When your child is diagnosed with autism, there are so many unknowns. Families may feel as if they’re drowning in all the decisions with which they’re faced, compounded by the fact that few practitioners speak of long-term outcomes with any great degree of certainty. That said, early intervention – including ABA therapy – is one course of treatment on which most agree results in optimal outcomes.
When a parent asks, “When should my child start ABA therapy?” the answer is almost always going to be, “As soon as possible.”
What is Early Intervention?
Early intervention therapy refers to a multi-disciplinary approach geared toward children under age 3 but up to 5. It’s a combination of speech therapy, occupational therapy, ABA therapy, and sometimes physical therapy that is initiated with the understanding that a child’s earliest experiences play a critical role in a child’s brain development. We know that kids who receive early intervention therapy do significantly better when it comes to learning new skills, overcoming challenges, and increasing both their academic success and personal independence, we know that kids who do not receive early intervention therapy may be substantially disadvantaged.
ABA therapy is most effective the earlier it starts. One of the earliest studies on the benefits of ABA therapy found kids who started before age 5 had better outcomes than those who started after they turned 5. Kids can usually start ABA therapy as young as 2 (sometimes earlier), and research has found doing so leads to significant improvements in both cognitive and adaptive skills.
One analysis by the Institute of Child Health & Human Development revealed that when we intervene with a fourth-grader as opposed to a kindergartner, it takes four times as long to make the same progress – not only because of the explosion of brain development that occurs in those early years (and the plasticity of a young brain, which is primed to learn new things), but also because there is a substantial increase in skills kids are expected to have mastered by Grade 4.
In some cases, therapies can start in infancy, with goals and strategies of course tailored to the age and the individual.
By incorporating early intervention ABA therapy, kids can avoid more substantial learning challenges in the future.
How Does Brecksville ABA Therapy Help My Child With Autism?
When a child has autism, they typically have deficits in communication and social skills, and these go hand-in-hand with maladaptive behaviors. For all of us, behavior is a form of communication. Kids on the spectrum who lack many fundamental communication skills may use behavior in ways that are not expected to communicate their needs and desires. Families sometimes do more harm than good when they don’t understand the function of the behavior and end up reinforcing it. For example, a common motive for behavior is attention. It may not matter whether that attention is negative. When you respond to it with eye contact, physical contact and a heightened reaction – even an angry one – it may still be reinforcing the behavior. If the motive of the behavior is to evade and you put them in a “time out,” you are unintentionally reinforcing the behavior.
ABA stands for applied behavioral analysis, and it is where we deep dive into the “why” of the behavior. We ask, “What function does it serve?” and see if adjustments can be made to the antecedent or consequence that may result in altering maladaptive behaviors or encouraging expected behaviors. The earlier this process starts, the more adaptive children are to changing their behaviors. We can teach kids how to use functional communication to replace behaviors that are unexpected. We can also educate parents on how best to respond in ways that don’t unintentionally reinforce difficult behaviors.
What If I Don’t Want My Child to Be Labeled?
We recognize that one of the reasons some parents shy away from early intervention therapy is because of potential stigma and concern that an autism diagnosis might set them on a path that would result in a long-term, detrimental label.
One thing to keep in mind is that stigmas are shifting. There is more awareness and acceptance. People increasingly recognize that autism doesn’t just look a certain way. It is a spectrum, and individuals on it can indeed grow to be happy, healthy, highly-functioning and invaluable members of society. Early intervention therapy is what sets children up for success. ABA therapy is a critical part of that.
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, homeschooling, alternative schooling, virtual therapy and education, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.
Treatment and Intervention Services for Autism Spectrum Disorder, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
More Blog Entries:
How Our Brecksville ABA Therapists Teach Flexibility, Sept. 17, 2021, Brecksville ABA Therapy Blog
A new study found that difficulty sleeping – a common problem for children on the autism spectrum – is associated with behavioral regulation difficulties later in childhood. This longitudinal study drives home the importance of helping families address the sleep problems kids with autism have as early as possible.
Of course, this isn’t entirely shocking news to our Brecksville ABA therapy and occupational therapy team. It’s been well-established that getting high-quality sleep is key for everyone’s general health. A child who isn’t well-rested (just like any adult) is going to be cranky and more tantrum-prone. Still, the research sheds additional light on how vital it is for doctors and therapists to provide the support and tools to help children with autism struggling with sleep issues. In turn, this may help foster improved behavioral regulation as they get older.
The analysis, published in the journal Sleep and reported Spectrum News, is one of the first studies to look closely at the long-suspected connection between executive function (mental skills that include the ability to manage one’s own behavior to achieve certain goals) and poor sleep quality among children with autism.
Of course, many kids have sleep troubles the first few years of life. These too are associated with lower executive function, but these typically resolve after a few years. Children with autism are known to be more likely to suffer from long-term sleeping problems, which many researchers had previously opined were connected to poor executive function.
This study, which began in 2005, followed 217 children with autism, starting between the ages of 2 and 4 and then again several years later. The children’s executive function, as reported in surveys by parents and teachers, were evaluated four times when they were between the ages of 7 and 12.
What they found was severe sleep troubles were linked with reduced ability to regulate behavior. Interestingly, other types of executive function (ability to order their own thoughts, reflect on them, etc.) didn’t appear to be tied to sleep trouble.
Further, researchers concluded the age at which sleep disturbances occur can make a difference. For instance, kids who struggled to fall asleep between the ages of 2 and 4 didn’t have any behavior regulation issues a handful of years later. But when kids were taking a long time to fall asleep when at the ages of 6 and 7, they showed noticeable behavior regulation issues the following year. As for why this is, study authors opine it may have something to do with the fact that many kids between the ages of 2 and 4 wake up frequently, whereas older kids typically don’t.
It’s important to note the study doesn’t clearly indicate a causal relationship between poor sleep and reduced executive function, though that is what many researchers suspect. It’s probable, though, that executive function is impacted by a variety of factors, sleep patterns included.
Our Brecksville pediatric occupational therapists have several strategies we can share to help your child with autism get a better night’s sleep. These include addressing sensory seeking or avoiding behavior (weighted blankets, looser pajamas, developing bedtime routines and social stories, etc.), managing the child’s physical environment and helping families adjust their schedules to make for smoother transitions.
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides occupational therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.
Autistic children’s sleep problems linked to behavioral regulation issues, July 5, 2021, Spectrum News
More Blog Entries:
How Occupational Therapy Can Help Treat Children With Sleep Problems, Feb. 15, 2020, Brecksville Occupational Therapy Blog