Featured Team Members: Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT
This is the second installment of a two-part series on autism spectrum disorder. Be sure to check out part one, which provides more information on understanding ASD.
At Open Sky, we frequently support students who are on the autism spectrum. Sometimes these students have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) before they come to us, but many have not or have been misdiagnosed.
We spoke to Julia Lehr, Clinical Therapist for early adolescents, to learn more about how Open Sky supports students on the spectrum, and how parents and guardians can support children with ASD.
Many students come to Open Sky with undiagnosed ASD, so assessment is key when certain characteristics are present. Most of the time, the kids on my team have either been misdiagnosed or haven’t been diagnosed at all, so wilderness provides the time and space for assessment for ASD followed by intervention.
Once we can identify that a student is on the spectrum, our intervention becomes much more effective. Many situations occur naturally in wilderness that provide intervention opportunities. It may be easier in the wilderness therapy environment to note when students struggle with social skills, have difficulty with transitions, display cognitive rigidity, and appear to have executive function challenges. Daily opportunities exist for us to support students as they work through interventions and develop skills to help them manage the challenges they experience.
Developing social skills
Students at Open Sky live in community with others on a team. While they don’t necessarily need to be friends with all of their teammates, they are expected to work together to cook meals, do chores, hike to an expo site, and so on. To develop these working relationships and friendships, we spend a lot of time mastering social skills such as listening authentically, better understanding others’ feelings, and problem-solving.
Many daily tasks in the field, such as collecting wood or water, require collaboration and teamwork, which requires students to let go of the notion that there is only one correct way to do something and to practice flexible thinking. Inflexible thinking won’t work in wilderness, so there are many opportunities to be open to other ways of doing things and working more efficiently as a team instead of by oneself.
Increasing the ease of transitions
Many students with ASD experience challenges related to transitions and experience anxiety due to the unknown aspect of what’s coming next. For instance, students with ASD may feel overwhelmed as the team prepares to head out on expo. We work with them to build a feeling of competence by having them focus on taking one step at a time to prepare and use coping skills if they are feeling anxious. It is great to see when students feel a sense of achievement, having gotten through a challenging moment with success.
Practicing coping strategies
This is an intervention that all students benefit from daily. We teach Open Sky students a wide range of coping strategies when they experience frustration, emotional dysregulation, or conflict with others. The goal is to build emotional regulation skills and to have students become more aware of their feelings as they experience them. These skills include breathing exercises, meditation, feelings checks, centering activities, and other mindfulness practices like yoga. These are extremely valuable skills that students with ASD can benefit from throughout their lives.
Many students I work with on the spectrum have a low level of confidence because they’ve moved through a world designed to be best suited to those who are neurotypical. These environments are created to cater to one learning style or way of being. For example, typical school environments have a traditional and—for students with ASD,—often ineffective teaching style as compared to interactive or project-based learning. Therefore, many of our students with ASD who have struggled to navigate these rigid learning environments have developed a low level of self-esteem due to misunderstanding these institutional issues as personal ones. These students might also have had difficulty in creating as many social or deeper level relationships as their peers, so they come into the program likely overwhelmed and depressed because they feel like they’re missing things.
What these students need most is someone who understands. My strength is developing a relationship with them so that they feel comfortable expressing themselves and presenting themselves as they are. I provide non-judgmental, compassionate acceptance as the foundation of our relationship. A lot of students who come to us with ASD have experienced a heavy amount of shame. I provide a shame-free therapeutic environment so we can work together to identify the challenges posed by ASD and find the best ways to work through those challenges.
If a student on the spectrum expresses rigidity in their thinking, I can address this in an honest way that is both compassionate and challenging to support them in expanding their view and increasing flexibility. I have seen how powerful it is for an ASD student who may have been misdiagnosed or undiagnosed finally feel understood and succeed in the wilderness setting. There is a very real sense of empowerment through their accomplishments.
Demonstrate acceptance, compassion, and love.
While raising a child who has ASD may require patience, many children on the spectrum have experienced shame, internalized their struggles, and created negative core beliefs when things feel challenging. This can be countered by parents showing their child that they love them and can support them when things don’t feel easy. It is important to validate these challenges while also normalizing these issues.
Learning takes time and repetition. Bring this acknowledgment into your parenting and understanding of what would be supportive for your child’s learning process. Change and learning takes time, consistency, and support.
Accept that your child’s trajectory in life may be different than the expectations you have for them. Provide as much support as they need to thrive wherever they may be on their path. Acknowledge and own your feelings of grief as yours to navigate and address.
Realize that teens who have autism may need significant mental health support because of the prevalence of associated anxiety and depression.
Help your teen with clear structure, more frequent downtime to reset, soothing activities, and ample time around transitions. It is hard for a child with ASD to be in a constantly adaptable, flexible environment. Be consistent around rules, discipline, and responsibilities. Maintain the expectation of a regular bedtime hour to ensure good sleep.
Let your teen guide you in their needs.
This may look like buying them clothes that don’t annoy them, supporting their unique food choices, or encouraging their individual interests.
Consider your communication.
Be concise in your communication and deliver one message at a time. Sometimes written communication in the form of lists may be more helpful. Additionally, side-by-side conversations on walks or in the car may be easier than face-to-face. Finally, be aware of your reactivity in difficult conversations.