Early Intervention: The Key to Language for Children with Autism
Topic Paragraph: The key to releasing a child with autism from their restrictive individualized world and giving them the opportunity to enter ours is early intervention. To a child with autism, language is not second nature. Unfortunately, language affects every aspect of human life. Therefore, early intervention is essential to help these children develop skills such as expressing needs and desires, socially responding to others, fine and gross motor skills, and expressing emotions. These children may be non-responsive to many audio and visual cues, which cause them to shut people out of their world. Children with autism do, however, have hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
First, it is important to understand what autism is. Children with autism do not follow normal patterns of development. Because of this delayed development, it may be possible to detect autism from birth. The following checklist gives some possible indicators of autism:
- does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by one year of age
- does not speak one word by sixteen months
- does not combine two words by two years
- does not respond to name
- loses language or social skills
Some other indicators:
- poor eye contact
- doesn’t seem to know how to play with toys
- excessively lines up toys or other objects
- doesn’t smile
- at times seems to be hearing impaired (Newschaffer, 2003).
According to Autism Speaks there are one in one hundred fifty children diagnosed with autism (2007). Therefore, there are quite a few children who are unable to properly communicate. Unfortunately, parents, teachers, and even doctors may overlook many of these children because they feel the child is just a little behind. As with any other medical problem, the earlier the diagnosis, the earlier the treatment and intervention can begin. Without early intervention, the child’s language skills can fall farther and farther behind.
In order to teach skill, medications may be required. Medication will not cure autism, because there is no cure for autism. Often children with autism may be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or impulse control problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourette Syndrome, Audio Processing Delays, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, seizure disorders, and Generalized Anxiety Disorders, just to name a few. In order to give the child a better quality of life, children with autism may have to take several medications at one time. According to Cowley, author of the article “Understanding Autism” featured in Newsweek, no medication in itself can correct the disorder, and none should take the place of education (2000). Because every child with autism is different, they will all have different needed treatments and therapies. For instance, a child with autism may experience deficits in his verbal language, written language, visual/physical language, and audio processing skills. Individual deficits will determine needed therapies.
The most important deficit to address is the speech delay. Without communication skills, children with autism may be locked in their worlds, never able to come out. Therefore, early intervention is crucial. Most children with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized programs. One on one teacher/child or parent/child interaction such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is most effective for the development of speech. A speech therapist will test the child and come up with a program specifically designed to help develop language skills.
Next, an inability to use words properly makes it very difficult for children with autism to express themselves. Similarly, children with autism may have an inability to properly process communication. This is known as an audio processing disorder. Because they are not processing the information in a conversation, they may redirect conversations toward something they better understand. Therefore, relating the conversation to some of the child’s key interests can help him understand. This type of assistance can be very beneficial to help with audio processing disorders. In addition to an inability to express oneself, autism means an inability to express emotions. This can be linked to both an impaired non-verbal communication and an impaired ability to imitate others. Understandably, children with autism may also have trouble controlling their emotions. Some may even begin to hurt themselves. Additionally, people may have a hard time being able to tell when a child with autism is being affectionate. Another way a child with autism may fail to express emotions is an inability to properly express discomfort, which may result in extreme fearfulness. For instance when a child with autism hears a loud noise, he may scream and seek comfort within his mother’s reach. However, the most noticeable sign that an autistic child is uncomfortable is their repetitive behaviors. To an autistic child, repetitiveness brings comfort because it is familiar. Thus, the uncomfortable stimuli should be removed.
Another common behavior that stems from the inability to use language properly is an inability to read people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health it is hard for children with autism to be able to read faces; therefore they have a difficult time telling whether or not a person is angry, happy, sad, playing, or in pain (2007). Unfortunately, this can lead to many social problems. Overall, mainstream schooling can be very beneficial in helping with the social and academic development of children with autism. Headstart programs are often recommended. Children with autism may not mutually relate socially, and may often evade eye contact with others. Many of them may seem awkward, tend to be loners, or have a tendency to be very self-absorbed. It is important for those who deal with children with autism to realize it is okay for the child to be self-absorbed every now and again. When they escape into their own world, “it is essential to let them have the time to themselves so that they can gather themselves” (Walters, 2007).
Likewise, children with autism may be unable to perceive what kind of behavior is acceptable in public. To address this issue, a behavior therapist may be recommended. Behavior therapy serves a dual purpose. It can help children with autism learn what behavior is socially acceptable and what is not, and it can help family members learn how to cope with the child’s behaviors. A behavioral therapist can be detrimental in teaching children with autism how to be able to see things from others’ points of views. Regardless of any social problem that arises from the inability to use language properly, many children with autism thrive.
Though children with autism may thrive, they may exhibit other delays such as fine and gross motor skills delays. Although they seem to do better with written communication, children with autism often have difficulty in providing legible written communication (Frith, 1999). A couple of the major deficits Michael Brown, occupational therapist, sees in children with autism are difficulty with handwriting skills and poor finger/hand control (2007). According to Michael, underdeveloped fine motor skills affect written language in the following ways:
- poor legibility
- words run together in sentences
- lowered speed
- difficulty with letter recall and reproduction
- a dislike for providing written language
- poor spelling skills
- lowered visual sequencing to compose words or sentences
- difficulty with appropriate pencil grasp
- higher fatigue when writing (2007)
Approximately 25% of the children that Michael Brown treats have been diagnosed with autism. According to Brown, a majority of children with autism have both gross and fine motor delays, and they respond well to sensory integration therapy as well as therapies with multi-sensory activities (2007). These therapies along with the before mentioned therapies are all intervention methods that must be implemented as soon as autism has been diagnosed.
With early intervention the child with autism’s world can be opened up to our world. It is a world in which their futures look bright, and they are no longer cut off from society. Though the child with autism may still have a tendency to escape back in their own world, their communication skills will allow him to crawl back out. Each new advancement in communication for children with autism is a step closer to the brighter future that they want and deserve.
(2007). Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks, Inc. Retrieved on November 18, 2007: http://www.autismspeaks.org/
(2007, February). Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved on November 18, 2007: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/autism.cfm
Brown, Michael. (2007, March) [Interview with Michael Brown, Occupational Therapist at West Texas Rehab, Abilene Texas].
Cowley, Geoffrey. (2000, July). “Understanding Autism.” Newsweek, 46-54.
Frith, Uta, and Francesca Happe. (1999, March). “Theory of Mind and Self-Consciousness: What Is It Like to Be Autistic?” Mind & Language,1-22.
Newschaffer, Craig J. “Autism Among Us: Rising Concerns and the Public Health Response.” (2003, June). Public Health Training Network. Retrieved on November 18, 2007: http://www.publichealthgrandrounds.unc.edu/autism/webcast.htm
Walters, Jill. (2007, April). [Interview with Jill Walters, Psychologist at Ministry of Counseling, Abilene, Texas]