EMDR Therapy for Families of Children with Autism, Part III

daycare jungle gymEye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, differs from traditional talk therapy in that it relies on the brain’s innate operating system to turn disturbing memories into processed or “digested” memories. Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR, uses the adaptive information processing model (AIP) to explain this phenomenon. In this model, pathology occurs in our brains when this processing mechanism gets blocked. The memories are then stored dysfunctionally along with all of the emotions, sensations, and beliefs that accompanied them when the event occurred.

This is why the brain will automatically go into a dysfunctional fight, flight, or freeze mode when something happens that “triggers” the improperly stored memory. The therapy itself is designed to jump-start the brain’s processing mechanism in an effort to “digest” and store a memory properly, along with its accompanying beliefs.

The therapeutic process occurs in eight stages that include preparing the person with resources (or “tools” for his or her toolbox), the identification of blocking beliefs and disturbing memories, and utilizes bilateral stimulation of the brain—usually eye movements that mimic REM sleep. Tapping and auditory stimulation are also sometimes used.

As a clinician, I’ve embraced the practice and methodology in order to conceptualize the struggles of those who come to me for help. The AIP model is especially evident in families living with issues on the autism spectrum (ASD). It’s been my experience, both as the parent of an autistic child and as a clinician who specializes in ASD, that children on the spectrum are almost “predisposed” to developing posttraumatic stress and acute stress. This may be because our ability to handle stress relies so heavily on our perception of what is happening.

For example, if a 4-year-old child is waiting at daycare for Mommy to pick him up, and she is running late, he may assume that she is never coming to get him. While this isn’t true, the child believes it is. If the child has average expressive and receptive language, he will either ask “Where’s Mommy?” or the teacher will anticipate this need and be sure to tell him that Mommy is running late and will arrive shortly. When Mommy arrives, the child might cry and share his fears, at which time the mother might hug and reassure the child that everything is OK. The child is able to take in and digest this new information, and it becomes adaptive as he realizes Mommy did not forget him and he is safe now. Problem solved.

Now consider the preschooler with ASD who appears to be inattentive, is bombarded by sensory input, and makes little eye contact. He is not yet verbal, and therefore his teachers wrongly assume he cannot understand language. When his mother is late, he experiences the same fears but cannot verbalize them. Moreover, when the mother calls the teacher to say she is running late, the teacher doesn’t bother to tell him because it is assumed he cannot understand. The little guy is left to his own poorly developing coping skills, and his perception becomes reality. When Mom finally arrives, he may not even respond as the typical child would, and internalizes this fear. He may end up expressing his feelings three hours later, but by the time he does, Mom is confused because she can’t figure out what he’s crying about and the child can’t tell her.

This is only one benign, and fictitious, example. Let’s consider more impactful incidents: Consider the ASD child who has been consistently bullied. Or the child who wants so badly to “behave” but is unable due to poor executive functioning skills and impulsivity. Imagine the ASD parent who searches for hours when her affected child leaves the house in the middle of the night. Or the little sister who is physically assaulted by her ASD brother. These are actual examples that have resulted in traumatic stress abreactions and have been remedied with the help of EMDR therapy.

While more research is needed in the application and benefits of using EMDR with ASD families, I am incredibly hopeful and excited about those possibilities. As a clinician, I am thrilled to have this extremely effective therapeutic tool to help families live happier lives. As an ASD mom, I’m grateful to have had the benefits touch my own family as well.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Josie

    April 15th, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    Families who live with this I am sure are always hopeful and excited to learn about any new treatment method that could help them. I am sure that there are always those who need help but who simply don’t know where to turn or how to even ask for it. Or for that matter to even know that they DO need some extra support. Something like this could prove to be very promising for them.

  • Corinne

    April 16th, 2014 at 4:25 AM

    Much of this then begins by what others do to help the children adapt to change?

  • emmalee

    April 19th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    I am not sure that I understand what EMDR is all about… is there anywhere I could go to read more about it, like an EMDR guide fr dummies? It sounds promising but I am still not sure that I fully understand it

  • Janeen herskovitz

    April 21st, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    Emmalee, EMDR is a specific therapy historically used to help people with trauma related disorders. For more info, you can check out the earlier two blog posts in this series, or go to emdria.org.

  • Robin D

    April 28th, 2014 at 5:02 AM

    Have you used EMDR effectively with the child that has ASD? My son suffered tremendous trauma in school. He went from happy smiling child with autism to angry, frustrated child that was bullied by his teachers. His therapist suggested that the damage done may be permanent. He never suggested EMDR. Thank you for the great articles! I am sharing with our support group and parents!

  • janeen

    April 28th, 2014 at 9:23 AM

    Robin, yes I have used EMDR effectively with several people on the spectrum, the youngest being 15 years old. First, you’ll want to find someone who is trained in doing EMDR with kids. Second, depending on your child’s language skills and responsiveness, the therapist would need to be comfortable with your child’s abilities. For the most successful outcome, the child would need to have good receptive language, but not necessarily good expressive language. Because EMDR does not involve alot of talking, kids with ASD who can type, write or draw can also benefit. Please feel free to email me directly if you need more info.

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