First, I'd like to apologize for the recent radio silence. Long story short, there's been some personal situations keeping me a bit busier than usual. But we're back in time for Autism Awareness Month (or at least the second half of it)
Like with cerebral palsy, this first post is intended more for those who aren't familiar with the disorder at all (though it still might have some interest for other readers). Next time I'll talk about how music therapy can be used to treat autism. I think I'll break up the "resources" section into two posts, though-- because if you thought the Cerebral Palsy Resources list was long then you haven't seen anything yet. I've got a few other projects underway that I'm hoping you all will find helpful, but more on that later.
Autism is a lot more in the public eye than it used to be-- if you don't believe me, take a look at who just joined Sesame Street:
(I'm a big fan of this development, by the way. And it looks like the folks at Sesame Street really did their research to get everything right. The puppeteer for Julia is actually the mother of a child with autism herself.)
Even so, there's still a lot of misinformation about Autism out there. For example: No, autism absolutely is not caused by vaccinations. It often manifests around the same age where children receive vaccinations, hence the confusion, but the original study that claimed this used inaccurate data. Even if vaccines did cause autism, I'd rather have a healthy child with autism than a non-autistic child who died young of a preventable illness. Though the fact that I have to make that comparison is pretty awful in itself, because as someone who has many friends (and clients, and role models) who have autism, the idea that autism is something to be so feared is kind of offensive. (That being said, most of the people who are spreading that rumor aren't malicious--they are parents who either fear something they don't understand or are trying to cope with a crisis that they don't know who to blame for.)
Part of the problem is that there is still so much we don't understand about autism. We don't really know what causes it, and we're still piecing together what is actually happening in the brains of those who have autism.
So what do we know?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a difference in brain functioning that can affect how people perceive and interact with the world. With some people, this can include developmental delays--but not everyone. If you go to a school for special education you will find plenty of kids with autism, but if you go to the science or art departments at a university you will find plenty of individuals with autism there, too.
Autism can affect the development of social and communication skills, as well as sensory processing. Different individuals will have different areas of deficits, however:
There is some really interesting research on what causes all of these differences in brain functioning. One study done in 2005 suggests that individuals who have autism have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system--I'm seriously oversimplifying, but basically that's the part of your brain that learns by observing other people's movements and behavior.
More recent studies have found structural differences in the brains of individuals with autism (particularly in the basal ganglia, which relates to movement) and weaker connections between the frontal lobe (which controls planning and decision making) with the sensorimotor cortex (which controls interpreting what you see and hear and feel as well as movement.) There are some other theories out there, but nothing that covers all of the diverse pieces that make up autism as of yet.
Autism Spectrum Disorder can't be cured. Some people who have it say they wouldn't want a cure anyway--having autism means having a unique way of perceiving the world and that can be a good thing. But there are therapies and treatments that can help deal with the deficits involved. Music therapy is one (but we'll talk more about that in the next post). One of the most effective is Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA therapy, which involves breaking down the parts of learning and figuring out which parts are most effective for an individual. (In practice, this can range from giving an individual a piece of candy every time they follow an instruction to setting up a reward system for completing tasks at work) Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Movement Therapy, and Play Therapy are also effective treatment tools.
I actually just attended a conference on autism at UVU-- which was excellent, and will be informing the resources section. One of the presenters, Ron Suskind (who wrote Life, Animated, which is now also an excellent movie about a family learning to deal with autism) talked about something called "affinity therapy". While I hadn't heard the term before, what I understand is very much in line with my own philosophies on therapy for all individuals. Basically the idea is that you start with a person's "affinity" or interest (many individuals who have autism will have one thing they are very interested in-- which could be Disney movies, or dinosaurs, or maps, or vegetables, or Halloween, or space, or anything really) and using that as a pathway to developing communication and social skills. I'm definitely going to be learning more about this, and will likely share some of what I learn on here.
And that's a wrap for now! We'll be back soon with information on music therapy and autism. In the meantime, have a Happy Easter from Aim High Music Therapy!