I cannot emphasise enough the importance of creating the best sensory environment possible for each autistic individual, and this includes allowing us to stim, unjudged and unheaded. This is so incredibly important to our everyday comfort, health, wellbeing and overall functioning. When our environment is suited to us, we thrive. When it isn't we suffer, and therefore cannot be our wonderful selves.
For much more detailed information about sensory aspects of autism, including ideas for a portable sensory survival pack, have a look here.
As well as the all-important stimming and enjoyment of our favourite interests and hobbies, there are lots of other therapies, strategies or equipment that many of us have found helpful.
What is important is that any therapists are suitably qualified, have experience with autistic people. At the very least, they must be open to learning about autism and listening to autistic people. The therapy or equipment must be beneficial to the autistic person, never just for the benefit of society or the people around them.
Currently, many therapies are aimed at helping us to thrive and survive, in neurotypical society - which is very one sided and unfair. How about, a 'therapy' aimed at helping society thrive and survive with us? Along side us. Helping society in general to better understand us, and treat us as equals, rather than others. This could equally apply to people with all kinds of differences. Something to bear in mind when considering what help or support an autistic person needs.
“For autistic individuals to succeed in this world, they need to find their strengths and the people that will help them get to their hopes and dreams. In order to do so, ability to make and keep friends is a must. Among those friends, there must be mentors to show them the way. A supportive environment where they can learn from their mistakes is what we as a society needs to create for them.”
– Bill Wong, Autistic Occupational Therapist
Therapies to help with daily living
A good occupational therapist can work with us to make beneficial changes to our environment and reduce negative sensory input. They can also help with motor skills, positioning aids and suggest tools that may help us to cope with our environments.
Can help when we have additional conditions such as developmental co-ordination disorder (dyspraxia) poor muscle control or hypermobility.
Speech and language therapy
Can help with any additional specific challenges or communication difficulties.
Some autistic people find individual or group coaching helpful, to help them better understand and navigate the unwritten rules and expectations of neurotypical society. Especially in the workplace or at school.
Until the world understands us better, this may be something that can help. Coaching can also help with creating everyday routines and achieving our personal goals. It is still vital that the coach works with us and that they understand autism well. They should never try to change us or make us do anything that is not comfortable, just for the benefit of those around us.
Good coaches may also work with neurotypical work colleagues and families to help them to better understand our neurotype. In my humble opinion, work coaches should never be employed 'just for the autistic person', but rather for both the autistic person and the non-autistic colleagues, to better understand and adapt to each other.
For many of us, the benefits of nature are invaluable. Vital even. It is often the only place where we can truly be ourselves or be at one with ourselves, and the power of nature to the human body and mind has been scientifically proven time and time again. Trees are known to give off 'happy hormones' and many autistic people connect with nature in a very special way, be it plant life, animals, insects, birds, sealife...
Depression and anxiety are common in the autistic community as well as the non-autistic community and both conditions have been found to benefit greatly from various aspects of nature.
Woods, parks, forests, lakes, seashores and rivers can have almost magical effects. One cannot underestimate the pure and simple joy of kicking through the colourful autumn leaves, crunching through snow, jumping in puddles or paddling in the sea. Yes, I am referring to adults too!
Sensory activities & equipment
Tents, dens and sensory rooms. Again, don't reserve these only for the little kids amongst us - big kids enjoy things too. Such sensory delights can be magical, and super calming for many of us. It could be something as simple as a small tent in the garden or a sheet draped over two chairs.
There are even commercial sensory rooms, but a home sensory den can easily be made with blackout curtains, or a dark tent, filled with some favourite sensory toys and lights.
Many of us find weighted pads or squeeze vests calming and regulating and weighted blankets help many of us sleep better.
Schedule in some time for baths with relaxing lighting or candles and perhaps some relaxing music. This little luxury isn't only beneficial to our minds and bodies, it can also be an important part of a sleep routine - something many of us struggle with. If a bath isn't available, a similar effect can be achieved with a quiet space, some cushions, lighting, music and favourite scents.
Music, art, drama or movement therapies
Help to develop our senses as well as the obvious many benefits to mind and body.
Meditation, yoga, mindfulness and many others. Breathing therapies are often particularly helpful and there are so, so many different types to try! If you don't know where to start, go on YouTube and search for, breathing for relaxation - or something similar. There is usually something that suits all levels and styles, and just knowing one or two go-to breathing techniques to use before overwhelm hits, is a valuable tool to have.
Gentle cranial osteopathy can be relaxing, soothing and calming.
Body massage & head massage
Helps to relax us and deal with the stresses that living in the neurotypically designed world bring, reduce sensory overload or provide tactile sensory input if we need it. If using scented products be sure to check that they appeal to our personal preferences. Head massage is highly recommended and there are even courses about touch and massage. (See the resources section.)
Note that not every autistic person likes, or even tolerates touch. And some prefer light touch only, some heavy touch, so it's necessary to get to know our preferences.
If you can access hydrotherapy for yourself or loved one, you may find this tremendously therapeutic. It can be a sensory dream, especially in warm, non-chlorinated water with sensory lighting, music or sounds. When I am a billionaire, I will make sensory rooms, quiet spaces and hydrotherapy havens, compulsory in every town!
Rest, relax & recharge
In order to be productive or to achieve our goals at work, school or everyday life, we may benefit from administrative support or assistance.
Some autistic people have full, or part time help in order to manage their lives and enable them to do what they do best, at work, school or in everyday life. Everyday tasks can be very difficult and sometimes having a little help in this area is all we need. Perhaps someone to keep us on track or to help keep our paperwork or finances in order. Or to help organise our workspace with us. Sometimes, just having someone taking care of those mundane everyday tasks that get in the way of our creativity can be of huge benefit and frees us up to achieve our work or life goals.
Sometimes it helps to have someone make phone calls for us or write administrative letters or official forms. Deal with medical personnel for us, or translate between neurotypical people and ourselves. An assistant can help us to get going when we get stuck, or to begin a task or switch tasks, or even to prompt us to eat and drink and take care of our personal needs.
Apps & technology
There are so many these days! Apps to help with executive functions, organisation, reminders, lists, time keeping, relaxation, meditation, sleep. Some are paid and some free. iPads seem to be hugely popular but many of the best apps also work on other tablets, computers and smartphones.
Home systems such as Amazon’s Echo devices and Google Home devices can be invaluable for daily organisation. They can work as digital personal assistants as well as integrating with other ‘smart home’ devices.
Many autistic people have difficulty standing up for ourselves or advocating for our own sensory, physical and mental health needs, as well our legal and human rights. When loved ones alone cannot help, it can be useful to find someone outside of our family to step in or support us. This person or organisation may be autistic themselves or have close ties to the autistic community, and may have skills that augment or add to our own. They may be able to understand us even if we cannot communicate our needs so well.
Many people get tremendous benefit from an official assistance dog or other support animal. There are organisations who specifically train dogs to support autistic people, though sadly the availability of such services is extremely limited. Some places do also offer training courses for family pets or new puppies and this is certainly something to look into if it is something that suits you or your loved one.
Many family pets make excellent 'therapy' pets or support pets and can be anything from snakes, spiders, rats, cats and rabbits, to larger pets such as donkeys and llamas. In my case, I need 8 therapy cats. Honest, I do! 😬
Some people benefit from working with animals or spending time on a farm. Animals do not judge our differences, do not ask much of us, and are often the best company!
Assistance & advocacy
Therapies to support mental health
Psychotherapy and counselling:
Most of us, autistic or not, can benefit from time to time from psychotherapy or counselling. Late diagnosed adults in particular will have experienced a lifetime of metal health damage from a society not designed for us. Mental health care and support are often critical.
However, not all psychotherapy or counselling is equal, and for autistic people, the wrong therapist can do more damage than good. Autistic people may need adjusted therapy and should at the very least have access to a professional who is up-to-date and understanding in the field of autism.
Some autistic people benefit from cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and others report that CBT was damaging for them personally - perhaps because it wasn’t adapted to their autistic needs. Any therapies - CBT included, are best carefully researched and considered for each individual’s needs, and if necessary, done in a modified, autistic-friendly way.
Why talking therapy needs to be adapted by Dr Nicholls: