Wilderness therapy can be an extremely powerful therapeutic option for young people on the Autism Spectrum. The wilderness is a peaceful place, far away from the overstimulating environments many teens on the spectrum struggle with.
Over the years, Trails Carolina has seen hundreds of teens on the spectrum experience positive transformations through our autism therapy services and programming. Programming at Trails uses mental health research and behavior therapy to help these teens become more confident in their ability to socialize with peers and learn to effectively adapt to new environments.
The General Benefits of Wilderness Therapy as Teen Autism Therapy
In general, wilderness therapy can be a suitable and effective form of therapy for many teenagers with high-functioning autism. It provides a range of benefits, including physical activity, opportunities to develop enhanced social interaction skills related to reading facial expressions and body language, reduced anxiety and stress, and promotion of self-confidence, self-regulation, self-efficacy, and independence.
Reducing Anxiety and Stress
Wilderness therapy has been found to reduce anxiety and stress in teenagers with an autism spectrum disorder. The calming nature of the wilderness environment, combined with the therapeutic support provided by trained professionals who work specifically with autistic teens, teens with developmental disorders, and teens with intellectual disabilities, can help these teens feel more relaxed and less anxious.
Encouraging Physical Activity
One of the primary benefits of wilderness therapy for adolescents with high-functioning autism is that it encourages physical activity.
Engaging in physical activity is crucial for individuals on the autism spectrum as it helps to improve their physical health and mental well-being.
Enhancing Social Interactions
Another benefit of wilderness therapy for teenagers with autism spectrum disorders is that it enhances the opportunity to practice social interactions in a natural environment. Social interaction can be particularly challenging for teenagers on the autism spectrum, as they often struggle to interpret social cues and communicate effectively with their peers.
At Trails Carolina, students are placed in same-gender age-appropriate peer support groups with other students who face similar challenges and facilitated by clinicians who are highly experienced with working with individuals who have autism spectrum disorders.
Promoting Self-Confidence and Independence
Furthermore, wilderness therapy programs promote self-confidence and independence in teenagers with an autism diagnosis. As adolescents engage in challenging outdoor activities and participate in therapeutic sessions, they are encouraged to take risks and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. The self-confidence and independent living skills that teens on the spectrum develop in a wilderness therapy program often lead to positive behavioral changes in other settings when faced with difficult situations or social problems throughout their teenage years.
Why Choose Wilderness Therapy for Teens on the Autism Spectrum?
The hecticness of everyday life can be overstimulating for teens on the autism spectrum. Wilderness therapy slows everything down and allows teens on the spectrum to take a break from our fast-paced world. The slow pace of wilderness therapy provides an opportunity for these teens to practice social skills training, behavioral skills training, and transitions in a calm environment.
At Trails Carolina, we incorporate transitions and skill-building exercises throughout a student’s time within our wilderness therapy programs.
Successful Transitions at Trails Carolina For Autistic Teens
Many parents who have children on the autism spectrum are well aware of the rigidity and reluctance to new environments that often comes with autism. At Trails, our focus is on practicing and supporting students through transitions. This focus on wilderness therapy transitions helps students form the habits necessary to break free from the rigidity they once experienced and carry the skills they learned in one environment to real-life settings.
During their time in our program, students are constantly transitioning from one setting to another. For example, they might go from the North Carolina wilderness therapy environment to a nature-based classroom to base camp.
Often, if an autistic teenager has anxiety, they may only know how to calm themselves down in one particular setting. By constantly moving from one environment to the next, as they do in our intentional transition model, they are learning to generalize coping skills to be used in multiple settings.
“Other wilderness programs that are expedition-only are not very effective for kids on the autism spectrum,” says Ashley Brown, Primary Therapist at Trails Carolina. “They are only in one setting and get used to being there. Once they leave the wilderness-only setting they have no idea how to adapt those behaviors to everyday life. What’s so great about our program at Trails is that we bring students into a variety of environments, including traditional settings like classrooms and school environments. This way they can practice transitioning and generalizing skills.”
Coping with Sensitivity to Sensory Overload
In a wilderness therapy setting, students are constantly around other teens in their group therapy peer groups, which can be challenging for younger and older children with high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome. If students are feeling like they are experiencing a sensory overload, therapeutic staff use coping strategies such as weighted objects and fidget toys.
Many of our groups incorporate quiet self-reflection time to prevent students on the spectrum from feeling overloaded.
Practicing and Improving Social Skills in a Wilderness Environment
Wilderness therapy is a really intensive social experience that helps students practice and learn social skills, which often leads to improved self-esteem. Teens on the spectrum often struggle to flourish in a social environment and face common challenges like how to decipher a facial expression or read the tone of the room.
At Trails, we utilize a variety of techniques to teach students the interpersonal social skills they’ll need to build lasting relationships with peers and family members, which is essential in managing the challenges of autism and Aspergers in teens.
Here are a couple of examples of techniques we use to help students improve communication skills for daily life:
This activity involves students re-enacting social exchanges which were not successful. Primary Therapist Ashley Brown, who works with teen girls ages 14-17, explains how this helps students on the spectrum:
“When a student experiences a social interaction that might have upset or confused their peer, we help them retrace their steps through the social interaction. After retracing what went wrong within a social situation, we talk about what they should have done and ways to fix the problem. They then rewind the situation and act it out with the changes we discussed in a psychodrama. This is a way to practice and integrate social skills into interactions. In some groups, these social redos happen several times a day.”
Primary Therapist Leigh Uhlenkott, who works with young boys ages 10-13, also utilizes social redos in her work with students. For her students, these positive redos and psychodramas help students practice replacement behaviors. It can be an effective tool for boys in order for them to see how they are perceived by others. These young boys often lack self-awareness and these techniques can help them better understand how their behaviors affect others.
Trails Primary Therapist Leigh Uhlenkott explains the use of visual cues to improve social behaviors:
“If students are behaving in a way that can be perceived as socially inappropriate, such as clapping their hands or moving around when they are not supposed to, I use visual cues to help them understand that these behaviors should be avoided.
“For example, every time a student does something that is socially inappropriate, I might give him a pebble. These pebbles usually add up throughout the day. The student might be thinking, ‘Why is she giving me pebbles? What’s with that?!’ Over time, he will connect the dots and we’ll work on ways to change those behaviors in order for him to get less and less pebbles. These visual cues have been really effective for young boys on the spectrum in this age group.”
Learning to participate in healthy dialogue
Therapeutic staff members work closely with students to improve communication skills such as eye contact and practicing conversation. Many young people on the spectrum, especially boys, tend to carry out one-sided conversations about a specific topic they love (trains, dinosaurs, WWII, etc.) for hours at a time without making the effort to hear what the other person in the conversation has to say. At Trails, we help teach these students the importance of carrying on a two-sided conversation.
“These kids are bright and capable,” says Uhlenkott. “They can learn social skills but it takes time to do that. That’s what makes a wilderness environment like Trails an ideal place for these teens to find success. At Trails, we have the time and patience to help autistic children really learn social skills and practice them with peers.”
Trails Carolina can help
Trails Carolina, wilderness therapy programs for teens with autism ages 10-17, can help your autistic child achieve lasting success by learning new skills, practicing goal setting, and learning socially appropriate behaviors.
Learn more by calling 800-975-7303 for more information.
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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.
Margot Lowman August 2022
Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.
Winnifred Wilson July 2022
Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.
Kristin Brace June 2022
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