By Misha Caldwell, PNP, and Alise Jaime, MA, CMH Pediatric Clinic
April is World Autism Month, and historically there have been events and support activities throughout the U.S., as well as internationally, to bring awareness to the disorder. Here on the Oregon North Coast, there is an annual “Color the Coast for Autism” 5K run held at the Warrenton/Astoria KOA campground. The CMH Pediatric Clinic and other CMH caregivers have been planning and organizing a group of supporters to participate as a team. However, we all know about the ever-changing situation with the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of social distancing and staying home to stay well. The walk/run itself has been rescheduled to September 26, 2020, but that hasn’t stopped the pediatric providers, caregivers and clinic from wanting to bring attention and awareness to Autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder with a wide variation of symptoms and levels of severity. Its core symptoms include challenges in communication and social interactions, in addition to repetitive physical or vocal behaviors. Signs and symptoms begin in early childhood but can go unnoticed or misdiagnosed depending on the severity. Autism is diagnosed by evaluations with developmental screening tools. These tools are routinely completed on all children at 18 months of age and again at two years old, but screenings should be completed at any age when concerns are present.
The treatment modality for Autism is therapy, therapy, therapy. Children diagnosed with Autism are commonly referred to Early Intervention (EI) programs that will again complete developmental screenings and evaluations, followed by initiating needed therapies. Additionally, private therapy referrals should be considered for speech (ST), occupational (OT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA) where available. Utilizing both EI programs and private therapy options can help maximize the therapy options and frequency. As children get older and are transitioned from EI therapy to school-based programs, they are usually placed on an individual education plan (IEP) by their schools. This allows therapies to continue within the school setting and offers additional assistance, accommodations and services within the classroom.
Given the current COVID-19 closures and restrictions, many of these therapies came to a screeching halt this spring. Parents in our community are being challenged with the task of 24/7 parenting and supporting their children, all while being thrust into teacher mode as distance-learning has become the new norm. For parents with children affected by Autism, this can be exceptionally challenging as they also serve as therapists. Long breaks in professional therapies can result in progress and achievement regression. The Autism Speaks organization (autismspeaks.org) has compiled and developed a resource page for helping these children continue to thrive throughout the pandemic period. They have links to resources, video learning, virtual field trips and events to help navigate these times and support our kids.
Online Training Videos
Websites and Toolkits
Support for Parents and Families
Navigating life for a child with ASD can be overwhelming. There are agencies geared to provide support for parents, including:
Autism Empowerment is a community support network that offers many resources and activities that the family may appreciate, including parent support groups, Tween & Teen Social Club, Game Night, Groups for Adults with ASD, and Men’s Autism Support Groups. For more information visit www.AutismEmpowerment.org
Respite care is often available through local social services agencies including local chapters of the Arc and County Developmental Disabilities programs.
For safety reasons around eloping, we recommend that children wear an identification tag or bracelet. Many grocery stores have kiosks where one can be designed and purchased. A variety of options are also available from the following sources: www.RoadID.com, www.yikesid.com, www.tagxpress.com, www.amazon.com
Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can significantly increase the functional abilities of children with ASD, for example in the areas of language development, play, behavioral difficulties, attention maintenance, transitions and the ability to benefit from educational opportunities.
Other Opportunities/Social Activities for Children with ASD
Your child would benefit from frequent structured social activities outside of school and during the school day. This could include a small group of peers in a “Lunch Bunch” or organized group activities with adult facilitation through clubs, youth groups, scouting, etc. Peer mentors and “recess/lunch buddies” at school may also be helpful.
We encourage you to continue to work with your child on adaptive skills at home each day (e.g., health and safety). Children learn best with direct modeling and daily practice of new skills. Working with educators and therapists on shared goals would be helpful. Making a step-by-step guide or using pictures of the child doing an activity can also help.
In addition to other therapeutic services, physical exercise may be helpful for symptoms often associated with Autism (e.g., aggressive behaviors, disruptiveness). Exercise (e.g., swimming, hiking, martial arts) can help improve attention span, promote self-esteem and promote positive social interactions. Local parks and recreation services may have options to support children with developmental disabilities.
School is an excellent setting to develop and practice social interaction skills, and this process may be facilitated by a speech and language therapist. Your child will benefit from an emphasis on pragmatic language skills, such as direct instruction using social stories to learn about conversations and interactions with peers. For example, they may benefit from learning simple scripts for initiating play, such as “That looks like fun. Can I play too?” or “Would you like to play with these Legos with me?”
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