Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and social interaction and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors.

  • Social communication deficits can include difficulty with joint attention, social engagement, and communicating verbally and/or nonverbally (i.e. use of body language)
  • Restricted, repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities are may include things such as: repeating letters, numbers, or a favorite song/saying excessively, limited interest to a particular object or set of objects (e.g. trains, animals, etc.), repetitive physical movement (e.g. walking in circles, flapping hands), significant difficulty with change in routine, and atypical reactions to sensory input (e.g. atypical reactions to noise, light, and/or touch).

Behavioral Interventions and Techniques

Behavioral interventions and techniques are designed to reduce challenging behaviors and teach functional alternative behaviors using the basic principles of behavior change. These methods are based on behavioral/operant principles of learning. Behavioral interventions for ASD range from one-on-one discrete trial instruction to naturalistic approaches that focus on increasing communication or modifying ineffective communication behaviors.

Examples of therapy techniques used at MWST include the following:

Functional Communication Training (FCT)—FCT referred to the process of teaching meaningful and functional communication to children in a natural way. Using functional communication training methods, therapists teach children how to appropriately communicate in replacement of unwanted or challenging behaviors. To put it simply, therapist teach a children to use their words, gestures, or other means of socially appropriate communication to express wants, needs and frustrations rather than grabbing, screaming or hitting.

Incidental Teaching—this technique uses children individual interests and motivation as a basis for providing opportunities for teaching and learning. Therapists set up the environment based around items or events the child is likely to show interest in; as the child engages with the items and people within the environment, the clinician observes the child and uses the naturally occurring interactions as teaching opportunities. The clinician follows the child's lead and reinforces communication attempts as these attempts get closer to the desired communication behavior.

Self-Management—an approach aimed at helping individuals learn to independently regulate their behaviors and behave appropriately in a variety of contexts. Individuals are taught to discriminate the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, evaluate and record their behaviors, and (when possible and appropriate) reward themselves for using appropriate behaviors. Self-management interventions can be used across a wide range of ages from early childhood through adulthood.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an intervention approach that combines cognitive and behavioral learning principles to shape and encourage desired behaviors. The underlying idea behind CBT is that all behavior stems from a persons throughs and understanding of a given situation; if a person changes their thoughts about a situation, then their behavior will also change. CBT is used primarily to help individuals with ASD improve behavior by learning to regulate emotions and control impulses.

Because the intervention generally involves developing hierarchies and training individuals to change thought processes, the procedures are generally used with individuals who have verbal skills and who are mildly affected by core ASD symptoms. CBT methods may be used by SLPs, OTs, or mental health professionals.

Examples include the following:

Exploring Feelings—a structured CBT program designed to encourage the cognitive control of emotions (anxiety and anger). Sessions include activities to explore specific feelings (e.g., being happy, relaxed, anxious or angry). The child completes a follow-up implementation project prior to the next session. The Explore Feelings program was designed for small groups of children between the ages of 9 and 12 years, but it can be modified for use with only one child (Attwood, 2004).

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy—a therapy approach that focuses on helping the individual acknowledge the problems that are upsetting them, accept emotional responsibility for these problems, and be empowered to change. The ultimate goal is to be able to lead a happier, more fulfilling life (Ellis & Dryden, 1997).

Social Thinking®—a cognitive-based treatment framework for preschool and school-age children and adults with social learning challenges (including ASD, social communication disorder, and other related diagnoses). It comprises strategies to target pragmatic language, social–emotional learning, perspective taking, and social skills. The framework teaches individuals to understand the "thinking" that underlies the production (Crooke et al., 2008; Garcia Winner & Crooke, 2009, 2011).


ASHA American Speech-Language-Hearing Association