Project-Based Therapy as Developed and Practiced at Autistry Studios

by Janet Lawson, LMFT


Project-Based Therapy (PBT) is a therapeutic approach developed by Janet Lawson, LMFT and Dan Swearingen working with teens and adults on the autism spectrum at Autistry Studios. Individuals on the autism spectrum often struggle with significant deficits in function as they grow into their teens and twenties. Specifically, we use PBT to address deficits in social function, executive function, and deficits in development of a robust sense of self. All of these are obstacles to becoming successfully independent.

The first PBT group therapy workshop was held in September 2008. Though initially conceived as a group therapy modality, PBT can also be used in individual therapy.

As its name suggests, Project-Based Therapy uses creative projects of various types, woodworking, film, art, etc. to engage, connect, and support the growth of the client. The projects are chosen by the client and are based on their interests. The projects present a shared focus for the client and the therapist. While the point of focus is outside of the client it unavoidably reflects their interests and conflicts. These can be explored and developed in a non-threatening environment. The conflicts become apparent by what gets in the way of completing a project – lack of skill, inability to manage emotions, poor executive functioning, low self-confidence, etc.

Working on challenging personal projects builds appropriate confidence and fosters the development of more realistic life goals. The practical exercise of executive functioning skills in a safe environment also supports more effective planning outside the workshops.

Our practice is to form small groups (5 to 6 clients) of compatible individuals based on their age and verbal abilities. These groups meet weekly for four hours at a time for at least a semester at a time with staffing levels of close to one-on-one (never more than 1.5 clients per therapist).

The therapists ally themselves with the clients to help problem solve the project, using online and offline research tools. Strong working relationships develop between the staff and clients over time and the small group size supports spontaneous socialization among clients. This is also fostered by an included sit-down meal in each workshop.

For individuals on the autism spectrum, peer relationships take a long time to develop. Often their quirky personalities and seemingly out-of-left-field remarks set them apart from their peers. The staff observes communication (and communication issues) between clients and assists in real time to encourage effective strategies and problem-solve ineffective strategies.

All these activities, done side by side with the therapists make discussion of other social and personal issues natural and low pressure. Over time clients often add more traditional individual closed session one-on-one therapy with whichever therapist they are most comfortable with in the workshops. The workshop space with the included personal support becomes a transition experience clients use to launch into more independent lives.

Some clients have left for periods of time as they set out on an independent life and have returned when they needed help negotiating new changes in their life. Being independent does not mean going it alone but knowing when to ask for help. Our goal is to help each individual develop an effective collaborative style that allows them to be valuable members of a team and their community.