Top Autism Learning Techniques and Therapies
Diagnoses of autism are on the rise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in 2018 approximately 1 in 59 children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a 15% increase from 2004 figures.
Although these statistics come from an organization that fights disease, autism, in fact, is not a disease—it simply describes a brain that is wired differently from that of the neurotypical population. It is a manifestation of human diversity.
As such, we need to think about autism differently. It does not need to be cured. Rather, we need to develop learning techniques that autistic people can use to help them live full lives and cope with societal norms and expectations.
Autism Learning Techniques
As the prevalence of ASD rises, so do the efforts to find effective interventions.
Following is a discussion of some current, evidenced-based learning techniques that have proven to be effective.
“As an autistic person who has raised twins on the autism spectrum, I understand how difficult and lonely it can be while searching for the best direction for your child as you maneuver the systems.
It’s important to remember that autistic people are people with personalities and unique individual needs that should be recognized and acknowledged. The therapeutic processes do not always allow for these personalities to remain intact and can create further stress on the ASD person if not implemented with the whole person in mind.”
—Nancy Getty, author and international speaker
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Intervention
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) uses principles of behavioral theory to help ASD individuals of all ages. The goal of ABA is to change specific behaviors that interfere with the development of important life skills.
ABA can help improve:
- Communication and language skills
- Social skills
- Motor skills
- Learning and academic skills
ABA interventions begin with assessment. Based on the evaluation, an ABA therapist develops a set of goals that are unique to each individual. Behavioral techniques, in particular positive reinforcement, are used to help the person achieve those goals.
Research has shown there are many benefits to early intervention for young children with autism. The ABA learning technique can be especially beneficial for these children since it addresses developmental issues that are critical at an early age.
The therapy typically involves the child, family, and community resources as well as the child’s school teachers. It is primarily conducted by trained ABA therapists who are supervised by a qualified Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
Social Emotional Learning
Social emotional skills deficits are part of the diagnostic criteria—individuals with ASD struggle with social skills across their lifespan. Some of these skills are basic, such as making eye contact, saying “please” or “thank you,” and asking questions. Others are more complex and deal with peer interactions, making and maintaining friendships, and responsible decision making.
There are a number of programs and techniques that are based on theories of social emotional learning. One of the more innovative programs is the use of a “robot” named Milo to teach children ages 5–17 important social skills. Milo can model human expressions and show students which ones are appropriate in different situations. He delivers lessons verbally, but a screen on his chest shows symbols to help students interpret his messages.
Other intervention programs are being developed as well. For example, the UCLA PEERS® Clinic offers 16-week programs for preschoolers, young adults, and adolescents.
Often these child-related social skills training programs involve training parents to assist and support their children with positive and healthy social skills and interactions.
“Any one therapy rarely takes into account the co-existing struggles such as sensory processing disorder (SPD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), sensory dysregulation/integration, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many other conditions.”
—Nancy Getty, author and international speaker
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder often have emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Because cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most common and effective therapies for many types of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, CBT is especially useful for those who have an autism spectrum disorder.
CBT addresses ways individuals can manage their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors to improve their overall mood and emotional functioning. For example, people who self-message negative thoughts, such as “I don’t like being around other people,” will often behave in response to those thoughts. Conversely, if self-messaging is positive—”People are fun to be around”—behaviors can change.
Research has found CBT to be effective in treating mood and anxiety disorders in youth with an autism spectrum disorder.
This learning technique is used to help those with autism overcome phobias and fears that lead to anxiety. The technique involves establishing an individualized hierarchy of fears or situations that result in anxiety. The ASD individual is then systematically exposed to the steps of the hierarchy, starting with the most innocuous.
By gradually facing their fears, most individuals can overcome them. However, it is important that the person only moves on to the next step of the hierarchy when they are comfortable with the current step.
Many autistic children express themselves through play. The goal of play therapy is to use a format that children can understand to help them gain social skills and expand the way they interact with others.
There are a number of specific techniques within this type of therapy. Floortime is a technique in which the therapist gets down on the floor and plays with the child on their own terms. The therapist then gradually adds new aspects to the play to increase communication and interaction.
Integrated play groups combine children both with and without ASD. The goal is for ASD children to model the behavior of their non-ASD peers in a non-threatening context.
The goal of drama therapy is to help high-functioning ASD children express themselves through avenues such as role-playing and improvisation. When engaging in these activities, autistic children are required to face other children and respond to their feelings—but in a fun way.
A number of studies have shown the benefits of drama therapy. Researchers at the University of Kent found that after participating in drama classes, ASD children were able to recognize more facial expressions. Another study found that children who participated in drama-based intervention improved social skills such as playing cooperatively, communicating with respect, and use pleasantries appropriately.
Machine learning is a diagnostic tool that can help screen children for autism at an early age. Currently, early diagnosis is based on a questionnaire that parents fill out about their child—typically at the child’s 18-month checkup. Diagnosis for older children is typically based on ASD tests. These methods can be unreliable.
Machine learning combines statistical analysis with known information in order to make new assessments. The known information focused on six personality characteristics—age at testing, sex, handedness, full-scale IQ, verbal IQ, performance IQ—for children both with and without ASD. The result was a predictive model that proved to be better at diagnosing ASD children than traditional methods.
“Family, caregivers, and professionals that allow the ASD person to express who they are and guide them to know they matter are the roots to success in any therapy.”
—Nancy Getty, author and international speaker
There are no current medications available to directly address the primary manifestations of autism spectrum disorder. However, there are many types of medications used to treat co-occurring conditions in individuals with ASD (e.g., ADHD, tic disorders, OCD, mood disorders, sleep difficulties, etc.). Some of the most common medications used for treating children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder are antipsychotics (e.g., risperidone) for treating behavior issues, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for treating mood and anxiety, and stimulants and other medications for treating attention deficits and hyperactivity.
Antipsychotic drugs have been found to reduce disruptive behavior in individuals with ASD including aggressiveness, stereotypic behaviors, and impulsivity. However, these medications should be used cautiously and very minimally before five years of age—and only when recommended by a qualified prescribing provider.
According to the Interactive Autism Network, sensory-based therapies (i.e., sensory integration/occupational therapy) focus on correcting and improving how an individual with an autism spectrum disorder physically responds to sensory stimuli in their environment. Research has found the use of occupation therapy helps improve sensory difficulties and daily functioning in children with an autism spectrum disorder. As such, these types of therapies can be beneficial in dealing with sensory issues related to an autism spectrum disorder.
Speech and Language Therapy
The Autism Speaks foundation reports that speech and language therapy is often included within intensive therapeutic interventions for autism. The goal of this type of therapy is to help address the common language deficits associated with an autism spectrum disorder, which range from not speaking at all to deficiencies in conversational speech. Speech therapy can be provided to individuals one-on-one or in a group setting. It is often provided alongside social skills training or other learning techniques.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifies that children with various disabilities, including autism, are entitled to early intervention services and special education. This intervention begins for children who are diagnosed at birth.
Birth to Three
The Birth to Three program, mandated by IDEA, provides services and support for families of children with autism. There are many programs available, some of them state-sponsored. Services provided include developmental screening, evaluation, assessment, and parent education.
Children who qualify for preschool special education can be placed in developmental preschools; these schools are paid for by their local school district. To determine the best placement, parents and teams of professionals develop an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for the child. IEPs are custom documents that specify the educational goals and pathways of a child.
IEPS outline yearly goals, identify services needed to achieve the goals, and include methods for assessing progress. Services can include placement in a preschool.
“The different styles of learning must play a factor into choosing a therapeutic direction since not everyone learns the same.”
Special Education in Schools
IEPs are also the starting point for students in kindergarten and above. Local school districts must provide special education services for all students who qualify. Programs vary, but the IDEA specifies that children with autism and other special needs be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. This means special needs children should be educated with peers without disabilities as much as possible.
Special education programs have dual goals: one is to address developmental needs, and the other is to provide a child with an education. The methods and goals are determined by a student’s IEP.
- Autism Research Institute
- Autism Society
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network
- Autism Speaks
- The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.
- Centria Autism
- Unapologetically Autistic