One of the key ways parents and doctors act on an ASD diagnosis is to try to find the intervention strategies, therapies, or services that will help children grow, develop, and thrive. There are a range of different types of treatment that are used to try to meet the challenges children with ASD face, and since no two children are alike, it can take families a few tries to find the type of intervention and the team of professionals that’s the best fit for each individual kid.
More than that, a child’s needs may change over time – if they have communication delays, a strong first step is always to find a good way to communicate, whether that means verbal communication or not. From there, once children are able to better express their needs and wants, it can be a great time to reevaluate the goals parents, caregivers, and doctors set for them, based on what this new communication shows. Just like all children, children with ASD are always growing and changing, and the services they might or might not need to access, and the skills they might need to learn, will always be growing with them.
Occupational therapy is a general term for the type of therapy that is designed around teaching daily activities, and teaching through common activities. Early Intervention is designed to help evaluate which young children – up to 3 years old – may benefit from occupational therapy of various types. Occupational therapy for young children is designed around helping young children build the skills they’ll need to do engage in occupations like socializing with other children, playing, feeding, and, eventually, going to school. OTs also help with practice for fine motor skills, regulation skills including attention and impulse control, and sensory processing.
The DIR/Floortime (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based model, of which the main component is called “floortime”) model of intervention for ASD is a child-guided model where an adult gets down on the floor with the child, watches the way they play, engages with them, and works on teaching skills through the activities that they are already drawn to. Floortime asserts that by making emotional connections, parents and professionals can help young children with ASD to bridge the social relationship gap, and help to promote abstract thinking.
Floortime is a newer and less established strategy for treating ASD than some others, but the studies and professional opinions surrounding it that do exist consider it to be promising. Parents can play a large part in floortime, and it can cost less.
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)
There are a lot of different types of therapies that can be described under the umbrella term ABA. Some of these are more controversial than others, but as a rule, ABA is the most broadly accepted strategy in the medical community. It’s based around the idea of dividing behaviors into “desired” behaviors and “undesired” behaviors, and then positively reinforcing desired behaviors. These desired behaviors are then used as steps towards forming certain skills to meet goals the ABA practitioner has set. In its original form, ABA also punishes undesired behaviors, although these days, many practitioners are opposed to the punishment model, and the model of positive reinforcement is the most common type.
As it is currently practiced, for many children, ABA can be most helpful as a program that specifically looks at the skills a young child will find most useful as they start to move through the world, and builds a program around breaking those skills down into small parts that may be easier to learn. In general, ABA is approved for treatment of a wide range of different types of ASD.
Programs that seem to follow the same or similar structure for every child under their care rather than setting goals that are specifically designed around the needs of each individual child tend to be less helpful to the young children they’re designed to treat, and can be distressing and unpleasant for their young patients. Instead, programs that can be the most helpful include programs that use ABA to build new skills, and to replace behaviors that can be unhelpful or dangerous for young children with functional alternatives.
Helpful programs may not try to decrease behaviors which are more visible signs of ASD (including a decrease of non-harmful “stimming” – self-soothing repeated physical actions like rocking or hand-flapping), but might instead work on helping young children replace these behaviors with other options that offer the same sensory satisfaction but can be more easily made a part of day-to-day life.
One of the big challenges many children with ASD face is finding ways to make themselves understood. Some autistic children remain non-verbal as they grow, while others take longer to learn and become comfortable with spoken language than their peers. Children who are especially delayed verbally may benefit from working with a speech-language pathologist, who will be able to evaluate the specific root of the verbal delay and help to work on it. Speech-language pathologists can also help children with profound language delays work out alternative ways to communicate. Early Intervention can help families connect with speech-language pathologists.
As young children grow, their needs grow with them, and having information about a wide range of different types of therapies and interventions can help parents keep an eye out for ways to adjust their children’s routines as their needs evolve.