While there is no known cure for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), through the advancement of science, medicine and a better understanding of the condition have opened the doors of innovation on treatments for autism, which has made it possible for individuals with the condition to have fulfilling lives and a brighter future.
It has been proven through early detection and intervention children with autism can sustain a better quality of life. According to Autism Speaks, parents had reported through MyAutismTeam, which is a social networking site with more than 28,000 members of parents with children who have autism, said the best therapies to treat the condition were occupational, speech, and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapies.
Through occupational therapy, children with autism focus on various developmental topics to relieve auditory, visual, and motor symptoms in autism such as motor skills development, sensory processing disorder, social interaction, potty training, sleep training, and more.
Sensory Integration, a form of occupational therapy and research study currently being conducted by Roseann Schaff, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Chair and Professor of Thomas Jefferson University—Department of Occupational Therapy, addresses the way the nervous system receives messages from senses by using occupational therapy of sensory integration. While using a randomized design, comparing 200 children over the age of five through discrete trial training to determine how both approached impact functional skills. Sensory integration therapy practiced through occupational therapists use play activities in ways aimed to change how the brain reacts to sight, movement, sound, and touch.
the theory behind sensory integration is through working on underlying sensory-motor factors, they will enhance neuroplasticity in the brain, overall changing the brain functions based on the experiences it has had. The goal is for children with autism to gain the highest level of independence while taking part in their daily activities.
The ability of speech and communication varies for every child with autism depending on where they fall on the spectrum, which makes speech, behavioral, and social therapies and interventions one of the most utilized in the treatment for the condition.
Speech therapy addresses a range of challenges, and one form of speech therapy that is highly popular is Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). PECS is an alternative communication intervention for individuals with the condition that “teaches an individual to give a picture of a desired item to a ‘communicative partner,’ who immediately honors the exchange as a request. The system goes on to teach discrimination of pictures and how to put them together in sentences. In the more advanced phases, individuals are taught to answer questions and to comment,” according to Pyramid Educational Consultants (PECS) website.
PECS is especially effective for children who have a very limited vocabulary, they have gained a significant amount of spoken language as an effect from the therapy, and it has given nonverbal children a form of communication.
Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a behavioral therapy is considered autism’s most common and highly effective form of therapy, but is also considered a highly controversial treatment for autism. ABA focuses on systematically applying interventions in order to improve social behaviors while demonstrating interventions to a reasonable degree and that they are based on principles of learning, according to Applied Behavioral Strategies’ website.
ABA involves as much as 40 hours a week of one-on-one therapy, which breaks desirable behaviors down into steps and rewards the child for completing each step as they complete it. Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the founder of ABA compared first graders with autism and found that those who received the therapy showed larger numbers of inclusion into mainstream school systems.
According to Autism Spectrum Therapies article A Response to “The Controversy Over Autism’s Most Common Therapy,” since ABA was first founded, the form of treatment has changed tremendously since Dr. Lovaas’ initial research. ABA now provides effective interventions and technology based on the science of behavior analysis of the individuals needs.
Christine Corrigan, an ER Nurse, and single mother has a son named Conor, who 14-years-old with low functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He was diagnosed with the condition when he was three years old.
Corrigan has found that ABA therapy has helped her son’s condition tremendously.
“The ABA therapy was the biggest help, which he had through the school district until he was in the third grade and then they cut that. There were a whole bunch of budget cuts and we fought and fought that,” said Corrigan.
There are also other various extensive forms of treatment and therapies for the condition, ranging from biochemical, neuros
ensory, behavioral, social, and even pet therapy, along with other social and behavioral skills classes and support systems, which are just some of the general approaches to combat the condition.
Once Conor was no longer able to receive ABA treatment through his school district, Corrigan set out to find a replacement treatment to improve her son’s condition. Corrigan later discovered DAN! (Defeat Autism Now) Protocol, which is a general approach to treating children with the condition through biomedical interventions such as dietary, nutritional, gastroenterology, immune therapy, heavy metal removal, etc., according to Autism Society Larimer County’s website. It is also a highly controversial form of treatment.
“We did Chelation therapy, where they removed the heavy metals from his body every two weeks and that made a big difference, he had very high levels in him,” said Corrigan. “He actually gained a lot of speech with that, he was doing really well.”
The Autism Research Institute discontinued DAN Protocol in 2011 due to its highly contentious and risky method of treatment, according to Very Well’s article, “What was the DAN! (Defeat Autism Now) Protocol?”
There are also services available for individuals with the condition that involve interaction through incorporating social and behavioral therapy while doing basic daily activities.
Nicholas Palagonia, a Direct Support Professional and Home Aid, works for Independent Support Services, Inc. (ISS), a company that specializes in the care of individuals with disabilities, specifically autism. ISS offers individuals with developmental disabilities, the resources, and the support needed in order to sustain a better life and independent future. To accomplish this, ISS provides services that often focus on social and communication therapy and interaction.
“I usually engage to a participants specific goals that the participant needs to follow in order to succeed for the long term and future,” said Palagonia.
In order to reach an individual’s specific goals, a goal sheet is created through ISS for the individual’s specific needs and capabilities.
“We need to follow each specific goal that is stated and outlined on the sheet and we need to make sure we achieve every goal with the individual at their time, pace, and capability,” said Palagonia. “The ultimate purpose of achieving each goal set for the individual is for the long term success and independence for the individual. We help and assist our participants to eventually lead a normal and independent life.”
Palagonia has engaged with his participants with communication, socialization, and physical activity through exercise and has encouraged writing as a form of supporting communication improvement.
Group homes have also helped individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other various disabilities who need continual care and assistance on a 24-hour a day basis by trained caregivers, while still giving these individuals independence.
Lucille Lore, Public Health Advance Practice Nurse, Nurse Executive, RN, MSN, and former Public Health Nurse Advisor for a group home organization that specialized and provided care for individuals with mental disabilities. Due to HIPPA laws, the name of the organization could not be disclosed in this publication.
“Through group homes, individuals with autism are able to receive psychical, occupational, behavioral, and more interventions,” said Lore. “These individuals are treated to a home setting with personal care attendants who cook, clean, and provide the ultimate care in order to insure residents gain self-independence while still receiving the care they need.”
Behavior specialists are also provided to the patients in these group homes to aid in the development for individuals with autism and other mental disabilities.
“These specialist support more than 4,000 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness, and traumatic brain injury,” said Lore. “The mission of the organization is to support these individuals to work in their highest potential. The residents have a list of healthcare specialties to support their needs.”
Lore went on to further discuss some of the programs that the organization offers to residents who are higher functioning.
“The organization itself through support services. One of the things the organization does is make their own natural, nontoxic cleaning agents to clean all of the organization’s group houses. The organization employs residents who are higher functioning to bottle and label the chemicals, and the residents get paid for it all while still living at the group home,” said Lore. “The organization also has a transition to work program, outside employment programs, day community, respite, education, and after-school support.”
The organization also provides programs that involve the arts. The organization has created a marching band, which is made up of the residents of the group home. The marching band is invited to various events to march and play. The organization is also partnered with an acting theatre, which gives residents an opportunity to participate in a drama club and to preform plays for the local community.
Corrigan has found that in-home health care services have helped improve her teenage son’s condition both behaviorally and socially, which has enabled him to gain a more normal quality of life.
“I get services for Conor through the state that has taken me a long time to get, but I was diligent with the paperwork and now that I’ve gotten it’s been life changing. He can be a teenager who goes out in the community and does things, and like any teenager does not want to be with his mom and six-year-old little sister all the time, whether they’re autistic or not,” said Corrigan. “With the aids that come in, they are in their 20’s and they are more of a peer model than they are mom. Conor can have a friendship-like relationship and it’s so wonderful.”
Through various studies, it has been proven that pets have a greatly positive impact on children with autism. Animal-assisted therapy may increase self-confidence, social, and other skills in children with the condition. In one study by the Journal of Pediatric Nursing had surveyed parents of children with autism and how their children interacted with dogs. It was discovered that nearly two thirds of the families owned a dog and of these families 94 percent of parents said their child bonded strongly with the pet. Seven in 10 of children with autism from families who did not have or had a dog enjoyed interacting with dogs.
In a previous research also found that children with autism who had a family pet from a young age tended to have greater social skills, and other research studies have shown social behaviors in children with the condition to temporarily improve even after just a short period of playtime with a live animal instead of a toy.
Lucille Lore also stated that she supports the use of pet and equine-assisted therapy and discussed some of the programs involving animal therapy that the organization provides for its residents.
“The organization is partnered with a horse ranch where the residents take care of horses and ride them on a daily basis, and the organization is also now working on a pet therapy program where residents can train rescue dogs, which is extremely therapeutic for the residents who are participating.”
Arleen Leone, Special Programs Manager at Little Shelter Animal Rescue and Adoption Center, discussed how the no-kill shelter provides various programs for individuals with disabilities in the Long Island, New York area, one being their reading program for children with various learning disabilities, including autism.
“We have seven therapy dogs who were adopted at Little Shelter and now live in homes. We take the same dog and handler to the same seven local elementary schools and see the same children on a weekly basis,” said Leone. “We deal with children who show stress and anxiety with reading in a traditional classroom and I cannot tell you what our dogs have accomplished. Nonverbal children are now speaking, and it’s very hard to feel uptight or stressed when you’re sitting on the floor when a dog is on your lap licking you as you’re reading.”
Little Shelter has put a great emphasis on social development skills for these children through using Little Shelter alumni therapy dogs.
Equine therapy has also been proven to have a positive impact on children with autism. Marisa Striano, Executive Director, and Founder of Spirit’s Promise Equine Sanctuary discussed how her horse rescue center is saving the lives of horses and helping people with disabilities in the Long Island, New York community through providing equine-assisted therapy (EAT).
“Our slogan is help us, help horses, help people,” said Striano. “We rehabilitate the horses so we can rehabilitate the people.”
EAT’s main goal is to help rehabilitate both gross motor movement and fine motor ability that both physical and occupational therapy provides for individuals with disabilities in a way that is both a fun and therapeutic experience.
Autism has had a controversial and complicated history since its discovery. Little was known about the condition and was once associated with other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Eventually, the condition began to be associated with various learning and behavioral disabilities, which is considered entirely separate form schizophrenia. When Christine Corrigan was given her son’s diagnoses, she began conducting extensive research on the condition.
“As a nurse and health professional, I had heard of what autism was and knew one or two people with it, but I didn’t really have any background to it at all. So it was kind of new for me,” said Corrigan. “I didn’t have a computer at the time because things weren’t like the way they are now, so I took out one of my old nursing textbooks and there under psychiatric disorders was autism and I didn’t really know what to make of it. There were only two paragraphs and that was it.”
The understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has come a long way since it’s discovery. Through modern medicine and research, many techniques, treatments, therapies, and programs exist that did not once before. This has resulted in bettering the lives of countless individuals with the condition and has given these individuals a brighter future.