A diagnosis of autism can be an uncertain time for a family. Many parents are sent into a whirlwind of emotions and left wondering unanswerable questions: Why is this happening? How did this happen? What will their future look like? What do I do now?
Some questions are easier to answer than others. First, knowing which specialists are available to help can bring peace of mind. Some services are evidence-based, versus “fad treatments” or experimental treatments with no research supporting their use or effectiveness. Evidence-based treatments are interventions that have been supported by peer reviewed studies that have been replicated, often through years of research. When a provider tells you they can help your child with autism, don’t be afraid to ask them, “Can you tell me about the research supporting your services?” and “Is your treatment recommended by the National Institutes of Health for treating people with autism?”
Children with autism often receive a variety of support from different sources; evidence-based services include ABA therapy from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), speech therapy from a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP), ongoing care from a pediatric neurologist, and possible treatment with a doctoral psychologist or psychiatrist.
Wow, that’s a long list! Does my child need all of those services?
The answer is each child is different, and your child’s needs will change over time so it’s best to know what options are out there! Some services may require more time than others. ABA therapy, or applied behavior analysis therapy, typically ranges from 10 to 40 hours per week depending on a child’s needs. The programs are intensive, which requires a higher number of therapy hours. Research indicates a lower number of therapy hours does not produce meaningful outcomes, hence the greater time requirement (Granpeesheh et al, 2009).
Search for ABA centers in your area to learn more.
Speech therapy with a private SLP typically ranges from 1 to 2 hours per week. Many provide in-clinic and in-home services. To find a private speech therapist, search for speech language pathology clinics in your area. Public schools in Texas also offer speech therapy, typically about 30 minutes per week. Contact your child’s teacher and school psychologist to see if they are eligible to receive services at school. If they are currently not eligible, inquire if the school can evaluate them to see if they need support (they can!).
Pediatric neurologists provide initial diagnoses and ongoing screenings or check-ups one to two times per year. If additional diagnoses are warranted, they can evaluate your child and refer you to recommended specialists if need be. Neurologists can diagnose developmental disorders, seizure disorders, brain injuries, and nerve-muscle disorders.
Psychiatrists and licensed psychologists can also provide a diagnosis of autism. Psychiatrists can provide treatment through medication if severe behavioral issues (such as severe self-injury or aggression) persist in spite of intensive ongoing behavior therapy. Licensed psychologists can provide a variety of therapy options, including PCIT, or Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. PCIT is a type of evidence-based therapy that teaches parents effective ways to engage their children to produce meaningful behavior change and skill acquisition.
Collaboration is Key
Hands down, collaboration among all specialists will result in better outcomes for your child. Encourage your child’s team to communicate on a regular basis! For example, BCBAs or speech pathologists can attend doctor visits with the neurologist or psychiatrist to discuss specific behaviors that are observed during day-to-day therapy. Doing so will give doctors more complete information and allow them to make the most informed decisions. Also, BCBAs can include recommendations from a psychologist in their skill acquisitions programs and individualized behavior plans. The two specialists can also discuss if other evidence-based treatments are needed, for instance in a child has multiple diagnoses that require a variety of behavior therapies.
In addition to knowing how to navigate through the sea of specialists, many families benefit from reaching out to one another. Parent support groups that connect parents of children with special needs are a great place to find compassion and understanding for a process that can be emotionally taxing. Further, many states have conferences, such as Texas Parent to Parent Conferences that provide parents with information and foster connections with other families. You’re not alone, don’t be afraid to reach out!
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