Several factors play into the success of treatment for those with autism. As mentioned in the first part of this series, early identification is a key factor. The earlier a child starts treatment, the greater their chance increases for living an independent life.
Communication between the family, school and any treatment providers is also a key factor in successful treatment.
"There's constant communication between the schools, the treatment provider, the family and any other therapists they're seeing," owner of Starlight Centers for Inclusion in Eagle River April Leanna said. "It's a huge team effort."
Communication is especially important when a child is undergoing treatment at both their school and an outside provider, such as Starlight. Both parties need to remain aware of the skills the other party is working on so the programs do not interfere with each other.
"We see what they're working on in school and we either work on the same thing or we supplement it," Leanna said.
Collaboration is also beneficial when a question arises outside someone's area of expertise.
"If I'm unsure of what motor skills to work on with a child," Leanna said, "I can talk to their occupational therapist who's an expert in that. They can give me tips on what to work on."
Another element in successful treatment revolves around participation of those in the individual's life outside of therapy, meaning parents and family members may receive homework.
An example is familiarizing a child with performing a certain task like eating a piece of fruit. When the behavioral therapist succeeds in getting a child to eat a piece of fruit in the clinic, treatment isn't successful until that child can do the same thing in a new location.
"If a child masters a program in the clinic with me, I really want them to do it at home and in the community," Leanna said. "So if a child can eat fruit with me but they can't do it at school, the assignment could be the parents go to school and have fruit with the child."
Parents and family members are incorporated throughout treatment in the clinic, so the child is able to perform a task not just with the therapist but with the parents as well. The parents then become a gateways of sorts to helping the child perform certain tasks in the community.
"If you're a basketball coach, you're not going to expect your team to just go out and play basketball," Leanna said. "You take one skill at a time and first you teach them to dribble. You don't introduce the plays, you don't introduce the basket, you just teach them how to stand and bounce the ball. That's what we do."
Repetition and reinforcement serve as another factor in successful treatment. Those with autism process personal experiences differently, which means they often need more time to adapt to situations.
If a child's sense are being overloaded, it's possible they don't realize what's happening or why they're uncomfortable. If a child is in a grocery store and the lights are bothering them, they may not know what the source of their discomfort is. They simply know something is wrong.
Repetition plays a factor in teaching the child to know what's wrong.
"It starts way back, before that," Leanna said. "Working with tangible items and teaching them to request items they want. So before they can say, 'it's too bright in here,' we have to step it back and teach them to ask for an item they want. Repetition and reinforcement is important for that."
The process for upgrading from tangible items to making specific requests can be long and involved but it's important for the child to be able to identify a problem as well as a solution.
"If they're not able to identify things they see or do, it sets them up for kind of scary situations where maybe they can't express they were bullied," Leanna said.
For this reason, it's also important for children with autism to be able to recall events. Going back to the way information is processed, the individual often needs to think deeply about what task they just performed or what event they just experienced.
"I may ask a child, 'What did we do when we were sitting at the table?'" Leanna said. "Sometimes they can't remember or they can't express that. So we start from a simple activity that happened just a minute ago and we eventually expand so they're learning to process and recall events that happened in the past."
Leanna described the treatment method as a "systematic way of teaching." She stressed the importance for behavioral treatment providers to be well trained and understand how to take a process that can be rigid and make it fun.
"You try to mix it up and have fun while you're teaching," Leanna said. "So the teaching pattern is systematic but the way you teach can be fun."
Jessica Leighty may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.