While more severe forms of autistic-spectrum disorder require specialized care, many children and teens with Asperger’s disorder find themselves in mainstream settings and/or more broad-based treatment programs. This approach can increase the young person’s access to normalized social situations in which they can learn better social skills experientially through contact with a more diverse peer population. But mixing an Asperger’s population with other populations, particularly an emotionally or behaviorally disordered population, requires a thoughtful and educated approach from treatment staff. That’s because while these populations may exhibit similar behaviors and may respond well to high levels of structure and consistency, the source of their problem behaviors is often different.
As a broad example, some apparently defiant behaviors exhibited by children or teens with Asperger’s disorder are more the result of a failure to understand and interpret external data—such as facial expressions or tone of voice—than of willful defiance. Because they fail to detect or misinterpret social cues, they may respond to adult instruction in a manner that seems (but may not be) willfully defiant. A child with an oppositional disorder, on the other hand, may accurately interpret social cues and instructions but consciously choose not to comply. Because the source and motive for many apparently similar behaviors is different in these populations, the teaching of new behaviors should also be different. In the case of a young person with ASD, this is more likely to take the form of concrete skill building than behavioral consequences. Some children and teens with ASD also have a co-occurring behavioral disorder, further complicating treatment and requiring a combination of ASD, psychotherapeutic and behaviorally oriented approaches.
When selecting a treatment option for child or teen with ASD, then, it is critical to ensure that the treatment team has experience, training and success working with this disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests a list of questions parents can ask when planning for their child:
- How successful has the program been for other children?
- How many children have gone on to placement in a regular school and how have they performed?
- Will my child be given tasks and rewards that are personally motivating?
- Is the environment designed to minimize distractions?
- Will the program prepare me to continue the therapy at home?
- What is the cost, time commitment, and location of the program?
- Do staff members have training and experience in working with children and adolescents with autism?
- How are activities planned and organized?
- Are there predictable daily schedules and routines?
- How much individual attention will my child receive?
- How is progress measured? Will my child’s behavior be closely observed and recorded?