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Children with autism benefit from the expertise of speech and language specialists

by Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

One of the primary goals of specialized educational and treatment programs for children with autism is to address communication problems such as the absence of speech, frequent repeating of words or phrases, and improper intonation and rhythm.

As readers of this column know, applied behavior analysis (ABA) has been shown to be successful in improving a variety of behaviors and skills for children with autism. ABA techniques such as using positive rewards, teaching in small steps, prompting and assisting in a structured manner, and measuring performance can be very effective in helping children improve their language and communication skills.

Specialists in speech and language pathology (SLPs) are also an important part of successful treatment programs. The fields of behavior analysis and speech and language pathology have many characteristics in common, and combining their methodologies can result in more comprehensive and complete treatment. Their points of commonality include:

1. ABA and SLP are the treatment components most frequently requested by parents.

2. ABA and SLP therapists are highly focused on the individual, his or her unique learning style, and the outcomes of treatment.

3. Both ABA and SLP address skill deficits directly by teaching specific language behaviors rather than treating the problem indirectly using specialized diets or sensory stimulation programs.

4. Both fields rely on procedures that are supported by evidence; objective research that shows their effectiveness. Most therapists measure the child's performance by collecting data to make decisions about progress and potential changes in instruction.

Many behavior analysts know a lot about language, the different functions of language, and how to create meaningful goals and objectives for children. SLPs add to their effectiveness by helping them choose small goals that build upon the current language behaviors (such as vocalizations) already in the child's repertoire. The SLP helps behavior analysts determine some of the "missing pieces" of language - such as sounds and mouth movements - that the child does not adequately demonstrate. In addition, SLPs can help determine the developmental order in which to teach skills. This may help some children learn faster.

Therefore, overall language, communication, and speech intervention for the child with autism should incorporate a comprehensive approach that involves collaboration from professionals with expertise in behavior analysis and speech pathology.

There are more and more instances of ABA and SLP working together. For example, a new online publication, The Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis (www.slp-aba.com) is now available. There are numerous speech and language pathologists working in the field of autism who have also had extensive training in applied behavior analysis. Parents may find that these individuals are particularly well suited to treating their children.

According to Karen Cahalane, M.A., CCC-SLP, speech and language pathologist at the May Center for Child Development in West Springfield, there are a number of important aspects of treatment that should be considered as behavior analysts and speech and language pathologists continue to work together.

First, pathologists need to work directly with teachers and staff to implement good instructional procedures throughout the day and across all kinds of settings and situations. We look for the SLP pathologist to do "active consultation" - assess, demonstrate, and coach teachers and staff. The pathologist will also need some one-on-one time with the child to do specialized assessments and to try out particular instructional procedures.

Secondly, SLPs need to work closely with parents to ensure carryover activities that can be done outside of the school day and throughout the week. Third, to accomplish active consultation and parental collaboration, SLPs need to develop and hone their own skills of teaching, training, and coaching.

Finally, as children with autism enter adulthood, their need for language and communication training will continue. ABA and SLP therapists will need to tailor their interventions for this population. New challenges, such as funding, will need to be addressed as well.

Dr. Harchik can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300, or at aharchik@mayinstitute.org.

May Institute is a national nonprofit organization that provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, mental illness, and other behavioral healthcare needs. May Institute operates six schools for children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601, or visit www.mayinstitute.org.

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

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