︎︎︎An interview with Dr. Lauren Little
It was so interesting to me that you approached sensory processing in a general, everyday sense at the conference. You made attendees consider themselves and check in on how their sensory processing works at different levels. Why is this practice important in how you approach ASD and why is it important for early childhood educators to have this knowledge and approach?

We experience the world through our senses. So it's really important to me that we consider sensory processing from a broad, population based way and view the similarities of our experiences before labeling those with ASD as "other" or "atypical" or, even worse, "dysfunctional". Individuals with ASD don't have deficits in sensory processing, they have differences. Those differences may be more pronounced than the sensory processing preferences and aversions that you and I may show, but they are nonetheless differences.

I think it's vital for practitioners (all individuals that work with and educate those with ASD) to consider how sensory processing looks for all of their students, not just those with ASD. For example, a teacher that is really bothered by the student that is clicking their pen, moving in their seat, or making popping noises with their mouth - that teacher may be sensory sensitive and not understand that it's their own sensory processing preferences that are contributing to them being bothered. On the other hand, a teacher that is a bystander that has a sensory seeking student may not even notice the popping noises!

Additionally, we all structure our daily lives to meet our sensory processing preferences and aversions (e.g., I like quiet, structured workspaces because I'm a sensor) - if we can better understand how we do this for ourselves and how those around us do this, we can be better educators and advocates for our students so they can learn how to structure their own environments and tasks to meet their sensory needs.

I heard a lot of things about the significance of early intervention when it comes to ASD. What are the big benefits of early intervention or what impact does early intervention make in the life of someone with ASD? What if in those early years, it's harder for parents and caretakers to see the signs of ASD?

Early intervention is meant to build family capacity among those with developmental conditions, including ASD. When we talk about family capacity, it's about making sure that families can structure daily routines that are sustainable and enjoyable for their family and that there are embedded learning opportunities for children throughout the day. So, for example, the research shows that it's not children's "symptoms" that necessarily pose the greatest challenges for families - instead, it is the daily "hassles". Getting your child out the door in the morning when you have to be at work at a specific time, getting your child to sleep at night, making sure that your child is eating healthy foods - early intervention is meant to support families to navigate these types of everyday activities so that families can create routines that are meaningful and satisfying.

As for the second part of your question - sometimes it is harder for parents to recognize early signs of ASD. If we can structure our interventions to meet parents where they are and support them to build capacity (they are going to be the parents of that child forever), then we can serve as supports as they navigate the autism journey.

Why is it important to equip early childhood educators with the knowledge of ASD and tools/techniques to build inclusive environments for kids with ASD?

It's important to equip early childhood educators with knowledge of ASD so they understand the differences between autism and behavior. We never want educators to label children with behavioral disorders or conduct disorders, if the child is showing behaviors consistent with autism. Some research shows that black and hispanic children are more likely to be labeled with behavioral disorders v. autism, so some implicit bias about behavior can come into play in educational settings as well. It's important that early childhood educators recognize signs of ASD so they can implement interventions that are appropriate for those with autism.

I've heard (and maybe this is totally off the mark) that early childhood education programs at universities often don't have the bandwidth/resources to really dive into work around ASD/disability. With autism numbers growing, how important is it to have conferences or intensives like the one at SDSU for these future educators?

I cannot speak to the capacity of early childhood education programs at universities but it's understandable that teachers have so much to learn that sometimes a deep dive into autism may be difficult to fit into a curriculum. You made a great point though - with numbers rising, it's vital that pre-service teachers at least learn the signs of ASD so they can understand how to work with their educational teams (e.g., speech, occupational, physical therapies) to design and implement interventions.

SDSU hosted an amazing event for their pre-service teachers. As I said at the conference, I was a preschool teacher before going back to school to become an occupational therapist and I wish I would've had this conference and training - it would have helped me immensely.  With the importance of inclusion of children with ASD, conferences like this can also support educators to understand how to best serve all students in their classroom.

Lauren Little, PhD, OTR/L, has a clinical background in occupational therapy and a PhD in Occupational Science. Dr. Little’s expertise is in intervention for families of children with neurodevelopmental conditions, including autism spectrum disorders (ASD). She has practiced occupational therapy in early intervention settings and has been involved in numerous research projects for young children with ASD. Dr. Little has conducted research on the efficacy of telehealth for families of young children with ASD, and is active in state and national organizations to promote access to intervention services for underserved families of children with developmental conditions.