What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or autism, is a neurological disorder, which causes developmental disability. It is a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.

 

The "spectrum" refers to a continuum of severity and developmental impairment. Children and adults with ASDs usually have specific communication, social and behavioural characteristics in common, but the conditions often cover a wide spectrum, with individual differences arrayed across:

  • Number and kinds of symptoms 

  • Severity: mild to severe 

  • Age of onset 

  • Levels of functioning

  • Challenges with social interactions

People with ASDs differ from others in the several areas of development including: motor skills, language, cognitive ability and social skills. Each person with an ASD is unique and will have different capacities for learning. Disabilities caused by ASDs might be very mild in one person and quite severe in another. All people with ASD will have some degree of impairment in the following areas:

 

  1. Social Skills: Some people with ASDs show no interest in other people. Others might be interested but not know how to talk, play with, or relate to others. Initiating and maintaining a conversation is usually difficult for people with ASDs.

  2. Communication: Speech and language skills may begin to develop and then be lost, they may develop very slowly, or they may never develop. Without appropriate intensive early intervention about 40% of children with ASDs do not talk at all. People with ASDs are often unable to interpret non-verbal communication such as social distance cues, or the use of gestures and facial cues that most of us take for granted.

  3. Repetitive Behaviours and Restricted Interests: People with ASDs may have repeated ritualistic actions such as spinning, repeated rocking, staring, finger flapping, hitting self, etc. They may also have very restricted interests, talking about or focusing obsessively on only one thing, idea, or activity. Their habits may seem odd to others. 

 

Diagnosis

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed through direct observation and parent interviews using the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). There are no medical/blood tests for autism. Professionals registered with either the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists or the College of Physicians and Surgeons diagnose ASD.

What is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a science that involves the application of principles of learning to improve socially important behaviour to a meaningful degree and to demonstrate scientifically that the procedures used are responsible for the change in behaviour. In other words, this method teaches small, measurable units of behaviour systematically in conjunction with frequent review of progress data so that goals and programs can be revised and updated as needed. ABA is a set of principles that form the basis for many behavioral treatments. ABA is based on the science of learning and behavior. This science includes general “laws” about how behavior works and how learning takes place. ABA therapy applies these laws to behavior treatments in a way that helps to increase useful or desired behaviors. Behavior analysis is a scientific approach to understanding behavior and how the environment affects it. ABA therapy is used to increase language and communication skills. It is also used to improve attention, focus, social skills, memory, and academics. ABA can be used to help decrease problem behaviors. 

 

Dr. Ivar Lovaas conducted a groundbreaking study on a group of 19 children with autism in 1987 that were receiving 40 hours per week of behavioural intervention.  Lovaas compared these children to a control group of 19 children with autism who were only receiving 10 hours per week of therapy.  A second control group was added made up of 21 children with autism who received no treatment from Lovaas or his team.  Results of the study after a period of two years indicated that by the age of 6 years, 9 of the 19 children from the intensive 40 hour per week intervention group had achieved average or above average scores in intelligence tests and had successfully completed grade one with no aides or assistance.  Conversely, only one child across the two control groups achieved similar gains.  For the most part, children from the two control groups did not show improvement.  A follow up study conducted five years after treatment ended showed that the 9 children who had made gains from the initial study, still continued to make progress and maintain skills.

 

Done correctly, ABA interventions are not a one size fits all approach consisting of a predetermined set of programs or drills. On the contrary, every aspect of intervention is customized to each learner's skills, needs, interests, preferences, and family situation. For those reasons, an ABA program for one learner might look somewhat different than a program for another learner.

What is Verbal Behaviour?

The Verbal Behaviour (VB) approach is a fairly new and popular approach that has emerged from the basic teachings of ABA within the last 10-15 years.  The VB approach builds on all of the ABA research, but also enhances a child’s ability to learn functional language.  It is used with children who are both verbal and nonverbal, and is best used with children who are not yet conversational.

The initial step of any VB program is to complete the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS). This curriculum-based assessment evaluates the child’s skills across 25 domains. Based on the results of the assessment, an individualized curriculum can be developed for the child.  

 

The next step is to determine the child’s most preferred items and activities (reinforcers).  Once the child’s reinforcers have been identified, the basis for a VB approach is to teach the child how to make requests (language, sounds, pictures, signs, AAC, etc.). B.F. Skinner called this a “mand” when he defined it in his 1957 book Verbal Behaviour.  Manding is the centerpiece of VB programming.

The VB approach is very child-centered and it is therefore crucial that all the child’s reinforcers surround the instructor. The child will learn to associate the adult as the giver of all good things – this is done through a process called “pairing”. Pairing the work area, the table, the instructor with the child’s reinforcers is the key to beginning a VB program.  If pairing is done effectively, the child should be running towards the instructor and the work area!


Example: Once a child can mand for a ball, we can build on this by teaching them to label a picture of a ball, to identify a ball from a set of items, and to answer questions about a ball. This is how VB programming differs from standard Lovaas ABA programs – the focus is on teaching the child to communicate effectively and provides a high level of interaction + fun!

How many hours do you recommend my child attend?

Above and Beyond Autism Consulting Services (ABACS) provides Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) to children with autism (or who are screened for autism) for as many hours per week as their family requests. We ask families to book a minimum of 3-hour length sessions at any one time. With our programming, the more hours, the better progress your child will make as research shows that children who receive between 15-30 hours of IBI/week make the most sustained progress. We do recognize, however, that a high amount of programming hours may not be an affordable option for all families. 

 

The centre is open Monday - Thursday from 9:00am - 5:00pm and Fridays 9:00am - 4:00pm from September to June and Monday - Friday from 9:00am - 4:00pm during the months of July and August. We close all regular Canadian statutory holidays and weekends but remain open year round (no summer/holiday closures, etc.).  Our programming is offered on a one-to-one year-round basis following completion of our ABLLS-R assessment process.