May is Mental Health Month. But, due to social distancing during the COVID-19, it would be more fitting to call it Telemental Health Month. Many therapists, including myself, have shifted to providing online therapy to their clients during this time of sheltering in place.
This is the first blog in my series about the value of online therapy services for people on the autism spectrum and their parents. I will talk about the benefits and challenges of group therapy for neurodiverse adults and teens. I will also talk about the ways in which online counseling for autism parents can support caregivers. In this first blog, I want to cover some of the benefits of online group therapy for neurodiverse teens and adults. This is based on my own insights from running telehealth groups and in reviewing research on online autism therapy.
"The Coronavirus Pandemic Illustrated the Value of Online Group Therapy for Neurodiverse Adults and Teens"
-Dr. Tasha Oswald
I specialize in providing therapy groups for teens on the spectrum and autistic adults. I also run support groups for their parents. Before COVID-19 struck, I had a long-term goal to start offering group therapy services online in about 2 years. But, due to the suddenness of social distancing orders, I was running groups online for autistic adults overnight.
My private practice is located in California. The week social distancing was recommended by our state, I happened to be starting two new groups for high-functioning autistic adults. This gave me the opportunity to see whether the neurodiverse group members could still build the same relationships online as they do in-person.
Online Group Therapy Offers Similar Benefits as In-Person Group Therapy for Teens and Adults on the Autism Spectrum
Initially, I was uncertain if group members would still bond like they typically do in my in-person groups. But, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the neurodiverse group members built a strong relationship with each other. Even over the secure video platform we use. From day one, they were sharing personal stories and relating to each others' struggles. Group members were engaged.
My Online Group Therapy Insights as an Autism Therapist
A big concern I had, and I know others shared, was whether neurodiverse people could improve their social skills through an online social skills group. Based on my experience with running online groups, I have found that people on the autism spectrum are still able to nurture and grow their social skills in an online therapy group. In fact, I have observed several benefits of online therapy groups for people with autism.
Benefit #1: Online Therapy Groups Help Adults and Teens on the Spectrum Build Social Connections and Communication Skills
For the groups I run in-person, I use the peer consultation model. It highlights the important role of empathic listening for good communication. In the peer consultation model, one client volunteers to share a personal problem. And, the other group participants listen to gain an understanding of the person's meaning and emotions. Then, group members ask open-ended questions to help the person think about the situation and gain self-awareness. By asking questions, the group members get a better sense for the scope of the problem and the mixed emotions the person may feel. Then the group members validate the sharer’s feelings, empathize with the sharer. And, in turn, share their own relevant personal experiences.
Essentially, the peer consultation model is training in empathic listening skills. Group members learn how amazing it feels to be validated and heard. They learn how to do this for others in a group. Ultimately, the goal is for group members to apply this empathic listening skill in other important relationships in their life, to improve communication, trust, and intimacy.
In the first few weeks of the online group, I found that the group members were able to learn and utilize the peer consultation model. I discovered that this model works just as effectively for groups online as it does in person.
For my in-person groups, I have found that one-on-one activities (peer-to-peer) enable group members to practice the social communication skills they are learning in the group. When I first started the telehealth groups, I was concerned that clients would be unable to pair up for activities. However, I learned that there is a feature in my video teleconferencing app for "breakout rooms." This feature allows me to assign clients to private online "breakout rooms." In these rooms, they can have one-on-one conversations with other group members or get into small groups. Thus, even clients in online groups have been able to get the benefits of these small group activities.
Benefit #2: The Group Approach Works for Online Therapy
Over the years, I have created groups for gifted teens and adults on the autism spectrum (referred to as twice-exceptional). I have blended together different counseling approaches to create a unique program designed for autistic individuals. What I have learned from running online therapy groups is that my unique group approach works for both in-person and online groups.
Group members still connect and support each other, like they would in a traditional in-person support group. Group members still process their thoughts and feelings at the moment, growing in self-awareness. And, the groups are still able to access the social skills curriculum. As part of this curriculum, I provide both verbal instruction, and PowerPoint slides through the “sharing” function on our teleconference app. We can look at the same PowerPoint together at the same time. Just like we would do in an in-person group. Therefore, we are able to stay on topic and be in sync with each other.
There is research to suggest that online therapy is as effective as in-person treatment. And, I have personally found this to be the case with my online therapy groups for neurodiverse individuals.
Benefit #3: Facial Expressions Can Be More Visible on the Video Platform than In-Person
One of the unexpected benefits that has come from online therapy groups for autistic adults is actually seeing each person’s face better than I would in an in-person group. When we're in a large room some people are over 10 feet away from me. So, I may not be able to focus as well on their facial expressions. But, in online group therapy, most people are only a couple of feet away from their monitor, so I see them up close. This lets me see their facial expressions and get some insight into how they are processing the information being shared.
In my online groups, individuals still see group members' body language and. This includes things like facial expressions, body orientation, hand gestures, and other body language. In fact, because you see everyone on your screen, you might pick up on more nonverbal cues. On the screen, you do not need to turn your head to see someone. This can give group participants more opportunities to learn about nonverbal cues and how their own nonverbal and verbal behavior impacts others.
Benefit #4: Intimacy Grows from Virtually Meeting Group Members in Their Homes
A fun benefit of online therapy is that group members have the opportunity to see each others' pets! Many of my neurodiverse clients have a profound bond with their pets. So, to be able to meet each others’ pets builds connection and intimacy in the group. An added benefit is that you get to learn more about a person because you get a window into their life by seeing a part of their home. You might see on their wall, a painting by their favorite artist or a shelf of their prized collectibles. A closeness can grow out of this shared experience.
Benefit #5: Better Group Attendance and No Commuting
I have realized that online groups can possibly increase group attendance. For example, if a group member loses track of time (which is easy to do while sheltering in place) or forgets about the online group meeting, I can send them a quick text. And, literally, one minute later they join the session. This could never happen with an in-person group. Even if I were to text them, by the time they would drive to the group, the group would be at least half over.
My therapy practice is in the San Francisco bay area, so we have traffic! Telemental health gets rid of the stress associated with commuting. Online group therapy is a great benefit for busy neurodiverse working professionals, or parents of a child on the autism spectrum, who might feel like they have little time for self-care. Ultimately, reducing an hour or more of commuting, Which could mean the difference between joining a group or not.
Benefit #6: Reaching Neurodiverse Teens and Adults, and Their Families Throughout California
Lastly, another incredible benefit is that I can now offer my services to clients all over the state of California through online therapy. I have spent years refining my groups, and they are unique. I am thrilled to know that autistic people in rural areas or even in other big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and SF East Bay can access my services.
Before joining the group, many of my clients have felt isolated and alone. They are looking for a tribe, and to feel like they belong. Being able to connect with other neurodiverse people across the state, in a safe and supportive online group, can be life-changing. To be in a group that accepts and appreciates neurodiversity is empowering.
Online Group Therapy for Autistic Adults and Teens Has Been a Success
So that long-term plan of mine to start offering online therapy groups two years from now has been realized much sooner than I expected. Overall, it has been an awesome experience. I look forward to continuing to offer online therapy groups for adults with autism even after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.
Begin Online Group Therapy in California for Neurodiverse Adults and Teens:
If you're interested in online group therapy for Neurodiverse Adults or teens, please reach out to us. We want to support you and help you learn valuable skills even when you can't make it into our Palo Alto, CA autism therapy clinic. To begin group therapy, please follow these steps:
- Schedule a free 30-minute consultation. We will help you to find an online group that will best meet your unique needs.
- Like Open Doors Therapy on Facebook. This will help you stay up-to-date on our autism therapy services and the groups we're offering.
- Sign up to receive my newsletter. This contains helpful information regarding living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Other Services for the Neurodiverse at Open Doors Therapy:
Our South Bay Area counseling clinic serves high-functioning adults and teens with autism. This includes high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families.
Our therapy clinic offers a variety of autism counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, our we are offering several different social skills groups online for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, a mothers group, and an online parent support group. Please call or email our South Bay Area counseling office for more information on how we can best serve you.
About the Author:
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. And, she is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.