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The Autism Diagnosis Process: What to Expect

When it comes to parenting, the unknown can be one of the hardest parts. Worries creep in if you suspect something’s wrong with your child’s development. If you think your child may be showing signs of autism, there’s no guidebook to tell you what to do next.

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. The process gets easier when you know what to expect.

If you’ve found your way to this post, you’ve likely taken the first step: questioning whether your child shows signs of autism.

Recognizing this possibility is a significant and sometimes challenging move. Rest assured, you’re not alone. This guide is here to provide you with valuable insights and support as you navigate through this process.

Understanding Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects how a person interacts, learns, and behaves. Everyone on the spectrum is different. Signs of autism usually start showing up when a child is very young.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Autism symptoms can be different for everyone. If your child is not growing or learning like other kids their age, or if they have any of the following signs, you might want to talk to your pediatrician:

  • Not smiling at others by six months
  • Not gesturing or pointing to communicate by 12 months
  • Not babbling by 12 months
  • Not using single words like “no,” “mama,” “dada” by 16 months
  • Not using two-word phrases like “want cup,” “go play” by 24 months
  • Not responding to sounds, voices, or their own name by three years
  • Poor eye contact by three years
  • Little interest in other children or caretakers by three years
  • Losing skills they once had at any point by three years

The Diagnosis Process

Getting a diagnosis of autism starts with an evaluation. Experts will examine how a child behaves and will look at their past development. If your child’s pediatrician thinks it might be autism, they’ll send your child to an expert for a closer look. This process includes:

  • A parent interview
  • Review of medical, psychological, and school records
  • Assessment of cognitive, developmental, and adaptive functioning skills
  • Observation of your child during play

What Happens Next?

After an autism evaluation, our team of specialists will review and interpret the results. If your child is diagnosed with autism, our team will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan. This plan includes therapies to help improve communication, social skills, and behavior.

At LEARN, we work with families on a plan tailored to your family’s needs. We will adjust the treatment plan as needed. We’ll also provide you with resources and support.

Whether you’re just noticing signs or you’re already deep into the diagnosis process, our team is here to help. We know that recognizing and diagnosing autism can be challenging. But with the right support and guidance, you can navigate it confidently.

The Benefits of Summer Social Skills Programs for Kids with Autism

Even though the school year is still in full swing, it’s not too early to think about how you’re going to fill your summer schedule.

For parents of children on the autism spectrum, planning for summer involves more than just vacations and relaxation. You want your child to continue to make progress even during a school break.

When regular routines and structured learning environments pause for the summer, children with autism can be at risk of not maintaining skills. They might lose social skills, behavior improvements, and communication. This loss can mean that skills learned over the school year may diminish, leading to a challenging start when school resumes.

Summer Can Provide Continuous Learning Opportunities

Experts at LEARN say consistency is key for reinforcing learned skills. A disruption in routine can be unsettling for children with autism. They often thrive on predictability. Summer programs can provide a framework where they can thrive.

Consider enrolling your child in a social skills program this summer. Here’s why:

  • LEARN’s summer social skills programs are structured activities. They are designed specifically for children with autism.
  • Our summer social skills programs take place during the school break. They focus on improving social interaction, communication, and behavioral skills.
  • Our programs can include group activities, one-on-one sessions, and a range of therapies. We tailor them to each child’s unique needs.

What Will Kids Learn in a Summer Social Skills Program?

A summer social skills program can continue the momentum of what your child learns over the school year. These are some of the skills we work on:

  • Communication skills: Children with autism often find it hard to advocate for their needs to be met or express their preferences. They also might have trouble using language effectively and maintaining conversations. Our program gives kids a chance to practice these skills through guided activities, role-playing, and peer interactions.
  • Building confidence and self-esteem: Our summer programs can also have a tremendous impact on a child’s confidence and self-esteem. By mastering new skills and successfully interacting and forming friendships with peers, children with autism can gain a greater sense of self-worth. This boost in confidence can positively influence other areas of their life, from academic performance to relationships with family and friends.
  • Learning to interact with peers and make friends: Children with autism sometimes have difficulties making friends and maintaining relationships. Summer social skills programs specifically address these issues by providing opportunities for children to interact with others in a supervised, safe, and nurturing environment. This can help them understand the nuances of social interaction, learn to cooperate with others, and even form lasting friendships.
  • Fostering independence: Another key benefit of these programs is that they foster independence. By participating in new activities and routines, children can gradually become more comfortable with change and learn to adapt to different situations.

Keeping Skills Sharp During the Summer

Sometimes, educators talk about the “summer slide.” That refers to an educational phenomenon where students experience a loss of learning gains that they made during the previous school year over the course of the summer vacation.

If you want to prevent that kind of regression for your child, a summer social skills program can reinforce what they’ve learned over the school year and help them continue their growth and development.

Summer social skills programs for children with autism are more than just a way to keep kids occupied during the break. It’s another tool for keeping them engaged in learning. So, as we approach the summer season, consider enrolling your child in a social skills program. It could be just the thing to make the transition to next school year easier.

Learn more about building social skills during the summer in this LEARN blog post.

5 Benefits of Early Intervention for Autism

Discovering that your child has been diagnosed with autism can be an incredibly challenging and emotional experience for parents and caregivers. It can make you feel uncertain, overwhelmed, and worried about what to do next.

It’s important to know that early detection and intervention can not only make a significant difference in your child’s development — but also offer a sense of reassurance and ease for you as a parent.

What Is Early Intervention?

“Early intervention” for children with autism refers to the process of identifying and addressing developmental domains — including social, communication, and behavioral skills — as early as possible in a child’s life. It involves providing specialized support, therapies, and services designed to meet the unique needs of each child with autism.

The age range for early intervention is most effective when started as early as possible, ideally before the age of 3. Research has shown that the earlier a child with autism receives intervention, the better their outcomes are likely to be in terms of improved skills, reduced behaviors that interfere with development and learning, and overall quality of life.

The positive impact of early intervention for children with autism is undeniable. It paves the way for their growth and progress.

Here are five compelling reasons why embracing early intervention can put your mind at ease and set your child on a path toward fulfilling their potential:

1. Early Intervention Can Improve Your Child’s Socialization Skills

Children with autism often struggle with social interaction and communication, which can lead to isolation and difficulties in making friends. Early intervention can help children develop socialization skills by providing opportunities for them to interact with others in a structured and supportive environment. This can include teaching them how to initiate conversations, understand social cues, and form friendships.

2. Early Intervention Helps Improve Your Child’s Communication Skills

Many children with autism struggle with communication — whether it’s speaking, processing language, or using non-verbal cues. Early intervention through applied behavior analysis (ABA) can help children express themselves and better understand others, which can lead to improved socialization and overall quality of life.

3. Early Intervention Helps Your Child Learn Appropriate Behaviors

Sometimes life with autism can be challenging. There can be a fair share of meltdowns and tantrums. Early intervention through ABA addresses these often difficult moments and helps children learn appropriate behaviors and how to strengthen ways to learn and interact with others.

4. Early Intervention Sets Your Child Up for Academic Success

Children with autism can struggle academically, which can lead to frustration and low self-esteem. With the help of early intervention, though, children and families can prepare for future academic success. During early intervention, young learners develop social and communication skills that will benefit them not only in their daily lives but also in the classroom once they enroll in school.

5. Early Intervention Can Improve Family Dynamics

Autism can be challenging not just for the child, but for your entire family. Early intervention supports your family by providing resources and tools to help you better understand and support your child. It can also help reduce stress and improve overall family dynamics between you and your child, as well as your child and their siblings.

These are just a few of the many reasons why early intervention for kids with autism is beneficial. By starting treatment early, children with autism can develop the skills and abilities they need to lead fulfilling and successful lives.

Jocelyn Thompson, LCSW, BCBA, is the vice president of clinical services at LEARN Behavioral. During undergrad, she studied under the direction of Dr. Ivar Lovaas and completed an internship at the Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention. Jocelyn has worked with diverse populations as a behavior analyst and social worker for the past 15 years.

For more resources on early intervention, listen to our podcast episode featuring Dr. Geraldine Dawson, co-creator of the Early Start Denver Model, and read our blog on brain plasticity and early intervention written by Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Dr. Evian Gordon, Chairman and CEO of Brain Resource.

A Fresh Approach: Empowering Children with Autism

Written by Alison Spanoghe, Behavior Analyst, Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST)

When I first started working in a school system with children on the autism spectrum in the early 2000s, my leaders told me to stick to my instructions — no matter what. They told me this would be best for the children in the long run. As a newbie, I followed orders.

Often, though, that approach led to anger, tears, and resistance from the children who needed my help the most. Despite science backing up the “follow-my-orders” approach, it didn’t always feel “right.”

Today, my approach has evolved to something called “assent-based practice.” It’s a model that puts an end to instruction through coercion. It prioritizes the child’s agreement to participate in therapy rather than mandating that they follow orders.

The Old Way: Extinction

If you’re familiar with applied behavior analysis (ABA), you may have come across the term “extinction.” In simple terms, extinction means not reinforcing a previously reinforced behavior. The aim is to reduce the chances of that behavior happening again.

Let’s say your TV remote stops working. After a while, you’ll stop pressing the power button and maybe look for batteries or ask for help instead. The same principle applies to ABA services. If a certain behavior — like screaming — is not encouraged, the child will eventually stop doing it. You could then teach them a better way to communicate their needs instead of screaming.

While that might be good in theory, behavior isn’t always that straightforward. Also, the extinction approach can sometimes lead to other issues, like longer tantrums, aggression, or even distrust toward caregivers. That’s where assent-based practice comes in.

The New Way: Assent-Based Practice

Assent-based practice focuses on making sure the child agrees to take part in therapy — even if that agreement is nonverbal. When a child is actively engaged, that’s one indication that they are communicating that they agree with participating in treatment.

This type of approach involves:

  • Constant check-ins
  • Respecting when the child no longer wants to participate in treatment
  • Adapting the approach based on the child’s response
  • Teaching the child to communicate

The goal of this technique is to equip children with autism with skills that are useful in any situation. It also helps them advocate for themselves and make it clear when they want to say “no.” It’s more of a compassionate way of providing care.

Why Assent-Based Practice?

There are many benefits to using assent-based practice. It can:

  • Build Trust: It helps establish a safe and trusting relationship between the child and the therapist.
  • Promote Expression: The child learns that they are seen and heard. It encourages them to express their feelings.
  • Respect Autonomy: The child’s “no” is respected, promoting their dignity and independence.
  • Enhance Learning: This approach avoids standoffs. It allows more reinforcement of language use and engagement in the session.

Assent-based practice has become a popular topic in ABA services. It emphasizes getting the child’s agreement before continuing therapy. It teaches children to express their feelings. It also respects their dignity and independence.

Therapists can use this approach with any child at any time, leading to faster learning and better rapport with the child. While our understanding of assent-based practice continues to evolve, it is a worthwhile approach to consider because it puts the child first.

Alison Spanoghe is a behavior analyst with Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST).

5 Simple and Fun Imaginary Play Ideas for Kids with Autism this Summer

By Laura Squiccimara, BCBA, MS

Assistant Clinical Director, Northeast Region, Behavioral Concepts (BCI)

Are you dreading the upcoming summer break because you worry about your child not having enough to do at home? For parents and caregivers of kids on the autism spectrum, that’s a common worry.

Long school breaks can disrupt your family’s routine, and children with autism often rely on schedules and predictability to feel secure and comfortable in their environment.

Changes at the end of the school year can be difficult to manage but have no fear. We’ve gathered simple, practical ideas for keeping your child engaged this summer. But first, let’s create a sense of consistency and structure.

Planning ahead and creating a schedule with specific activities for each day can help your family maintain a routine. By doing this, you’ll create a balance between structured and unstructured activities.

You can incorporate sensory play, arts and crafts, and fun outdoor activities into your summertime routine. Here are five ideas you can add to your list:

1. Mountain Explorers

This activity requires minimal preparation. To get started, gather some pillows, blankets, and cushions to create “mountains.” Help your child line up and stack the items in a way that resembles a mountain range.

Once your mountain range is complete, grab your gear and go exploring. This is a great way to encourage your child to use their imagination and pretend they’re hiking, camping, or climbing to the top of a mountain peak.

Practice taking turns, following someone else’s lead, and discussing your expedition with your child. You can even create lasting memories by snapping some pictures and placing them in an album that you can add to all summer long.

2. Dress Up

Dressing up is a classic activity that never goes out of style. It’s an excellent way to use old clothes* you might otherwise donate. To get started, gather your well-loved shirts, pants, hats, shoes, and accessories, and lay them out on a table or bed. Now you’re ready to use them in a game of dress-up.

Have your child pick an outfit and then play out different scenarios or even have a fashion show. You also could have a contest to see who can come up with the silliest, most mismatched outfit. This is a great way to work on daily living skills. Your child can practice putting on and taking off clothes, choosing appropriate clothing, and even learning how to fasten buttons and zippers.

*Keep in mind that some children with autism have sensory issues with clothing. You know your child best and what types of clothing materials they prefer. This could also be a way to introduce new materials that your child might like.

3. Pots and Pans Band

Start your very own home band this summer. To do this, all you need are some common household items like pots, pans, and spoons.

Explore different utensils such as wooden spoons, plastic spoons, and rubber spatulas to see how the sounds and tones change with different materials.

Encourage your child to create new beats and follow along with rhythms that you create.

You can challenge your child to a game to see who can repeat the longest beat, play the most recognizable song, or try to play as loud* or softly as possible.

This activity not only encourages creativity and imagination but also enhances important cognitive skills such as pattern recognition, memory, and fine motor skills. So, gather some pots and pans and let the music-making begin.

*Again, every child with autism exhibits different sensory sensitivities to sound. Your child might not enjoy this activity due to sensitivities, and that’s okay. Or, if your child seems interested but is sensitive to sound, they can try wearing headphones.

4. Hometown Restaurant

Hometown Restaurant is a fun and exciting activity that lets your child use their imagination while learning important life skills.

To start, gather some kitchen utensils, plates, bowls, cups, and pots and pans to create an in-home restaurant. You can use play food or gather simple no-bake ingredients so your child can create snacks and meals for the family.

Help them take orders, gather ingredients, “cook” their meals, and serve them to family members. They can even practice cleaning up when finished (wink wink).

Hometown Restaurant enhances creativity and improves important life skills, including problem-solving, communication, and social skills. Put on your aprons, and get ready for an unforgettable dining experience.

5. Box City

Here’s a way to put your delivery boxes to good use. Gather boxes of all shapes and sizes and help your child cut, glue, tape, stack, and arrange them however they like.

If you have big boxes, you can even create a fort. Otherwise, create a town or city for your child’s dolls, action figures, or favorite stuffed animals.

Try taking turns as the architect and builder to practice following directions and taking play suggestions. This activity presents endless opportunities for your child to ask for help, problem solve, and work together.

Boredom Is Your Imagination Calling to You

Refuse to be boring. Teach your child to use their imagination with activities that will keep them engaged. These activities promote creativity, imagination, communication, and problem-solving skills.

With these activities up your sleeve, your child will have a summer filled with adventure, learning, and fun. Get ready to watch your child grow in ways you never thought possible.

Laura Squiccimara, BCBA, MS, is the assistant clinical director of the Northeast region of Behavioral Concepts (BCI). BCI is part of LEARN Behavioral, a national organization dedicated to nurturing the unique potential of children with autism.

Building Social Skills During Summer

School is out! Let summer break be a great opportunity to continue your child’s learning and growth.

While summer can bring parents a welcome relief from making lunches and school drop-off and pick-up, it also offers time for kids to build valuable skills. Social skills programs are offered in several cities by different service providers and can offer a structured, play-based environment for children to build essential social, communication, cognitive, and sensory skills. Kids have fun and make friends as they learn while maintaining a helpful routine for themselves and their parents.

Many skill-boosting summer programs take place in group settings that are similar to the school environment, while still providing one-to-one support. These specialized programs promote collaboration and inclusion of peers and some welcome siblings, too.

Make Friends

Social skills programs provide activities that encourage and reward the building of social relationships rather than individual play. Children are grouped with other kids of the same age group and skill level, enabling them to share in age-appropriate games, activities, and communication. Groups are led by highly-trained staff, known as behavior technicians (BTs), who are overseen by behavior analysts. BTs encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone and try new things.

Stay Mentally and Physically Active

School breaks can impact children academically. The “summer slide” as it is called, refers to a loss of learning that students experience during the summer months. Social skills programs can help children stay mentally and physically active. While promoting positive behaviors and peer interaction, physical activity is suggested to improve self-esteem and general levels of happiness.

Improve Motor Skills

Engaging in physical play and teamwork exercises can also support overall motor skills, which support many everyday activities. This can help children feel more confident and capable.

Behavior Management

By consistently promoting positive behaviors and language, a child can learn what they can do rather than what they cannot do. Social skills programs offer valuable learning opportunities for kids to communicate their needs and engage in behaviors that help them in daily activities and in different environments.

Click here for other summer-themed blogs to support your family this season.


MYTH: Nonverbal or Nonspeaking People with Autism are Intellectually Disabled

RONIT MOLKO, PH.D., BCBA-D
STRATEGIC ADVISOR, LEARN BEHAVIORAL

Just because someone is nonspeaking, does not mean they’re non-thinking. Around 25 to 30 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder are minimally verbal or do not speak at all. These individuals are referred to as nonverbal or nonspeaking, but even the term nonverbal is a bit of a misnomer. While nonspeaking individuals with autism may not speak words to communicate, many still understand words and even use written words to communicate.

Nonspeaking individuals with autism utilize a variety of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods. These range from no-tech and low-tech options such as gestures, writing, drawing, spelling words, and pointing to photos or written words, to high-tech options like iPads or speech-generating devices.

There are several reasons that an individual with autism may have difficulty talking or holding conversation that are not related to intellectual disability. The disorder may have prevented the normal development of verbal communication skills. They may also have conditions such as apraxia of speech, which affects specific brain pathways, making it difficult for a person to actually formulate and speak the words they’re intending to say. Some may also have echolalia, which causes a person to repeat words over and over again.

While these conditions prevent many individuals from speaking, it does not mean they cannot learn, understand, or even communicate. There is a pervasive misunderstanding about this among the general population due to a lack of education. It is often wrongly assumed that anyone who has difficulty speaking is intellectually disabled.

This misconception can be particularly harmful when held by medical professionals. In the 1980s, as many as 69 percent of people with an autism diagnosis had a dual diagnosis of mental retardation, which would now be labeled intellectual disability. By 2014, that number had declined to just 30 percent, as researchers improved the diagnostic criteria for autism and a fuller picture of the disorder emerged.

Researchers are still working to try and improve diagnostics and better distinguish nonspeaking autism from intellectual disabilities. As Audrey Thurm, a child clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland says: “We have to figure out who has only autism, who has only intellectual disability and, importantly, who has both intellectual disability and autism. That’s millions of people who could be better served by having an accurate distinction that would put them in the right group and get them the right services.”

It’s important to challenge the perception that those who do not speak cannot think. Not only do we risk failing to give them the proper supports and services, but we also undermine their individuality, ingenuity, creativity, and humanity by failing to see them as they truly are. Just because they are not talking does not mean they do not have much to tell us.