Autism and Mental Health: Adapting Treatment for Autistic Young People

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Autism is not a mental health problem. But some autistic young people experience challenges with their mental health – and research shows they’re more likely to than people who are not autistic. 

Many autistic young people respond differently to standard treatments like talking therapies than other young people. They may also find certain parts of treatment – such as standard treatment settings – difficult to process or anxiety-inducing.

Like other parts of our society, it’s crucial that we adapt mental health services so that they are accessible and suitable for people of all identities, backgrounds, and neurodiversity, including autistic people.

In this blog, we outline some recent guidelines for mental health treatment for autistic people and how they can support young autistic people to enjoy a happy and fulfilling life.

Talking About Autism

Many autistic people understand autism as a central and defining part of their identity, like gender or race. They may prefer to use identity-first language and describe themselves as an ‘autistic person’. Other autistic people see autism as just one part of their identity. They may prefer to use the phrase ‘person with autism’.

When speaking with or about an autistic person, it’s important to follow their lead and use language that accurately reflects the way they understand autism. In this blog, we’ll use identity-first language throughout.

Autism and Mental Health Challenges

Some autistic young people have good mental health. But, sadly, mental health challenges are common among autistic people. Research shows that:

Research suggests that a lack of support and social care drives much of the mental health crisis among autistic young people. It’s also underpinned by an inadequate understanding of autism and how to adapt support to suit autistic people’s needs.

Adapting Mental Health Support for Autistic Young People

Every autistic young person is different. It’s not just a young person’s autism that affects the kind of treatment they need and there are many other factors to consider.

Taking a person-centred approach that takes into account a person’s experiences and identities is central to effective treatment. That said, there are some general guidelines that may help young autistic people benefit from mental health support.

Changing the Physical Environment

Many young autistic people have sensory differences. This means that they may be either over-sensitive or under-sensitive to different senses, or experience both at the same time.

For example, young autistic people may find too much noise or light makes them feel stressed, anxious, or even experience physical pain.

For therapy to be effective, it’s important for autistic young people to feel as calm as possible before beginning a session. Centres may be able to have a room with low sensory information, such as dimmer lights, less visual clutter, and less noise.

Young autistic people may want to spend time in this room to avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety while waiting for a session or at any point during the day.

Unexpected Changes

Unexpected changes can cause a lot of anxiety for young autistic people. This can happen if appointments are delayed or sessions need to be changed or cancelled. While this may sometimes be unavoidable, it’s important to give clear and accurate information about these changes to minimise the anxiety caused. 

The Length and Structure of Treatment

Many young autistic people benefit from having more therapy sessions than in a standard therapy course. They may find this gives them enough time to build trust in their therapist and develop an open relationship with good communication. They may also like to have longer sessions than usual or continue treatment for a longer time. 

As always, mental health professionals should listen to, understand, and respond to each autistic person’s individual wants and needs.

For example, while longer sessions give some autistic people more time to process information, for others this may feel overwhelming. Being flexible and open from the start of treatment can help autistic people get the most out of therapy.

Knowing What to Expect

Autistic young people often find new situations stressful, especially if they don’t know what to expect. Starting treatment without knowing what is going to happen can cause a lot of anxiety. Because of this, having as much information as possible before the start of a treatment program is really important. 

To help prevent unnecessary anxiety, treatment centres or mental health professionals may: 

  • write personal introductions from the therapist or another person who will be working directly with a young person
  • share a description of what a therapy course or treatment program may involve
  • send photos of the treatment centre or therapy room that a person will use
  • let them know what may be useful to prepare
  • explain a bit about the goals of a therapy course or treatment

Help for Parents and Carers

A young person’s home environment – and relationship with family members – can make a big difference in their recovery from mental health disorders.

Parent counselling and other family interventions can help parents and carers learn how best to support the mental health of a young person while taking care of their own mental health.

This may involve different skills, like communication, strengthening relationships, and coping with or reducing distress.

The Impact of Previous Experiences

Unfortunately, many young autistic people have already had negative experiences with treatment. They may have been labelled ‘too complex’ or moved from one treatment centre to another. Some may have felt invalidated or not listened to, stereotyped, or found their autism was overlooked.

This means that it can be very hard for a young autistic person to trust a therapist or another mental health professional.

It’s important for therapists to be sensitive to their personal experiences and give them the time and space they need to form a relationship. Giving young people agency and control within the session can also help to build trust.

The Wave Clinic: Transformative Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health support dedicated to the needs of young people. Our whole-person approach combines education with psychological and medical support, enriching experiences, and community work, helping young people to build better futures.

Driven by our values of inclusivity and fairness, we offer specialist treatment for young people with different types of neurodiveristy. Our person-centred philosophy listens to and reflects the unique needs and experiences of every young person throughout their recovery journey.

We understand the importance of family and other loved ones in a young person’s recovery journey, including parents and other important figures in the treatment process and offering interventions that support everyone’s well-being.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to help.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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