Augusta Psychologist Has a Heart for Autistic Children
When she was in college, Stephanie Northington, planned to be an engineer. But all that changed when she took a psychology course during the second semester of her freshman year. “I fell in love with it,” said Dr. Northington. It made sense. “I was the person all my friends came to for advice. And I was really good at keeping secrets,” added Dr. Northington with a laugh. “So I changed my major.”
The world may have lost a great engineer, but over the past decade, Dr. Northington has put her problem-solving skills to work in helping children with autism and their families. As a pediatric clinical psychologist at Walton Behavioral Medicine, she can diagnose and treat a variety of learning and neurobehavioral disorders, but autism is a disorder that she has always made sure was part of her practice.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Dr. Northington. “Not everyone wants to work with kids on the spectrum or who are low-functioning or who have disruptive behaviors. But when you see them be successful, it makes the hard days a little bit easier to get through…and when it goes right, it’s so rewarding.”
Hands-On Help for Autism
What makes Dr. Northington’s practice unique is her focus on hands-on training at home and in the school setting, to help parents and teachers who may be struggling with how to best educate a child with autism and meet his or her specific needs. “I look at real world applications…and I figure out what works practically and what doesn’t work,” says Dr. Northington. “If a child is struggling in school, I’m not going to see it in the office. In order to get the most benefit, I would go into the school and see what’s going on.”
It’s a way of practicing that Dr. Northington has adopted throughout her career, starting during her training in psychology (both her masters and Ph.D.) at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Having grown up in the CSRA (she’s a graduate of Aiken High School), Dr. Northington returned to the Augusta area to help children with autism after her sister-in-law and sister, both local teachers, expressed a need in this area.
“Teachers are taught really well how to handle a classroom and construct a syllabus, but more and more, they are being exposed to kids who have behavioral problems and learning difficulties,” says Dr. Northington. “And sometimes they do struggle because they don’t have all the tools they need to be successful. School psychology has helped some, but school districts have limitations. That’s just the reality…and that’s where an outside evaluator, a consultant, can help as well.”
General Tips for Teachers (and Parents)
As a consultant working with parents and teachers, Dr. Northington observes the classroom setting, noting how the classroom is structured, how many children there are per teacher and if there is assistance in the form of aides or volunteers. She then makes realistic recommendations and provides help to put recommendations in place, as much as she can.
Some of the basic guidelines she starts out with can help not just the child with autism but any child. “It’s about meeting kids and their unique needs, without adding more stress,” says Dr. Northington. Her list of good, basic behavioral principles for the classroom include:
• Post rules clearly. This ensures that everyone knows what the basic rules are.
• Praise. When you catch kids being good (and even kids who misbehave are good at some point!), comment on it. It labels and reinforces what is the expected behavior.
• Point out. If kids then misbehave, remind them of what they were doing well and what they can do next time.
• Structure. Create structure as much as possible.
• Take a break. Create a “break” area in the classroom where children can go quietly if they need to get up and stretch. Alternatley, establish regular break times where kids can stand up or do a silly dance at their desks. Some kids act out when they are uncomfortable after sitting for long periods.
Teachers, Learn About Autism
Dr. Northington also encourages teachers to learn as much as possible about the signs and symptoms of autism, so they can know what kinds of behavior to expect. “You don’t want a child getting in trouble for a behavior related to their disorder,” she says.
Some of these behaviors can include poor social interaction with peers, acting out, which can involve both aggressive and antisocial behavior, and repetitive behaviors, like humming or rocking. Teachers who understand these behaviors can help prevent or redirect them. For example, a child with autism may need help during group tasks, or a teacher might offer a child who is humming a piece of gum, providing a repetitive behavior that isn’t so distracting to the rest of the class.
While every child is different, and it is important to individualize recommendations, according to Dr. Northington, there are also some specific things that teachers can do to help children with autism learn and socialize in school.
• Keep lessons short. Because children with autism are easily distracted and overstimulated, make sure verbal and written instructions match and are brief. If appropriate, offer visual support to help underscore the verbal instructions.
• Modify assignments. But keep them related to the rest of the class. For example, if the lesson calls for 20 math problems on a single page, provide the child with autism the same set of problems but only five to a page. This keeps the child from being overstimulated by too much information. As the child completes each page, award the child with a sticker.
• Utilize aides and other support. If available, the role of aides and parent volunteers is very important in schools to help provide individual support during learning and to reinforce correct behaviors.
• Prompt and practice. Children with autism don’t pick up on social cues as easily and can get frustrated when they don’t know what to do in a social situation. While it’s important for teachers, aides or volunteers not to hover (and thus prevent interaction with peers), a good compromise is to observe and provide gentle prompts if a child with autism seems to be struggling with interacting with another student. Then, step back.
Teachers and aides (and parents too) can also help practice social skills with children ahead of time. “It’s about being able to provide a safety net for them, for learning skills then practicing them with someone there to help them as needed,” says Dr. Northington.
Most of all, be flexible, be open, be compassionate and don’t take it personally when children with autism act out. “Because the minute they smile at you or start talking to you—I’ve had kids turn and say ‘I love you’ or ‘Stephanie, when are you coming back?’—when you see that spark of recognition, that interaction, it makes it so worth it.”
Danielle Wong Moores is an Augusta freelance writer.