There is a saying that, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is unique for each individual and often characterized by a combination of impairments in social interaction, communication, as well as restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior. Due to the spectrum of symptoms, some children are mildly impaired while others can be severely disabled. As the rate of reported and diagnosed autism increases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify a total of 1 in 68 American children are affected, with boys at a higher risk than girls.
The number of therapies available for autism are endless, yet very few provide research and evidence to their effectiveness. The good news? The most widely researched and recommended treatment for those with autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a clinical service offered in Southern Maryland through Personalized Therapy, LLC. It’s been shown that a multi-disciplinary approach including ABA, occupational therapy, speech therapy and biomedical approaches often lead to more successful outcomes and skill acquisition for those with ASD.
While awareness is important, our community must continue to go beyond awareness and find ways that we can be accepting and welcoming to individuals with autism and their families. As with all mental illnesses, this process of inclusion begins with understanding the way autism works, the realization that every individual has their struggles – autism or not – and in turn, how to effectively communicate with those involved.
A Conversation with Personalized Therapy’s Jennifer Forth and Krista Tippett
Jennifer is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, clinical case supervisor and mother to a 9-year-old with autism; Krista provides behavioral therapy as an Applied Behavior Analyst and Behavior Technician.
What misconceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do you notice on a day to day basis?
Jennifer: Just like their neurotypical counterparts (children without autism), those with autism are unique individuals with their own personalized strengths and areas of weakness. Treatment, education, and how they become fully integrated into the larger community must be individualized to meet their own unique needs.
Krista: Children with ASD learn differently. Individuals look at those with ASD as they do not want to make friends or they can’t feel emotions; this is incorrect. Autism affects the way that individuals process and interpret interpersonal communication. They are not always able to pick up on body language or other non-verbal cues. People may view these individuals as odd or weird, but really they just respond differently to the environment.
What are some underlying causes of autism that may affect behavior?
Jennifer: The diagnostic criteria for autism includes persistent deficits in social communication and interaction in multiple settings. For some, this many include a disregard for others and a tendency to be alone rather than with others. It may result in not understanding personal space and talking more than would be expected, usually on their own topic of choice. In addition, a person must display restricted or repetitive behavior and interests, known as “self-stimulatory behavior,” such as hand flapping or body rocking. For others, it may include a hyper-focus, intense knowledge of and desire to talk about items that seems out of the ordinary, such as vacuum cleaners or Harry Potter.
Those on one side of the spectrum often need just as much support as those on the other side. What can we do to combat this internal struggle that many families face?
Jennifer: Some people with autism have needs that are less obvious and can be easily overlooked. We need to remember that autism impacts social interactions, whether or not it is strikingly obvious to us. What may seem like just a quirky child, may in fact be a child working very hard to remember all of the social skills that they have learned and using them to do the best they can.
What do you wish people who are not directly affected by Autism knew about the disorder?
Krista: In the field, we try to avoid the terms low-functioning and high-functioning. Using these terms to identify children can sometimes be demeaning and offensive, particularly to the families. In addition, we aim to avoid using the word “autistic.” We do not like to identify people by their disorder. They have a disorder; they are not a disorder.
I also want people to be accepting and understanding. I want for them to be willing to help someone with a skill that they may be struggling with. In fact, I’d like to share a story of something that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was in the grocery store when the women in front of me was paying for her groceries. The clerk (who I suspected of having a learning disability) was struggling and taking a long time to count her change. The woman was very short tempered and snapped at the clerk. I could see discouragement on his face. When it came my time to pay, I helped him and was patient while he counted my change. I praised him for his help and was very friendly. A smile lit up on his face. I waited to leave the store and watched the next few people pay for their items. Although the line was long, I noticed that all of the individuals following me were particularly patient and friendly. Now, not to attribute their behavior to mine, but I feel that this type of support and knowledge about the struggles of others can really make our community a better place.
What should individuals without autism know about interacting with their peers with autism?
Jennifer: Neurotypical peers can play a very important role in the learning process for a child with autism. Peers should find ways to include those with autism and remember that a child with autism may do things that seem “odd” or “rude” without even realizing it. The peer can they show the child with autism what to do instead. They can help the child with autism by finding common interests and asking adults for help if they don’t know what to do in a certain situation. Adults should know that children with autism, like all children, want to be included and loved. Adults also need to remember that autism does not end when childhood ends. We all try to teach our children to be kind to others, and as adults, we have a responsibility to live that life as well. We need to find ways to make our community friendlier to those with autism, through inclusion in our sports leagues, scout troops, churches, and businesses.
Krista: Kids should know that everybody wants friends. Even if children with autism are not always cooperative, they have tantrums, or they don’t demonstrate willingness to make friends, this does not mean that others should not try. Allowing these children opportunities to make friends at an earlier age will help them with a vast array of skill development (communication, collaborating, social interaction) throughout their lives. Adults should also remember that nobody chooses to be affected by a disability; even adults suffer from deficits in learning.
April Autism Awareness Events
Circus for Autism
Sat., April 2, from 12-5 p.m.
Visit the Elks Lodge #2092 for games, activities, and a silent auction.
Rock Out for Autism
Sat., April 23, from 12-10 p.m.
This event includes a day of music from local bands held at the Old Town Pub.
To learn more, visit Personalized Therapy on their website at personalizedtherapyllc.com or call 301-862-2502.