By Dr Madonna Tucker
Does psychology and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) go hand in hand? I believe the answer is yes. Psychologists can specialise in the assessment and intervention of children with autism. Unlike some professions, all psychology undergraduate students study a subject on child development. This means that psychologists have a very good understanding of the development of a typically developing child in regards to their cognition, adaptive skills, memory, and learning style. Some psychology students can also take subjects in disability, which includes ASD, in their undergraduate degrees and this provides a very good overview of the complexity of typical and not so typical development. One needs to understand ‘normal development’ to fully understand the breadth of differences in development that can occur in children with autism.
So, what services can psychologists provide for children with autism?
Psychologists complete assessments of children with autism. The assessment can be related to diagnosis, cognition (IQ) or the way a child with autism thinks and sees the world. To understand what strengths and weaknesses a child has is very important to understand how best to teach them. If a child shows strengths in visual processing, that is, they are very good at using visual information rather than auditory information (what they hear), then instruction can be provided with more visual cues than words. Using a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a good example of a form of communication that uses a child’s visual strengths.
Assessments can also show the strength of a child’s memory. If a child does not have a strong short-term memory, and they can only hold two ‘bits’ of information in their memory at one time, then giving an instruction with three commands (or bits) would be ineffective because the child would forget the third ‘bit’ that is said. For example if you say: “Johnny pack up your lunchbox, put it in the fridge and then go outside to play”. A child who can only remember two bits of information at once will not remember what they need to do after they have put their lunchbox in the fridge. Therefore, instructions can be tailored to the child’s memory capacity. If Johnny’s teacher knew his memory capacity, they would give two commands and wait until Johnny has completed those two things, before they provided further instruction.
Intervention by a psychologist is also important for children with ASD. Psychologistsuse a range of techniques including behavioural strategies, social skills training, and emotional regulation to help children with ASD cope better in their everyday lives. If a child is anxious, and this is very common for children with ASD, then a psychologist can provide targeted interventions to decrease their anxiety levels. Interventions can also be provided to families, if there is a need. There are psychologists who specialise in working with families and there are many interventions that can assist in making family life less stressful, more organised and better for all family members.
Remember, just like other professional groups, psychologists can specialise in specific areas or conditions. Therefore, if you are seeking assistance from a psychologist for your child with asd, make sure the psychologist has the necessary experience and knowledge in working with young children with autism.
Dr Madonna Tucker has nearly 25 years' experience working as a psychologist and researcher in the disability field. She has worked with a range of clients, from children with learning disabilities; to children, adults and staff in the intellectual disability field, including those on the spectrum. AT AEIOU Foundation, Dr Tucker is Research and Assessment Manager'at AEIOU Foundation, bringing to the organisation experience in research and in clinical practice. Her doctorate was in the applied behaviour analysis field and this allows her to not only provide expert advice in the research realm, but also contribute to the evidence-based curriculum delivered by AEIOU Foundation. Dr Tucker is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Griffith University.
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