How can a psychologist help a child with autism

Psychology is the study of the human mind. This social science has made huge contributions to the understanding and treatment of autism. There are a number of ways in which psychologists can and do play a role in helping children and adults with autism. It’s important to note that psychiatry, a closely related field, also involves medical interventions (pharmaceutical treatments).

Child talking to therapist

izusek / E+ / Getty Images

Psychotherapy is built around the use of the spoken word. For verbal people on the spectrum, psychotherapy can be a very useful tool for managing symptoms such as anxiety or compulsions. It can also help people with autism to better understand how their actions and reactions are perceived by others.

Applied behavior analysis is a form of behavioral therapy, which is based on traditional psychology. ABA is often used successfully to treat individuals with autism. ABA, however, is not talk therapy; rather it is a carefully structured process wherein an individual is taught skills using rewards to reinforce correct answers or preferred actions. Typically, ABA is provided by therapists with specific ABA training.

Both psychotherapy and other forms of therapeutic interventions are used to improve psychological functioning through behavioral means. These therapies can be completed individually and in groups at both schools and outpatient clinics. Children and parents can participate.

Developmental psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with child development and explores typical and atypical development, questions of nature versus nurture, and related topics. Developmental psychology is the basis for several well-known treatments for autism, including SCERTS, Floortime, and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).

Some other areas of psychology that are often helpful for people on the spectrum and their families include:

  • Drama therapy
  • Play therapy
  • School/educational psychology
  • Family psychology

What Does a Psychologist Do For People With Autism?

Psychologists are often involved in the process of diagnosing both children and adults with autism. They may also recommend appropriate treatment programs, and/or support the process of evaluation, benchmarking and ongoing assessment.

Developmental and child psychologists work with children to help them engage with others through play, and learn skills such as joint attention (doing something WITH rather than NEAR someone else).

School psychologists may work with autistic students to help them engage with their peers, manage stress, or handle difficult interactions with bullies or general teasing. They may also work with parents and teachers to develop strategies for school success.

Psychologists work with both children and adults with autism to treat issues such as social anxiety, depression, and perseverative behavior (doing or saying the same things over and over again). Psychologists also work with individuals on the autism spectrum to help them manage self stimulation (stims), “autopsy” social interactions, understand social cues, and manage school and work relationships.

Behavioral psychologists are in high demand within the autism community. They may evaluate autistic behaviors to better understand their meaning and purpose, develop behavioral (ABA) programs to teach a wide range of skills, or help families to manage aggression and other problematic behaviors in the home.

Where Can I Find a Qualified Psychologist?

Because there is no such thing as an “autism psychologist,” there is no directory of psychologists skilled in working with children or adults with autism. To find an appropriate psychologist, parents may want to start at a local children’s hospital with an autism center or program; at a regional autism center; or in the school district. Adults with autism can do a local online search, but may be better served by connecting with autism self-advocacy organizations such as

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists are health professionals who study the human mind – our mental health, emotions, intelligence, motivations and behaviours. They use psychotherapy (sometimes called cognitive therapy or ‘talk’ therapy) to help people find solutions to relationships, learning, performance in a range of areas and life’s challenges.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychologists are not medically trained and cannot prescribe medications. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are able to prescribe medications. Both psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental illnesses and conditions.

How can psychologists help people with autism?

Some psychologists have an interest and expertise in autism, gained through additional study and clinical experience.

A General Practitioner (GP) or other health professional may refer a person to a Psychologist if they suspect that the person has autism, or if they have concerns about the person’s mental health. Self-referrals can also be made to a Psychologist.

Specifically, Psychologists can assist people with autism, or who are suspected of having autism, with the following professional services:

How do psychologists provide their services?

 Psychologists generally conduct in-clinic, individualised assessments, and then recommend a series of follow up counselling and therapy sessions. Some psychologists can also do home visits, kindergarten and child care visits, school visits, or work visits.

Where do autism psychologists practice?

Many psychologists work in private practice, either in their own clinics or as part of a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals. They may also be employed by schools, public and private hospitals and community health services. To find out more, or to get a referral speak with your GP, or visit our support and services page.

What training do psychologists undertake?

 Psychology is a regulated health profession. To practice as a professional psychologist a person must:

  • Complete a recognised University degree qualification followed by training and supervised experience (around six years).
  • Register with the Psychology Board of Australia and Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
  • Adhere to the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics.
  • Complete continuing professional development and meet all requirements of the Psychology Board of Australia.
  • To make autism diagnostic assessments, they may also need to complete additional professional development requirements.

What does a psychologist cost?

The fee at which a service is set is at the discretion of the individual psychologist so it is important to discuss this with the psychologist or clinic manager before booking an appointment.

Psychology is an approved service under the NDIS. For more information about the funding options that may be available to you please visit our financial services page.

Further information

For more information about psychology, please visit the Australian Psychological Society website, or the Psychology Board of Australia website.

Video transcript

Carolyne Jones (behavioural psychologist): Psychologists can support children with autism spectrum disorders in a variety of ways including skills training, behavioural techniques and coping skills for regulating emotions, all with the aim of optimising the child’s functioning in a variety of settings whether it’s at home or at school or childcare, or just in the wider community.

We know that children with autism can have particular difficulties identifying emotions in other people and as well as themselves and expressing it in an appropriate way.

Some children with autism can become overwhelmed with a particularly difficult emotion. Things like anxiety and anger can be difficult to manage within themselves and this is something that psychologists can help the child and the family develop more effective strategies with experiencing those emotions.

One of the main approaches that is evidence-based in the psychology literature is called ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.’ This looks at a changing the way that you think and behave to impact on how you are feeling.

Jacqueline M. Amato, MD
Child Psychiatrist
Springfield, Oregon, USA

Email: [email protected]

Date First Published: August 15, 2007

The course of treatment for children with autism is a complicated path. Often, the most comprehensive and effective treatment for any person with autism requires a team of providers. Parents (and guardians) play a crucial role in navigating this complicated maze and advocating for their child. They are tasked with assembling an appropriate team, making decisions about when to call upon a particular provider, making judgments about the appropriateness of individual providers, finding the money and time to see the various providers, and making changes to the team depending on the issues that the child is facing at different points.

A child and adolescent psychiatrist can play a key role in the lives of some children with autism. But, what is the role of a child and adolescent psychiatrist and when should parents engage one? The decision to see a psychiatrist involves knowing when you are in over your head, trusting your gut, and listening to others both inside the family and out. This decision is difficult, but must be made when raising a child with autism.

Child and adolescent psychiatrists diagnose and treat any psychiatric problems that the child with autism may exhibit. The child psychiatrist also continues to provide supportive care and medication management after the initial diagnosis.

The start of the treatment of psychiatric disorders generally begins with your pediatrician — the person who examines your child on a routine basis. If your child’s behavior begins to change, if he/she experiences episodes of rage and/or out of control behavior, or if he/she exhibits self-injurious behavior, you should contact your pediatrician. You and your pediatrician can then decide if further referral is warranted or if other tests need to be done.

When should parents seek out a child and adolescent psychiatrist?

First and foremost among the red flags is safety! Other red flags include:

  • An increase in the child’s episodes of loss of control
  • Appearance of physical aggression toward self or others
  • Verbal escalation that evolves into uncontrollable screaming
  • Prolonged verbal and physical rages
  • Fear is another primary motivating factor. Are you fearful of the child and his or her behavior with siblings? Is the hair on the back of your neck standing on end when the child’s behavior escalates? Do you ever wonder how long you can go on living like this?

When should pediatricians and other care providers refer their patients to a child and adolescent psychiatrist?

  • When the number of calls to the provider from a parent in distress about the child increases.
  • When there is an observed or reported negative change in the child’s behavior.
  • When the child with autism can be heard screaming in the background when parent makes a phone call for help.
  • When multiple messages of concern from other sources such as teachers, day care providers, and grandparents, further help may be necessary.
  • The treatment of autism is best served using a multidisciplinary approach. The components of the team may consist of learning specialists, developmental pediatricians, child neurologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and child and adolescent psychiatrists. Again, the child and adolescent psychiatrist will diagnose and treat any psychiatric issues that the child with autism exhibits and continue to provide supportive care and medication management.

Psychiatric diagnoses may be complicated by the child’s inability to communicate verbally or unusual symptom presentation. Many of the issues that children with autism experience do not fit into neat diagnostic boxes or fit the ‘formal criteria’ for one specific psychiatric disorder. In these cases, parents should identify the most incapacitating symptoms first and present these to your child psychiatrist for initial treatment recommendations.

One of the most important factors when working with a child and adolescent psychiatrist is trust. This psychiatrist may be in your lives for many years and one needs to feel quite comfortable when entrusting one’s children to their care. The child with autism may need medication and or other treatments that the psychiatrist prescribes. Open communication between you, your child and the child and adolescent psychiatrist is paramount to the success of any treatment plan.

Additional Resources: 

When a Psychiatric Crisis Hits: Children with Autism in the Emergency Room

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap