Research has shown that intensive behavioral therapy during the toddler or preschool years can significantly improve cognitive and language skills in young children with ASD. There is no single best treatment for all children with ASD, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recently noted common features of effective early intervention programs.
- Starting as soon as a child has been diagnosed with ASD
- Providing focused and challenging learning activities at the proper developmental level for the child for at least 25 hours per week and 12 months per year
- Having small classes to allow each child to have one-on-one time with the therapist or teacher and small group learning activities.
- Having special training for parents and family
- Encouraging activities that include typically developing children, as long as such activities help meet a specific learning goal
- Measuring and recording each child’s progress and adjusting the intervention program as needed
- Providing a high degree of structure, routine, and visual cues, such as posted activity schedules and clearly defined boundaries, to reduce distractions
- Guiding the child in adapting learned skills to new situations and settings and maintaining learned skills
A well-rounded curriculum will focus on
- Language and communication
- Social skills, such as joint attention (looking at other people to draw attention to something interesting and share in experiencing it)
- Self-help and daily living skills, such as dressing and grooming
- Research-based methods to reduce challenging behaviors, such as aggression and tantrums
- Cognitive skills, such as pretend play or seeing someone else’s point of view
- Typical school-readiness skills, such as letter recognition and counting.
Applied Behavioral Analysis
One type of a widely accepted treatment is applied behavior analysis (ABA). The goals of ABA are to shape and reinforce new behaviors, such as learning to speak and play, and reduce undesirable ones. ABA, which can involve intensive, one-on-one child-teacher interaction for up to 40 hours a week, has inspired the development of other, similar interventions that aim to help those with ASD reach their full potential.
As with any potential intervention or treatment, the results will vary from child-to-child. Customizing a program to the individual child and making sure the child’s needs are being met are important to consider before beginning and while reassessing any treatment.
ABA-based interventions include:
- Verbal Behavior—focuses on teaching language using a sequenced curriculum that guides children from simple verbal behaviors (echoing) to more functional communication skills through techniques such as errorless teaching and prompting
- Pivotal Response Training—aims at identifying pivotal skills, such as initiation and self-management, that affect a broad range of behavioral responses. This intervention incorporates parent and family education aimed at providing skills that enable the child to function in inclusive settings.
Other types of early interventions include:
- Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR) / Floortime Model—aims to build healthy and meaningful relationships and abilities by following the natural emotions and interests of the child. One particular example is the Early Start Denver Model, which fosters improvements in communication, thinking, language, and other social skills and seeks to reduce atypical behaviors. Using developmental and relationship-based approaches, this therapy can be delivered in natural settings such as the home or pre-school.
- TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children)—emphasizes adapting the child’s physical environment and using visual cues (for example, having classroom materials clearly marked and located so that students can access them independently). Using individualized plans for each student, TEACCH builds on the child’s strengths and emerging skills.
- Interpersonal Synchrony—targets social development and imitation skills, and focuses on teaching children how to establish and maintain engagement with others.
For children younger than age 3, these interventions usually take place at home or in a child care center and may be covered through a state’s Birth to 3 program. Because parents are a child’s earliest teachers, more programs are beginning to train parents to continue the therapy at home using a Train the Trainer type model.
Students with ASD may benefit from some type of social skills training program. While these programs need more research, they generally seek to increase and improve skills necessary for creating positive social interactions and avoiding negative responses. For example, Children’s Friendship Training focuses on improving children’s conversation and interaction skills and teaches them how to make friends, be a good sport, and respond appropriately to teasing.
It is important when giving social skills training that you respect and understand each person for who they are and respect that just because neurological wiring may be different, it doesn’t mean that it is flawed.
Health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not represent endorsement by or an official position of Autism Empowerment. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.