People are much like fingerprints — unique.
For individuals with autism, it can be a challenge for their personalities to shine through behind the stigmas of the diagnosis. World Autism Awareness Day falls on April 2, bringing around the annual reminder that like everyone else, those with autism are unique, intelligent and their own person with different interests and dislikes.
The autism rights movement is a social movement that encourages those with autism, as well as their caregivers and society, to move beyond awareness and into acceptance.
The movement’s goal is to educate people that autism is a variation in functioning rather than a disorder that needs to be cured.
Its mascot is the rainbow infinity symbol, which represents the “neurodiversity” of the autism spectrum, which refers to the different functionings in the brain as opposed to referring to their brain functions as “abnormal.”
Rebecca Cooper is the clinical supervisor of the Pediatric Rehabilitation Clinic at Mountain View Therapy (MVT), part of Montrose Memorial Hospital (MMH).
Cooper works with a variety of patients from birth to 21 inside and outside of the Montrose community as an occupational therapist, and children with autism are a regular part of the children she sees in a week.
The clinic consists of occupational, physical and speech therapists, who all have a hand in helping children with sensory integration.
“While children with autism may have some things in common, they have just as many things different between each individual,” Cooper said.
“It presents very individually, and so we work here at our clinic in whichever discipline (occupational, physical or speech therapy) to work with the child and the family to help them improve their function in the home, in the clinic, in school, or in their community.”
Children with autism have more challenges with interaction, and the clinic’s goal is to help them improve those skills on a practical level.
Cooper explained that general advice was difficult to give due to the wide range of challenges that each individual faces, and there is no “one size fits all solution.”
Part of Cooper’s process in working with her patients is to find the child’s strength or interest, and branch it out into other parts of their day where they experience triggers or challenges.
Oftentimes when a child is receiving occupational therapy, Cooper and her team are seeing them due to trouble with fine motor skills, whether it’s using their hands for tasks such as coloring, writing or manipulating small objects.
The therapy team looks within a wide range of challenges that could present to each individualーcognition, fine motor, social and emotional skills, and sensory integration.
Sensory integration is a difficulty many on the spectrum face.
“It’s best described as children with their volumes turned up,” Cooper said of the sensory challenge.
A typical sound, touch or smell can trigger a reaction for someone with autism, whereas neurotypical individuals would ignore the sensations and find them normal.
Someone brushing up against you, touching your arm, music turning on, a loud noise, probably wouldn’t affect someone in a more mental “typical realm,” but a child with autism could have trouble processing this sensory information.
For them, it would be the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
“Light touching can be perceived almost as pain because they have trouble with sensory input,” Cooper said. “Part of our job is to help kids encounter enough things that their brains begin to perceive that being bumped into is not painful, but just touch.”
The pediatric clinic hopes to help children accommodate a variety of sensory experiences by creating a sensory room over the last few months.
The room was made possible by two community grants ー the Bonnie Langston and the San Juan Healthcare Foundation.
The grants assisted the MVT clinic in purchasing equipment to build the room for a low sensory experience.
“We can make it with low stimulation. It can be dark, all items are bluetooth and wifi so we can turn on and off individual items based on what is soothing or interesting to a child,” Cooper said of the therapy room.
If a child becomes agitated or overstimulated, therapists can introduce them to the sensory room.
The room contains a “bubble tube,” a large tube of water with lights in it similar to a “tubular fish tank,” except without any fish.
The children can press a button and change the color of the light at the bottom of the tube.
When they do this, strings of fiber optic lights will also change to the same color as the light at the bottom.
“It’s really cool for kids who are having difficulty connecting with their world, and they can make a choice and see a result immediately,” said Cooper.
The buttons and lights provide exercise for increasing a child’s use or performance of a more difficult task.
Physical and occupational therapists use the sensory room for this purpose, but speech therapists see their patients benefiting as well.
From the colors, lights and choices presented in the room, it spurs conversation for working with speech and language.
Cooper encourages awareness of the diversity of those on the spectrum. While some children are more severely involved with autism and can often have extreme emotional responses to things, others may be higher-functioning and less noticeable.
The average person may not know when they are encountering a child with autism, and won’t know what their triggers are, so Cooper suggests a general calm, soft approach versus a loud and sudden one.
“Say you run into a child in Walmart or in a large store, and they’re having a tantrum, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a bad child,” said Cooper. “It could be a child who is overwhelmed by all of the commotion ー the sights, smells, lights, wide open spaces, where most of us can filter out these sensations.”
Children with neurodiverse functions sometimes have no control over how these sensations make them feel, and Cooper advises kindness to parents who are attempting to function in the world with a child who may have more trouble processing what’s going on around them.
“None of this is 100 percent and across the board,” Cooper said of the advice. “It’s so individual to what sets each child off.”
Cooper works with many children on the autism spectrum and most have some difficulties processing some form of sensory information.
But not everybody who has trouble processing has autism, said Cooper.
Families can work on finding out what helps their child regroup, as well as what triggers them.
“If something sets them off, such as touch, can you help them get used to touch in a way that they can cognitively overcome their aversion to the sensation?”
While it can be difficult to identify a child’s triggers, Cooper said it’s important to learn from them so they can try not to be repeated.
For Cooper, working with her patients comes down to finding and using their strengths to overcome a weakness.