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Why Choose Wilderness Therapy For Teens on the Autism Spectrum: Trails Therapists Explain

teens on the autism spectrum

Why Choose Wilderness Therapy For Teens on the Autism Spectrum: Trails Therapists Explain

Wilderness therapy can be extremely powerful 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. Programming at Trails helps these teens become more confident in their ability to socialize with peers and learn to effectively adapt to new environments.

Why choose wilderness therapy for teens on the autism spectrum?

Out in the real world, the hecticness of everyday life can be hyper stimulating for young people 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 and transitions in a calm environment.
At Trails, we incorporate transitions and skill building exercises throughout a student’s time with at our program.

Successful Transitions at Trails Carolina

Many parents who have children on the spectrum are well aware of the rigidity and reluctance to new environments that often comes with autism. At Trails, our focus on practicing and supporting students through 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 the next.
During their time at our program, students are constantly transitioning from one setting to another. For example, they might go from a wilderness environment to a nature-based classroom to base camp.
Often, if a teen on the spectrum has anxiety they may only know how to calm themselves down in one particular setting. By constantly moving from one setting to the next, 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.”

Sensitivity to sensory overload

In a wilderness therapy setting, students are constantly around their peers. 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 which helps students practice and learn social skills. Teens on the spectrum often struggle to make and keep friends. At Trails, we utilize a variety of techniques to teach students the skills they’ll need to build lasting relationships with peers and family members.
Here are a couple examples of techniques we use to help  students improve communication skills:

  • Social Redos

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.”

For 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.   

  • Visual Cues:

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 young people to find success. At Trails we have the time and patience to help these young people really learn social skills and practice them with peers.”

Trails Carolina can help

Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program for teens ages 10-17, can help your teen achieve lasting success.
Learn more by calling 800-975-7303 for more information.

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