April is National Autism Awareness Month and an appropriate time to reflect on how wide the autism spectrum is. Autism is a complicated disorder that can affect social behaviors, communication skills and family relationships in so many ways. Therapists can work to enhance patient and family quality of life by focusing on these three clinical tips:
- Identify and work on their sensory issues
- Observe and communicate with parents to identify what motivates the child
- To be individualized in each and every treatment session after identifying their sensory need for that day and what will motivate them through treatment
Identify Sensory Issues
Jen Hoeger, SLP is a 20-year therapy veteran certified in sensory processing and has provided treatment to multiple children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over her therapy career. Jen believes the more multi-sensory the approach the better a treatment session will go for the child.
“Getting in that sensory piece every session, or at least acknowledging where the patient is at, is ultimately the key to their success that day,” Jen says. “Whether they can’t handle the sounds or the lights or they are looking for a certain type of input, until you get that under control why would you work on communication?”
A good place to start is with a sensory profile, or questionnaire, for parents that helps to identify sensory problems with vision, food, olfactory, tactile, etc. If the child presents with any behavioral problems, questionnaires can often identify the sensory precursor. If multiple sensory needs are identified, then take a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment and involve occupational therapy to get their body ready to participate in a therapy session.
Find What Motivates
Involve the parents to identify potential motivators that will assist the child in completing their treatment session. When a patient does not express interest in any of the objects or activities they see within the treatment room, you can reference a motivator idea list provided by the parents. For example, certain music categories or specific composers, visual stimulation or preferred vestibular input.
Treat the Individual
Each child is different—always treat with the individual in mind. Thinking individually turns common treatment tasks, like weight-bearing tactics, into thoughtful strategies on how best to implement them as the solution. Rehab Director Stacey Hodges, OT is another 20-year veteran of therapy and finds weight-bearing activities beneficial for most children with ASD on some level. The key is individualization in its application:
- Crawling or rolling while wearing heavy weights
- Holding on to a weighted ball and returning it after successfully completing an activity
- Weighted blankets
- Carrying all school books in a backpack to transition between classes
- Weighted lap pads
- Vests with sewn-in weights and/or pockets to slip in additional weights
- Weight-bearing exercises
Jen remarks that it is incredibly emotional and gratifying to see how effective these strategies can be. “When parents are coming to us we know there is a definite need, and we can really make a positive difference in their life. It’s just a matter of finding out for each child what they need sensory-wise to have their body in the best place for communication.”