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The Importance of Early Detection and Intervention

Learn the Early Signs of Autism
As parents, we all watch with a careful eye as our children develop, constantly asking ourselves questions like “is this normal?” We know there is a wide spectrum of development and every child develops at his or her own pace, making the process of identifying early concerns even more daunting.

Knowing and understanding the early signs of autism can help identify developmental delays and ensure early intervention is sought out as soon as possible.  While it can be nerve-wracking to think about your child receiving an autism diagnosis, decades of research point to the importance of early diagnosis and intervention. Additionally securing a strong team of providers can help support you as a family, as well as reduce the overwhelming anxiety that so often accompanies the early days of diagnosis and treatment.

According to The Mayo Clinic, “autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The term “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928

While every individual is different, signs of autism often appear early in development when obvious delays in language skills and social interactions are observed.

Some early signs include:

  • Doesn’t respond with a smile or happy expression by 6 months
  • Doesn’t mimic sounds or facial expressions by 9 months
  • Doesn’t babble or coo by 12 months
  • Doesn’t gesture — such as point or wave — by 14 months
  • Doesn’t say single words by 16 months
  • Doesn’t play “make-believe” or pretend by 18 months
  • Doesn’t say two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Loses language skills or social skills at any age

Where to Start
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be screened for autism during regular well-child doctor visits at 18 and 24 months.

If you suspect your child may be showing some of the delays or signs listed above, talk to your pediatrician as soon as possible and be clear about your concerns.  Request that your pediatrician assist you in completing an early screening tool. If there is a need, your pediatrician will then refer you for a full developmental evaluation, usually done by a trained specialist such as a developmental pediatrician or child psychologist.

Once a developmental evaluation is completed and a diagnosis is made, you will want to ask your provider for referrals to evidence-based treatments in your area.  Advocate for your child early and often to ensure you are being connected to the appropriate treatments.

Early Intervention
Applied Behavior Analysis is the evidence-based, treatment of choice for autism spectrum disorders.  You may also receive referrals to other therapies such as speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy depending on your child’s needs.

Applied Behavior Analysis, also known as ABA, is the science of understanding the behavior of individuals.  As it applies to autism, ABA aims to improve socially important behaviors in meaningful ways, based on principals of learning.  ABA is shown to be effective in many areas including increasing pro-social behaviors and skill acquisition as well as reducing interfering and dangerous behaviors such as self-injury and aggression.

Over the last three decades, studies have shown that intensive (more than 20 hours per week) and early intervention (before the age of 4), using the science of ABA, may produce large gains in development and reduce the need for special services later on.

The science is in—There is no “cure” for autism, nor is that the goal of ABA.  However, early and intensive intervention can help support individuals in achieving their potential and contribute to positive outcomes across the lifespan.

Important Takeaways

  • Know the early signs of autism
  • Talk to your pediatrician and advocate early and often for your child
  • While there is not a “cure,” Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help your child reach his or her potential when started early

Pediatric Therapy Clinic can help you navigate the complexities of autism diagnosis and treatment. We live, work and raise children in Bozeman and can help connect you with supportive professionals in our community.  Whether you are pursuing an evaluation or have already received a diagnosis, we are available to help guide you.

Putting the “Behavior” in Applied Behavior Analysis

What does the “B” in ABA Really Mean?

The word “behavior” is often used to describe good vs. bad behavior, particularly when talking about children.  When we think about how a child behaves, the first images that come to mind might be of tantrums, poor manners, talking back or other undesirable actions. A common misconception of ABA is that it is only used to fix “bad” or challenging behaviors. While these are all issues that ABA can help with, you might be surprised to hear the scope of ABA is actually much broader.

In the science of Behavior Analysis, “behavior” is simply everything a person does.  This means that when we talk about behavior, we are talking about a wide variety of skills and activities, not just undesirable behaviors.  Behaviors might include self-help skills, communication, following instructions, self-management, sustained attention and many, many more. 

This distinction is important because for ABA to be most effective, intervention must start early.  If you or professionals working with your child have the misconception that ABA is only for “bad” or unmanageable behaviors, treatment could be delayed and significant learning opportunities could be lost.  ABA can teach your child valuable skills and help him reach his full potential.

ABA as a Teaching Tool

Behavior Goes Where Reinforcement Flows

One of the core components of ABA is reinforcement.  Reinforcement refers to increasing a response (a behavior, an answer, a skill, etc.) by delivering something preferred such as praise, time with fun activities, a favorite snack or any number of other things.  By definition, reinforcement WORKS.  Reinforcers vary from person to person and the rule is that if a “reinforcer” isn’t working, its time to find a new reinforcer!

Harnessing the power of reinforcement allows us to be very clear about the responses we expect from our learners.  A natural example of reinforcement can be observed when teaching a child to ask for something rather than whining or crying.  If your child is working on saying “cookie,” you will wait until he or she says “cookie” before giving it to him.  The act of saying “cookie” is then reinforced by the yummy treat! This basic principal can be applied to any number of skills, including teaching more complex language.

How do You Eat an Elephant?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! One of the things that makes ABA so effective is that it gives us the tools to break complex skills into small, manageable parts.  These skills can range from self-care activities such as bathing, dressing and feeding, to more complex social skills such as holding conversations and interpreting social cues. 

Take for example, washing hands.  If you have a child who struggles with this, you know how overwhelming it can be to try and teach. A Board Certified Behavior Analyst will help break the skill into small steps such as “stand on step stool, turn on cold water, wet both hands, pump soap into hand,” etc.  This is called a task analysis.  Teaching each individual step, followed by delivering meaningful reinforcement, is an incredibly effective way of introducing a new skill!

These are only a couple of the ways in which ABA can help to teach new skills to all kinds of learners.  While ABA is an incredibly effective tool for reducing difficult behaviors, it is also a powerful teaching tool.  Waiting until behaviors become too challenging to handle can mean passing up valuable learning opportunities.

If you have questions about how ABA can help teach your child important skills, reach out to Pediatric Therapy Clinic in Bozeman at (406) 624-6669.