I talk a lot on This Outnumbered Mama about neurodiversity and not trying to make my neurodivergent chidldren act neurotypical. Many people take that to mean that I’m anti-therapy. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Together my sons have six therapies, and we’re working to add a few more to the mix. However, I’m very particular about the therapists that we work with and the goals set forth in the therapy sessions.
Speech Therapy (ST)
One of the most common autism therapies is speech therapy. Many autistic people have delayed speech or language, and speech therapists can help them with that development. Speech therapy actually encompasses more than simply verbal speech, however. They can help with expressive language (knowing what to say when and finding the words to use), receptive language (understanding and processing what others are saying to you) physical speech (the forming of sounds and words), and using communication devices or PECS.
Occupational Therapy (OT)
Occupational therapy can seem a bit misleading when in relation to autism and specifically autistic children. The thing is, occupational therapy is concerned with tasks necessary in everyday life. So what is an autistic child’s occupation? Likely play activities, eating, tying shoes, buckling their carseat, holding a pencil, etc. Occupational therapists can help with all of this. This also tends to be the therapy that helps with sensory struggles, at least in my state.
Our OT holds a special place in my heart. When we went for A-Man’s first evaluation, I started my usual spiel. “He’s not just naughty. He’s not a brat. He’s not just picky.” and she said to me, “Kaylene, I know. He’s a good boy. He can’t help his behavior right now, and this is not because of your parenting.” I about cried. In fact I did. Right there in the clinic. Big fat ugly cried. OT’s are magic, please get one if at all possible.
Physical Therapy (PT)
This one isn’t necessarily a traditional autism therapy. Autism itself does not always effect physical development, but many things that are more common in autistic people tend to come along with physical delays or difficulties. For example, A-Man has Dyspraxia which causes struggles in his physical development. Those struggles are intensified when the dyspraxia combines with the rigidity he has from his autism, and it turns into a pretty significant physical delay. Physical therapists help with physical activities such as walking, throwing, kicking, balancing, and more.
Feeding Therapy (FT)
Feeding therapy is a tricky one. In some states and clinics, feeding therapy is morphed into either speech therapy or occupational therapy. In our clinic, for example, our speech therapist handles physical feeding struggles, such as a difficulty swallowing or chewing, while our occupational therapist handles sensory feeding struggles, such as not tolerating specific textures. With more extreme eating struggles, like children who need feeding tubes or more complicated services, a specific food therapist may be included.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
And we’ve come to the hot button issue. I do have an entire post devoted to ABA planned, so I won’t go too crazy here. Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, therapy is a widely debated topic in the disability community. Many, many disabled self advocates speak out loudly against ABA.
The traditional ABA practice has an extreme focus on instant compliance, can be compared to dog training, and has the main goal of making autistic people act more neurotypical. None of those are things that I can support, and many disabled self advocates suffer from PTSD from the ABA therapy that they had as children.
However, before you leave me mean comments about being anti-ABA, know this. There are a lot of “ABA” therapists who do not practice traditional ABA, but call themselves ABA therapists because that is the only therapy currently covered by insurance.
My personal advice with ABA is to research like crazy, know what traditional ABA signs are, and if you move forward with “ABA” make certain that it is in your presence so that you can make sure that the therapist isn’t moving into practices that could cause harm to your child. (Again, I have an entire post devoted to this planned that will go into more details.)
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
Relationship Development Intervention is a behavioral therapy that focuses on building relationships and trust for autistic individuals. This is from the website RDI Connect, “We do not believe that autism is a disease, nor something to be “cured”. Instead, we know that your child is just who she is meant to be and we can help you reach her full potential.”
Now that is a therapy principle that I can get behind! This therapy doesn’t rely on scripting or following strict routines, so it helps autistic people to cope in many different situations. Unfortunately, RDI isn’t covered by most insurances, so families must pay out of pocket. Our speech therapist is RDI trained, and we’ll be starting with RDI therapy as soon as A-Man gets on disability.
This is a very broad overview of some of the most popular autism therapies. I really hope that you’ve found it helpful. With any therapy, make sure that you fully trust the therapist and understand what they’re doing and the goals behind their actions. Make sure that respect for your child’s dignity and autonomy is always a priority, and you’ll be fine! What therapy has made the biggest difference for your autistic child? And don’t forget to check out the rest of the posts in the Autism A-Z Series here!
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