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How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Can be Used to Treat Children with Autism

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Can be Used to Treat Children with Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to the spectrum of symptoms that link people who have it. Different cases may have different signs or the same ones in varying degrees. Like Autism, mental health as a whole is also diagnosed through a spectrum of symptoms and conditions. Often times lines blur between illnesses, almost as if your mind’s immune system were becoming vulnerable because of the work it has done managing your existing condition. One of the most common cases is generalized anxiety. Over six million Americans are diagnosed with anxiety each year, and so many instances go unreported.


The Advantages of Treating Children with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Since children with Autism are predisposed to anxiety, by pressure from social situations, frustration from treatment or any other stressors, it is important to teach them how to manage their thoughts through therapy. Anxiety is defined as persistent, excessive worrying about any number of things, meaning people with anxiety are not reading their own thoughts the right way. Since one of the staples throughout the Autism Spectrum is difficulty in sensory perception and with social situations, children diagnosed with Autism, as well as their parents, need to be vigilant in treatment.

Treatment also has to be individualized for each case, but there are several behavioral strategies that can work on a number of levels. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the method that the American Psychiatric Association recognizes to prepare children for independence down the line after treatment. CBT both helps patients manage current issues and gives them the tools to challenge negative thought patterns on their own.


Using CBT to Correct Problematic Behavior

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a more complete form of treatment. Instead of just talking through past issues and praising progress, CBT trains the child to build their own skills to manage problems themselves and develop healthy thinking habits. This type of therapy helps children with Autism and other types of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Both of which have a risk of developing in someone diagnosed with Autism.

CBT takes a different approach from traditional therapy. Learning strategies to maintain a healthy mind can be done at any time with the right training. It becomes more of a practice coordinated by the therapist. During appointments, the therapist and child will break down behaviors and offer alternative, healthier ways to deal with problems.

The first step is identifying behaviors or experiences that are having negative effects on the client’s mental health. After they tell their therapist about the problems, they can both organize different behaviors and experiences so if different types of problems arise, it will not seem as overwhelming. Once the problem areas have been categorized, they can be deconstructed more easily when they happen in real-time. Along with being able to identify different behaviors, the child and therapist will be able to talk through multiple angles of each behavior while discussing why something is harmful or helpful. A clearer understanding of the behavior will make it easier to recognize and react appropriately. Once the child classifies and understands what the behavior is, they can quickly decide how to replace negative behaviors. After talking about the what’s and why’s, the therapist will work with the client to come up with alternative solutions and strategies for social situations.


Why CBT Works for Treating and Managing Autism

While there is no cure for anxiety, using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, children with Autism can combat some of the triggers for anxiety, as well as practice safe methods to defuse stressful situations. A therapist will help the child figure out what thoughts and actions are most helpful for them. They can also plan and strategize about upcoming social events. A peer-reviewed research article found that using CBT helped to ease anxiety and redirect avoidant behavior. There was also a randomized, controlled trial to see how children with Autism would benefit from sixteen CBT appointments over three months. According to the Clinical Global Impressions-Improvement Scale, a staggering 78.5% of the subjects showed improvement of their condition.

A child with Autism might feel anxious before an everyday social event, but talking with their therapist could alleviate some pressure. It can also help with social skills in general. Another study examining children with high-functioning Autism and their social progress concluded that CBT causes progressive improvement in elements of social skills, like communication.

A large part of CBT is visualization. Things are often less stressful if there is a plan or some kind of expectation for how things will turn out. Children with Autism can practice visualization for school and school functions, sports, a big holiday, or whatever is causing tension. By thinking about what might happen and what ways they can handle a situation, they go into it feeling more prepared and with less to worry about. Once visualization becomes a habit, children will find that the new tools they’ve been equipped with apply to so many parts of their life. It might begin to get them through a school day, but visualization and other CBT methods can help later on. Major life events like landing a first job, going to college or moving to live independently are new and most people have no idea what to expect going into them. Visualizing the steps and potential risks before doing something helps reduce stress and can improve planning.


Aspire’s CBT Program

Aspire Child & Family Services offers counseling focusing on principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Aspire specializes in supporting clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families. The staff is lead by founder and Director, Dr. Jaime Friedman, a licensed psychologist with experience as a school psychologist for many years. She worked mostly with special education departments conducting special education evaluations, providing her with valuable work experience assisting children with Autism. In working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other diagnoses/disabilities, Dr. Friedman adopted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, especially with the overwhelming evidence in favor of it, and it is a widely used practice at Aspire. For an overview of what CBT means, we have some informational resources on our website.

Dr. Friedman’s staff includes other licensed psychologists, counselors, social workers, a marriage and family therapist, and behavioral health staff. Whether your child needs to see one or more of these types of professionals, Aspire has different departments to make sure clients are treated quickly and effectively. The staff also shares a wide range of experience and specialties, which are listed on the website. Since Autism can change so drastically from case to case, it is good to have experts with different experiences at your disposal. Education is equally as important, and there are staff at Aspire that have both educational and training experiences dedicated to helping children with Autism manage their symptoms and live healthy lives.

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