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).
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 GRASP.org.
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.
For more information about psychology, please visit the Australian Psychological Society website, or the Psychology Board of Australia website.
In my 20 years of work as an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist, I have found six strategies that are most important in helping children and adults
with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Some of these strategies are more useful for children than adults and others are more suitable to certain individuals then they are to others. But overall, these strategies form a comprehensive treatment plan that ensures the most success in helping people cope with Autism.
Without exception, the most important step in addressing Autism Spectrum Disorder is obtaining an accurate diagnosis.
At first glance, some people with ASD may appear to be excessively shy, odd or awkward. They may be anxious, hyperactive, socially isolated or depressed. Anger management, procrastination, organizational problems and difficulty using information gained from one’s senses are frequent components of Autism.
Too often, these symptoms are seen in isolation, separate from each other, rather than viewed as parts of an overall condition. Therefore, ASD is never diagnosed.
There are also other medical conditions or disorders that can present symptoms that are similar to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Eliminating these other conditions is part of the diagnostic process.
An accurate diagnosis becomes the basis for building an appropriate and effective treatment program.
Social Skills Training
Children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty recognizing and regulating their emotions. Their ability to empathize with others and use or respond to social cues is often compromised. The result is poor social support and isolation from others.
One of the main goals of an Autism psychologist is to provide training in understanding and learning basic socialization skills.
Interpreting body language, hand gestures, tones of voice and typical communication styles are emphasized in social skills training. Mastering the ability to sustain eye contact, attend to the subtleties of nonverbal communication and to appreciate genuine relationships with others are also important skills that are promoted.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be incredibly resourceful in designing strategies to negotiate their way through a world that is to them very confusing and threatening.
Autism therapy includes interventions geared towards recognizing what people have already done to successfully adapt and builds upon those self-taught skills.
- Teaching new thinking and behavioral skills to reduce problems at home, school and work
- Encouraging self-acceptance
- Teaching strategies to decrease or prevent symptoms of co-occurring conditions, such as depression, anxiety and hyperactivity.
An Autism psychologist will work with parents to help:
- Sort through the implications of an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis
- Cope with feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, blame, and frustration
- Learn about and access resources for parenting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Reduce uncertainty and stress in the parenting process.
Although there are no medications that specifically treat Autism Spectrum Disorder, some of the associated symptoms of ASD, such as inattention and trouble focusing, obsessive-compulsive issues, anxiety and/or depression can be alleviated by medication.
Autism psychologists do not prescribe medication but can provide referrals to psychiatrists who are familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorder and who can prescribe the appropriate medication for these symptoms.
Help is Available
The resources, support and assistance for addressing the challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder are available for children, adults and parents.
With the aid of those resources, together with the expertise of professionals, such as an Autism psychologist, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder can overcome their problems and lead healthy, happy lives.