By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
As with medical care in complex cases, the team approach can provide many benefits for a family with a child on the autism spectrum because so many people may be involved with helping them reach their potential.
Instead of providers focused solely on their own expertise, the team approach brings providers together in a coordinated effort.
“We’ve come a long way across the board as we used to talk about diagnoses and symptoms and treating them,” said psychologist Nicole DeRosa, chief clinical officer with the Kelberman Center in Syracuse. “Just because someone has autism doesn’t mean they need some type of treatment. It’s more if it’s interfering with quality of life or their goals. Who’s it problematic for, me, because I’m uncomfortable, or that person because they want to be happy and it keeps them from achieving their goals? With the team approach, you have multiple people, services and providers coming together in an integrative and collaboration in a fashion to meet the needs of the individual. It’s a more complete approach. They get support from various areas of expertise, not just one.”
One example she offered is that a participant may manifest a behavior that interferes with their goals because of an underlying problem like a sinus infection.
“That can be treated to address those behaviors,” DeRosa said. “The team approach helps us identify the simple thing that may be going on and then we can take the simplest approach.”
She added that having one point of contact such as a case manager can also help keep communication moving among providers and among family members and providers. Otherwise, important information can be muddled or dropped.
“You can have multiple people working for a family but there must be communication to really benefit the individual,” DeRosa said. “It may not be easy if you have people at multiple sites. It can be a challenge. But if you have one person managing that it’s helpful. It’s not the family’s or individual’s responsibility to share information with other providers. I think we should explain issues to others like schoolteachers or others. We should effectively communicate issues to others.”
The team approach supports “interdisciplinary problem solving,” said Christine Ashby, Ph.D. and professor at Syracuse University and director for the Center on Disability and Inclusion. She added that this allows for a broader view of the individual’s life, needs and interests and that can help develop more effective strategies and approaches.
“Enhanced communication between team members can increase consistency of support strategies and allow for generalizability across contexts,” Ashby said. “The team approach is further improved by including parents and caregivers as partners. For example, a parent might be able to provide information on strategies that are successful at home or personal interests that can be integrated into classroom instruction.”
Susan L. Scharoun, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse and psychologist with Elmcrest and Toomey Residential Services in Syracuse, has found the team approach very helpful in her years of working with autistic people. She recalled one autistic young woman who would take others’ food, yet not eat the food presented to her. Scharoun realized that the food required different presentation and preparation for her to eat successfully. By working with a dietitian and occupational therapist, Scharoun could offer her meals prepared in a way that she would eat and adaptive utensils she could use.
“Guess what? She stopped grabbing everyone’s food,” Scharoun said. “We made changes by working together so this girl could get a full meal and she was no longer going hungry. It’s wonderful to have a look through the lens of what another professional has to offer.”
The team approach can also help build consistency, structure and guidelines, since children thrive with predictability and especially so as an autistic child. But the team should also help provide tools so that children can cope with times where things do not go as planned.