Social media newsfeeds everywhere will be suddenly awash today with blue light bulbs and puzzle piece art, marking World Autism Awareness Day (every April 2nd) and the beginning of National Autism Awareness Month. At FOCUS, members of our team have been providing Fort Myers therapy for children with autism (and many other conditions) for more than a decade now.
Occasionally during Autism Awareness Month, we come across questions/hear sentiments like:
- What difference do blue porch lights and profile pic frames make?
- Doesn’t everyone already know about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at this point? After all, the CDC’s newest estimate that 1 in 59 children/1 in 37 boys are diagnosed in the U.S. now annually.
- Do we really even NEED an Autism Awareness Month anymore?
Early Intervention Speech, Occupational, ABA Therapy Preparing Wave of People With Autism for Workforce
As rates of autism diagnoses climb steadily, roughly 500,000 teens with autism are poised to enter the workforce over the next decade, according to advocates at Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism. Yet the majority of those people with autism struggle to land their first job, and 4 in 10 won’t work at all in their 20s. The spectrum is incredibly broad, so each comes to the table with their own strengths and challenges, but there is no question those who receive early intervention ABA therapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy fare much better long-term.
Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated autism prevalence rates by 15 percent to 1 in 59 children. That’s more than double what the rate was in 2000. Part of this has to do with improved awareness, earlier diagnoses and improved treatment models. Research published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health indicated early diagnosis (before 24 months, as early as 12 months) leads to earlier eligibility for intervention services (like ABA therapy), and other evidence-based research has indicated clear indication early intervention is causally related to better prognoses – including success in education and employment.
The AFFA reports that while most adults with autism want to work, fewer than 60 percent can land a job. The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet an adult deprived of early intervention therapies as a child has missed out on a critical development window to address significant challenges associated with everyday function and independence. This isn’t to say it’s ever entirely “too late” to initiate intervention strategies, but our ABA therapy team members know it’s most effective when it starts before age 5 (and the earlier the better).
Premature babies (aka “preemies”) born earlier than the 37th week of pregnancy, are more likely to survive today even compared to the 1990s – and they are more likely to have less severe disabilities. That’s according to research published in the British Medical Journal. Globally, about 15 million babies every year are born before the 37th week, placing them at higher risk for conditions like cerebral palsy, delayed language, speech and motor skills. Study authors further concluded preemies who receive early intervention therapy have a much better chance of catching up to their peers.
Preemies are already starting out behind the curve. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of serious illness and disability. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports preemies who survive those early weeks and months in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) may still struggle with breathing trouble, intestinal/digestive problems (including feeding and swallowing) and developmental delays. About half of all children born more than eight weeks early or at a very low birth weight develop problems with language, learning and executive function.
As our FOCUS Fort Myers therapy team can explain, early intervention therapy involves a combination of separate but interrelated services, tailored to meet the specific needs of each child, with the core aim of helping a child develop skills that will allow them to reach their full potential. This generally includes some combination of speech and language therapy, feeding therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Although many preemies benefit from this therapy up to age 5 and sometimes beyond, commitment to therapy now reduces the struggles preemies will face down the road.
When parents of children with down syndrome are referred to Fort Myers ABA therapy, their initial response is often, “Wait, I thought that was for autism?”
It is. But it’s also proven extremely effective when incorporated into the treatment plans of kids with other special needs – especially down syndrome.
Certain challenging behaviors common among children with down syndrome are very similar to those displayed by children with autism. These behaviors, left untreated, can impede progress with academics, socialization and independence – blocking their path to realizing their full potential.
Good news for Florida parents of children with down syndrome: ABA therapy coverage is mandated for them, this month marking two years since the legislature agreed this, along with early intervention speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy should be guaranteed for children diagnosed with down syndrome.
The Florida mandate – House Bill 221, codified in and amendment to F.S. 627.6686 – helps families and individuals with down syndrome access effective, science-based therapy without having to mount a massive fight with your health insurer.
Many of our FOCUS pediatric speech therapists were initially drawn to this field in part because we share a love of language. Sure, some of us are self-professed grammar nerds and logophiles, but in working with kids with special needs, we’ve seen that the real beauty of language is the way it facilitates communication and sparks connections. That’s a universal truth of language, but in helping children overcome speech delays, receptive language deficits or phonological disorders, we’ve come to appreciate language on a whole new level.
In stacking the developmental blocks for communication, social interaction and connection, one of the best (and easiest) things any parent can do: Read bedtime stories. This is especially true for kids with special needs, for whom language doesn’t come easily. Frequent storybook sessions help children learn new words, recognize the importance and subtle differences of tone, inflection and pitch, explore complex feelings and confusing interactions in a safe space and better grasp the intricacies of the world around them.
Most children – even if some have shorter attention spans – love bedtime stories. (Although story time can be anytime, bedtime is ideal – especially if you’re child is antsy – because you’re more likely to have a captive audience just before bed, as opposed to morning or mid-day, unless they still nap. Plus, many parents who work find it difficult to nail down a story time routine in the morning rush or simply can’t swing it on their lunch hour.) Making stories-and-snuggles part of the nightly groove works best for most, gives kids something to look forward to and a chance to wind down. And, as most parents of kids with special needs know, having a routine is a lifeline.
Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand the stories, follow along or pay much attention, research shows they still glean advantages from the one-on-one time, routine and mental exercise. Most speech, ABA and occupational therapists would argue children who struggle with expressive and receptive language skills may even need those bedtime stories more than most.
It’s been well established over decades of rising autism rates that two things are proven most effective to ensure the best outcomes: Early diagnosis and early intervention, the latter incorporating an initially intense schedule of Fort Myers ABA therapy (applied behavioral analysis), usually in combination with speech therapy, occupational therapy and sometimes physical therapy. (Most children with autism have co-occurring conditions.)
Now, a very interesting new study published in the journal Cell Reports indicates it may be possible to address some of the social behavior deficits characteristic of autism even well into adulthood with a novel approach: Electric currents. While the sensitive time period for treating social behaviors is longer than for repetitive behaviors, it’s still a pretty small window of early childhood. Citing a growing body of evidence that there is a genetic component to autism impacting certain neural pathways, the new study concludes we *might* be able to successfully tackle social behavioral inflexibility in much older children with autism or even adults with magnetic stimulation or low-dose electrical currents.
Now, we need to pause a moment and point out this isn’t a mad scientist / “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” kind-of-deal. So-called “electric shock therapies” got a terrible rap in the 19th and 20th centuries – and for good reason due to some wildly unethical tactics with tragic results. Today though, electroconvulsive therapy has proven both safe and very effective for conditions like severe depression and bipolar disorder, while neuromodular therapy (similar) has been effective in treating Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
Fort Myers ABA therapists at FOCUS know that in terms of specialties in medical study, autism is relatively new. The condition wasn’t even named in medical literature until the 1930s. The child psychiatrist credited with discovering it would later say, “I didn’t discover autism. It was there before.” But because this overall lack of awareness of the condition – even in the medical community – means still today that for as many strides as we’ve made, there is still so much we don’t know – namely, its causes or why autism rates have risen so sharply since the 1960s (now at 1 in every 59 children and 1 in 38 for boys).
What our ABA therapists can say with confidence is that early intervention with a combination of pediatric therapies – specifically ABA (applied behavioral analysis), occupational therapy, speech therapy and sometimes physical therapy – has thusfar proven the most effective in helping children diagnosed with autism catch up to their peers to the greatest extent possible.
ABA Therapists: FOCUS’ Collaborative Approach has Proven Most Effective
ABA, and the methods studied and practiced by our Fort Myers ABA therapists, specialists and RBTs (registered behavior technicians), are considered the”gold standard” when it comes to autism therapy. In the simplest terms, ABA is a rewards-based system for the goal of behavior modification. Parents use it all the time without even realizing (example: You’ll get dessert if you finish your broccoli). Our Fort Myers ABA therapists can explain we use the same basic principle, but uniquely tailored to each child, meeting them at their skill level to teach appropriate behaviors and minimize inappropriate or unhealthy behaviors. (This individualized plan approach is critical because as the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism… You’ve met one person with autism.” What is motivating or consequential for one child may be totally irrelevant and ineffective for another. That’s why it’s so important to have ABA therapists who aren’t just trained, but passionate about what they do, committed to never giving up in identifying those missing puzzle pieces that are going to make it “click” for each child.
Parents of children with autism are acutely familiar with “meltdowns.” Over time, they grow attuned to them, gain a better sense of what and when to expect them and become increasingly adept at avoiding the most obvious triggers, reducing frequency and minimizing the effects.
FOCUS Fort Myers ABA therapists know that to outsiders, meltdowns and tantrums can seem analogous. The reality is they are very different. It’s not the result of a child or person who is trying to be difficult or disruptive (though many autism parents are familiar with the looks and judgments of people who assume so). Meltdowns occur when a child is utterly overwhelmed and often unable to express that in a way that is appropriate or easily understood.
Further, ABA therapists recognize meltdowns aren’t the only way someone with autism might express these intense feelings. It might also manifest with the person withdrawing from or avoiding a situation or interaction. It’s unique for every person, and often, recognizing these other indicators can signal to parents, teachers and caregivers when it’s time to intervene or remove someone from a situation.