (the sense of signals that come from inside your body) may result in being unable to tell they are hungry, thirsty, or tired until it’s virtually an emergency.


This can have a massive impact on quality of life and ability to function in different environments!


a neurodivergent adult holding his head needing treatment for adult autism

An occupational therapist who focuses on treatment for adult autism can help with this. They can help you figure out ways to reduce sensory inputs, adjust your environments to make them more tolerable, and otherwise mitigate the negative effects of having hyper- and hypo- sensory sensitivities.


Just make sure you ask questions in advance about whether the therapist has experience with treatment for adult autism and is neurodiversity-affirming. You are not broken and in need of fixing. You just received a uniquely-wired brain, and you may need some specialized instruction on how to operate with it optimally.


Social Challenges

Autism involves challenges with social communication, but there is no reason this has to hold you back from achieving your dreams. Some explicit social skills training for adults can massively increase your confidence and help you connect with others in the ways you are hoping to connect. This can be a really powerful treatment for adult autism!


Personalized Training

Individualized coaching on social, relationship, and dating skills is something we coach on here at Thrive Autism Coaching. Every step of the process is personalized to where the client is currently. Skills are learned and practiced in the coaching session, and then homework is assigned to help the client generalize the skills outside the session. This can be a relatively slow process compared to the group training options below, but depending on the individual's level of motivation and social anxiety, it may be a great option. For those who already have some fairly good skills, this is also your best option. Contact us here to explore social skills coaching for adults with one of our coaches.


Group Social Skills Training

Working on social, relationship, and dating skills in a group of peers is the fastest way to make progress in this area if you are really stuck, and there are some really great social skills groups for young adults and even older adults in some cases.


When evaluating different options, keep in mind that some programs expect that you will become friends with the people in your cohort and others explicitly forbid this until after the program is over. Some programs require a parent or some other accountability partner to be involved in the training and others do not. All of the following programs online social skills training for adults that you can participate in from the comfort of your home.


a group of four neurodivergent adults participating in a social skills class

Improv for Interaction: 11-Week Program

Improv for Interaction social skills groups use an evidence-based methodology that was developed by The Miracle Project founder, Elaine Hall, whom you may have seen on Love on the Spectrum, Season 1. If your teen or adult is artistically or theatrically inclined, this might be a good program to check out. The training is just for the young adults; parents are not involved. It’s also on the affordable end of the spectrum.


iSocial®: 16-Week Program

iSocial® is an evidence-based program that offers social, communication, and leadership development workshops for middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults. Cohorts are small groups six people based on age, abilities, goals, and interests. The expectation is that participants will become friends with those in their cohort. In fact, 75 percent of graduates continue to meet virtually for fun social activities after the program's completion.


Communication skills are developed through fast-paced lessons, role plays, and team activities – it’s very engaging. They promote a neurodiversity-friendly perspective of embracing people who think differently and not masking who they are. Parents are not involved in this program.


My Best Social Life: 12-Week Program

My Best Social Life's program is an innovative approach to teaching autistic and neurodivergent adults (17+), the strategies and skills to find community, make friends, start dating, and build relationships. The program includes a combination of online, group, and personalized training, along with a warm, inclusive, and vibrant community.


Parents can be as involved in the program as the family wants. Parents receive the learning modules, get invitations to the weekly community call, get invitations to the coaching sessions, and can reach out to the program facilitators if they want to. Some parents are very involved; others are only part of the initial intake and nothing more.


PEERS®: 16-Week Program

PEERS® is a social skills training program developed by UCLA that has proven to have a positive impact on the relationships of autistic people who struggle to make and keep friends, date, and generally relate to others.


A parent or some other accountability partner must participate in the entire training and provide support for the homework in between sessions for the entire 16-weeks. This is not a small commitment. Also, participants are not allowed to socialize with others in the cohort other than structured homework practice until after the program is complete.


I use parts of this curriculum in my one-on-one coaching with clients where relationships are part of their goals, but there is huge benefit to participating in social skills training with a group. If you are a teen or young adult aged 11-26 and cannot find a PEERS® group locally, check out this directory on the UCLA website listing certified providers around the world.


Your health insurance or your state's vocational rehabilitation program may pay for PEERS® if you have a formal diagnosis.


Do it Yourself Social Skills

If you are willing to try doing it yourself, the PEERS® curriculum is available as a book, and there is a free app available as well.


Here is the book: ​The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults by Elizabeth A. Laugeson, PsyD: If you are struggling with the mechanisms of how to make friends, this is your book. Though the book targets parents of teens and young adults, the concepts are universal whether you are 19 or 99. The culmination of years of research, this evidence-based approach breaks down complex social behaviors into concrete, easy-to-understand rules and steps. Includes a DVD of examples. The videos are also available online.


Here is the free app: iOS | Android


Executive Functioning Issues

In my coaching experience, executive functioning issues are some of the most challenging skills to work on, but they also have equally amazing potential to improve quality of life, making this potentially a powerful treatment for adult autism if it's an area of struggle.


a woman coaching a neurodivergent man on executive functioning skills

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, executive functioning skills are a set of skills and behaviors that enable us to effectively and efficiently complete tasks and interact with others. They include things like planning, organizing, managing time, starting tasks, problem-solving, regulating emotions and impulses, and more.


The biggest challenge with improving executive functioning skills is that because they are so interrelated, you often have to leverage your executive functioning skills to do the work required to improve your executive functioning skills! Strengthening is still very possible though with the right plan.


Executive Functioning Coaching

The best intervention for developing executive functioning skills is one-on-one coaching with an autism life coach like those at Thrive Autism Coaching or an executive functioning coach who is skilled in this area. The caveat with this is that there is no standard training path for coaches and no licensure that dictates what coaches need to know to call themselves executive functioning coaches.


Skills vary widely in this area, and so you need to screen a potential coach carefully. Ask if they use a particular curriculum, what their coaching process is, and how they help their clients stay accountable. If they don't have answers to these questions, it's probably best to keep looking.


If you'd like to explore this with a coach from my organization, you can schedule a complimentary consultation here.


Do it Yourself Executive Functioning Coaching

If you want to try to tackle it yourself, this is where I would start: a workbook co-authored by my friend, Chris Hanson: The Real-Life Executive Functioning Workbook: A Handbook of Exercises to Help Unique Learners Build Real-World Skills and Success.


While homeschooling my son, I spent years looking for something practical that I could use to explicitly teach executive functioning skills, and every other book I read left me feeling confused. I understood what executive functioning challenges were since I was living with them every day, but I had no idea how to help.


This book is so well designed, it can be used effectively by professionals and non-professionals alike. It includes an assessment so you can measure before and after functioning. For 50% off, use the code THRIVE50. (Note: I do NOT receive any sort of kickback on this).


Keep in mind that executive functioning skills are best developed in real life as part of achieving your specific goals. It would be unrealistic to think that you can sit and do some workbook exercises and suddenly thrive. The skills need to be applied to real life, and for this you may need help from a partner like a coach, parent, spouse, or friend. Contact us here to explore working with one of our coaches.


Job/Career Issues

If you are struggling with any part of finding and keeping a job, your state's vocational rehabilitation (VR) office is definitely a resource you need to check out. You do not necessarily need a formal diagnosis to qualify; they will do their own assessment.

a neurodivergent woman looking at her laptop struggling with her job

I must point out that it is hit or miss whether you will qualify and what level of services will be provided, but if you qualify, the services provided will be personalized to your individual needs. Since the purpose of the vocational rehabilitation program is to develop the state’s workforce, the services provided must be related to employment, but they can be quite broad.


I've had clients find this a total dead end because the counselor they were assigned did not understand their challenges related to neurodivergence. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a client for whom VR paid not only for my coaching, but also a driving assessment and one-on-one driving lessons with an occupational therapist, job search assistance, on-the-job coaching once she obtained employment to help her onboard successfully, and hands-on help getting her access to Medicare and other services.


To start the process, just Google "[your state] vocational rehabilitation" to find the website, and then look for how to contact your local office. Then don’t give up. It may take several phone calls to get a call back.


Many of my clients will start down this path and feel like the services they get from vocational rehabilitation are not that useful or incomplete. I highly recommend working with one of the coaches on my coaching team in this situation. Depending on your career interests, we have coaches with expertise in a wide variety of careers from the performing arts, to technology, to self-employment. We will help you customize a plan to secure work that works for you and helps you achieve your goals.


I also have listed tons of job- and career-related resources on the Neurodivergent Adult Resources page of my website.


Challenges With Gaining Self-Sufficiency

The transition from being a high school student to college or career can be especially brutal for neurodivergent individuals. The expectations and skills needed to navigate this increase suddenly and exponentially. One day you're a high school student living at home, and the next day some people may be wondering why you're not working or going to school full-time or living on your own.


If you are a neurodivergent individual looking for someone to help you gain skills that increase your self-sufficiency, see the next section in this post called "General Life Issues."


If you are a parent reading this who is worried about your teen or adult's level of self-sufficiency, I encourage you to check out my group coaching program for parents of autistic teens and adults called Parenting for Independence. It's a step-by-step program that teaches you how to activate your autistic young adult’s intrinsic motivation, unlock their potential, and guide them toward their best life. Part of the program involves connecting with other parents who have the same worries through support pods, which are self-organized groups of parents who meet outside the program to support and encourage each other.


Parents can also explore personalized one-on-one coaching with one of our coaches who is certified in the SBN Parenting Framework™ I created that is taught in Parenting for Independence by scheduling a complimentary consultation here.


General Life Issues

I mentioned executive functioning coaching above, but this list would be incomplete without mentioning my own profession more broadly – life coaching.

a neurodivergent man talking with his life coach

Working with an autism life coach, AuDHD coach, or ADHD coach who specializes in helping neurodivergent adults create the life they want can be a really impactful experience. A life coach can help you navigate the challenges that come with your neurodivergence and ultimately optimize your quality of life.


Here are some of the specific benefits of autism life coaching for neurodivergent adults:


Increased self-awareness: An autism life coach, AuDHD coach, or ADHD coach like the ones here at Thrive Autism Coaching can help a neurodivergent adult better understand their strengths, challenges, and triggers. This increased self-awareness can help them develop better coping mechanisms and strategies to navigate difficult situations.


Improved social skills: Many neurodivergent adults struggle with social interactions and communication. A life coach can help them develop strategies to improve their social skills and build stronger relationships if this is part of their goals.


Improved executive functioning: Many neurodivergent adults struggle with executive functioning skills, such as organization, time management, and decision-making. A life coach can help them develop strategies to improve these skills and better manage their daily lives.


Goal-setting and achievement: A life coach can help a neurodivergent adult identify their goals and develop a plan to achieve them. This can be especially helpful for those who struggle with prioritization and decision-making. The life coach then helps them execute the plan step-by-step, leveraging strengths and mitigating challenges.


Reduced anxiety and stress: Life coaching can help a neurodivergent adult better understand and manage their anxiety and stress levels. A coach can help them identify tools and strategies that reduce anxiety and stress in their daily lives.


As I mentioned in the executive functioning section, since there is no established training path or licensure that dictates what someone needs to know before they can hang a shingle and call themself a life coach, it’s very important to screen someone carefully to make sure they have the skills needed to help you achieve your goals for coaching so you don’t waste your time or money.


Skill levels vary widely. Some autism life coaches specialize in different areas such as the high school-to college transition or neurodiverse relationships. Others work as generalists covering social skills, executive functioning skills, education, career, and everyday living.


Look into their training and make sure they have done something related to neurodiversity. Ask how they approach working toward the kinds of goals you are considering working on. Ask about their approach to working with clients. Consider asking to talk to others they’ve helped with similar goals. To get a clear idea of what it would be like to work with them, they should offer a complimentary phone call to discuss your situation. You can schedule one of these with my organization here.


Conclusion

Trying to find treatment for adults with autism spectrum disorder from providers who understand autism and neurodiversity can be a challenge, but there are quite a few options that can have a major impact on improving your quality of life and enable you to live your best life!


It is essential to find therapists and coaches who are experienced in working with neurodivergent adults and who are neurodiversity-affirming. You are not broken, and you do not need to be fixed. You may just need some specialized instruction in operating your amazing brain! I have seen repeatedly through my many clients that with the right instruction, interventions, and support, autistic adults can absolutely achieve their wildest dreams and live amazing lives.

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