In the last twenty years, the incidence of autism has increased ten-fold. Experts believe that broader diagnostic criteria, increased awareness and changing trends in diagnosing have contributed to the rise, but can’t entirely explain the surge.
One thing they have found, however, is that psychological treatments – focusing on emotions, self-understanding, and building healthy relationships – can help autistic children vastly expand the non-autistic, growth-seeking parts of their personalities.
Where most psychologists use types of talk therapy with their patients, people with autism often have compromised abilities to use spoken language. Other types of psychotherapy are, therefore, often more useful in treating patients with autism. Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), for example, is a form of behavioural therapy that involves a carefully structured process wherein individuals are taught skills using rewards to reinforce correct answers or preferred actions.
Developmental psychology, meanwhile, a branch of psychology that deals with child development and explores typical and atypical development, questions of nature versus nurture, and related topics, is the basis for several well-known treatments for autism, including ‘Floortime’ and Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).
Analytic psychologists, therefore, modify their techniques for autistic children. The late Frances Tustin, a British psychologist who successfully treated many autistic children, insisted on firm rules and, above all, on “proper relating” guided by respect for the other person’s mind. Tustin helped children notice when they disrupted proper relating, told them why they did it, and explained why it was necessary to work with other people in order to grow properly.
American psychologist Dr Miriam Voran is another firm proponent of the use of psychotherapy to help autistic children and their families. “Psychotherapy works, not by reversing neurological damage, but by providing new experiences that engender compensatory brain structures and wiring. It is a humane and humanistic approach to a human misfortune,” she says.
As such, Dr Voran focuses on the psychology of the autistic child – on emotions, self-understanding, and aversion to relationships – while monitoring at all times the interaction between the child’s unique neural endowment and his experience.
“I also help the parents, who suffer profoundly when they can’t reach their child,” she says, referring, by way of example, to an autistic newborn with difficulty coordinating eye movements. “Such an infant will find it hard to make sense of visual input and is, therefore, more easily overwhelmed and agitated by ordinary parental behaviours. There is a profound interaction between the baby’s and parents’ minds. The baby’s problems deeply affect the parents; the parents process this effect according to their unique personalities, and return a modified response, a response that mingles fear and hope. The baby in turn refracts this parental signal through the lens of his own nervous system, producing an idiosyncratic ‘knowledge’ of his parents’ feelings toward him. And it is along such complex lines that the baby’s mind develops. The analytic psychotherapist, alert to such complexities, is well prepared to understand the devastating derailments of the autistic child’s emotional and social life.”
Influential Canadian clinical psychologist, Dr Anne Alvarez, has emphasised the importance of staying active and lively with autistic children, drawing them into pleasurable interactions. Such innovations, in the context of disciplined psychoanalytic therapy, engage autistic children without overwhelming them, respect their defenses while making them aware of uncomfortable feelings, and maintain the working relationship while still challenging the child to grow.
If you are interested in learning more about the different branches of therapy that make up the psychological field, why not consider studying a Bachelor of Psychology Degree at the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP), which has campuses in Cape Town, Johannesburg as well as online courses. Enquire now!