Combining ideas from SLT and OT to Speak, Move, Play and Learn with Children on the Autism Spectrum – An Interview with America Gonzalez and Corinda Presley

America X. Gonzalez is a Speech and Language Pathologist Assistant who works in several institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Corinda Presley is an Occupational Therapist at the Communication Works Center in Oakland, California.

In this interivew, America and Corinda explain how the activities in their new book, Speak, Move, Play and Learn with Children on the Autism Spectrum, – co-authored with Lois Jean Brady and Maciej Zawadzki – draw on ideas from both Speech and Language Pathology (SLP) and Occupational Therapy (OT); how this combined approach has benefited their own practices; and why the process of doing each activity can often be more important than the outcome.


Where did the idea to combine SLP and OT come from?

America: The idea was born out of a spirit of collaboration that came up when we noticed that our students were working on similar projects but with an OT or SLP spin. Another way we came together was when the speech team would make quesadillas with the students to work on sequencing, vocabulary and describing goals. And the OT would say, “Can I jump into your activity to practice cutting the quesadilla into triangles with my student?” And so we began to purposely create activities around both OT and SLP goals. We recently found out that the University of California – San Francisco has built therapy rooms for the explicit purpose of the collaboration between therapists. This is a wonderful step towards collaborative therapy.

Corinda: In all areas of healthcare and education, a multidisciplinary approach is the most effective way to meet the needs of the individual you are working with. Every field has their own unique perspective to bring to the table and it helps provide an overall picture of the individual and their needs. In the educational setting, working with professionals from varying backgrounds is a part of the daily routine, be they occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, orientation and mobility therapists, behavioral therapists, or adaptive physical education specialists. Through the years occupational therapists and speech therapists have discovered the value of combining their expertise to elicit the most out of a child. The occupational therapist brings a sensory-motor approach using meaningful activities such as crafts and arts, while the speech therapist brings the most important aspect everyone needs in any setting: functional communication.

For those with a background in SLP, how can incorporating methods traditionally associated with OT transformed your work?

America: Incorporating occupational therapy into a speech therapy session has transformed us into more well-rounded therapists. We can help the student reach their goals faster because they are working on a goal many more times per week. Traditionally, the therapist works with their student once or twice per week. With our activities they can work on their goals twice with their OT, twice with their SLP and a few more times at home. The difference between 2 times a week and 6+ times a week creates the surge in learning. The repetition helps students reach their goals faster and helps the lessons sink in.

Corinda: Functional communication is a huge part of our daily living. It is a means of survival to meet our basic human needs. Communication is a natural part of therapy, however as occupational therapists working in schools, we are specifically looking at students’ motor, sensory and daily living needs. Incorporating a communication system that matches the child’s level allows the therapist to work with the child in a more holistic way. Working with speech therapists has enhanced and enriched my therapy and I truly see great progress with children with challenging behaviors.

How should a teacher go about using the book’s activities in the classroom?

America: Teachers can easily do these activities because the materials needed can almost always be found around the classroom. Another great advantage of this book is that a teacher can customize the lesson to the appropriate learning style or level with our “Variations” section at the bottom of each activity. The entire classroom can do one activity regardless of there being many cognitive levels in the class. Everyone can participate and be a part of the fun.

Corinda: There are a lot of academic tasks that can be learned by students through a “hands-on” approach, as opposed to traditional classroom techniques. Children are, by nature, curious: they want to touch, smell, and manipulate “things.” A multisensory approach to learning creates greater potential for acquisition, retention, and generalization of new skills. We feel it is important to create alternative methods of acquiring knowledge with children who struggle with traditional methods. We hope that simple activities we included in this book will become a welcome addition to a repertoire of teaching strategies used by teachers, who are looking for stimulating ways to engage their children. Many of these activities can be altered or graded to meet varying cognitive levels. A variety of common classroom and household materials are used in the activities and most are interchangeable. The main focus for group activities is providing an opportunity for the children to engage in supported socialization and conversation. It allows opportunities for joint attention and to think about other people in the group with commenting on each other’s work, and sharing materials.

And what about parents at home?

America: Parents at home often struggle with getting their children of all ages and abilities play or interact together. With these activities, their children of differing abilities can work side by side on the same project by using the “Variations”, thus bringing the family together. Another benefit is that the book is easy to read and to follow which takes away the mystery of helping your own child succeed.

Corinda: We understand the daily struggle parents live with when raising a child with a disability. We strongly feel that building relationships with family members as well as peers is important and possible. Using creative stimulating activities as a bridge to forming these relationships also allows great opportunities for social language and developing pragmatics. This book also provides many activities that help encourage children to participate in daily activities, such as cooking, brushing their teeth, cleaning their rooms, and more. We would like to see our students be engaged and participating members of their families, and home is a great place to start, since it is a safe and familiar place.

Throughout the book you stress that the value of each activity is in the process, not the finished product. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

America: Many people put too much emphasis on having their projects look pretty and correct. But in reality if a student makes a macaroni self-portrait that has five legs instead of two, it’s okay because the extra legs were extra opportunities for that kid to work on their pincher grasp. The lesson is the important part. Learning the technique in a fun way is more important than having the project look polished.

Corinda: Nobody learns new skills without making mistakes and errors along the way. They are inevitable parts of learning. By focusing our attention on the process, rather than the finished product, we are trying to emphasize the importance of the small steps necessary to build competency in a new skill. We feel that gaining small skills that can be generalized to many areas is more beneficial than being able to complete one big project. Additionally, by avoiding the pressure associated with the perfect outcome, we are hoping to bring some joy and laughter to the activity itself. Spilling some flour is not the end of the world, but it is an opportunity to practice other skills, such as drawing shapes with a finger.

You’ve helped to transform the lives of many children using this approach, and in fact include some of your success stories in the book. Which for you was the most memorable, and why?

America: All our successes are memorable. Just when you think you have a huge success with one student then another one comes along and surpasses it. I’m sure that since we wrote the book we have had even more magical moments. This is why we do this. Every day is another opportunity for a great feat.

Watch the Book Trailer!

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Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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