In recent years, as awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has grown, the number of children diagnosed with the disorder has increased dramatically. In 2002, 1 in 150 8-year-olds was diagnosed with the disease.According to statistics, by 2020, this figure will be 1 in every 36 people Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An increase of more than 300%.
Children on the autism spectrum face challenges in communication, social interaction, sensory processing, and repetitive behaviors. According to a 2014 study, nearly one third There are also intellectual disabilities. Every diagnosis is an opportunity to help a student who might otherwise be struggling.
Unfortunately, our growing understanding of autism in the medical community has not yet translated into the American school system. Educational strategies for helping students with autism spectrum disorder have remained largely unchanged for decades. Without major improvements in policy and practice, an entire generation of children could lose their chance to be independent, productive members of society.
The good news is we know what and who can help. As a professor of occupational therapy at New York Institute of Technology, I have over 20 years of experience training healthcare professionals to work with students on the autism spectrum. I’ve seen how occupational therapy can help children with autism spectrum disorder improve their communication skills, and I’ve seen the impact physical activity can have on brain function. I’ve seen all kinds of interventions that work, and those that don’t.
While most children with ASD receive early intervention during the preschool years, once a student enters the K-12 system, services change. Typically, students with an autism spectrum disorder are placed in special education classes, separate from their neurologically normal peers. There, they receive “free and appropriate” educational services, as required by law. However, teachers do not always have access to the training and resources needed to tailor education for students with autism, and because these students face motor processing challenges, they are often excluded from sports, music and other extracurricular activities.
Sadly, this pattern marginalizes children with ASD.
Occupational therapists and other health care professionals who specialize in helping children with autism can play a vital role in supporting these students. Their training enables them to assess school children and design targeted interventions. Yet most schools do not have the resources to hire such specialists.
Among those companies that have the resources, some try to outsource these positions to independent contractors, but that doesn’t work in the long run. While well-meaning and often talented, off-the-job non-union workers will not be part of your child’s educational team. They find it difficult to effectively advocate for students and provide consistent, ongoing treatment.
This is where policymakers must step in. We need changes at the state and federal levels to ensure that appropriate autism spectrum disorder interventions continue beyond preschool. K-12 schools should be required to have an occupational therapist or other autism specialist.
We also need policies that support equitable distribution of resources among public schools. Families who can afford it can often access effective ASD interventions outside of school, but in-school programs and specialists are critical to ensuring that children of all backgrounds are helped.
Finally, as a matter of policy, we need to ensure that children with ASD have access to physical activity and are encouraged to be active during their school days. Too many schools have done away with recess and physical education in favor of more rigorous academics. This hurts all children, but it hurts especially those with autism because exercise and play have great benefits for their cognitive and physical development.
In my own practice, I have seen dramatic improvements in neurological and cognitive performance when exercise and play are prioritized. For example, a student participates in the school’s running program. At the time, he was in a special education class. Running has boosted his self-confidence, social skills and language skills. He began taking regular general education classes with his neurotic peers and became an honors student.
Such sweeping improvements may still be relatively unusual, but they don’t have to be. Shifts in policy and priorities can ensure that all students with autism spectrum disorder receive the interventions they need to thrive. With effective treatment from trained healthcare professionals, children with autism can be less marginalized, more independent, and participate meaningfully in everyday life.
Alexander Lopez is an associate professor of occupational therapy at New York Institute of Technology.
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