• Helping Children with Autism Learn to Communicate

    For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), communication can be a major challenge. Children whose language skills do not develop typically often have difficulty conveying their wants and needs effectively, which leads to frustration. This puts these children at risk of potentially harmful and misunderstood behaviors like tantrums, aggression, or self-injury. That’s why it’s vital to focus on working with children with ASD to help them develop communication skills.  

    One effective way of doing this is with functional communication training (FCT). Rather than teaching kids to label an item, FCT focuses on using language to get something needed or desired. This information is conveyed with language, signs, and pictures, to help individuals achieve a desired result. The object may be obtaining something like a toy or food, expressing the desire to participate in an activity, or stating a need for something like a trip to the bathroom or a break from something. Using positive reinforcement, FCT helps teach children about language and communication, in order to increase their ability to have their needs met by interacting effectively with others. By rewarding appropriate methods of communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, we’re able to empower children with ASD to advocate for their own wants and needs.  

    • How does FCT work? The first step in the process is to identify something that highly motivates the child. It could be a favorite television show, a toy, a favorite snack or an activity. The child is taught a sign or given a picture that represents that thing. Using errorless learning, the therapist guides the child to use that sign or picture in order to get the reward. Repeating this process, with the presentation of the picture or sign always bringing the earned reward, helps children become familiar with the process and more independent in communicating. As signs, words, or pictures are being consistently used correctly, new ones can be added gradually, to increase the child’s vocabulary.  
    • What are the goals of FCT? The goals vary between children, depending on the child’s level of communication. For children with complex needs or significant language impairment, it may be challenging to build a small repertoire of functional communication. Children with a higher level of function and less complex needs may be able to gain as much language as their typically developing peers, by using FCT. Using assistive tech, some children may be able to speak in full sentences. Others may only be able to use single words. It’s important to tailor the goals and the treatment to each unique child. That’s why functional communication training is typically taught one-on-one by a clinician with a speech or language pathology background, or by a behavioral psychologist trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA). A major factor in the success of FCT is reinforcement of the training by parents and teachers. It’s important for children to learn that the appropriate sign, word, or picture must be presented in order to obtain the desired reward.  
    • How does FCT help with behavioral issues? The development of functional communication training originated as a way to reduce troubling behaviors exhibited by children with ASD. By assessing the function of the inappropriate behaviors, we can determine the reason the child is behaving that way. If it’s because of a lack of communication, then teaching a child to communicate reliably and effectively should extinguish the behavior. For example, a child might engage in self-injurious behavior to get attention, access something he or she wants, escape something undesired, or serve a sensory need. When this succeeds, it’s accidentally reinforced, but with FCT, these unhealthy behavioral patterns can be broken. When a child learns to self-advocate using a word, sign, or picture and discovers that the reward is given quickly and efficiently, he or she is likely to choose the easier path of appropriate behavior.  
    • Does the age of the person with ASD matter in FCT? Functional communication training can work with every age, and some adults who have been introduced to FCT have been known to gain skills quickly. However, the earlier the intervention can happen, the better, because the younger the child is when the communication repertoire is built, the better off he or she will be.  

    If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, STAR of CA is here to offer support. Founded in 2006, we provide behavioral and psychological services to people with ASD and related disorders in a nurturing environment that offers support for the entire family. We love what we do, and are devoted to improving lives through focused, caring services. You can contact us through our website or by calling 805.588.8896. 

  • Do Sensory Processing Issues Get Better Over Time?

    For children with an autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing issues can be problematic. Overwhelmed by loud, chaotic environments, children with ASD may become overstimulated and act out in ways that are unsafe or inappropriate. Sometimes, parents make the decision to stop taking children into crowded places, to avoid meltdowns. But do these problems resolve themselves as the child grows to maturity?  

    In short, yes. For most people with ASD, sensory issues become much milder as the child grows. Sometimes they resolve on their own, but even when they’re severe and continue for many years, sensory processing issues do improve. Often, this improvement can be enhanced by skills learned in occupational therapy or by providing the child with environmental accommodations.  

    • Understanding sensory processing issues. Often, children with ASD have trouble processing sensory information they take in through not only their five senses- taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell- but also through two lesserknown internal senses. These internal senses are proprioception, which has to do with body awareness and movement, and vestibular sense, which involves balance and coordination. When a child is overly sensitive to sensory input, it can become overwhelming, which leads to avoidance. On the other hand, some children are undersensitive, which can cause them to bump into things and people intentionally, and seek out additional sensory stimulation. Some children face both issues, depending on the type of stimulation.  
    • Occupational therapy may help. Occupational therapists use different strategies, like swinging, spinning, and deep pressure, to help kids calm down, and they work with children on gross and fine motor skills. Some OTs work in schools, consulting on accommodations for children with ASD and helping children to regulate within the environment of the classroom. Pillows for sitting, weighted vests, fidgets, and breathing exercises can all provide sensory input that helps children feel more in control.  
    • Continuing to use the coping skills learned in OT can be beneficial. Using weighted blankets, drinking through a straw, chewing gums, wearing headphones in public places, and using fidget toys are all compensatory measures that can be helpful even for teenagers and adults. As people grow and mature, they learn to avoid potentially overwhelming situations, and how to develop strategies for self-help.  
    • Maturity can also bring the motivation to tolerate discomfort. Young children are not as self-aware as teenagers and adults, and so they may not realize which behaviors are not socially appropriate. As kids grow up, they learn to manage some of their sensory issues, so that they can achieve things they want, like staying in a social situation a little while longer. There are also neurodevelopmental processes that can help change certain behaviors and improve sensory issues.  
    • Sometimes, sensory issues stick around. Not everyone with sensory issues improve with time. Some people still require some accommodation in order to function in situations that they find stressful or overwhelming. Knowing how to adapt and how to self-advocate is important in managing sensory issues. Avoiding triggers like crowds and loud noises can help, as can compensatory tools like soft clothing and dark glasses. Technology is also a boon, and there are adaptive and assistive technology tools that can help people with sensory processing issues accomplish things they might otherwise have been unable to manage.  

    If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, STAR of CA is here to offer support. Founded in 2006, we provide behavioral and psychological services to people with ASD and related disorders in a nurturing environment that offers support for the entire family. We love what we do, and are devoted to improving lives through focused, caring services. You can contact us through our website or by calling 805.588.8896.