Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder, is defined as a complex, brain-based condition in which the individual displays problems with communication, difficulties with social interaction, repetitive behaviors, heightened focus on selective activities, resistance to change and sometimes, aggression.
Autistic individuals may also show unique abilities in some areas of activity. It is currently considered a developmental problem that is often diagnosed around the ages of 2 or 3.
Understanding of autism has expanded in recent years, and a great deal of research is being done to find therapeutic methods to help these individual live more effectively.
When Communication Fails
One of the most troubling features of autism is the curtailment of normal development of communications skills.
Although these children may initiate normal communication skills, they stall at certain developmental points. Studies of autistic children have found the intervening at an early stage in their development with specific therapy methods that improve communication can help these children to function more effectively as the years pass.
A recent study by the University of Washington has supported this educational theory, making the way for greater availability of therapy programs for children with autism during their toddler and pre-school years.
Behavioral Issues in Autism
Children on the autism spectrum may also display behavioral problems that cause difficulties in managing everyday life and in fitting in with their peer group.
Body-rocking, head-banging, hand-flapping, tantrums from becoming easily frustrated and aggressive behavior are not uncommon, but do not affect all children with autism.
These behaviors can often be reduced with medication and continued therapy.
Early Intervention Is Key
Experts in the field of child development believe that providing intensive therapy in communication can help children to maximize their ability to integrate these skills into their everyday interactions.
Because the mind of the toddler is at its greatest malleability, and the potential for new learning is at its highest level, early education in communication skills should be implemented as early as possible.
A recent study by the University of Washington in Seattle found that early intervention measures for young children diagnosed with autism can help to raise I.Q. as much as 18 points, as well as raise receptive language skills 18 points higher.
The study took place over a period of five years and involved 48 children between the ages of 18 months and 30 months. The children received two-hour sessions of therapy for five days each week, along with five hours of parent-directed therapy.
The therapy took place in the children’s natural home environment. The results of the study were conclusive in showing that early intervention helps overcome autism deficits.
The category condition of one of the children was changed from autistic to a category of less severity. Only one child in the control group who received community measures improved to a significant degree.
Treatment of Autism
Each person with autism has his or her own unique challenges. Because of this facet of the condition, an individual treatment plan must be designed to provide therapy in the specific areas where it is most needed.
For some children, therapy may focus on behavior issues that prevent them from integrating successfully with their peer group. Medication is sometimes prescribed to control repetitive movements or aggression. Other children may need intensive therapy for communication deficits and the ability to pick up visual or vocal cues from other individuals. In this case, therapy might focus on step-by-step exercises in focusing attention and learning to interpret cues correctly. Over time, these therapy efforts can produce measurable improvement in the children’s ability to connect with others and in improving their self-esteem.
Elements of Early Intervention
Toddlers and preschoolers can achieve significant improvement through early intervention efforts. Although the extent of the improvement can vary widely between individuals, depending on their initial problems, all receive benefit from early therapy efforts. Those involved in therapy for these children have determined the number of features that are important to their progress:
- Therapy must be provided for at least 25 hours each week.
- Therapists must be sufficiently trained in autism intervention. Paraprofessionals working with the children should be under the supervision of a highly trained professional autism therapist with specific knowledge of methods for very young children.
- Therapy must be based on specific, defined learning objectives.
- Objectives must be reviewed regularly, and results recorded in detail.
- Core issues of autism should be covered, including social skills, communication, imitation, motor skills, play skills and everyday skills.
- Interaction with typically developing peers should be included in the therapy.
- Parents should be included in therapy methods.
- The need for a multi-disciplinary approach should be respected, that is, input from physicians, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and others.
- The needs of each individual should be respected at all times and integrated into required therapies.
Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is one of the core therapies for individuals with autism. Essentially, the method breaks down a skill into small steps, which are then taught to the child using prompts. Once the skill is learned, it is eliminated. The child is provided with repeated opportunities to learn the skill in a variety of different settings. A reward, such as a small piece of candy, is provided for a correct response. Incorrect responses are ignored, and the therapy continues. Each skill builds upon the preceding skill, and interaction with peers is provided to record progress in the implementation of the skills.
The Early Start Denver Model
The University of Washington study implemented the Early Start Denver Model, ESDM, for the participants, which uses a comprehensive method for dealing with autistic children in the 12 to 48-month age group. ESDM uses some of the strategies of ABA. It includes a variety of interactive elements, such presenting a situation, waiting for a response and allowing natural consequences and positive rewards. The method differs from standard ABA is that it follows the child’s lead and individual interests, allowing the therapy to be incorporated into natural play, which makes it more enjoyable. Core teaching principles include modeling, imitation, taking turns, and directing movements, praising correct outcomes and providing opportunities for reinforcement. Parents are also trained in the methods to provide a consistent application. The method can be used both in individual therapy and in groups.
As research into autism learns more about the causes and processes that contribute to the condition’s many effects, psychologists and educators will develop more effective methods of therapy that will help these children develop their full potential. With early intervention, parents can help their children learn the skills they need to fully participate in the mainstream of society.