How DBT Can Help Empower Children on the Autism Spectrum

By Jeanette Lorandini

DBT for children on the Autism Spectrum

Children on the autism spectrum need tools to learn self-advocacy and empowerment. Autism is a complex range of neurodevelopmental conditions that need proper care.

While there are a variety of therapeutic approaches, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is particularly useful for addressing autism. Rather than attempting to fundamentally change who your child is, DBT is a kind of therapy meant to empower and validate them. DBT will give them the skills to cope with stress and manage their emotions.

While DBT was originally designed for addressing borderline personality disorder, BPD has some overlapping symptoms with autism that DBT can target.

Elementary aged child with autism who has darker skin, curly dark hair and a white shirt on. She is painting at a table and highly focused on her movements.

Rather than attempting to fundamentally change who your child is, DBT is a kind of therapy meant to empower and validate them.

The four basics of DBT

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in your body and surroundings. It helps you focus on living in the moment. You’ll notice your thoughts, your breathing, and what’s currently happening around you by making note of your five senses.

It helps ground you during times of emotional pain, but it’s a good practice to work on daily. By taking time to pause instead of immediately reacting to a bad situation, you can avoid impulsive behavior and negative emotional outbursts.

Emotion regulation

Emotion regulation focuses on teaching you to name your emotions at the moment. This is easier said than done. By learning to name and recognize your emotions, you’re better able to intervene when you feel yourself losing control.

You’ll learn to accept and change your negative emotional responses to stressful situations and triggers.

Distress tolerance

Distress tolerance is a technique to help you cope with a stressful environment. Rather than impulsively avoiding or trying to change a painful situation, you’ll learn to radically accept what’s going on.

Negative emotions and stressful situations are simply a part of life. Distress tolerance skills get you to feel more in control in these moments that might feel unpredictable.

Interpersonal effectiveness

Interpersonal effectiveness is essentially the practice of understanding and setting boundaries. DBT teaches the skills for effectively communicating your wants and needs. This means developing assertiveness and a strong sense of self.

Interpersonal effectiveness will help empower you to advocate for yourself. You’ll also be better able to maintain and strengthen your relationships with others because healthy boundaries are necessary for good communication.

Issues to target in therapy

Children with autism can have trouble regulating their emotions and dealing with stressful situations. They might be prone to outbursts. They may also have issues transitioning from one activity to another, associating negative emotions with what adults might ask them to do. Children on the autism spectrum are also at greater risk for childhood trauma, particularly if their diagnosis is delayed.

Effective DBT will not criticize, invalidate, or mold your child to fit some impossible ableist standard. Instead, by teaching techniques such as distress tolerance and emotion regulation, your child with autism will learn to accept themselves, the world around them, and interpersonal relationships.

Discomfort is a part of life. DBT will give your child the skills to name, regulate, and control their internal feelings. They’ll learn to make a plan for when their emotions do become overwhelming, and their therapist can work with them on practicing for moments of crisis.

Child in dbt therapy session

Seeking a DBT specialist

Finding a therapist for your child who specializes in DBT and autism spectrum disorder will help your child thrive. DBT can be a useful tool for developing mindfulness and other strategies for stress and conflict management. Your child can better learn a sense of self and can grow into an adult who can advocate for themselves.

To find out more about how DBT can help empower your child and address autism spectrum issues, please reach out to us to consult a therapist.

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Suffolk DBT proudly provides quality dialectical behavior therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, at their offices in Manhattan and Long Island, New York and online. Their experienced therapists specialize in serving teens, children, adults, and college students struggling with depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and self-harm. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills and treatment can help you or your kids to manage emotions and work through life’s challenges.

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