For those of you who are not so familiar with autism, or need an update or reminder about this condition, here is a little review of what we mean by autism. First of all, autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that even though individuals with autism share certain characteristics that define all of them with autism, those at the high end of the spectrum tend to have better cognitive capability, better language skills, better academic skills and a better ability to function independently. These are the individuals who are often called high functioning or identified as having Asperger’s.
Those individuals at the low end of the spectrum typically have poor language skills, and some are even non-verbal. These individuals are often characterized as being low functioning, and appear to have poor cognitive abilities. They usually have poor academic skills, and can’t function independently, even as adults.
Although behavior is often problematic with those on the autism spectrum, there is a very direct correlation between poor language/communication capabilities and out of control behavior. I learned early on that behavior IS communication, and if it’s your only means to communicate(i.e meltdowns and tantrums to express yourself), then sometimes it will be hard to control. And this is not to say that only low-functioning individuals on the spectrum have meltdowns, because most people with autism have them, usually more frequently when they are young and lack the language to express themselves. As individuals on the spectrum get older and are able to understand what triggers their meltdowns and then learn to control them, their meltdowns are less intense and less frequent. Learning to anticipate and self-calm is key.
I’ve worked for years with students who were considered low functioning with autism, and the first thing they all need is an effective means to communicate. That often means an individualized communication system(AAC-augmentative and alternative communication) such as a picture exchange system, picture boards and voice out-put devices. I’ll get into all of that later.
Getting back to the spectrum and autistic characteristics, individuals with autism can exhibit a number of conditions: struggles with language and communication, social interaction difficulties, poor problem-solving and ability to predict, poor flexibility for changes, severe anxiety and depression, severe sensory sensitivities, seizure disorders, digestive issues and allergies, behavior disorders, sleep disorders, ADD/ADHD, OCD, learning disability, fine and gross motor difficulties; just to name a few. You can also have autism with other neurological conditions and syndromes. I’ve worked with kids who have autism and Down Syndrome, as well as Fragile X Syndrome. Autism is not a stand alone condition, and when you consider that autism is a neurological disorder, that’s not surprising.
So, given all that, and especially considering the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder, there is no way one approach to therapy will work for everyone with autism. In fact, I find I need to individualize therapy approaches all the time and even change therapy approaches with an individual as they grow and change. When I talk later about therapy approaches and materials, I will explain the autism characteristics and capabilities each approach is best suited for. A good therapy approach is all about using their strengths to help them learn. And believe me, they all have individual strengths we can work with.
I typically dislike talking about autism definitions and characteristics, but I feel it’s important to have a brief perspective of autism before approaching therapy for this incredibly variable condition.
My next blog will talk about kids with autism and going back to school: what teachers need to know!
All my best to all you parents, therapists, teachers and individuals with autism! And let me know if you have any questions. Hang in there!