Managing emotions can be especially difficult for adults with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, commonly called CBT, can be an effective means of coping with mental health issues, including difficult emotions such as depression, repetitive thoughts, or anxiety.
Many individuals with Asperger’s, autism or an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) dread the idea of seeing a psychotherapist. The thought of analyzing past relationships, talking about early childhood experiences, and dwelling on emotions can seem dull, pointless or painful. They may imagine a therapy session as something like what Freud did, or Woody Allen on a couch and the therapist nodding and asking about dreams. Or, they picture a stereotyped TV therapist, asking “How did that make you feel?” over and over. With these images of therapy, it’s not surprising that many individuals may choose to live with their emotional pain, rather than see a therapist.
But, there are other options!
Therapy can be much more practical and goal oriented than these images may lead you to believe, and that’s just what many individuals with Asperger’s or autism are interested in. And that’s where CBT comes in.
CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts (or cognitions), our emotions, and our behaviors are intertwined. By becoming aware of our thoughts, examining them, and analyzing them, we can determine how these thoughts are triggering depressed or anxious feeling or behaviors. The ideas behind the thoughts can be tested for false logic or incorrect generalizations. Since many individuals with autism or Asperger’s excel at logical thinking, examining their own thoughts for illogical patterns can seem very natural.
CBT does deal with emotion, but in a concrete way. Emotions are discussed and often explained in depth, so they can be better understood. Many CBT therapists have their clients rate and measure their emotions, as a means of being better aware of them. How the emotion is experienced in the body may be explored. The idea is that better understanding of emotions, how they feel, and what functions they serve, can allow people to manage them more easily. Again, this practical and precise approach can feel very natural to those on the autism spectrum.
Please don’t confuse CBT with ABA. ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, is often referred to as Behavior Therapy, but it’s not Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. ABA is a specific therapy, often used with autistic children, to teach new behaviors. It is not psychotherapy, it doesn’t deal with emotions or issues like depression, anxiety or repetitive thoughts. CBT may incorporate a behavioral theme, such as setting up a regular exercise program as part of the symptom management, but it’s not about giving adults little rewards every time they follow the therapist’s requests. There’s also some confusion about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy versus Cognitive Therapy. Strictly speaking, Cognitive Therapy is one type of therapy, that falls under the umbrella of more general types of CBT. In practice, most therapists use the words “Cognitive Therapy” and “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” interchangeably.
Ready to give CBT a try? Most therapists don’t list themselves as CBT therapists, since they will use other techniques when appropriate. It’s probably more important to find a therapist who is familiar with Asperger’s and autism, and one who really enjoys working with individuals on the autism spectrum. Tell your potential therapist that you’re interested in a more concrete, practical approach, define the goals you’re looking for, and ask of they use CBT regularly.
You can be feeling better soon!