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Contributions from Judy Hartgrove and Megan Otto

Every April, organizations like Autism Speaks and the Autism Society come together to share stories and provide opportunities to help increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism. As physical and occupational therapists, we work with individuals with autism at our clinics regularly to help them excel and participate in everyday activities individually and with their peers.

As we highlight autism and commit to advocating for those with autism, we urge you to join us as we continue to educate ourselves, our co-workers, friends and family on the nervous system disorder. Together we can make our communities kinder and more accepting places to live where those with autism can reach their full potential.

One of our incredible patients, Judy, shared with us her experience working as a special education teacher of students with autism. We encourage you to read her story and spend part of your day learning more about autism.

In May 2020, I retired after 26 years as a special education teacher of students with autism in Lewisville. Texas. Thankfully, educating students with autism has changed so much since I majored in speech therapy in college in the early 1970s, when the topic of autism covered about two pages in one textbook!

Autism is best understood as a spectrum disorder, so the saying, “If you know one person with autism…you know one person with autism,” is important to remember. It often includes serious deficits in language, social, adaptive, motor and self-care skills, as well as stereotypical repetitive behaviors. Early intervention, teaching specific language, social and motor skills, is so beneficial to a child’s development, and I was fortunate to spend several years teaching 3-5-year-olds.

Each of my students has had a unique story. Some of my students have developed nearly age-appropriate language and social skills; some (who I still know via contacts with parents, as well as through social media) are in life skills and vocational-skills high school and post-high school programs; some are employed; some will need lifelong care and supervision from adults. The collaboration I was able to have with other special education teachers (shoutout to all my colleagues in LISD), speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, diagnosticians, behavior interventionists and music therapists, as well as paraprofessionals and general education teachers, was absolutely essential to providing the best, most individualized program possible for each student.

Mary Barbera’s book, The Verbal Behavior Approach: How to Teach Children with Autism and Related Disorders, discusses the underlying methodology we used to teach language skills – usually beginning with strengthening requesting skills, since that is basic language that will benefit the student. Her website is a great resource for parents and professionals alike.

Dr. Temple Grandin, an adult with autism, has also written several books, including Thinking in Pictures, that can be helpful to understanding the big picture of autism. This is a good reminder from her: “In dealing with autism, I’m certainly not saying we should lose sight of the need to work on deficits, but the focus on deficits is so intense and so automatic that people lose sight of the strengths.”

Over my 26 years of teaching children with autism, my favorite stories always involved celebrating “little” successes that were really major. A student writing his name for the first time. The first time a student answered his mom’s question, “What did you do at school today?” by saying “I made a turkey” (which he had!). The first time a student was able to join in and participate in PE class with grade-level peers. Thank you for letting me share a few of them with you.

To learn more about how physical and occupational therapy can be beneficial to autistic individuals, please reach out to one of our trusted physical or occupational therapists today. You can find your nearest PRN physical therapy clinic here.

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