EMDR as a Treatment for Autism
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
estimates that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. has autism – a condition which can make day-to-day life rather different to a non-autistic individual. Symptoms such as delayed language skills, impaired movement skills, impulsive behaviors, unusual emotional reactions, and other mannerisms can lead to autistic individuals leading an isolated and exclusionary life. This condition can even cause an autistic individual to experience more traumatic memories in comparison to people who do not have the condition.
Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR) is a psychotherapy which has been popularized due to its success in treating those with PTSD. The therapy has also shown promising results in a wide range of patient disorders, such as anxiety, depression
, ADHD, and many more. In our guide, we will explore the efficacy rate of EMDR therapy treating those with autism.
Autism: A Review
Autism is a developmental disability which is caused by neurological differences – people with autism tend to have issues with social communication, repetitive behaviors, and intense interests. Autism can be detected in children of two years of age – however, many children do not receive a diagnosis until later in life.
Diagnosis is achieved through a technique referred to as developmental monitoring – this is a process which observes whether a child is reaching their milestones such as playing, learning, speaking, moving and behaving. In their older years, an autistic person is more likely to experience other mental health conditions such as PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, psychosis and affective disorders.
Connection Between Autism and Trauma
When investigating the links between PTSD and autism, studies found there tends to be a higher rate of PTSD within those with autism. PTSD prevalence in clinical samples of autistic individuals is estimated to be between 2% and 17%, compared to 3% in neurotypical individuals (Rumball, 2019
) It is suspected the rate could be even higher, as individuals with autism aren’t always screened for trauma-related disorders.
There are several risk factors as to why an autistic person may be at higher risk of PTSD, which could include:
- Small ‘t’ Traumas (referring to a change in routine, rule-breaking, sensory and processing difficulties)
- More reactive to stressful events
- Far easier to be startled
- Predisposed to anger and anxiety
- Finding it more difficult to concentrate
EMDR is intended to treat those who are encountering trauma-related disorders and has shown a high efficacy rate in treating those with PTSD. Research has also found EMDR able to reduce patient symptoms successfully and overall lessen the negative effects of Small ‘t’ Traumas.
In the patients’ day-to-day lives, they were able to adapt better to their daily environments. There were all overall improvements in emotional regulation, frustration management, problem solving, and responsiveness to tasks.
EMDR Adapted for Autism
Whilst EMDR has shown to be effective for treating trauma-related illness, in the case of autism it may not be so simple. Significant changes should be made to the EMDR framework in order for it to be effective in autistic individuals.
One study found that a series of adaptations needed to be made if EMDR would be used as a treatment for autism, including:
- Expertise - clinicians should be knowledgeable in autism and other associated conditions as, this way, they can tailor their style and method of therapy and interventions.
- Visuals - use of presenting information visually, for example, utilizing patient interests such as superhero figures, movie characters, people from history or hobbies they have an affiliation towards.
- Shorter BLS sets – autism patients are less likely to have the ability to concentrate and hold their attention for bilateral stimulation (BLS), so shortening the sets would adapt for their individual circumstances.
- Patient-first approach - allowing the therapy session to be more client-led and taking longer to close down sessions.
These adaptations are intended to limit emotional and sensory overload, and to facilitate therapy effectiveness. The study found that, when adapted, EMDR can have a positive impact on trauma related symptoms for those with autism. However, it is also important to note further research must be conducted to determine the true efficacy rate of this therapy within patients.
Another important factor to consider is the fact that autism can present itself on a wide spectrum and therefore it’s hard to apply one particular framework to the whole group. This supports the idea that personal circumstances and individualism will always dictate which the best method is for treating trauma so, as a clinician, it’s important to be skilled to make these judgment calls with your patients.
If you are interested in knowing more about EMDR therapy
, learn more with our range of online resources
. For more information about our therapy courses, do not hesitate to contact our helpful team
EMDR Online Courses Trauma Treatment with EMDR, CBT and Somatic-Based Interventions: A Certified Clinical Trauma Professional Training Course EMDR Step-by-Step PLUS: Your Start to Finish Guide to Safe and Successful EMDR Therapy The Integrated Trauma Therapist: Incorporating IFS with EMDR, SP, CPT, AEDP, DBT, and Psychedelic Medicines for Treating Complex Trauma and PTSD