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What is Autism?

Autistic Disorder is classified within the spectrum of Pervasive Developmental Disorders. “These are characterized by severe and pervasive impairments in several areas of development: reciprocal social interaction skills, communication skills, or the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities. The qualitative impairments that define these conditions are distinctly deviant relative to the individual’s develop-mental level or mental age…” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, 1994). Other Pervasive Developmental Disorders include Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

According to the Autism Society of America, “Autism is a severely incapacitating, lifelong, developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life.” The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism and its behavioral symptoms occur in approximately 15 out of every 10,000 births. Autism is four times more common in boys than in girls. It has been found throughout the world in families of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds. Some behavioral symptoms of autism include the following:

  • Marked abnormality of impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests.
  • Absence or delay of speech and language, although specific thinking capabilities may be present.
  • Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.
  • Abnormal responses to sensations. Any one or a combination of senses or responses is affected: sight, hearing, touch, balance, smell, taste, reaction to pain and the way a child holds his or her body.

How Can Treatment Help?

The clinicians at the Center for Speech, Language and Occupational Therapy, Inc. take a wholistic approach to working with children with autism because there is no single treatment paradigm that meets the needs of every child. The approach that works best is tailored to the child’s specific needs, and once an evaluation of the child’s language and sensorimotor skills is conducted, treatment plans are developed.

Overall, children are more likely to develop communication skills in an environment that is designed to support their communication attempts. At the Center for Speech, Language and Occupational Therapy, Inc., clinicians provide treatment in a child-friendly environment that minimizes visual and auditory distractions and provides consistent, accurate language models. This facilitates joint attention, increases children’s ability to process information, and gives them a reason to want to communicate. Once a child is enticed by the environment, he is provided with a functional means to communicate within that context.

By presenting multi-modal communication models (combining gestures, pictures, words, and/or objects), clinicians at the Center for Speech, Language and Occupational Therapy, Inc. engage children in play and develop routines to foster the acquisition of functional communication. Routines are typically activities of high interest for children with autism and provide a positive tool for language learning. The predictability of a story such as Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or a song such as The Wheels on the Bus gives children an avenue to learn the script and offer words and/or gestures with minimal prompting from the clinician. These scripts can be expanded, and the language generalized to other contexts.

In many cases, children with autism demonstrate difficulties assimilating sensory information from the environment. This negatively impacts their ability to attend to and respond to adult prompts. By working closely with occupational therapists, speech and language therapists can better understand how to tailor therapy techniques to reduce the impact of sensory overloads and open up the pathways to develop communication.

It is important to remember that a diagnosis of autism need not always imply a poor prognosis. Language skills and overall intellectual level are the strongest factors related to ultimate progress. With early and intense identification and intervention, many children can be mainstreamed in the school setting, and approximately one-third of individuals with Autistic Disorder attain some degree of partial independence as adults.