Do Your Therapists Have Autism Training?

May 6, 2018




I went to a great OT school; one of the top in the country. But when I started working with kids with autism, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I remembered from school that kids with autism were “visual learners.”


So when I went to teach a child something, I made sure to slap some stick figure pictures onto whatever they were learning. Most of the time, the kids never looked at these stick figures. Some ripped the paper….others threw it on the ground.


I was frustrated and felt ineffective. And, even worse, I wasn't able to truly help the families who relied on me to understand how their children think and learn. 


What was I doing wrong? It turns out I had a really superficial understanding of how kids with autism think and learn. I didn’t yet know how to figure out what visual information made sense to a particular child, and how to incorporate that in a way that was really meaningful.


A few years down the road, I became an autism specialist for UNC Chapel Hill’s TEACCH Autism Program and I started months of intensive training in autism. Right away I realized some of the mistakes I had made.


I learned how to tailor my interventions to the learning style of a child with autism, and to the unique strengths and challenges of any particular child. Rather than feeling frustrated, families started feeling like they were finally learning the skills they needed to help their child meet his or her potential.


I learned to assess an individual child to learn what type of visuals made sense to them. Maybe it was stick figure pictures, but maybe it was photographs. Or maybe pictures didn’t mean anything at all, and the child learned best from objects themselves.


And then I learned what to do with these pictures or objects to help a child learn. And it wasn’t just slapping them onto a piece of paper.


Kids with autism think and learn differently. When we understand that, we can start shaping the world in a way that makes sense for the child. This makes learning so much easier, more fun, and less frustrating for everyone. When you’re looking for a therapist, look for someone who knows about autism and can help your child learn in a way that works for them. Here are some examples of what that might look like.



Example 1: A child who uses limited language


Typical Intervention - The speech therapist recommends “increasing the mean length of utterance” meaning helping the child use more words. The child learns more words, but doesn’t know how to get someone’s attention before saying those words to them. Or maybe he just uses the word to label things, but don’t ask for help, make requests, or express his thoughts and feelings. The child has met the goal, but really can’t communicate any better than before.


Autism-Specific Intervention - The speech therapist considers the following goals:

  • Gaining someone’s attention before talking

  • Requesting something that he wants

  • Rejecting something that he does not want

  • Commenting on his thoughts and feelings about a topic

  • Looking where someone is pointing

  • Pointing to show someone what he sees or what he wants

Example 2: A child who plays with very few toys


Typical Intervention: The occupational therapist follows the child’s lead, playing with a variety of things he is already interested in. She attempts to teach him new fine motor skills like stacking blocks, but he is too distracted by the other toys and has trouble paying attention to her. She engages him in swinging and other sensory activities which he likes, but it doesn’t help him meet his goal of playing with a wider variety of toys.


Autism-Specific Intervention: Knowing that the child learns from what he sees and from routines, the therapist creates a new routine to help the child transition to a table nestled in a corner free of distractions. She sets up a visual to-do list by setting out each activity the child will do on a nearby empty shelf where he can see them and keep track of his progress.


The therapist demonstrates each activity, and the child is able to focus because the setting is free of distractions, and she knows how to teach to his visual learning style. The therapist incorporates some of his interests into new activities to help him become interested in more toys. The child learns the new routine and quickly learns to use several new toys on his own.


Wrapping up

Finding a therapist who understands how your child thinks and learns can remove some of the frustration of therapy and can help your child move more easily towards success.


It may take a few tries to find the right fit, but it will certainly be worth it when the therapy activities make sense to your child and he begins to achieve his goals.

If you are a parent in Asheville, NC interested in in-home OT from an autism specialist, CONTACT MEG  to schedule a free consultation and see if what I offer is a good fit for your family's needs


















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