There are many reasons for the creation of Autism Awareness Month. One of them is the impact of early detection and intervention in the lives of children with autism. A common understanding among the varieties of doctors, therapists, and educators who work with people with autism is that the earlier the intervention, the better a child’s chance to overcome some of the more debilitating aspects of the disorder. It’s typical for pediatricians, psychiatrists, and neurologists to recommend a variety of interventions: a therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, occupational therapy, talk therapy, family therapy, and any of several possible medications that are otherwise used to address anxiety, ADHD, and impulse control. There’s no definitive autism therapy cocktail. And it’s not just because every kid with autism is different. It’s that there is no handbook. There’s no social worker or guide. Parents are often left to make up their own therapeutic regimen based on professional recommendations, online research, provider availability, insurance coverage (or lack thereof), and an assessment of the mental and physical wherewithal they have for all these therapeutic endeavors.
Even though it has overwhelmed our lives at times, I am grateful for the therapies that we’ve engaged for Martin. ABA has made possible everything from speaking sentences to toileting, from trick-or-treating to playing tag. Speech therapy gave Martin all the structures he needed to talk, converse, and understand. Occupational therapy allowed him to kick a ball, use scissors, and tie his own shoes. Family therapy has provided my husband and I all sorts of guidance for the parenting challenges we have faced. And medicine, well, I am grateful for it. Medicine has provided Martin a little help with impulse control. It has helped us immensely.
I would not be doing this week’s duty of teaching readers about autism without mentioning that each of these therapies is also controversial to some degree. Many folks in the neurodiversity movement and autism self-advocacy networks are critical of therapies designed to “overcome” autism. They argue, instead, that society should learn to embrace a variety of ways of being in the world. They ask, for instance, why therapists make kids with autism work on eye contact. Why can’t the rest of us just get used to a conversation without it? Some go further and wonder why the push for speech. They encourage folks without autism to consider that there might be ways to communicate without words.
This article from the New York Times, “The Kids Who Beat Autism,” speaks to the many therapies that are used with kids with autism. It also explores the ambiguities that parents face. I hope you find it helpful.