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Psychology: Individuals and Groups

Psychology: Basics of Autism

Temple Grandin is a relatively famous adult woman who has autism, one of psychology’s neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits or abnormal language development, abnormal social skills and development, and repetitive and restricted behavior. Ms. Grandin, who holds a PhD in animal science, is considered by many as a spokesperson and advocate for those with autism and engages in numerous speaking engagements every year to increase awareness of this condition.

Autism, usually recognized by the age of 3 to 4 (although signs and symptoms can manifest and show up earlier) consists of symptoms and deficits the following three areas:

  • Impairment in social interaction: Deficits in nonverbal social behavior such as eye contact and gestures; failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to age level; a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people; and lack of social or emotional reciprocity

  • Impairments in communication: Delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language or, in individuals with adequate speech, impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others; stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language such as repeating incessantly or odd intonation or word usage; and deficits in varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play

  • Repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities: Intense preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus; inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or ritual; stereotyped (persistent repetition of a behavior with no obvious purpose) and repeated motor mannerisms (such as hand or finger flapping, or complex whole-body movements); and persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that can range from mild (often called high-functioning autism) to severe. A cause for the disorder has yet to be identified. For example, genetic research is progressing. No “autism gene” has been identified, but much has been learned about the underlying cognitive and neuropsychological aspects of autism. Two areas in particular stand out: neural connectivity models and theory of mind models.

It is thought that the brain in individuals with autism develops and is organized differently from the brain in children with typical development. Research findings are complicated, showing that autistic people have some underdeveloped areas as well as some overdevelopment — and even larger brain volume.

Taken as a whole, researchers propose that the brain in autism interacts and communicates with itself in unique and disordered ways that differ from activity in typical individuals. From this perspective, autism can be considered a disorder of neural organization and integration.

Thinking that someone you’re looking at or talking to has a “mind of his own” is known as “theory of mind” (abbreviated TOM). Most people believe that other people have a mind just like their own, which helps them understand the world from another person’s point of view. Consistently, research and clinical work show that individuals with autism have deficits in TOM.

In other words, people with autism do not assume the existence of an “other’s mind” and, as a result, display social and communication deficits. Their difficulties with understanding facial expressions and gestures, anticipating the actions and of others, engaging in conversation, and showing social and emotional reciprocity may be a consequence of TOM deficits.

One thing is for certain; in many respects, autism is a lifelong disorder. Yet there’s significant hope for those who get early and intensive intervention. As a neurodevelopmental disorder, the course of autism can likely be altered in a significant and positive direction. These approaches use a “teaching” approach of sorts to facilitate the normal development of children and address developmental delays. Here are four intervention approaches for autism:

  • Applied behavior analysis — Discrete trial teaching (DTT): DTT is a specific teaching technique in which the principles of operant and classical conditioning are used to present children with massed learning trials that are very intensive. DTT is most associated with the work of Dr. Ivar Lovaas (1927–2010).

  • Pivotal response treatments (PRT): PRT is considered an ABA intervention, but it differs from DTT in that it tends to be more play-based, uses naturalistic reinforcement within the operant conditioning paradigm, and focuses on increasing the motivation of the participant to optimal levels. PRT is associated with the work of the psychologist team, Drs. Robert and Lynn Koegel, who first developed their work in the 1970s.

  • Early start Denver model: Developed by psychologists Sally Rogers and Geraldine Dawson in the early 2000s, the early start Denver model combines the PRT approach and a “developmental model” in which experiences identified as critical in child development are used to guide the intervention and its curriculum.

  • Verbal behavior approach: Dr. Mark Sundberg developed the VB approach in the early 2000s to help children with autism learn how to communicate and speak. Although not considered a comprehensive intervention approach for all developmental areas, the verbal behavior approach is widely respected as a sophisticated and well-designed intervention for communication and language development.

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