Like everyone else, autistic people can be happy and healthy in the right environment – however, the right environment for an autistic person can be different to the right environment for a non-autistic person.
Autism doesn’t mean that a person will need additional support to work, have relationships, or enjoy hobbies. However, many autistic people do need additional understanding or support to overcome the challenges caused by having autistic characteristics in a society where most people don’t have them.
Therapies for autistic people
There’s no cure for autism, and most autistic people wouldn’t want to be ‘cured’ even if it was possible. Many autistic people feel autism is part of their identity, and not something to be cured or treated.
Because of the difficulties they can experience, autistic people may need treatment or support for other conditions, including:
Psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are often used to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep problems, both in people who have autism and people who don’t.
Psychological therapies can help to manage conditions linked with autism, like anxiety, but psychological therapies aren’t a treatment for autism itself. Therapy techniques might need to be adapted to work for an autistic person.
Challenges in daily living
Depending on what’s offered by your NHS board and local organisations, there are therapies to help overcome the challenges that autistic people can experience.
Possible therapies include:
- help with communicating, both for autistic people and the people in their lives
- groups for autistic people to share experiences and advice
- sensory assessments and support with an occupational therapist to help find ways of managing and improving your environment and how you experience the world
- training courses for loved ones, to help them understand autism and offer the best possible support
Finding the right therapies
Interventions that aim to ‘train out’ behaviours (like repetitive movements, for example) or force autistic people to behave like non-autistic people are unethical and often harmful. However, many autistic people can benefit from support in learning skills to overcome some of the difficulties they experience – this is different to forcing someone to change their behaviour.
For example, an autistic adult might want to learn extra social skills to improve their relationships at work, or a therapist may work with a child and parent to help them to develop their communication skills.
These therapies don’t aim to change a person’s autism, but to give them skills they can use. If you’re an autistic adult, the decision to have therapies for things like social skills should be yours. If you have an autistic child, any therapy they have should be with the aim of meeting their needs.
Learn about avoiding harmful and unhelpful therapies for autism
Autism and your environment
Sometimes, when a situation is too much to cope with due to sensory input (things you see, hear, feel, smell or taste), or being asked to do things that cause stress or distress, an autistic person can become overwhelmed.
Meltdowns and shutdowns
When an autistic person becomes overwhelmed and isn’t able to use or benefit from their coping strategies, they might have ‘meltdowns’ or ‘shutdowns’.
It’s important, for parents of autistic children in particular, to be aware that a meltdown isn’t a tantrum. A tantrum is something that a child can control, and tantrums often happen because a child wants something. A meltdown or shutdown isn’t something an autistic person can control, and it’s caused by being overwhelmed.
During a meltdown, an autistic person might try to make themselves feel less overwhelmed. This can include doing things like:
- trying to get away from people – for example by running away or hiding
- trying to get people away from them – for example by shouting, screaming, hitting, or acting aggressively
During a shutdown, an autistic person might try to block everything out – for example by not responding to anything or anyone around them.
Read more about meltdowns
Like everyone else, autistic people can display challenging behaviour if they’re in the wrong environment. While it can be challenging for the people around them, this behaviour is often a result of distress or frustration, particularly if an autistic person has difficulty with communicating.
Behaviour that challenges others is usually a way for someone to get their needs met when they don’t have any other way to do so. It’s not ‘bad’ behaviour, or intended to cause harm. This kind of behaviour is most common in children, or people who find it hard to communicate their needs – for example, people with a learning disability.
If you’re autistic, effective communication about your needs, and finding ways to have those needs met, can be helpful in reducing the distress that can lead to behaviour that challenges.
If someone in your life is autistic, or you’re the parent or caregiver of an autistic child, finding the right strategies for supporting their needs is important and helpful, and can be done if there’s effective support for everyone involved.
Behaviour that challenges can also be caused by:
- trying to meet sensory needs – for example, wanting to do something because it feels nice, like rubbing soaps and creams all over themselves and the walls
- wanting something – for example, being hungry or wanting to play with a toy
- needing assistance or attention – for example, because they're bored or want help with a project at school
- trying to escape an environment or the people around them, but doing so in a way that can be dangerous or harmful, such as running into the road
Behaviour that people can find challenging includes:
- being destructive – breaking things, for example
- being disruptive – making noise in class or throwing things, for example
Help is available for anyone experiencing distress that might result in behaviour that challenges. Finding support can help you identify the reasons behind this behaviour and find other ways of communicating and meeting needs. Contact your GP or the healthcare professional who usually supports you for advice.
Getting the right environment
Environment is important to quality of life for autistic people. There are ways you can adapt (change) and improve your environment to make it as comfortable and supportive as possible for you or your child.
The social model of disability is a way of looking at the world that treats the difficulties people with disabilities have as being caused by barriers in society, rather than just the disabilities themselves. These barriers can be physical – for example, buildings not having accessible toilets. Barriers can also be caused by people’s attitudes – for example, many people will assume someone is lying because they don’t make eye contact while talking.
The social model of disability can be a helpful way of considering the difficulties someone faces, and how to adapt their environment so it works for them.
Learn more about the social model of disability
Autism is covered by the Equality Act (2010), which means that schools and employers are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure autistic people are comfortable in their environment and able to learn or work.
Learn more about the Equality Act (2010)
Common changes to an environment that can help autistic people include:
- sensory changes – for example, being given a quiet space to work, being able to use sensory toys like fidget spinners, or being allowed to make noises while working
- communication changes – for example, using email or apps to communicate, using very clear language, allowing additional time to ask questions, or using visual communication such as photos or pictures as well as written words
- routine – keeping to a regular routine and giving warning of any changes as far in advance as possible
Every autistic person is likely to benefit from different changes – the best way to find the right ones is to ask an autistic person, or in the case of a child, their parents or caregivers.
Learn more about autism from autistic people