Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum
Kimberly Heinemann, a head teacher at the Children's Center, describes the unique challenges and rewards of teaching children on the autism spectrum. Whereas typically developing children will intuitively learn from their environment and people around them, children on the autism spectrum must be explicitly taught skills, such as pointing, requesting and imitation. Ms. Heineman describes the range of teaching strategies used in her classroom, including applied behavioral analysis, hand over hand, fading prompts, family work and lots of positive social reinforcement.
"We have the utmost respect for our students, and because you can't let me know what it is you want or why you're mad...my job is to work with you and help you figure out... "
— Kimberly Heinemann, Head Teacher, Children's Center for Early Intervention
Early Warning Signs related to Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum
In the following clip a speech therapist works on expressive and receptive language with Leighdionne, a young girl with ASD. Concurrently, the therapist encourages Leighdionne to make verbal approximations of words, and/or demonstrate an understanding of the words by matching and following simple commands. Leighdionne's need for better communication skills is evident at end the of clip when she becomes upset by the puzzle exercise, but is unable to express why.
In this clip a therapist works on building Sajid's ability to follow a simple command, 'touch your head.' The skill is taught by repeated practice of the command with some support from the therapist (e.g. pushing Sajod's arms upwards), followed by a small reward. Notably, Sajid makes almost no eye contact with his therapist throughout their work together, another warning sign of autism.
In the following clip, Quincy, a young boy with ASD, is learning a two step command. He is asked to select the correct object out of a group and give it to the therapist. To learn this skill the therapist gives Quincy the same command for each object, repeating it and guiding him when he responds incorrectly or becomes distracted.
Therapies related to Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum
The following video demonstrates the progress of Josiah, a young boy with autism, over the course of 8 months of intensive applied behavioral analysis at the Children's Center in Brooklyn, NY. Videos taken throughout the year illustrate how Josiah gradually learns a variety of essential skills, such as waving goodbye, nodding his head, imitating, following commands and pointing. This history of Josiah's progress attests to the great promise of early intervention for children on the autism spectrum.
Once a parent has been told that their child has an autism spectrum disorder, it is important to determine the child's strengths and weaknesses when choosing an appropriate intervention program. In all cases, the program must have a unified, cohesive team (which may include an educator, speech pathologist, physical therapist, etc) that actively works with the parents. The program should be interactive, accessible, and understandable to the principal caretakers since they have the most potential to make a significant impact on their child's development. Finally, the program should be data driven, accountable, and have an assessment tool to measure the child's progress as compared to a set baseline. Children with autism fall along a broad spectrum, each unique with particular characteristics. Thus, a successful program should be flexible and catered to each child in order to efficiently replace inappropriate behaviors with functional ones.
The mother of Liana, a young girl with ASD, describes her journey from having concerns about her daughter's development to taking action on those concerns, talking to her doctor and seeking out early intervention, steps which led to substantial improvements in Liana's behavior and development.
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