The Importance of Finding the Best Therapy For Autism-Is it ABA Therapy, Speech Therapy, a Combination, or Another Therapy All Together?

The goal of autism therapy is to help the child develop academic skills, communication and social skills, increase independence, and learn daily living skills. There are many different interventions that have been developed to aid in this process. Choosing an evidence-based treatment is important. This means that it is based on the best available scientific evidence and clinical expertise. There are several types of evidence-based therapies used to treat Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Occupational Therapy (OT), ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) and Physical Therapy (PT). This is a guide for helping you find the best therapy for autism.  Learn more about what ABA, OT, SLP, and PT have to offer!

Child sitting with therapist

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

ABA Therapy is the science of learning and motivation and is one of the most effective therapies for autism. It helps us understand how behavior works and how it is affected by the environment. The goal is to increase desired behaviors and to decrease interfering behaviors.  

ABA focuses on enhancing a variety of skills, including language, social skills, attention and learner readiness skills. There are lots of strategies we use in ABA, such as positive reinforcement (offering rewards) to increase desired behavior.  For example, a child gets a star for doing a good job of following the rules at school. And when they get enough stars, they earn a prize, like ice cream with their friends.

A Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) is a Masters or PhD level therapist.  They are the clinical supervisors that assess and coordinate the autistic child’s treatment plan.  Their role is to make decisions to assist the rest of the child’s therapy team.  Depending on the size of your team and how many hours of therapy the child requires, a supervising therapist assists the clinical supervisor on assessing the child’s progress.  In addition, an instructor therapist works with the autistic child and collects data for the team to review.

How Much ABA Therapy Does My Child Need?

How many hours of therapy an autistic child receives depends on their skill level and areas of need.  The BCBA considers the parents goals along with the child’s assessment results to figure out how many hours of therapy they need. If they decide your child needs more of a Focused ABA approach, then the therapy ranges from 5-15 hours a week.  Focused ABA is when children are taught one or two areas of skill development.  On the other hand, if the child needs to focus on a variety of skills, they might suggest a comprehensive ABA approach, which is over 20 hours of therapy a week.  Comprehensive ABA focuses on both skill development and behavior reduction. 

There are many strategies and techniques used to address most areas of need in ABA, such as behavior, communication, social skills, motor skills, and many more.  Behavior analysts know that sometimes other specialists, like speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists, need to be added to the team to improve a specific area of need.  Let’s talk about the other therapies an autistic child can benefit from!

What is Speech-Language Pathology (SLP)?

Communication is challenging for autistic children.  They may find its difficult to socialize with others, to pick up on social cues, and to vocalize their needs.  Aside from ABA, Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) helps reduce communication issues.  Speech therapy helps your child improve their language and speech skills. A speech language pathologist is qualified to provide effective speech therapy. An autistic child sometimes struggles with speaking, language, and fluency.  Luckily, speech therapy helps with this and teaches them to express themselves better through verbal and non-verbal language. They first conduct an assessment to identify the best treatment method.  Next, they create a treatment plan that addresses the child’s individualized needs.

Speech therapists address 5 main areas:

  1. Receptive language
  2. Expressive language
  3. Speech (articulation),
  4. Pragmatics (social skills)
  5. Feeding and swallowing

Along with language issues, autistic children may not be able to articulate their speech well.  For example, struggling to pronounce sounds like “ch” or “th”. Not to worry, a speech therapist helps with the pronunciation of sounds and words too.

If your child needs help improving their language and speech, we recommend looking into speech therapy.  It is an important tool for autistic children to improve their communication skills. Children can use these skills throughout their lives to make friends and develop relationships with family members.

What is Occupational Therapy (OT)?

In our every day lives, we are expected to take care of ourselves.  Starting with self care, we brush our teeth, shower, get dressed, and cook ourselves yummy meals.  We go to work and school.  We also enjoy leisure activities, such as gardening and biking.  For an autistic person, these every day routines can be challenging.  Occupational therapy for autism can help make these every day routines a little easier. It teaches people skills that improve their leisure, productive, and self-care skills.  Occupational therapists have advanced degrees and receive a lot of training in the field. By using a variety of techniques, they work towards regaining and maintaining an autistic persons independence.   

Child exercising during Occupational Therapy for Autism

How Can OT Help with Autism?

An occupational therapist works with your child on improving many different skills, such as:

  • Printing and handwriting
  • Fine and gross motor skills (e.g. grasping objects)
  • Improving sleep and sleep hygiene
  • Leisure activities (e.g. gardening)
  • Improving self-care (e.g. teeth brushing)
  • Increasing attention and focus
  • Feeding skills
  • Improving self-regulation skills

For early learners, an OT focuses on sensory integration and sensorimotor issues.  This means, they are improving how a person processes and reacts to information coming from their senses. Learning a new skill requires the OT to break it down into small steps.  For example, if an autistic child is struggling to learn how to write, an OT breaks that skill down by first teaching the child fine motor skills that can improve their hand strength.  This small goal leads to acquiring other skills, such as being able to pick up a pencil and write. 

An OT also provides prescriptions of assistive technology and recommends equipment that helps the child. For example, if the child is at risk of falling out of their bed or falling down the stairs, an OT might recommend grab railings to prevent injury. 

Occupational therapists for autistic children can be a great help to teachers and parents working with this population. They are knowledgeable about the spectrum of conditions that affects these children. We recommend to start occupational therapy in important early childhood years because it helps children develop more functional skills that they will need later on in life.   

What is Physical Therapy (PT)?

Physical Therapy (PT) for autism is similar to OT because they both work towards teaching people skills to help them with their everyday routines.  An Occupational Therapist focuses on improving fine motor skills, such as writing, using utensils, grasping objects, and getting dressed. On the other hand, a Physical Therapist focuses on improving gross motor skills for larger muscle movements, such as walking or even learning to ride a bike. They also help with pain management and strength training. For autistic children, a physical therapist assesses their:

  • Postural strength
  • Body and safety Awareness
  • Mobility (e.g. walking and running)
  • Coordination and balance
  • Play skills (e.g. bouncing a ball)

Once the assessment is complete, the physical therapist develops goals to work on with the child.  Remember that each child has different needs and therefore, there is not only a single physical therapy treatment to use. The physical therapist personalizes the program to the children’s needs. To sum up, we believe that physical therapy is another great treatment that enhances an autistic child’s quality of life.

Choosing the Right Therapy

In conclusion, there are many methods that can be used to help autistic children.  There is no one way to treat autism and it is important to find the right treatment for each child with different needs. If you or someone you know has a child with autism, speak with your doctor to determine what type of treatment will work best for them.

At Side by Side Therapy, we offer interdisciplinary services.  This means that your child has the opportunity to not only access ABA therapy but also Occupational Therapy and Speech therapy with us.  An OT, BCBA, and/or SLP work together to create a therapy plan that works for your child’s individualized needs. If you would like to learn more about the different types of therapy treatments we offer, please contact Side by Side Therapy to set up a no-charge consultation today. 

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