Early education has been widely advocated for typically developing children, but its importance for children on the Autism spectrum cannot be overemphasized. Early intervention therapies aim to alleviate many behavioral deficits present in children diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, as well as promote academic and social skill development through systematic teaching and generalization procedures. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy has been widely used as a means of early intervention for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The standard practice of ABA therapy has been a regimented, 35 to 40 hour per week, in-home therapy intervention. Therapy generally consists of behavioral modification, as well as academic and self-help instruction, utilizing the ABA methodology of discrete trial instruction, reinforcement and extinction procedures. Depending on the level of functionality and severity of the disability in a child, a potential goal in ABA therapy would be to fade the intervention in order to assimilate the child into the public school system.
While many of these skills can be acquired through this form of regimented one on one therapy, creative skills, such as drawing, painting, pretend play, storytelling and other forms of imaginative play are more challenging to systematically teach, as they are skills which are either innate or assimilated from environmental examples in typical children. However, given the basic deficits of Autism, this natural acquisition is not present in the vast majority of children on the spectrum. Therefore, teaching procedures must be implemented in any given child’s early intervention programs with the goal of the child generalizing the skills acquired in therapy, thus gaining the ability to generate their own means of creative expression in novel contexts. Other forms of therapy, including DIR/Floortime, place strong emphasis on social and emotional development, that is placing little to no demands on a child and engaging the child on “their level.” For example, if a child engages in arm flapping behavior, a behavioral program may implement a “redirection” which consists of engaging the child with a more age-appropriate activity, such as playing with a toy, without placing attention on the “inappropriate” behavior. A developmental program, in contrast, might advise an interventionist to engage the child by flapping their arms as well or turning the arm flapping into a kind of physical play, such as holding hands and jumping up and down. While behavioral therapy can effectively address problem behaviors and academic deficits, developmental therapy can focus on play skills. In this way, behavioral and developmental therapy may be seen as being complementary to each other rather than opposing, working in conjunction to help a child.
When thinking about Autism and children on the Autism spectrum, it is helpful to think of the iceberg metaphor. Above the waterline, the prominent tip of the iceberg is visible.The visible tip above the water can be thought of as all the behaviors, academic and social skills of a child. However, below the surface hides the rest of the massive iceberg. The unseen mass hides everything else that is not immediately visible in a child, such as the way they process their environment, their motivations and their anxieties. While one form of early intervention therapy can address some aspects of a child’s learning disability, they may just be the tip of the iceberg.