Childcare for Children on the Autism Spectrum
Emerging data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses continuing to rise, surpassing the estimates in 2002 by roughly 120%. For childcare providers, this means an increasing influx of children into center based and group care settings whose needs are very different from those of their peers.
Learning how to properly care for children on the autism spectrum is crucial for today’s childcare provider.
Autism Spectrum: What Childcare Providers Should Know
Researchers still don’t know what causes autism, or why the number of diagnoses continues to rise. Some of this increase may be attributed to changing methods of detection and diagnoses, and increased awareness of spectrum disorders, but the extent of this influence is still unknown.
What researchers do know is that the proportion of children who are identified with a spectrum disorder can vary widely from one region to the next, with estimates ranging from 1 in 175 in areas of Alabama to 1 in 45 in parts of New Jersey. Boys are roughly five times more likely to be identified as ASD than girls, and less than half of the children identified today were evaluated for developmental concerns before they were three years old. Diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders can be reached as early as two years of age, but the majority of children with autism spectrum disorders were identified after the age of four.
Childcare Providers and Early Autism Spectrum Detection
Full-time childcare providers are likely to be with a child for the majority of their waking hours, which leaves them uniquely placed to pick up on the signs of autism spectrum disorder. Childcare providers can prove to be a very valuable resource for parents and medical professionals, and a child who may be on the autism spectrum, due simply to their presence and awareness. Caregivers who suspect a child may have an autism spectrum disorder should communicate their concerns to parents in order to facilitate earlier detection and intervention.
Caring for Children with ASD
Because children on the autism spectrum may behave and respond differently than their peers, it’s important for childcare providers to have a basic understanding of the appropriate care methods.
- Provide Consistency –One of the common difficulties faced by children on the spectrum is trouble adapting lessons learned in one setting to another. This means a child who uses sign language to communicate at home may not necessarily communicate in this manner in a childcare setting, for instance. Childcare providers who are committed to providing some consistency for the children under their care who have ASD should work closely with parents to encourage interaction and the use of acquired skills in a variety of settings.
- Build a Routine –Childcare in a group setting is often built around a daily schedule, but it becomes especially important to adhere to this schedule as closely as possible when there’s a child with ADS in the group. These children respond best and thrive when their routine is highly structured and dependable. Minimizing schedule disruptions and preparing children in advance for a significant change can help to reduce the likelihood of unfavorable reactions.
- Offer Direct Praise –Most children do well when they’re actively praised, but children on the spectrum need very specific praise in order to reinforce good behavior. Childcare providers who “catch” a child on the spectrum behaving well should not only praise the child, but also let them know why they’re receiving the positive attention.
- Be Aware of Sensory Processing Differences –Children on the autism spectrum may be highly sensitive to smell, light, sound, taste and touch, or they may be markedly less sensitive to everyday stimuli than their peers. For children whose ASD is accompanied by hypersensitivity, over-stimulation can elicit outbursts or disruptive behavior. Caregivers should make a point of paying attention to the way children on the spectrum react to stimuli, and helping to minimize discomfort for those with hypersensitivities.
Supplementing Therapy in a Childcare Setting
Every child is unique, and those with autism spectrum disorders are no exception. What overstimulates and upsets one child on the spectrum may not elicit a reaction at all from another, and methods of care which work well with some may fall flat when applied to others on the spectrum. Childcare providers must be prepared to adapt their care strategies accordingly, always remembering the differences inherent to each child.
To provide the most effective care possible for children with ASD, caregivers must establish an open line of communication with parents in order to best supplement therapy throughout the day. Together, parents and caregivers can create the best possible environment for children on the spectrum, helping them to grow and thrive.