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Unlocking Social Potential in Autism

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Dr. Karina Poirier

To your dismay, your child has received a diagnosis of autism. Along with this alarming news comes the barrage of emotions that suffocates you like an avalanche— denial—confusion—depression—guilt. You want to fix your child; you have a million questions; and you want answers immediately. Autism is a journey in which the child and her family navigate challenges and experience achievements along the way.

Lots of children have difficulty with verbal communications.  It is possible your child has mild autism. Autism is a spectrum which can range from mild to severe, and each child has different needs.

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Dr. Karina Poirier, author of Unlocking Social Potential in Autism and Related Disorders, says that understanding is the key step to dealing with the concerns and developing their strengths.

“Bring everything into the light. The worst thing you can do,” she said, “is to ignore the issue. Parents can help their children learn how to communicate better and develop social skills that will help them thrive later in life.  Get help early, identify the specific issues you are facing, ask questions, learn everything you can, and devise a concrete and detailed strategy for engaging your child so key skills are developed and strengthened”.

Here are answers to some key concerns that parents of a child with autism are faced with.

  • Q: My child can sit through a learning task on the iPad or television; however, he becomes restless and fidgety when working with a teacher. Why?
  • A: Your child’s attention system is reactive. Consider how much children learn from viewing television. Teachers struggle to get children’s attention when an activity does not include the sensory kaleidoscope children are used to receiving when sitting in front of the television.
  • Key Action: Children must be taught at an early age how to develop the mental tools (attend, remember, think) to engage in deliberate and self-directed learning experiences with an adult’s guidance.
  • Q: My child does not respond appropriately to mood changes in others (e.g., when a peer’s mood changes from happiness to distress). Why?
  • A: Your child may be lacking the ability to read nonverbal cues. Children with autism often have impaired ability to read, interpret, and process social and emotional messages. Children who are unaware of others’ thoughts and feelings risk not developing the sense of self.
  • Key Action:  Treatment to teach the child the emotional codes that are part of the social experience. The child needs to develop the ability to understand other peoples’ emotions from their facial expression, tone of voice, and body posture. The child should be taught to recognize and interpret how people around him think and feel.
  • Q: My child has difficulty with describing his/her day at school, recounting an experience, or relaying a message. Why?
  • A: Delayed recall skills utilize episodic memory. Episodic memory allows us to remember past events and share these events with others. In other words, it is how we engage in reciprocal conversations with others. Episodic memory produces a conscious awareness of events that have occurred at any one time; it enables people to remember what happened to them in the past or to conceive the future.
  • Key Action:  Effective treatment is required for the child to learn about memory strategies and to practice remembering. Through repetition, the child develops not only better recall of past events, but also the skills to communicate the memory of the event to peers or adults during a conversation.
  • Q: My child is verbal and has good command of language; however, he has trouble initiating conversation with others and taking turns during a conversation. Why?
  • A: Children with autism have difficulties in social initiation and social-emotional understanding. Engaging in a reciprocal conversation with others requires the development and interaction of memory, information processing, and expressive communication skills—all of which are pervasive deficits of children with autism. It is not that these children do not desire involvement with their peers. On the contrary, they do have the desire to be socially engaged with others; however, the dilemma lies in the fact that these children lack knowledge of social norms.
  • Key Action: Effective treatment that emphasizes social norms and rules, and teaches children how to process social information by distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information in a social situation. Initiating and maintaining a conversation requires a person to have social knowledge, which is knowledge of event schemas.
  • Q: How much play time is appropriate to include in my child’s learning routine?
  • A: For a young child, teaching through play is extremely important. Play gives children something to do with their ample free time; it also serves the important purpose of honing children’s physical, social and emotional development. Play does not occur spontaneously in children with autism the way it does for typical children.
  • Key Action: Investing significant time teaching through play focuses the child on developing fine and gross motor skills, interpreting the social cues of other children and adults, and responding to those social cues appropriately. Play can be used to develop the ability to interact with, explore, and, ultimately master their surroundings. Play is an essential part of the learning process, and its ability to mimic real-life scenarios makes it an ideal way to stimulate overall development.

Dr. Karina Poirier provides an overview of child development, a descriptive explanation of how autism affects each developmental area, and guidelines for advancing your child’s functioning in all developmental domains. The book includes numerous hands-on, full-color sample lessons for teaching social and emotional skills, language, problem-solving and decision making, and play skills to children with autism. Visit www.drkarinapoirier.com

Special Needs Resources…

SEASPAR (Special Needs)
SEASPAR is a special recreation association offering therapeutic recreation programs and services – including summer day camps and a multi-sensory room – for people with disabilities served by the park districts of Clarendon Hills, Darien, Downers Grove, La Grange, La Grange Park, Lemont, Lisle, Westmont, and Woodridge, and the villages of Brookfield, Indian Head Park, and Western Springs. Visit SEASPAR.org or call 630.960.7600 for more information about our year-round programming for all ages and all abilities!

Acacia Academy  (Special Needs)
Acacia Academy is a private therapeutic day school ages 6 – 22 for those with learning disabilities, emotional concerns, autism and intellectually challenged students who benefit from a personalized program designed to meet individual needs. Natural habitat and three-acre school Nature Center located on campus provides students with a unique outdoor experience and summer program. AdvancED accredited and approved by the Illinois State Board of Education for out-of-district placement. Transition programs and vocational services are available for ages 17-22. Kathryn Fouks, principal. 6425 Willow Springs Road, LaGrange, IL 60525. (708) 579-9040. info@acaciaacademy.com . www.AcaciaAcademy.com .

Comprehensive Autism Services
& Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley   (Special Needs)
Jessica Schultz, a licensed clinical professional counselor and autism consultant, has worked in school and clinical settings helping children with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop effective behavior strategies. Her work supports research findings that show improvements in verbal skills and social functioning when children have the strategies they need to control and change their behavior.

Schultz is collaborating with therapists at Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley to offer one-on-one consultations and education for families. Together, they develop skills to address behavior issues and improve interactions at home and school. In addition to behavioral therapy, Easter Seals offers comprehensive services for children with ASD including occupational therapy, physical therapy and a diagnostic clinic. Visit eastersealsdfvr.org/AutismServices for more information.
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