Newly diagnosed adult with autism seeks therapy advice

By Megan Farley, PhD
Megan Farley, PhD

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is from psychologist Megan Farley of the Waisman Center for developmental disabilities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dr. Farley received an Autism Speaks research grant to study the factors that help or hinder the development and success of adults with autism.

I’m a newly diagnosed 47-year-old with autism. What kind of treatments can help me?

This is both a great question and a difficult one to answer. Currently we have far too little in the way of evidence-based treatments for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

We have a small handful of treatment strategies that have been clinically evaluated and found to be effective for helping adolescents and young adults with autism. At the University of Texas, for example, researchers have successfully used a virtual reality training program to improve social skills among young adults with autism. The PEERS program has likewise shown promise for teaching social skills to young adults with autism. 

Finding adult autism programs in your community

While we have few scientifically tested therapy and support programs for adults with autism, many clinicians, parents, community providers and adults with ASD are developing such programs in their communities. One place to look for therapy and support programs is in the Autism Speaks Resource Library for Adults. Another way to search for these programs is through the state-by-state Autism Speaks Resource Guide. And you can download Adult Autism Diagnosis Tool Kit, which was designed to help adults who suspect they may have autism, as well as those recently diagnosed with the disorder. This kit will provide an overview of autism to help you better understand the disorder and will hopefully clarify whether you should seek out a professional for a thorough evaluation.

General guidelines for finding the help you need

Beyond autism-specific programs and therapies, I can offer you some general recommendations based on my clinical experience, that of my colleagues and that of the many adults with autism with whom I’ve had the privilege to work.

First, it’s important to consider what type of help you need. Every individual with autism is unique in terms of his or her challenges and strengths.

Typically adults with autism come to a mental health clinic because they’re struggling with one or more issues. Common autism-related challenges include social isolation, finding and keeping a job or a romantic partner, anxiety or mood problems or an inability to organize one’s life.

For mood or anxiety problems, I recommend seeing a psychiatrist for a medical consultation and a psychologist or social worker for individual therapy or group counseling. Ideally you want someone experienced in helping adults who have autism. So ask for such expertise when you contact a therapist or mental health clinic.

Beyond autism-specific therapy

Unfortunately, not every community has adult autism specialists. If yours does not, I recommend finding a counselor who seems sincerely interested in learning more about autism in general and your experience in particular.

In addition, it’s important to understand that both psychologists and social workers can vary widely in the approach they use in counseling. In my experience, most individuals with autism do best with therapy that takes a concrete, skill-building approach. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a good example of this type of therapy.

I also suggest that you consider bringing along someone who knows and cares about you for at least part of the therapy session. In my experience, many adults with autism have difficulty explaining their challenges. Someone who knows you well may be able to help you and the therapist zero in on the behaviors that are creating problems and develop strategies to address them.

You might also want to consider group therapy or classes for those who have difficulty with social interactions. Learning social skills in a group can be particularly helpful because participants can share observations and suggestions. Your therapist or social worker may be able to recommend such a group in your community.

If you’re seeking help finding and keeping a job, you can find additional help through your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency. These agencies have the mission of helping adults with disabilities – including autism – prepare for and find appropriate employment. Also, the Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit was designed to help you research, find and keep employment. 

Finally, I recommend you look to the community of adults with autism.  There are several good websites that provide information and forums for adults with ASD. One such site is WrongPlanet. Another is the Global & Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP).

Thanks for your question. I hope these tips prove helpful to you and other readers.