I treat children with autism. I’ve been doing it for a while now. As the numbers of children with autism peak a staggering 1:88 (Centers for Disease Control, 2014), the demand for trained staff has gone through the roof. Many districts have specialized paraprofessionals whose primary job is to teach and support children with autism. In the Boston area, graduate and certificate programs related to ABA are cropping up everywhere, churning out new and enthusiastic graduates by the boatload.
Before I go on, there are three things you should know about me: 1) I have never been a diehard, one-shoe-fits-all clinician, 2) I embrace wholeheartedly the principals of ABA. It’s as an evidenced-based approach, and it works wonders for all sorts of kids, not just ones with autism, and, 3) If I couldn’t be silly with my students, I would just close up shop.
As an SLP, I know there are mountains of other kinds of research, and that child language and cognitive development that are important too. In this age of ABA, I find myself wanting to shout from the rooftops, “Wait! Stop! There’s more to this kid than just autism!”
Our role as SLPs and educators
Working with so many professionals “trained in autism” made me realize that, as SLPs, we bring to the table our knowledge of childhood language development, learning, motivation and context. Never before has this been more evident to me. We also bring the friendly reminder the importance of a playful approach and rapport building.
I’ve found myself shifting discussions to the whole child, and what we know about children and learning.
Here are some pointers I frequently share with staff:
- Appeal to the inner child first (yours and theirs). The individual comes before the label.
- Not every behavior can be attributed to one definitive cause. Environments, emotional state/regulation, personality, medical/biological components, all should be up for consideration.
- Assessment and intervention is a daily process, which is sometimes messy and dynamic (see #2). We won’t always get it right the first time. Or even the second time.
- It’s possible (and OK!) to be structured and silly at the same time. Sometimes silliness increases engagement.
- Watch and learn from your kindergarten teachers (see #4). I’ve learned a lot from them about having fun while being structured, thoughtful and flexible.
- Use visuals even if the child is verbal or becoming verbal. We can model language through PECS, topic boards and Aided Language Stimulation techniques, within natural play activities.
- Strive to meet every child “where they are” in all aspects of learning: attention, behavior, communication and language development.
- We can’t make someone ready to learn or communicate; we simply lay the foundation.
- Learning can’t happen in a bubble. Context is just about everything. I know what a zoo is, because I’ve been in one, not because I’ve seen a flashcard of one.
- And finally, my favorite: Provide random acts of praise and compliments. Make daily deposits into that relationship bank. It’s a worthwhile investment.
Kerry Davis EdD, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist in the Boston area, working with children who have significant communication challenges. She conducts trainings and workshops, and serves as a volunteer and consultant for Step by Step Guyana, a school for children with autism in South America. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own, and not those of her employer.