For the one in 68 children with autism, therapy is essential. SPONSORED CONTENT.
By JANET PINKERTON
for Nashville Parent Magazine
Henry, an 8-year-old boy in a bright green polo shirt, runs into the kitchen for his after-school snack. In between bites of an apple, he jumps up and down. Ellie, his behavior interventionist, follows behind, preparing a clipboard with a form for recording data. When Henry finishes his snack, they’ll begin a two-hour session of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, widely regarded as a top treatment program for autism.
Henry was diagnosed with autism at age 3 when his mom, Melinda, says Henry was no longer looking at her or her husband. “He slipped away from us,” Melinda recalls. “It was the most terrifying thing I have ever known.” And startling. Henry had passed his 18-month well-child visit with flying colors. But by the time he was 2-and-a-half, Melinda says, “he was a completely different child.”
According to Autism Speaks Tennessee, autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. While one in every 110 children worldwide is diagnosed with autism — making the disability more prevalent than diabetes, pediatric cancer and AIDS combined — the public at large still doesn’t know how to relate to children with autism … or that ABA therapy is critical to helping these kids and families find some semblance of normalcy in everyday interactions.
Ellie works with Henry several afternoons each week in order to reduce some of his “challenging behaviors” and teaching him “appropriate communication” instead. Ellie brings tools with her when she comes: helpful flashcards, manipulatives and other teaching materials, many designed especially for ABA use, found at Therapy in a Bin in Nashville. Melinda, who has learned ABA therapy from Ellie in order to continue working with Henry on a regular basis, has noticed big changes in Henry’s behavior and says ABA therapy — simply put, the study of how behavior is learned — has provided breakthroughs for their family. The best part? Henry is looking at Melinda again. Yet while autism frequently become less severe by adulthood, it’s considered a lifelong developmental disorder.
The demand for providers of ABA therapy has skyrocketed during the past five years, ever since Tennessee and other states passed laws mandating private insurance companies offer more coverage for the exploding population of children with autism. When Henry started ABA therapy at age 3, he received 25 hours of therapy per week for two years; now his therapy takes place in hour-long sessions a couple of times each week (with sustaining support from his parents). And while ABA is a proven method of bringing about meaningful change in an autistic child’s behavior, children with autism respond differently to the therapy, with some having more meaningful success than others. Successfully done, ABA therapy is a partnership between therapists, parents and others who work with autistic children.
Since autism is so prevalent in society, it’s important for everyone to know more about it. Here are a few key things to know:
• Those with autism or ASD often think very differently, so they may need a bit more time to process a question or statement. It is common for someone with autism to think more visually and to be able to respond using visual cues.
• Most people with autism have “sensory sensitivities.” While typical individuals know the common five senses — touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste — people with autism or ASD may have a hypersensitivity in one or more of those areas. That’s why a person with autism or ASD who participates in public events or activities may react strongly to certain stimulation. It’s helpful when people understand that the family and person with autism are doing the best they can when coping with any particular situation.
• People with autism often find it difficult to think critically because they focus on minute details. Having a conversation may be difficult, but if you allow the person with ASD to communicate as best they can, you may be able to build a rapport.
• ABA works best when parents and caregivers carry over the skills outside of the therapy room. That’s why it’s important for people who interact with children on the spectrum to have awareness.
• ABA isn’t just sitting at a table learning skills. It includes getting dressed, recognizing personal space, safety skills, play skills, listening to directions from a distance and pretty much everything that a typical child needs to learn how to do.
Janet Pinkerton is a freelance writer.