KidsMatter interviews a psychologist with extensive experience in working with children with Autism. Connie Buckingham is Principle Psychologist at The Social Learning Studio, which focuses on social and emotional learning and group social skills programs.

What are some of the effective intervention and treatment programs professionals can use when working with children with ASD?

There is a wealth of evidence-based intervention and treatment programs available to allied health professionals and educators.  One of my favourite programs is called ‘Thinking About You, Thinking About Me’, written by American speech pathologist Michelle Garcia-Winner.  This is a great program to use as a spring-board for allied health professionals or educators wanting to better understand the ASD brain, and try their hand at established, concrete, engaging intervention ideas that can be delivered to individuals or to groups. 

What changes have you seen over the years in working with children with ASD in relation to treatment and diagnosis?

My work in Autism started 18 years ago as an integration aide and ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) therapist.   At that time, Autism was not commonly understood and the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was even more uncommon.  By the time I started to work as a psychologist in schools, a third disorder was added to the mix - Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).  With subsequent recognition that these disorders were versions of the same atypical neurology, the latest diagnostic manual (DSM-5) replaced these three disorders with the one ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD), distinguished by varying levels of severity.  

Within that time, the process of a diagnosis has also changed.  Several Australian states now require multi-disciplinary teams to confirm an ASD diagnosis.  The multi-disciplinary team is often composed of a paediatrician, psychologist and speech pathologist.  This approach could be said to increase public confidence in the reliability of an ASD diagnosis, and has created stimulating opportunities for new working relationships across those professions.  

In relation to treatment, there are now many more treatment programs, services and choices available to children with an ASD and their families than ever before.  This is, in part, due to the increasing need for services that has been spurred on by the establishment of the ‘Helping Children with Autism’ package and the ‘Better Start for Children with Disabilities’ program.  These programs are initiatives of the Australian government and provide either full or partial government funding for children with Autism.  It is anticipated that many of these services will soon be fully funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), providing a model that supports individuals with ASD throughout their childhood, and long into their adult lives.  

How can professionals support families of children with Autism? 

Families of children with Autism can feel supported by us when we assure them that regardless of our recommendations, it is their right to determine what’s best for their child.  And with those decisions, our support is available and can be shaped in dialogue with them.  Professionals can provide choices and options to families with children with ASD to ensure families can make informed decisions around treatment and intervention.

We can support families of children with Autism by reminding them that parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are first and foremost only human.  Parents need to feel safe to be honest and open about the successes and about the challenges, and know that they will be supported in light of those challenges.  

We can support families by working with them to prioritise a measured number of manageable goals, or sometimes just one realistic, achievable goal that we can steadily build upon as the family grow in confidence.  

Families of children with ASD find empowerment in knowledge.  Coupling strategies with practical theory can bring deeper understandings.  Within my practice, I prioritise a ‘Theories and Planning Session’ for all new families, following my initial assessment of the child’s needs.  Within that session, we talk about Theory of Mind, Central Coherence Theory, Executive Dysfunction and Sensory Dysfunction.  I also find great value in teaching families about The Social Information Processing Model (Crick and Dodge, 1994).  This model stipulates how children process social information and can help families to understand where their child’s social processing skills are currently positioned, and the sequence of social learning building blocks ahead. 

What is a Dynamic Group Program and how does it support children with Autism?

Dynamic group programs utilise Enquiry-Based learning and Experiential learning principles to teach social skills in groups.  The children’s engagement is maximised because the material is interwoven with their intrinsic interests.  This increases the participants’ willingness to be challenged outside of their social comfort zones.  Group programs are either theme based (such as a ‘Book Club’) or project based (such as ‘The Movie Makers’).  Each week, activities are purposefully designed to maximise opportunities for communication and collaboration.  The social learning (utilising enquiry-based discussions) take place quite explicitly, in response to the social experiences that the activities generate.

Last year, Dr Karen Stagnetti and a team from Deakin University independently evaluated the outcomes of the ‘Movie Makers’ Dynamic Group Program with adolescent boys on the Autism Spectrum.  The results demonstrated a significant increase in their self-reported social engagement, and self-ratings that indicated that their social behaviours were less problematic after the intervention (paper in progress).

Information about Dynamic Group Programs can be viewed on the Swinburne University 2015 Autism MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course, under Week 2, Additional Resources).  

What are some of the ways health and community professionals can assist early childhood services and schools to more effectively support children with ASD and their families?

We can support children with Autism and their family by making the time to build networks with sister services, and learn about the theories that inform our various practices. The ‘Creative Learning Centre’ in Moonee Ponds Victoria offer such an initiative called the ‘Community of Practice Meeting’.  There is growing overlap in the programs offered by speech pathologists, special education tutors, occupational therapists and psychologists, and yet we arrive at these programs from different theoretical perspectives.  By gaining knowledge from other disciplines, we can help parents’ to understand how the theories and strategies recommended to them fit together to support the whole child.