A qualitative exploration of an autism-specific self-compassion program: The ASPAA



Self-compassion is the ability to treat oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, especially when facing difficulties or challenges. Research has shown that self-compassion can enhance well-being, reduce stress, and promote coping in various populations. However, there is little evidence on how self-compassion can benefit autistic adults, who often face stigma, discrimination, and negative self-perceptions.


A recent study explored the experiences and outcomes of an autism-specific self-compassion program, called the Aspect Self-compassion Program for Autistic Adults (ASPAA). The ASPAA is a six-week online program that teaches self-compassion skills and practices to autistic adults, using a co-produced and autism-friendly approach. The study aimed to answer the following questions:

  • How do autistic adults experience and perceive the ASPAA?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of the ASPAA for autistic adults?
  • How does the ASPAA affect the well-being and distress of autistic adults?



The study used a qualitative design, involving semi-structured interviews with 39 autistic adults who completed the ASPAA. The interviews were conducted online, using video or audio calls, and lasted between 30 and 90 minutes. The researchers used thematic analysis to identify the main themes and patterns in the data.




The study found that the ASPAA was generally well-received and valued by the participants, who reported positive changes in their self-compassion, well-being, and distress. The main themes that emerged from the data were:

  • Acceptance and validation: The participants appreciated that the ASPAA was tailored to their needs and preferences, and that it acknowledged and validated their autistic identity and experiences. They felt that the program helped them to accept themselves as they are, and to recognize their strengths and challenges.
  • Learning and growth: The participants reported that the ASPAA taught them new skills and strategies to cope with difficulties and to be kinder to themselves. They also learned from the experiences and perspectives of other autistic adults, who shared their stories and insights in the program.
  • Empowerment and agency: The participants felt that the ASPAA empowered them to take charge of their well-being and to make positive changes in their lives. They also felt more confident and assertive in expressing their needs and boundaries, and in seeking support when needed.
  • Connection and belonging: The participants experienced a sense of connection and belonging with the ASPAA community, which provided them with a safe and supportive space to share and learn. They also felt more connected to themselves, to their emotions, and to their values and goals.
  • Challenges and barriers: The participants also faced some challenges and barriers in engaging with the ASPAA, such as technical issues, time constraints, sensory overload, and emotional discomfort. Some participants also struggled with applying the self-compassion skills and practices in their daily lives, or with overcoming their internalized stigma and self-criticism.



The study suggests that the ASPAA is a feasible and effective intervention for enhancing self-compassion, well-being, and distress among autistic adults. The study also highlights the importance of co-producing and adapting self-compassion programs to the specific needs and preferences of autistic adults, and of providing them with a supportive and inclusive environment to learn and grow. The study recommends further research to evaluate the long-term effects and outcomes of the ASPAA, and to explore the mechanisms and processes that underlie its impact.




Self-compassion is a valuable skill that can help autistic adults to cope with the challenges and difficulties they face in their lives. The ASPAA is a novel and promising program that teaches self-compassion skills and practices to autistic adults, using a co-produced and autism-friendly approach. The ASPAA can improve the well-being and reduce the distress of autistic adults, by fostering acceptance, validation, learning, growth, empowerment, agency, connection, and belonging. The ASPAA can also help autistic adults to overcome the challenges and barriers that may hinder their self-compassion journey, by providing them with guidance, support, and resources. The ASPAA is a worthwhile and beneficial program that can enhance the quality of life and happiness of autistic adults.



What is the ASPAA?


The ASPAA stands for the Aspect Self-compassion Program for Autistic Adults. It is an online program that teaches self-compassion skills and practices to autistic adults, using a co-produced and autism-friendly approach. The program consists of six modules that cover topics such as understanding self-compassion, benefits of self-compassion, mindfulness, finding your compassionate voice, and accepting your experiences.


Who developed the ASPAA?


The ASPAA was developed by Dr Ru Ying Cai, Dr Chris Edwards, and Dr Anna Gould, who are researchers from the Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). They collaborated with three autistic advisors, Aiyah Membery, Chris Day, and Anna Gould, who provided input and feedback on the program design and content.


What are the goals of the ASPAA?


The main goals of the ASPAA are to:

  • Increase self-compassion among autistic adults
  • Improve well-being and reduce distress among autistic adults
  • Provide a supportive and inclusive community for autistic adults
  • Promote acceptance and validation of autistic identity and experiences

What is the theoretical framework of the ASPAA?

The ASPAA is based on the theoretical framework of self-compassion, which is a concept that was developed by Dr Kristin Neff, a psychologist and researcher from the University of Texas at Austin. Self-compassion is defined as “being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them” (Neff, 2003, p. 224). Self-compassion has three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

What are the evidence-based self-compassion practices that are used in the ASPAA?

The ASPAA uses evidence-based self-compassion practices that are derived from two well-established and validated self-compassion programs: the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program and the Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) program. The MSC program is an eight-week group intervention that teaches self-compassion skills and practices, such as loving-kindness meditation, self-compassion break, and compassionate letter writing. The MSC program was developed by Dr Kristin Neff and Dr Christopher Germer, and has been shown to increase self-compassion, well-being, and happiness, and to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. The CFT program is a psychotherapy approach that aims to help people who suffer from shame, self-criticism, and low self-esteem, by cultivating a compassionate mind and a compassionate self. The CFT program was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert, and has been shown to improve self-compassion, well-being, and psychological flexibility, and to reduce negative emotions and symptoms.


How is the ASPAA different from other self-compassion programs?


The ASPAA is different from other self-compassion programs in several ways, such as:

  • It is specifically designed for autistic adults, taking into account their needs, preferences, and strengths
  • It is co-produced by autistic and non-autistic researchers, ensuring that the program is relevant and respectful
  • It is delivered online, allowing for flexibility and accessibility
  • It is interactive and engaging, using various formats such as videos, audios, texts, and images
  • It is autism-friendly, using clear and simple language, providing choices and options, and avoiding sensory overload


How can I access the ASPAA?


You can access the ASPAA for free by registering on the Aspect website. You will need to provide some basic information, such as your name, email, and age. After you register, you will receive an email with a link to the program homepage, where you can access each of the six modules. You can complete the program at your own pace, independently or with a trusted person or a trained healthcare professional.


How long does the ASPAA take to complete?


The ASPAA consists of six modules, each of which takes about 30 to 60 minutes to complete. You can choose how often and how fast you want to complete the modules, depending on your availability and preference. However, it is recommended that you complete one module per week, and that you practise the self-compassion skills and exercises regularly between the modules.


What are the self-compassion skills and exercises in the ASPAA?


The ASPAA teaches various self-compassion skills and exercises, such as:

  • Soles of your feet: A mindfulness exercise that helps you to focus on the sensations in your feet, and to ground yourself in the present moment
  • Hand exercise: A self-soothing exercise that helps you to calm your nervous system, and to feel safe and secure
  • Compassionate body scan: A mindfulness exercise that helps you to pay attention to your body, and to notice any sensations, emotions, or thoughts that arise
  • 5-4-3-2-1 method: A mindfulness exercise that helps you to use your five senses to observe your surroundings, and to distract yourself from negative thoughts or feelings
  • Soothing touch: A self-compassion exercise that helps you to find a physical gesture that makes you feel comforted, such as hugging yourself, stroking your arm, or holding your hand
  • Loving-kindness meditation: A self-compassion exercise that helps you to cultivate positive feelings and wishes for yourself and others, using phrases such as “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful”
  • Three self-compassion gestures or reminders: A self-compassion exercise that helps you to create three symbols or objects that remind you of self-compassion, such as a word, a picture, or a sound


What are the benefits of the ASPAA?


According to the research paper the ASPAA can have various benefits for autistic adults, such as:

  • Increasing self-compassion, which means being kind, understanding, and accepting of oneself
  • Improving well-being, which means feeling satisfied, happy, and fulfilled in life
  • Reducing distress, which means feeling less stressed, anxious, or depressed
  • Fostering acceptance, which means embracing oneself as an autistic person, and recognizing one’s strengths and challenges
  • Enhancing learning, which means acquiring new skills and strategies to cope with difficulties and to be kinder to oneself
  • Empowering agency, which means taking charge of one’s well-being and making positive changes in one’s life
  • Building connection, which means feeling close and supported by oneself, others, and the ASPAA community




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