When your child with autism is upset and crying, even aggressive, it’s typically because they are trying to communicate their wants and needs. When a child learns to communicate, problem behaviors and frustration levels tend to decrease, making way for better learning and skill development, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, a Madison Heights ABA therapy center for children and teens.
That’s why effective ABA therapy focuses on helping a child learn to communicate.
For kids with autism, behavior is communication, says Dr. Thomas. “Our job is to figure out what they are trying to say and give them a more efficient means to communicate,” she says. “It’s not energy efficient to tantrum for any length of time and the stress hormones that build up are not helpful for the brain. We help children learn to communicate so they’re less likely to tantrum or cry or get aggressive.”
Communication is foundational for ABA therapy, says Dr. Thomas, because communication and language are connected to learning and cognition. When a child learns to communicate, no matter the method, they are better able to learn.
“In order to expand vocabulary, we expand cognition. When children are young, we work on functional skills, such as requesting. As they grow, we get an idea of what they want as they gain more control over their world and have a better understanding of their direction in life,” she says.
“Our ultimate goal is to help children learn to resolve conflicts using advanced skills. This includes understanding their own emotions and the emotions of others,” says Dr. Thomas. “And this is all rooted in language and cognition.”
Many ways to learn to communicate
Language can look different for different children, and not all communication is verbal. At Healing Haven, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) begin with the communication methods children already have and build from there.
If a child knows how to sign, for instance, therapists will communicate using sign, at least initially. “Sign is a really good form of communication and intuitively, it makes sense. But it’s not something that will work in all environments, as not everyone knows sign language,” says Dr. Thomas. “We will continue with sign but expand with universal gestures.”
Other methods of communication include Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), a color-coded collection of physical icons that children can use to communicate. Or, a child may use a device, such as a tablet loaded with an icon-based program. Hand gestures, too, are a low-barrier way for children to communicate their wants.
“We teach that a tap on the chest means ‘my,’ and a child can easily say ‘I want it, it’s mine,’” Dr. Thomas says. “We know the more effort required to communicate, the less likely a child is to use it, so we select a communication method based on a child’s strengths. If a child has good visual perception skills, we work with PECS or a device. If they have fine motor imitation skills, we may use sign instead.”
Guided by decades of research, ABA and speech-language therapists know that augmentative communication can help — not hinder — vocal speech development, which Dr. Thomas calls the “gold standard” of communication.
The value of collaboration with a specialized team
To best help a child with autism learn to communicate, therapists at Healing Haven collaborate with a speech-language therapy team co-located within the Madison Heights campus. This level of collaboration is hard to replicate when the speech-language therapy team is in a separate location, like a school or hospital, Dr. Thomas says.
“We like to teach all forms of communication,” she says. “And we try to teach every child how to communicate vocally, even if the child is older. Studies do show that individuals can learn to speak even after 40 or 50 years of not speaking.” Because vocal speech is important socially and is often the most efficient way to communicate, therapists at Healing Haven work together using reinforcement and shaping techniques to help children learn to communicate vocally.
Some 70% of children at Healing Haven have both ABA and speech therapy in their treatment plan. For the benefit of the child, it’s preferred when the BCBA and speech-language therapist can collaborate to provide services that complement each other. The speech therapy team has extensive experience working with technology-based augmentative communication and can recommend a method that works for each individual child.
“They have been instrumental in modeling for the ABA therapy team ways to use this technology to not only request, but model speech,” explains Dr. Thomas. “This has significantly benefited children that are visual learners.”
Healing Haven’s collaborative approach allows BCBAs and speech therapists to work with parents to ensure the communication doesn’t stop when the children leave the clinic. Parents play an instrumental role in carrying over new-found skills to the home and natural environment.
“Many children experience significant struggles in the area of language, but life gets easier for everyone as communication skills improve,” says Dr. Thomas. “Our collaborative approach has allowed us to better support families and help children increase the quality of their skills and the rate at which they are learning.”
Learn more about Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.