"A lot of kids with autism who are struggling in school are not struggling because of the 3Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic. They are struggling because of issues related to the 3Ss - stresses from their sensory environment, self-regulation based on that stress level and demands for social engagement that's appropriate."
When Kristie Koenig first began working with autistic children and adolescents, she was amazed to see how quickly the quality of their lives was affected by the right interventions. "The children's problematic behaviors decreased once they learned strategies that helped them adapt."
Koenig has since dedicated herself to developing better therapies for these children. "A lot of kids with autism who are struggling in school are not struggling because of the 3Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic. They are struggling because of issues related to the 3Ss - stresses from their sensory environment, self-regulation based on that stress level and demands for social engagement that's appropriate."
To explore how autistic children might better cope with the 3Ss, Koenig is currently working with Dorothy Siegel, of NYU's Institute for Education and Social Policy and director of the ASD Nest Program, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Education. The ASD Nest program provides an inclusive classroom setting for children with high functioning autism to be educated with their typically developing peers.
"The emphasis of our collaboration is on providing evidenced based interventions to develop social relationships, address sensory needs, and teach self-regulation strategies in an age appropriate curriculum. We're also training teachers and therapists in strategies they can use in classroom settings to really serve the needs of these kids. Ultimately, we're hoping to study the efficacy of the intervention and the curricula and support skills that are crucial for success in these classrooms."
Koenig is also working with colleagues at Temple University on research that looks at the efficacy of occupational therapy using sensory integration intervention. "Kids with autism process sensation atypically - the sound of a fire drill might wreck their day. They also have a lot of motor planning problems, where they don't move their bodies efficiently. For instance, their body language doesn't match what they are saying, or they can have exaggerated gestures. Sensory integration therapies are interventions that occupational therapists use to help children process their sensory response to the world, and to address their motor planning problems."
The researchers are in the midst of looking at children between the ages of 6 and 12 who are receiving these interventions. The kids participated in activities that enable them to better regulate their behavior responses to sensations or situations they find disturbing or painful. A child oversensitive to touch was encouraged to play in a giant foam pillow, after which he was able to more calmly explore, touch and play with other textures. The project, funded by Autism Speaks, will be used as a basis for more research into sensory processing, motor problems and social engagement for autistic kids.
Koenig is assisted by PhD students in all of her research. "They're wonderful, and help me with all aspects of the project. I'm also happy to be a part of a great faculty, excellent and committed. The department continues to bring in strong doctoral students and entry-level master's students. I'm very excited to be here."