Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 1 in every 110 American children have an autism spectrum disorder. While researchers try pursue effective treatment options, families affected must try to understand the condition and their children. Shannon Grave, early childhood therapist at The Village, provides the following definitions and tips for those who want to better understand autistic children. (Note: If you believe your child may be dealing with ASD, please contact The Village to arrange an appointment.)
Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means a person can be affected very mildly or very severely, with many points in between. The person affected may have very high intelligence or may have developmental or cognitive delays, also with many degrees of ability in between. This also means there are many different therapeutic and educational approaches that may be helpful.
When supporting a child or family member with either a suspected or diagnosed autism spectrum disorder, keep the following things in mind.
ASD is a neurological condition. This means it has to do with the way the person's brain and body are "wired." As such, it is not the result of bad parenting or a child who is merely acting naughty or difficult. There are many theories and debates regarding environmental toxins, vaccinations, and the role of diet on ASD. The desired outcome for most therapies and educational intervention is to increase the individual's level of functioning within their community, rather than providing a cure.
Early intervention is crucial. Autism can be a scary word to hear, but one thing all of the experts agree on is that early identification and intervention is critical. Also, any intervention program needs to be a team approach.Such a team may include many professionals; but will often include an occupational therapist, a speech clinician, educators, and a mental health professional.
Sensory overload can result in meltdown. To many, a meltdown looks like a tantrum or possibly as someone just “shutting down” or tuning-out. Either way, it is a form of communication about the person’s inability to cope with any additional information or input at that moment in time. People with ASD often experience sensory input as bothersome when everyone around them seems able to tune it out or otherwise not notice it at all. This difference in experiencing and processing sensory input from all of the senses; including touch, taste, and movement can create substantial difficulties for the individual with ASD and their family. This can result in extreme food preferences, rigidity in clothing choices, and meltdown, especially in public places. For some individuals, a simple trip to the store is torture. Finding an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory processing disorders to be a member of the multi-disciplinary team can be of great assistance.
Be blunt, but kind, when speaking to someone with ASD. People with ASD are often described as “concrete thinkers.” This means that they often take what people say at face value, and do not interpret hidden agendas or meanings resulting in difficulty understanding idioms, metaphors, and other sayings that use figurative language.
Speaking things exactly as you mean them without hidden meaning is important to effectively communicate with someone who has ASD. It is important to note that this is not an issue of intellect; it is related to the way the brain is wired although these skills can be developed if they are taught to the individual. Speech clinicians and some mental health professionals can help to teach these communication and social skills to individuals with ASD so they can also communicate more effectively in their communities.
Think visual. This means supplementing instructions with visual representation of what you are trying to communicate. This might include visual schedules with pictures or symbols to prepare a child for what will happen and what is expected, or possibly using pictures or symbols to further clarify what is being explained. Younger children may need to use actual photos. For older or higher functioning individuals, you may use written words or line drawings to make information more visual. Also, since people with ASD often require more time to process verbal information the use of visual supports further supports their understanding of information.
You don't have to go it alone. Professionals at The Village can help provide support to family members, aid in teaching appropriate coping and social skills, provide therapeutic support, and assist families in charting a course for treatment.
For more information or to make an appointment to see a counselor, contact The Village Family Service Center