When there’s an autism diagnosis for your child, it can be a frightening and confusing time for families. Understanding the options available to you and your child is important for making informed decisions. While the diagnosis itself is basically a starting point, you will soon come to find that there is an overwhelming amount of information you’ll need to know about and understand. Depending on your child’s needs and your choices for intervention, there are many types of therapists that you will likely become familiar with.
Creating a treatment plan that is right for you and your child’s needs is important for ongoing support in helping them build independence. While you are under no obligation to include all of these types of therapy for your child, many parents and primary caregivers choose to include them as part of a comprehensive program.
Behavior therapists may go by several different titles, depending on the company they work for, and their overall duties. Some of the most common titles include: Registered Behavior Technician (RBT), Behavior Therapist, Behavior Interventionist, Behavior Specialist or Behavior Support Aid. A Behavior Therapist is going to be a primary support who works 1:1 with your child as part of your child’s home program, so it is important that the therapist is a good match for you and your child’s needs. Personality, temperament, and overall skill-set are important factors to consider when choosing the right behavior therapist for your child. In addition to meeting you in your home, they may meet you weekly or monthly for social groups at their company’s office, or at a community outing location.
The primary job for a Behavior Therapist is to work with your child on many skills including: socialization, self-help, homework, chores, adaptive/functional, speech, and occupational goals. They implement the programs as written by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Occupational Therapist (O.T.), or Speech Pathologist (S.L.P). Unless otherwise specified by the company they work for and/or the BCBA assigned to your child’s program, a Behavior Therapist should not change any programs, and is required to document and track your child’s progress each session with existing programs, as written.
An occupational therapist (O.T) works directly with your child in helping to increase their overall sense of independence with daily living skills. They focus on activities that include fine motor, such as using a crayon or pencil or the “pincer grasp”, combing hair, lacing shoes, buttoning clothes, or using utensils. They also focus on gross motor skills such as balancing, jumping and running, throwing a ball, hop scotch, skipping, climbing, or endurance activities. They may also advise parents on assisted technology such as an iPad, or adaptive equipment to assist a child with completing self-help tasks.
Speech therapists may work directly with your child, or may work as part of a team that is led by a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP). A speech therapist helps your child with learning vocal speech such as word articulation, listening skills, and forming complete sentences, which commonly include phrases such as, “I want…” when building an individual’s speech. If a child or individual is nonverbal, a speech therapist can teach the person how to use Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), integrating an iPad or other technology device into daily skills, or using voice integration technology such as text-to-speech, to help support an individual’s needs.
Most dieticians who specialize in working with individuals with autism have specific credentials, such as a “Registered Dietician Nutritionist” (RDN), a “Licensed Dietician” (LD), or a “Certified LEAP Therapist” (CLT) that may specialize in recognizing or treating food sensitivities, food allergies, or food intolerances commonly seen in autism spectrum disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, or other auto-immune related disorders. Depending on your child’s nutritional needs, you may meet with them weekly, or monthly to discuss your child’s progress and to make any necessary adjustments to their diet.
Music or art therapy may be on a 1:1 basis with your child, or may be included as part of a group therapy. Art therapists use a variety of mediums such as paints, charcoals, textures or glitter to tap into emotions and socialization, and to support other interventions such as speech or behavior therapy. Similarly, music therapy may be an option for children who are highly sensory-seeking, or to help build their social/emotional skills. Music therapy may include dance movement (using scarves or small instruments), listening to music, learning how to play an instrument, learning about rhythm, singing, or improvisation.
Social group therapists are usually behavior therapists who work with your child or young adult in a group or social setting. Your primary behavior therapist can work with your child 1:1 at your home, may meet you at their company for a group session, or they may coordinate with you to meet in a social setting such as a mall or park. Social and adaptive skills are the primary goals of socialization therapy. For example, the behavior interventionist may work on modeling appropriate ways to make a small purchase at the mall (greeting the cashier, appropriately responding to the cashier’s questions or comments, exchanging money, collecting the receipt, etc.)., and the child or young adult will imitate. Other common skills include increasing a child’s understanding of social cues, such as non-spoken rules of social engagement (waiting our turn for the swings, saying or waving goodbye to our friends, etc.).
Sensory Integration Therapist
Sensory integration therapists are often occupational therapists who specialize in working with individuals who have sensitivities to light, sound, textures, foods, noises, touch, scents, or other sensory triggers. They help an individual build up their tolerance and acceptance of certain sensory-related activities by gradually introducing non-preferred or highly aversive items or situations to the child’s routine. For example, if a child doesn’t like bright lights, they may gradually increase the lighting in the room to help the child tolerate certain environmental changes. Or, if a person struggles with tolerating certain textures (rough, sandpaper, slimy, etc.), they may add these types of textures to help them build tolerance while helping to desensitize them to the aversive item.