Autism: Early Intervention Lifts A Child’s Potential

For a child with autism, early intervention offers the best hope for the future, says Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and leads awareness activities during Autism Awareness Month and throughout the year. Carmen de Lerma, M.D., a developmental pediatrician with South Miami Hospital’s Center for Women & Infants’ Child Development Center, agrees.

“An intervention program should be implemented as soon as possible after a child receives a diagnosis of autism or shows signs of developmental disability,” Dr. de Lerma said. “And the most effective therapy program uses a multidisciplinary approach to optimize a child’s full potential.”

One such program is offered at the Child Development Center, which provides children with instruction that focuses on deficits and builds on their strengths to teach new skills. It also enriches the lives of families affected by autism by offering resources, support and training that help them better understand their child’s behavior and needs.

“While a child’s pre-school and school provide the academic component of education, a successful therapy program stresses many areas of development that complete the ‘whole self,’” explained Dr. de Lerma.

A comprehensive program often involves developmental pediatricians, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists and, of course, the parents, Dr. de Lerma says. She recommends that parents be involved in their child’s therapy program so they can consistently apply the interventions at home.

The Child Development Center program focuses on achieving short- and long-term developmental goals by addressing the following issues:

  • Communication skills
  • Appropriate social interaction
  • Sensory stimuli
  • Attention and concentration
  • Appropriate play

Improving Speech and Language
Speech and language therapists focus on improving verbal and non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. They also teach a child proper social interaction, such as making eye contact, expressing emotion, understanding context, giving appropriate responses and having back-and-forth conversations.

Occupational Therapy
Occupational therapy combines a variety of strategies to help a child respond better to his or her environment. Therapists focus on improving a child’s motor skills and daily living skills such as dressing and feeding.

Occupational therapists also incorporate sensory integration training to address a child’s sensitivity to different sights, sounds and touch, Dr. de Lerma says. “These activities help a child transition to new activities and environments like school, therapy, the car, a store or a sporting event,” Dr. de Lerma said.

According to the Autism Research Institute, sensory integration training is important because a dysfunctional tactile system may lead to a misperception of touch or pain and can lead to self-imposed isolation, irritability, distractibility and hyperactivity.

Improving Social Skills
Effective interventions stress the need for an autistic child to engage in social interaction and play with other children to develop appropriate communication and play skills. A child learns proper social greetings and personal space, what to do in groups and what to talk about with others.

It’s important to note that therapy strategies that work well for one child may not work well for another, say experts. Because autism symptoms usually occur in combination and with varying degrees of severity; one size treatment does not fit all.

“An effective therapy plan is tailored to address each individual child’s needs at each stage of development,” Dr. de Lerma said.



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