EMDR and Autism: Does EMDR Benefit a Child with Autism?

Does EMDR Benefit a Child with Autism?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy technique that has been around for a long time. This targeted therapy is conducted under the guidance of a trained therapist. It centers on exploring and addressing negative memories. It incorporates bilateral stimulation methods like:

  • eye movements
  • physical taps
  • other movements when appropriate

Originally, it was created to assist people dealing with the intense symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR therapy is now recognized for its ability to aid in the assessment and processing of traumatic memories or challenging life experiences. EMDR can be an effective therapeutic strategy for individuals with:

  • intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • mental health conditions
  • anxiety and affective disorders
  • eating disorders

The process helps patients move towards healthier mental and physical responses to stressors. Sometimes, people who do EMDR therapy feel much better about a certain memory or thought.

Featured Programs

Recently, some people think EMDR can help children with autism, a condition that affects 1 in 59 kids. Patients with autism often have different neurological responses that make processing trauma related symptoms and stress much more difficult. At times, an autistic patient may process trauma in a way that is even harmful to themself. Recent studies show that EMDR is a workable option for both managing stress disorders in autistic individuals and as a basic therapy tool to curb some of the standard symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Related resourceTop 25 Online Master’s in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The Eight Phases of EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy have eight common phases. Autistic individuals may need modifications in many stages of the EMDR phases due to their neurological differences. These phases guide both the therapist and the client through a structured process of desensitization and reprocessing:

History-taking and Treatment Planning: In this initial phase, the therapist learns about the client’s history and identifies target memories or experiences to work on. Together, they create a treatment plan outlining the goals and objectives.

Preparation: Clients learn coping strategies and relaxation techniques to manage distressing emotions during EMDR. The therapist ensures they have the necessary tools to handle the therapy effectively.

Assessment: The therapist helps the client identify specific memories or beliefs related to the trauma. They evaluate the emotional and physical sensations associated with these memories to determine the level of disturbance.

Desensitization: This is the heart of EMDR. Clients focus on the traumatic memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation, typically through guided eye movements. This helps reduce the emotional charge connected to the memory.

Installation: In this phase, positive beliefs and emotions are strengthened to replace the negative ones associated with the trauma. Clients work to develop a more positive self-perception.

Body Scan: Clients pay attention to any remaining physical tension or discomfort related to the trauma. The therapist helps them release any residual physical distress.

Closure: At the end of each session, clients are guided to stabilize and return to a state of equilibrium. This ensures they don’t leave the therapy session feeling overwhelmed.

Reevaluation: In subsequent sessions, the therapist checks in with the client to assess progress and address any lingering issues. If needed, additional memories or experiences may be targeted for trauma processing.

Importance of Individualized Diagnosis and Therapy

Up until 2013, autism was categorized using various terms like:

  • Asperger’s
  • high functioning autism
  • pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
  • autistic disorder
  • childhood disintegrative disorder

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) unified all autism-related disorders under the comprehensive label of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Within the framework of Autism Spectrum Disorders, individuals are categorized based on severity levels (1-3) that accurately represent the extent of their condition. Even though people still use terms like Asperger’s or high-functioning autism, the APA doesn’t officially recognize them anymore. Instead, the APA advocates the use of the more encompassing term Autism Spectrum Disorder to describe individuals within the spectrum of autism-related conditions.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it lacks a one-size-fits-all therapy or treatment approach suitable for all individuals within the spectrum. It is imperative for children and adults to undergo a thorough evaluation and receive an official diagnosis from a qualified professional before embarking on any particular treatment path. While considering EMDR therapy as an option for younger individuals on the autism spectrum, it is crucial to integrate it within a comprehensive plan that promotes sustained growth and development.

Featured Programs

Families and caregivers should take care to ensure that any EMDR therapy or intervention services they opt for are administered by trained and certified EMDR therapists or qualified professionals. This helps guarantee the appropriateness and effectiveness of the therapy within the context of the individual’s unique needs and circumstances.

See Also: 5 Goals of EMDR Therapy: EMDR Benefits

Addressing Trauma and Stress in ASD Patients

Autistic individuals are just as prone to experiencing traumatic events or succumbing to external stress factors as anyone else. However, ASD disorders often coincide with both a lack of social skills and behavioral control, which can make it harder for an individual to appropriately address and deal with stressors. As EMDR has proven itself to be a relatively safe and effective therapy for both adults and children, it has become increasingly applied to help young ASD patients overcome undue psychological stress associated with prior traumatic experiences and as a treatment for common symptoms of ASD.

As you consider EMDR therapy for your child, you may find also find yourself asking “does EMDR therapy for children reduce the symptoms of autism?” According to the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, some recent case studies show a significant improvement in patient symptoms associated with PTSD following a course of EMDR treatment. But further research is required to verify both its efficacy on a broader sample size or to sanction it as a standard of care for all autistic individuals.

Autism and EMDR for Children: Creating a Customized Therapy

Several modifications can be made to ensure that EMDR is a suitable and effective therapeutic tool for this population.

Firstly, communication and rapport-building are paramount. EMDR therapists working with autistic individuals should establish clear and structured communication methods, adapting to the individual’s preferred mode of expression. This might include visuals, written cues, or non-verbal cues. Building trust and a safe therapeutic relationship is essential.

Secondly, sensory sensitivities must be addressed. Many autistic children have heightened sensory experiences. EMDR therapists can tailor the sensory elements of the therapy, such as the use of tactile or auditory stimulation, to be more accommodating and less overwhelming, ensuring a comfortable and non-triggering environment.

Thirdly, flexibility in session length and pacing is crucial. Autstic children are at risk for emotional and sensory overload. They may require shorter sessions or more extended breaks to process their emotions and sensory input effectively. EMDR therapists should be attuned to these needs and adjust session structure accordingly.

By focusing on communication, sensory sensitivities, pacing, and leveraging personal interests, EMDR therapists can create a supportive and effective therapeutic environment that promotes healing and emotional regulation.

EMDR as Part of Conventional Autism Therapy

Aside from its conventional use as a therapeutic aid in dealing with trauma and stress disorders, EMDR may also be able to help autistic patients overcome some intrinsic aspects of their disorder. This includes symptoms like:

  • inconsistent eye contact
  • poor ability to look or listen to people
  • inappropriate facial expressions and movement
  • unusual movements and tone of voice
  • failure or slow response to attempts to gain attention

Some of these inappropriate social behaviors are often linked to certain memories or thought patterns, similar to those that impact non-autistic individuals suffering from traumatic disorders. Since EMDR therapy focuses on managing these types of psychological habits, it has the potential to offer therapists an entirely new tool for addressing symptoms in autistic clients, hopefully leading to:

  • increased verbal abilities
  • improved social interaction
  • improved self-regulation
  • a healthier state of general function

Continuous Assessment and Program Development

The existing research indicates the potential benefits of using EMDR with autistic children, particularly in improving emotional regulation. However, it’s important to recognize that the nature of spectrum disorders means that what works for one individual may not work universally. While positive outcomes have been observed in some cases, it’s challenging to generalize these results to all children with autism.

In light of this, it is crucial to emphasize the individualized approach to ASD assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. EMDR therapists should continually adapt their techniques and strategies to meet each patient’s unique needs. They must also closely monitor progress towards predefined treatment goals. They should actively engage in educating families and caregivers about the outcomes and ongoing adjustments required. This dynamic and personalized approach is essential to ensure the best possible outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing have a lot of appeal for therapists focused on patients with ASD. Through relatively simple client interactions, EMDR allows for the manipulation of a person’s physiological and psychological state through the consistent application of basic scientific principles. Methodical and responsible EMDR therapy can be beneficial to a variety of children with autism, offering potential benefits that are both long-lasting and foundational to continued positive development in both thought and behavioral patterns.

ABA Programs Guide

More Articles of Interest: