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Can hypnotherapy, Hypno-CBT and mindfulness tools help autistic individuals? YES – and here’s why…

Updated: May 24, 2021

I am a firm believer that individuals of all neurologies can benefit from development tools and therapies such as CBT, hypnotherapy, Hypno-CBT®, mindfulness and other focused attention work. Firstly though, let me make it clear that all clients at Arrive Therapy® are treated individually, with special attention to neurodivergent needs.

Some autistic individuals believe that practices such as CBT, hypnotherapy, Hypno-CBT®, mindfulness and other focused attention work may not work for them, and I believe this may be because of a fear that the hyper-focus and rumination that autists commonly experience may lead them to focus too much on unhelpful cognitions, as opposed to helpful ones.

Experts agree that autistic young people and adults can benefit from cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT (Source: Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy).

Concerns among autistic people (and their families) regarding the efficacy of CBT and Hypno-CBT® could include:

  1. A barrier to a good working alliance with the therapist, due to autism’s ‘socio-communication’ characteristics. (Read more in our new blog on the therapeutic relationship between an autistic person and their talking therapist).

  2. Difficulties with interoception (our 'body feelings') may reduce awareness of sensations and emotions.

  3. Issues of cognitive flexibility may affect one’s ability to consider alternative possibilities (e.g. in terms of thoughts, beliefs and behaviours).

  4. Sensory sensitivities may affect the efficacy of practiced tasks between sessions.

However, researchers in the above study agreed that while adaptions may need to me made to meet the characteristics outlined above, this behavioural modality can be effective for autistic people.

Addressing trauma

Firstly, let’s point out that anyone with unresolved trauma issues is best-placed seeking assistance from a professional talking therapist, rather than just utilising self-development and mindfulness tools. It isn’t wise to try to deal with trauma issues oneself; trauma and PTSD should be addressed in a safe, professional space (this professional space would include sessions with a Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist, or other suitable clinician, either on Zoom or face-to-face.) There are also trauma-specific therapies such as DBT and EMDR that clients may like to look into, and trauma-informed polyvagal work can be beneficial.

In mindfulness and stillness, we’re seeking (from a neuroception point of view), Immobilisation Without Fear. However, the traumatised brain often automatically goes to a defensive state to cope with life, presenting as anything from low mood to shutdown. Tools like meditations and focused attention exercises, while being beneficial to aid ‘presence’ and engage one’s parasympathetic 'safe and social' branch of the autonomic nervous system, as stand-alone tools, are no substitute for talking therapy for traumatised individuals. It's fair to say that individuals with unresolved trauma often find self-directed meditation difficult, unless they've first undergone therapeutic work. Being still, yet feeling safe, can be hard to achieve for a traumatised brain.

However, if an individual is undergoing therapy, understands their autonomic 'states', or is a non-trauma-affected person embarking on a self-improvement path, mindfulness and focussed attention exercises can be additionally beneficial. (I will develop a database of free audio resources on this site, found on these blog pages).

(You can read about my status as a polyvagal-affirming therapist in this blog on polyvagal theory, which explains a little more.)

In any case, I believe that the day to day issues that many highly sensitive and neurodivergent individuals experience that are connected with anxiety, excessive rumination (self-talk), issues of self-worth and social communicative issues can all be addressed with tools such as CBT, Hypno CBT, mindfulness and focused attention work.

Reducing anxiety and depression symptoms

Studies back up the fact that mindfulness helps address anxiety - research shows that depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric concern for autistic individuals, and mindfulness-based work has widely been found to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, in studies.

In terms of mindfulness, I have heard autistic people say things like: “I don’t want to be mindful of my thoughts – I am trying to get away from them.” However, I’d challenge this viewpoint. Yes, we autists can experience excessive self-talk – rumination; ‘looping’ thoughts, stuck record syndrome, you name it – but ‘escaping’ our thoughts, and of course dealing with them in other ways, eg. through compulsions or self-medicating, don’t necessarily help.

From personal experience, the best way to manage ‘obsessive’ tendencies (remember, autists in particular may thrive on sameness and repetition), is to learn how to develop presence, observe our thoughts, develop interoception (awareness of body feelings) and improve cognitive flexibility. These are learned skills, like riding a bike. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy techniques can be especially helpful in this regard, and teach us to utilise more beneficial thinking styles. (As mentioned in the above polyvagal blog, developing an understanding of our autonomic nervous system states goes a long way to helping understand 'stuckness' presenting as anxiety.)

Mindfulness can definitely help; do try this 14 minute, anti-anxiety meditation / focussed attention exercise; it's designed to help individuals recalibrate and gain some presence.

(Also check out our article 'Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy for business coaching and mindset marketing' which addresses supporting autistic entrepreneurs.)

If you’d like more info, please email me on to discuss your queries.

Thanks – Kathy Carter


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