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Professor Discusses Defining Verbal Abilities in Children With Autism

Dr. Stephen Camarata is a professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In an interview with Spectrum this month, Camarata discussed defining verbal ability in children with autism, and the impact of inconsistent methods on research and treatment of autism. In a study conducted earlier this year, Camarata and his colleagues found a startling lack of research into methods of improving speech in minimally verbal autistic children. The researchers found that from 1960 to 2018, only 31 studies were published focusing on ways to help minimally verbal children with autism improve their speech. This month, Camarata and his team found that education programs for parents of minimally verbal autistic children are also in short supply, and are lacking a standardized approach. “There are only 31 articles published in the past 50 years that give us information, which is a shock,” Camarata said. “And they all used different measures and definitions.” Camarata said his own goal is to conduct speech-intervention studies for minimally verbal autistic children, which he believes could be highly beneficial for families. “One of the main things people ask us clinicians is, “Is my child going to talk? How can I help them talk?” he said. “I want to be able to answer that based on the literature. Children with autism tend to talk less anyway, even when they can speak. When they do talk and you can’t understand them, you can think of it as nature’s double whammy: The process of supporting communication becomes even more difficult.” Camarata said he believes therapies can improve speech skills children with autism. “I want to give a message of hope,” he said. “No matter where a child falls on the spectrum, and no matter how verbal they are or not, we can always support development and learning.” Camarata voiced some skepticism and concern about methods he considers dubious and not supported by evidence. “When there’s a knowledge void, things like facilitated communication and rapid prompting fill that void,” he said. “The data is really clear that those treatments aren’t evidence based and can actually do harm. When we don’t have resources available, the knowledge void gets filled with information that’s not evidence based and can lead to non-evidence-based treatments. That’s something I worry about a lot.” Source:

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