Embark Behavioral Health
May 10, 2021
Every person on the autism spectrum is a phenomenal human being worthy of the best care and support available. And there are many in need of this care and support – one in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meaning serving this population is a critical issue for American families.
Teens with autism need a holistic treatment perspective that supports their neurological, intellectual, and emotional needs. The science on this topic is constantly changing, so we sat down with Embark Behavioral Health’s Chief Clinical Officer, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC, to get his perspective on how friends, family, and caretakers can best support teens with autism.
Here’s what it all comes down to: relationships and routine. Let’s dive in.
A Quick Neurology Primer
To better understand how to help the people we care about with autism, it’s critical to understand what’s going on neurobiologically. Knowing a few, key facts enables us to put on the right lenses to better understand and empathize with the experience of living on the spectrum.
To break it down simply, those with autism may have issues both “horizontally” (across the brain) and “vertically” (down the nervous system, including the spinal cord and other nerves). Within the brain, a structure connects our right and left hemispheres, called the “corpus collassum.” Other parts, like the cerebellum and amygdala, are involved.
“The right side of the brain that’s concerned with relationships, emotional and relational cues, the nuances of facial features, and social engagement, is often cut off because the corpus collassum is actually shut down,” says Gent. “Compensation then comes from the left side of the brain, which is concerned with logic and focus.”
This disconnection could be why someone with autism may struggle to understand others’ emotions or react to affection. It is also why those on the spectrum may excel in highly focused activities, math, and more.
But this disconnection doesn’t mean that people with autism don’t want relationships – quite the opposite.
Secure Relationships are Key
“Secure relationships are the most effective and efficient means for creating healthy development,” says Gent. “Embark’s approach sees development, people, and relationship as inseparable.
“The ‘miss’ is that most people think that those with autism are not interested in relationships. In reality, they are craving relationships more than anybody.”
These secure relationships provide stability and emotional support that improve overall well-being. Gent explains:
“There are a lot of nonverbal experiences that happen with primary caregivers and parents that are essential for all of us. Who doesn’t want to receive hugs and empathy? Just because we can’t respond in the same way, it doesn’t mean that our limbic systems [the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses] and our bodies aren’t growing and developing in a positive way because of those experiences.”
So, how do we use this information to provide effective treatment and support for those with autism?
Rebuilding Neurological Connections Through Therapy
When considering the best therapy options for those with autism, it’s critical to acknowledge the whole person, not just where they fall on the spectrum. “Treatment should not be compartmentalized. Rather than focusing on specific neurological interventions, treatment really needs to be seen in a more holistic perspective,” says Gent.
One critical factor in this assessment is putting aside chronological age and truly seeing an individual for where they are in life.
Occupational therapy (OT), neurofeedback, and biofeedback are just some of the treatments proven to help those with autism lead more fulfilling and healthier lives. From learning to cope with events (like how to deal with new or unknown situations) to managing heightened sensory experiences, these different types of therapy change and train the brain to build and grow new connections (this is called “neuroplasticity”).
“We know that, neuroplastically, we can begin to create new neurosynaptic connections that enhance that connectivity between the hemispheres, which is very exciting,” says Gent.
Routine + Structure = Stability
Another important consideration in improving wellbeing for teens with autism is the importance of routine. Having a routine allows those with autism to better regulate their emotions, enabling them to feel safe and secure.
“The art of flexibility and adaptation is really difficult,” says Gent. “That need for structure, reliability, repetition, transition, knowing what’s going to happen and when […] all of it is essential for us to establish that regulation.”
Having a reliable routine is one of the best ways friends and family can care for those with autism. This comes down to the details, like setting a schedule for everyday tasks such as when it’s time to get up, have breakfast, go to school, do homework, do recreational activities, and more.
“The challenging thing that I wish I could broadcast is that providing structure, boundaries, limits, and things that might feel rigid are actually the most attune, caring, and compassionate things we can do for people who struggle with autism. Because when that structure and reliability exist, it provides them what they need, not necessarily what we think they want.”
At the end of the day, our friends and family living on the spectrum want what we all want: to be able to rely on and trust the people in their lives.