My practice as a clinical psychologist has been exclusively with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD's) for the past 5 years and it had comprised the majority of my practice since 2004. During this time I have learned a great deal about evaluating and treating people with ASD's and in the process they have taught me many lessons as well. In these blogs I plan to share some of my experiences and insights while hopefully receiving further insights and knowledge from others.
Since this is the start of a new year as well as my adventures in blogging I'd like to discuss how people with ASD's experience something new. While a new experience can be a source of joy and excitement for many people it is typically an anxiety ridden experience for people with ASD's. The is because the nervous system of someone with ASD is so sensitive, that they can typically only process a small amount of new information or excitement at one time. Over the course of these blogs I'll try to outline the neurological processes behind the decision making and reactions of people with ASD, but for now let's just say that new experiences are often overwhelming and met with some type of resistance or escape response.
Does that mean that people with ASD should never be exposed to new experiences? The short answer is "no", because new experiences are how we grow and develop over time. There are two keys for helping a person with ASD enjoy and benefit from new experiences. The first is to prepare them for the new experience. People with ASD typically react much better to experiences when prior warning and explanation is given. This could be as simple as pictures and demonstrations or as elaborate as detailed verbal explanations or diagrams for those with greater vocabularies and cognitive abilities. For example I've worked with individuals who had severe intellectual disability as well as Autism and they were able to show greater cooperation at the dentist when allowed to participate in simulated dental appointments prior to their cleaning.
The other important aspect of providing new information or experiences is that it is done slowly and gradually. Allow the person with ASD to absorb a small amount of the new information until they are comfortable, then continue to provide the information in small increments. To use the analogy of a swimming pool, jumping straight into a cold pool without first putting your foot in the water results in quite a shock to your body, where as taking the steps and wading into the pool allows your body to slowly get used to the temperature change. While some people like that sudden shock to the system most people with Autism do not like that feeling. In fact, they often dislike that feeling so much that they try very hard to never have that experience again.
I hope you will find these tips to be helpful. I plan to provide more of these tips on a regular basis. Please feel free to comment and respond if you wish for more information or clarification about a particular topic.