Special Needs Youth

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Dr. Trina Young Greer  recently did a presentation at New Branch Community Church on ministering to special needs youth, focusing on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Behavioral and emotional concerns are important when it comes to special needs youth with diagnoses like Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ADHD, Reactive Attachment, Social Anxiety, and Autism.

When trying to understand the Austism Spectrum, it is important to know that Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the US. 1 in 48 children suffer from Autism.

Some key signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are difficulties in social interactions, and restricted/repetitive behaviors. These signs present from toddlerhood and continue throughout the lifespan. ASD may or may not include cognitive/learning issues or language impairment.

Research indicates that Autism Spectrum Disorder is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

There are two symptom categories for Autism Spectrum Disorder:

  • Social-emotional Interactions
    • Awkward interactions
    • Limited eye contact
    • Difficulty expressing emotions
    • Difficulty combining body language and gestures with speech
    • Difficulties developing and maintaining friendships
  • Restricted/Repetitive Behaviors
    • Need for sameness
    • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
    • Difficulty with transitions
    • Obsessive interest
    • Sensory sensitivities

Understanding the 3 levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Level 1: High Functioning

  • Social symptoms: Difficulty with social interactions, awkward and unsuccessful attempts at interacting
  • Restrictive/repetitive: Inflexible or obsessive behaviors and routines

Level 2: Moderate Functioning

  • Social symptoms: Limited initiation of social interactions; limited speech; difficulty talking about things he/she is not interested in
  • Restricted/repetitive: Extreme difficulty with change; Repetitive behaviors obvious to a casual observer

Level 3: Low Functioning

  • Social symptoms: Minimal responses
  • Restrictive/repetitive: Unable to live independently

General Interventions

  • Assessment (ADOS-2): This allows us to rule out other disorders that may be similar to Autism.  It is easiest to address a situation when one more thoroughly understands it.
  • ABA Therapy: In home behavioral therapy, which is often times covered by insurance.
  • Recreational Therapy: Focuses on building strengths.
  • Occupational Therapy: Allows children to learn how to better control their movements.
  • Special Accommodations at School
  • Social Skills Training Group

In order to understand behaviors, we have to keep in mind that there is always a reason for a behavior.  All behaviors are a form of communication, and children’s challenging behavior can be reduced with supportive and understanding adults.

There are contributing factors, though. Many behaviors can be attributed to avoidance, hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain or physical needs.  Sometimes children feel like they need to escape from a situation, or complete an action or task. Often, behaviors are a side effect of medications. Children can also act out because they are bored, anxious, scared, angry, or sad.  Be observant of what the antecedent to the behavior is.


Sensory Processing Disorder is caused by sensory overload. Overload occurs when a person experiences too much sensory stimulation and cannot handle it all, like a computer trying to process too much data and overheating. Being in a crowd, flashing lights, excessive noise, or excessive light can often be too intense with Sensory Processing Disorder.

So, how can you respond?

Communicate calmly, be clear and concise with children. Change the child’s setting, after asking permission from the child.  Listen to their needs, and offer them choices. It is important to praise the positive, and to be consistent. Five to ten minute warnings and redirection can also be a positive response. Be careful to avoid surprises, or anything out of the normal routine.

Working within a group with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can be difficult. Try to avoid responding to a behavior publically or in front of a group. Try to be observant to interactions within the group.  Have open communication within a group; appropriately address issues and questions. You are the advocate for each child/youth!


Article by: Dr. Trina Young Greer

Blog Post By: Sarah Warner, M.S.