April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: Essentials Parents Should Know

Part II

(Continued from last week)

The Brain and ASD

Research on ASD has revealed that the neurological areas responsible for visual processing tend to be overactive in individuals with autism, while brain activity between regions occurs with difficulty. Other studies have documented issues with synapses, across which messages travel in order to carry out functions. By studying the brains of children with autism while the children are engaged in activities, researchers have observed weak connections between their neurological synapses. Other researchers have documented under-activation in the brain’s motor and limbic systems (or emotion-generating centers). This may help explain some of the social-emotional difficulties experienced by many individuals on the autism spectrum.

Recognition of the Positives

Individuals with autism tend to have areas in which they possess deep strengths (not to be confused with the notion of savants, like the character in “Rain Man”). Animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin describes the unique ways her strong visual skills allow her to experience the world and easily solve problems that neurotypical individuals struggle with.

Because people with high-functioning ASD recognize patterns and are capable of sustaining focus for long periods of time, some businesses encourage or actively recruit these individuals, and then provide the supports they need in the workplace. In turn, these employees apply their strong problem-solving skills, keen focus, excellent memories and superior verbal skills in professional situations as varied as web development, lab work and copy editing.

Evidence-Based Interventions

There are several types of interventions that have been shown to help people with high-functioning ASD address the challenges they face.

Organizational Skills Training

As with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), students on the autism spectrum can have difficulty with organization and executive functions. Organizational Skills Training (OST) has been found to benefit children with high-functioning ASD by teaching them how to develop clear organizational systems that they can use to self-monitor their behavior. As Gallagher, Abikoff and Spira note in their book on OST, students with ASD “may be unwilling to change responses to organizational situations, even if the current routines are not successful.” Organizational Skills Training is clear, concrete and motivating for students for whom “school success may not be possible without prior extensive work.”

Social Skills Training

Speech therapists, social workers and occupational therapists are all specialists who may have been trained to teach social skills to students with high-functioning ASD. These programs make the implicit social rules of our daily lives more explicit. For example, participants may learn:

How do you initiate a conversation?

Which topics are off-limits in conversation?

What makes a good friend?

Social skills training can help individuals with high-functioning ASD meet with greater success in a range of endeavors, from job interviews to summer camps.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT may also be beneficial for individuals on the autism spectrum. It can reduce anxiety and help individuals function more easily amid the demands of daily living.

TEACCH and DIR/Floortime

There are aspects of the TEACCH and DIR models of intervention that can help individuals with high-functioning autism.

TEACCH: This approach relies on the visual processing strengths of people with ASD to create concrete learning supports for specific settings. It is designed around the individual needs of each student—in contrast to a standardized curriculum—by using visual anchors to help a person understand her environment in predictable ways.

DIR/Floortime: DIR is a play-based intervention for people with an autism disorder that integrates cognitive and psychosocial concepts to support social engagement, increase communication and develop wider interests. It is founded on learning theory, but integrates emotional and psychological concepts as well, with the goal of helping to further develop the social, relational and cognitive abilities of people with ASD.

A Final Thought

All aspects of autism spectrum disorders (communication, social behavior and cognition) fall along a continuum, and some people have more severe symptoms than others. Severity is determined by the evaluator, but it relates to a child’s ability to function as compared to her peers. Students who have non-high-functioning ASD tend to be minimally verbal, have little functional communication and have difficulty with practical life skills and social skills in the absence of support services (such as those provided by speech language pathologists, physical therapists and paraprofessionals). You can modify your home to help a child with ASD who is not high functioning, and use technological tools to ease communication and other challenging activities.

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