Category Archives: Autism Research

Assistive Technology

Look around you. What technology do you see? Smartphones, tablets, and laptops? Our world is extremely tech-driven and the advancements are evolving faster with each day.  For years, different modes of technology have been used to improve the quality of life of people who have various developmental disabilities. Thankfully this means that there are more and more choices for assistive technology that can be used for children with autism. There are so many different types of technology that can be used to help children.  Let’s take a closer look at the vast types of technology that can be used in the classroom, at home or on-the-go!

  • Augmentative and  Alternative Communication Technology (AAC)  -Research shows that any type of AAC support will only enhance and increase verbal output! Making language visible through the use of technology for children with language delays and impairments assists in continued speech and language growth and development. These can help students effectively communicate in the classroom, socialize, and complete routine activities of the school day. Some of these include: communication boards and wallets, eye gaze boards, simple voice output devices, electronic communication devices, speech synthesizers, communication enhancement software and computer based communication systems.
  • Teaching Tools and Supportive Strategies – Technology can provide a visual support to children especially to facilitate learning. There are a number of options both high and low tech. For example: scheduling apps, visual timers, behavior support boards, social media communication and video modelling. Visual symbols and technology can help make concepts more concrete for children with disabilities.
  • Reading Tools – There are many adaptive technology tools for reading such as: change in text size, spacing, color, background color, use of pictures with text, adapted page turning, book stands, and talking electronic devices.
  • Writing Tools – Adaptive technology can assist with: pencil with adaptive grip, adapted papers, slant-boards and other computer processing technology.
  • Seating and Positioning Tools – There are several new pieces of physical technology that can help students stay in a seated position and focus better. For example: non-slip surfaces on chairs, blocks for feet, bolster or rolled towel, adapted or alternate chair, side-lying frames, standing frame, floor sitter or chair inserts.

Autism Assistance Dogs

Dog owners live by the adage that, “Dogs are man’s best friend.” To many this is a gross understatement. Dogs go far beyond a best friend for many people in our society. Some dogs assist owners who are blind, while others help people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Still others visit nursing homes and hospitals as a part of their “careers” as assistance dogs. But of all the jobs that dogs can have, being an autism assistance dog is by far the most unique. Unlike the guide dog who helps with physical tasks, the autism assistance dog is there more for emotional support. Project Chance, an autism service dog organization, explains that dogs are excellent companions. “By simply being there, a solid, sound and reassuring companion, dogs can help ease sensory overload, which is a common challenge for those with autism.” Let’s look at the benefits of autism assistance dogs.

  • Trained assistance dogs can be the link between a child with autism and the world around them.This can increase both independence and social interactions for a child who struggles in these areas.
  • The kindness and gentleness of the autism assistance dog helps the child by just being there – no matter what sounds, gestures or repetitive motions the child is engaging in.
  • Assistance dogs can keep children safe from “bolting” in public or getting lost. Most children with autism have no concept of personal safety, and can wander outdoors and into traffic.
  • Dogs can help with repetitive and injurious behaviors. Dogs can be tasked-trained to use touch intervention, as well as pressure intervention and mobility assistance when these repetitive or self-injurious behaviors occur.
  • Dogs are social animals and can help autistic children brave social situations that they would normally be fear producing or have high anxiety around.
  • Dogs can improve quality of sleep. Assistance dogs provide a certain level of comfort that can often improve a a child’s ability to sleep more throughout the night. They become a comfort item that will help with sleep and anxiety.
  • Dogs are calming animals. Autistic children who work with dogs have been documented to feel less anger and experience fewer acts of aggression compared to the time before receiving an assistance dog.
  • Studies have found that children with assistance doigs also increase their level of vocabulary since they tend to feel more comfortable speaking with a dog.

Talk to your therapists about the options available for pet assisted therapy for your child.

 

Benefits of Equine (Hippo) Therapy

Asperger’s and Autism are sub-categories of a larger disorder category called Pervasive Developmental Disorders. The characteristics are similar in that children and adults have difficulty with communication, social interactions and some physical impairments. Therapies for Autism and Asperger’s include endless hours of physical and occupational therapy as well as behavior therapy. While research into animal assisted therapy is fairly new, there is a general consensus that therapy animals can be a highly beneficial addition to treatment programs for children with autism or Asperger’s.

Equine assisted therapy also called Hippo-therapy (derived from the Greek word “hippo” for horse) seems to have excellent results. Horses are used by physical, speech, and occupational therapists to reach their patients on a personal level. Let’s look closer at the overall benefits of equine or hippo therapy for use with children and young adults with any of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders.

  • Sensory Benefits – The rhythmic motion of riding a horse causes the children to focus on the movement – which is slow, deliberate, and relaxing. Not only does this help children focus but also improves balance and spatial orientation. The rhythmic movement can help loosen tight muscles, build muscle strength, and helps build coordination and body awareness.
  • Emotional and Social Bonding – Many Autistic children have difficulty bonding emotionally to others and socializing in traditional ways. Rather than verbal communication, autistic children experience physical communication with the horses. They learn to brush, hug, and pat the horses appropriately. By caring for the horses children build emotional and social bonds with the animals and their handlers. The excitement of riding encourages speech when the rider wants to communicate with the therapist and the horse.
  • Cognitive and Language Development – Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty with multilevel directions and cognitive concepts. Working with horses allows children and young adults to deal with directions and concepts in a hands-on manner which makes the child more motivated and willing to cooperate. Equine therapy offers a safe, secure environment where a therapist or other staff person will be close at hand as new skills are learned.

According to Equine Therapy online, “Children who start to isolate themselves have become more open as a result of equine assisted therapy. Often, they begin making eye contact with the animal first, then with other people. Soon after that, the child often becomes more relationally open; again, with the animal first, then with people.”

What is ABA?

ABA is the acronym for Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the use of  techniques and principles such as to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior. Let’s take a closer look at what this is and how it may impact your child in a positive manner.

What is ABA? Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).

How can ABA help your child? ABA methods are used to support persons with autism in at least six ways:

  • to increase behaviors (reinforcement procedures increase on-task behavior, or social interactions);
  • to teach new skills (systematic instruction and reinforcement procedures teach functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills);
  • to maintain behaviors (teaching self control and self-monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills);
  • to generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom);
  • to restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur
  • to reduce interfering behaviors (self injury)

What does Research say about ABA? A number of completed studies have demonstrated that ABA techniques can produce improvements in communication, social relationships, play, self care, school and employment. These studies involved age groups ranging from preschoolers to adults. Results for all age groups showed that ABA increased participation in family and community activities. (Read More)

What kind of Improvement or Progress can you expect to see with ABA? While children and parents can see meaningful changes over the course of many years, keep in mind that this therapy does not work overnight. Some learners do acquire skills quickly. But typically, this rapid progress happens in just one or two particular skill areas such as reading, while much more instruction and practice is needed to master another skill area such as interacting with peers.

What does it mean to be “on the spectrum?”

In the world of special education there are many buzz words and phrases thrown around that people “in the know” understand but tend to confuse the general public.  “On the spectrum” is one such phrase. Does this mean that a child or adult has autism?  Does  it mean they have Aspergers?  What does it mean exactly?  Let’s take a moment to examine this.

“On the spectrum” usually refers to the specific set of behavioral and developmental problems and the challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder. A diagnosis of ASD means that your child’s communication, social, and play skills are affected in some way. To add to the confusion, experts use different names to describe ASD.  These include:

  • Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)
  • Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Asperger syndrome
  • High functioning autism

All of these names fall under the term ASD. We use the terms autism, autism spectrum disorder, or “on the spectrum.”

Professionals and laypeople alike refer to children who are on the spectrum meaning they have some form or degree of autism. Where your child falls on this spectrum means they exhibit different behavioral patterns. Classic autism, or autistic disorder, is the most severe of the autism spectrum disorders. Milder variants are Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes called high-functioning autism, and PDD-NOS, or atypical autism. According to the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, only 20% of people on the autism spectrum have classic autism. The overwhelming majority fall somewhere on the milder range of the spectrum.

In order to determine whether your child has autism, a related autism spectrum disorder, or another developmental condition, clinicians look carefully at the way your child socializes, communicates, and behaves. Diagnosis is based on the patterns of behavior that are revealed during evaluation. The team of specialists involved in diagnosing your child may include:

  • Child psychologists
  • Child psychiatrists
  • Speech pathologists
  • Developmental pediatricians
  • Pediatric neurologists
  • Audiologists
  • Physical therapists
  • Special education teachers

Determining where your child falls “on the spectrum” is not a brief process. There is no single medical test that can diagnose it definitively; instead, in order to accurately pinpoint your child’s problem, multiple evaluations and tests are necessary.

 

Myths and Facts – Autism

Autism is in the news front and center.  Reports of the latest statistics from the Center for Disease Control, research, therapies, schools, and of course the inevitable feel good story of an autism success story.  Unfortunately, with autism being discussed by experts and laypeople alike, there are bound to be falsehoods reported and perpetuated.  Let’s look at some of the myths and facts of autism.  With help from the experts at Johns-Hopkins School of Education, Autism Speaks, and Autism Awareness we have complied several of the most common myths about autism that we hope to dispel with education and honest discussions.

Myth: Autism spectrum disorders are not increasing in incidence. They are just being better diagnosed, and diagnosed earlier so the numbers are increasing.
Fact: Autism spectrum disorders are increasing across the globe at an alarming rate. Some states are considered to be in an autism epidemic. Many states experienced a 500-1000% increase in the past few years. No one knows the cause or causes for the increase. Better and earlier diagnosis can only account for a fraction of the current increases in numbers.

 

Myth: People with autism can’t feel or express any emotion—happy or sad.
Fact: Autism doesn’t make an individual unable to feel the emotions you feel, it just makes the person communicate emotions (and perceive your expressions) in different ways.

 

 Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting.
Fact: In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. This has long been disproved.

 

Myth: Therapies for people with autism are covered by insurance.
Fact:  Most insurance companies exclude autism from the coverage plan and only half of the 50 states currently require coverage for treatments of autism spectrum disorders.

 

Myth: Autism spectrum disorders get worse as children get older.
Fact: Autism spectrum disorders are not degenerative. Children and adults with autism should continuously improve. They are most likely to improve with specialized, individualized services and opportunities for supported inclusion. If they are not improving, make changes in service delivery.

 

Myth: Certain intensive, behavioral based programs “cure” autism spectrum disorders if they are delivered at the right age and intensity.
Fact: There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders.

Dyslexia and Autism

Autism is a complex disorder that has many related conditions that have similar symptoms and overlapping symptoms.  Dyslexia is one such related disorder that may be difficult to recognize among other symptoms of autistic children.  Let’s take a closer look at dyslexia and how it relates to autism.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia impacts approximately four to ten children in a hundred. The term refers to difficulties with the basic components of reading. This includes problems with decoding (sounding out words), encoding (spelling out words) and reading words quickly and accurately (fluency). For children with dyslexia, these skills are much lower than would be expected for their age and intellectual ability.  Dyslexia involves problems in “phonological awareness.” This refers to the ability to recognize the roles that sounds play in speech. So it includes detecting rhyming words and the beginning and ending sounds of words. It also includes being aware of smaller sound units such as syllables and “phonemes” – the smallest sound units. Children with dyslexia struggle with basic phonological processing, and this hampers their development of early reading skills. (Source: Autism Speaks)

Dyslexia and Autism

Most children with dyslexia are diagnosed in elementary school due to difficulty with reading, sounding out words and reading fluency.  Speech-language pathologists can evaluate children for dyslexia and create an individual education plan (IEP) specifically to intervene in reading disorders. Autism and dyslexia are both linked to the way the brain processes information. For this reason it is not unusual for people with autism to also have a diagnosis of dyslexia. Children with autism may have reading issues or speech issues that could interfere with diagnosing dyslexia or understanding the depth of the reading issue as it relates to decoding and encoding.  People with dyslexia and autism should seek appropriate treatment for both conditions. Speak with your child’s special education teacher, classroom teacher or guidance counselor to discuss both autism and the possibility that the reading difficulties your child is experiencing may be dyslexia or possibly another reading disorder.

 

Conditions Related to Autism

Being handed a diagnosis of Autism or being told your child is on the Autism Spectrum can be overwhelming enough, but finding out that your child has related conditions may be just too much to handle.  Unfortunately, Autism does have several related conditions to  Autism and are often diagnosed alongside other conditions. Here are a few that you may need to be aware of. . . .

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)– Most people with ADHD have difficulty with both inattentiveness and hyperactivity-impulsivity. For some people with ADHD, their difficulties mainly lie in just one of these two areas. ADHD has an impact on day-to-day life, including school, work and relationships. Here are some further links to the confusion between Autism and ADHD.
  • Learning Disorders – People with autism can have different ‘degrees’ of learning disability, which can affect all aspects of their life, from studying in school to learning how to wash themselves or make a meal. Dyslexia is a common lifelong specific learning difficulty which mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills. It affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organization and sequencing. While other children struggle with attention, organization and attention disorders.
  • Social Communication Disorders – A person with social communication disorder will have difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication that cannot be explained by low cognitive ability, will have difficulties in learning and using spoken and written language, and will give inappropriate responses in conversation. Social relationships, academic achievement and occupational performance can be affected. (Source: National Autism Society)

While this is a brief list of conditions that are related and can happen in conjunction with Autism here is a more complete list of conditions associated with Autism.

Conditions Related to Autism

Asperger’s- Myths and Facts

The terms Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Spectrum Disorders and Pervasive Developmental Disorder are thrown around and used interchangeably, often confusing the true meaning and characteristics of each.  While there is considerable overlap among the different forms of autism, each type has specific characteristics that make them unique.  Let’s look a little more closely at Asperger’s Syndrome and the common myths that are confused as facts about this disorder.

The discovery of Asperger Syndrome (AS) dates back to 1944. Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described the syndrome when he was treating four boys with similar symptoms. Asperger’s Syndrome is a developmental disorder marked by cognitive and language difficulties.  People with AS have a difficult time interacting, communicating and connecting with others. They’re unable to pick up on social cues and express their emotions.  Asperger’s syndrome is considered mild compared to other ASDs (Autism Spectrum Disorders).

There are numerous pieces of misinformation and falsehoods that have developed about this syndrome.

  • Myth: Asperger’s syndrome is just a form of social anxiety.
  • Fact: While children and adults with AS have difficulty with social interaction and may resist taking any initiative in starting a conversation or interacting with peers, AS is different than social anxiety disorder. Those with social anxiety have the skills to interact with others, but their fear stops them. Those with AS lack skills such as reading social cues and body language and often take everything literally so conversation is stilted. (Health  Central)

 

  • Myth:  All people with AS are geniuses in math and science.
  • Fact:  While some people with AS have high intelligence in these areas others have an average range of IQ in these areas. (Autism Speaks)

 

  • Myth:  People with AS can grow out of the syndrome.
  • Fact: Some people with AS do experience a lessening of symptoms or can better manage symptoms because of occupational, physical or behavioral therapies and while they still have difficulty with social situations, they may not continue to meet all the diagnostic criteria. However, AS is a lifelong condition and does not just “go away” as a child grows up. (Psych Central)

 

  • Myth: People with AS can not get married.
  • Fact: The reality is that some adults do get married and have families even with AS.

Art Therapy and Autism

One of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders is difficulty with verbal and social communication. Finding ways practice those skills in a non-threatening manner is ultimate  goal of most specialists and therapists working with children on the spectrum.  One method that is used is art therapy.  Don’t think arts and crafts.  Think instead a very specialized therapy to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children and teens with autism.

How Art Therapy can help – For children with social and emotional struggles, art therapy can help develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and improve self-awareness.  Let’s look at the specifics of art therapy’s benefits.

  • A Communication Tool – Verbal communication is a challenge for a many children on the spectrum. Art can give those children a method of communication.  Through art children can express anger, joy, and even loneliness.
  • A Self-Regulation Tool –  Through art, instead of biting his hand or slapping his face when he gets upset, children can now squeeze a ball of clay. When he/she feels strange sensations, play with water or sand can help the body adjust.
  • Improved Sensory Issues – Sticky glue, wet paint and goopy clay can be hurtles that a child on the spectrum will find a way over.  Art therapy can help a child manage those feelings.
  • Fine Motor Control – Working with clay, paints, brushes and other art supplies can give great practice for fine motor control.

If you are looking for a board certified Art Therapists here are some great links to get you started.