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).
Identifying, Treating Pediatric Vestibular Dysfunction Involves Occupational, Physical Therapy Collaboration
Once upon a time, vestibular dysfunction in children was thought to be exceptionally rare. Our occupational and physical therapists know, however, that pediatric vestibular disorders, which affect as many as 35 percent of adults, are increasingly being identified earlier than ever. Symptoms include chronic dizziness and imbalance. In children, vestibular system disorders can also cause problems in early development, impacting:
- Ability to maintain an upright position when sitting;
- Delays in crawling and walking;
- Difficulty with steady vision when moving the head (for example when copying words or letters at a chalkboard when seated at a desk);
- Diminished balance and motor function.
Long-term, this can have significant and painful social, educational and economic impacts for kids. Professionals on our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational and physical therapy teams are committed to identifying and addressing these issues early on, promoting the highest possible level of relief and function and ultimately mitigating the worst adverse impacts.
What is the Vestibular System and How Do I Know if My Child’s is Dysfunctional?
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.
As FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists, we help children with disabilities overcome impediments to independence, adapt to the world around them (or adapt the world to them) and acquire the tools necessary to navigate each day. One key component of this is learning appropriate socialization – particularly with peers. Through play-based approaches, our clients learn to recognize personal space, read body language, handle greetings, manage unexpected interactions, participate in conversations, take turns, avoid conflicts and understand and express their emotions.
Problems with socialization for children with disabilities can be compounded when peers’ reactions are overwhelmingly negative. To be fair: It’s natural for any child to be curious, hesitant or possibly even scared when encountering notable differences for the first time. Every parent has at least one story about the time their child said something mortifying in pointing out another person’s differences (usually very loudly, in public, and in a line where there is no quick escape). But the truth is: They’re still learning socialization skills too. It’s a teaching moment.
Talking to your kids about peers with disabilities increases understanding and acceptance, encourages inclusion and can even help reduce bullying (to which children with disabilities are especially vulnerable).
Long-practicing occupational therapists in South Florida know it wasn’t so long ago children with disabilities were far more isolated from society in daily life. The 13 percent of Americans with disabilities were often taught in different classrooms, denied accommodations allowing them access to the same facilities and arbitrarily boxed out of many career choices. The good news is that’s changing, most recently with the U.S. Department of Education’s new policy statement on inclusion in early childhood programs. The DOE policy declares unequivocally that inclusion of children with disabilities from a young age offers maximum benefit and should be every district’s goal.
That means if he or she is not already, your child will soon have daily interaction with at least one peer who has a disability. Helping them understand differences – and framing those differences in a positive way – can make a big difference.
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.
“Tummy time” is a cute little phrase referencing an essential infant exercise that our pediatric occupational therapists know so many parents come to dread. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, tummy time should start when your child is a newborn, placing your child (always supervised) on their tummies. This begins with short, 2-to-3-minute increments three times a day and eventually extending it for longer periods of 30-to-40-minutes as they get older.
The whole concept of “tummy time” started back in the early 1990s, when the AAP first began recommending that babies be put “back to sleep,” placed on their backs during naps and at night to reduce the incidence rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – which has really worked! Researchers around the globe report SIDS deaths have decreased 40 to 50 percent since the Back to Sleep campaign began.
The problem is this has been accompanied by a rise in other problems physicians and pediatric occupational therapists believe is related, most commonly plagiocephaly. In layman’s terms, this refers to when infants develop a flat spot on the back of their skull. The American Academy of Physical Therapists reports an “alarming rise” of skull deformation, with one analysis published in the Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal finding it rose approximately 600 percent from an incidence rate of 5 percent prior to 1992 (when the “Back to Sleep” campaign began) until now. “Back to Sleep” is almost certainly a driving factor, but also the increasingly inordinate amount of time infants spend in car seats, strollers, etc.
Almost all our FOCUS families are looking forward to a little down time spent with loved ones over the winter holidays. But – You Better Watch Out! As our occupational therapists can explain, a break from the routine of regular school, sports, occupational therapy and other activities for three full weeks can be enough to throw any child off-balance. It’s especially true for children with sensory processing disorder, exacerbated when in lieu of those routines, they’re feeling the sensory overload of parties, people, music, lights, recitals/ plays/ shows, decorations and different foods.
Reducing the risk of over-stimulation and the kind of routine disruption that leads to major meltdowns, our Fort Myers pediatric occupational therapists urge parents to “ease through the season.” That doesn’t mean your child can’t participate in or won’t enjoy your family’s much-cherished traditions. In fact, this time of year can be an excellent learning opportunity for those with sensory challenges or social anxiety. It just means that to maximize the time you have, plan ahead when possible and be mindful of the ways in which your child is experiencing these same events.
Occupational Therapists Want to See a Merrier Season for All
Although it’s been said many times, many ways: Prepare, prepare, prepare. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge ordeal, but just take a few minutes to consider where you’re going, whether you’re traveling, how many are likely to be there and what sensory obstacles can you reasonably foresee. For example, if you’re planning a busy day with lots of activities or an extended trip, a weighted or compression vest might go a long way. Keep sensory tools handy. And even if you think your child may not fully understand, take a little time to explain the plan – the night before, the morning of, on the way there and just before you get there. That way they aren’t completely caught off guard.
The FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists have years of education and experience in developing goals and a plan-of-care for our pediatric patients, with the goal of promoting the highest level of functioning in everyday life. But as parents, you don’t need a degree to carry these lessons over with at-home occupational therapy exercises. There are many ways you can help strengthen your child’s skills and development with occupational therapy exercises – most with items you probably have around the house, if you need anything at all. The idea is not just to improve your child’s development of independence and life skills, but to have fun and spend quality time doing it.
Some of the strengths and skills you can target with occupational therapy exercises at home include:
- Body awareness
- Visual perception skills
- Language skills
- Muscle strength
- Direction following
- Texture exploration
- Emotional regulation
Because every child is different, it’s important to discuss your plan for at-home occupational therapy exercises with your child’s FOCUS occupational therapist, to ensure safety and the best results.
When you imagine the fastest-growing career, your mind probably zips to something like computer programming or industry giants like Uber and Amazon. Few pay much mind to the health care field, but the reality is it is one of the most rapidly expanding market sectors. What’s more, a sizable part of that growth involves occupational therapists.
Glassdoor just ranked the job of occupational therapist as the No. 4 most desirable of 2018 among the top 50. Additionally, U.S. News & World report ranked the job of occupational therapists as No. 9 in Best Health Care Jobs and No. 11 in the Best 100 Jobs.
Our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists aren’t surprised in the least. First, a growing number of physicians, patients and families are recognizing how extremely effective and profoundly positive it can be – whether an aging stroke patient, a car accident victim or a toddler with autism. Pediatric occupational therapy especially is renowned to be a highly-rewarding field. Florida occupational therapy careers are taking off, with therapists in high demand and garnering well-deserved credit for remarkable progress with patients of all challenges.
Many times, when a child is first diagnosed with autism and referred to occupational therapy in Fort Myers, their first question is, “What the heck is that?” It’s a reasonable one. Most people hear “occupation” and think, “job.” What gets overlooked is the fact that children do have a job: Learning how to take care of themselves and function in society.
Part of that is learning to speak and walk, but it’s also learning how to draw and write, how to eat healthy, how to understand and follow directions, how to exercise proper hygiene and use the toilet, how to look people in the eye when we’re interacting and how to cope with transitioning from one thing to the next.
For a typically-developing child, these lessons will come naturally over time. For a child with autism, intervention is required to help them reach their maximum potential. Occupational therapy is a big part of that puzzle, and at FOCUS Fort Myers, it’s tailored to each child.