Thursday, October 18, 2018

Can School Professionals Diagnose Autism?

Can School Professionals Diagnose Autism?

Since Congress added autism as a disability category to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the number of students receiving special education services in this category has increased over 900 percent nationally. The number of students receiving assistance under the special education category of autism over the past decade has increased from 1.5 percent to 9 percent of all identified disabilities. Autism now ranks fourth among all IDEA disability categories for students age 6-21. It’s critically important that school professionals understand the parameters of providing evidence-based assessment and identification practices for children and adolescents who may have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) are the two major systems used to diagnose and classify children with ASD. The DSM-5 is considered the primary authority in the fields of psychiatric and psychological (clinical) diagnoses, while IDEA is the authority with regard to eligibility decisions for special education. The DSM was developed by clinicians as a diagnostic and classification system for both childhood and adult psychiatric disorders. The IDEA is not a diagnostic system per se, but rather federal legislation designed to ensure the appropriate education of children with special educational needs in our public schools. Unlike the DSM-5, IDEA specifies categories of ‘‘disabilities’’ to determine eligibility for special educational services. The definitions of these categories (there are 13), including autism, are the most widely used classification system in our schools. According to IDEA regulations, the definition of autism is as follows:
(c)(1)(i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in this section.
(ii) A child who manifests the characteristics of ‘‘autism’’ after age 3 could be diagnosed as having ‘‘autism’’ if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.
This educational definition is considered sufficiently broad and operationally acceptable to accommodate both the clinical and educational descriptions of autism and related disorders. While the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria are professionally helpful, they are neither legally required nor sufficient for determining educational placement. A medical diagnosis from a doctor or mental health professional alone is not enough to qualify a child for special education services. It is state and federal education codes and regulations (not DSM-5) that drive classification and eligibility decisions. In fact, the National Research Council (2001) recommends that all children identified with ASD, regardless of severity, be made eligible for special educational services under the IDEA category of autism. Thus, school professionals must ensure that children meet the criteria for autism as outlined by IDEA or state education agency (SEA) and may use the DSM-5 to the extent that the diagnostic criteria include the same core behaviors. All professionals, whether clinical or school, should have the appropriate training and background related to the diagnosis and treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders. The identification of autism should be made by a professional team using multiple sources of information, including, but not limited to an interdisciplinary assessment of social behavior, language and communication, adaptive behavior, motor skills, sensory issues, and cognitive functioning to help with intervention planning and determining eligibility for special educational services.
Legal and special education experts recommend the following guidelines to help school districts meet the requirements for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services to students who meet special education eligibility for autism.
1. School districts should ensure that the IEP process follows the procedural requirements of IDEA. This includes actively involving parents in the IEP process and adhering to the time frame requirements for assessment and developing and implementing the student’s IEP. Moreover, parents must be notified of their due process rights. It’s important to recognize that parent-professional communication and collaboration are key components for making educational and program decisions.
2. School districts should make certain that comprehensive, individualized evaluations are completed by school professionals who have knowledge, experience, and expertise in ASD. If qualified personnel are not available, school districts should provide the appropriate training or retain the services of a consultant.
3. School districts should develop IEPs based on the child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Goals for a child with ASD commonly include the areas of communication, social behavior, adaptive skills, challenging behavior, and academic and functional skills. The IEP must address appropriate instructional and curricular modifications, together with related services such as counseling, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, physical therapy and transportation needs. Evidence-based instructional strategies should also be adopted to ensure that the IEP is implemented appropriately.
4. School districts should assure that progress monitoring of students with ASD is completed at specified intervals by an interdisciplinary team of professionals who have a knowledge base and experience in autism. This includes collecting evidence-based data to document progress towards achieving IEP goals and to assess program effectiveness.
5. School districts should make every effort to place students in integrated settings to maximize interaction with non-disabled peers. Inclusion with typically developing students is important for a child with ASD as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient, evidence-based intervention and training is also necessary to address specific skill deficits. Although the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision of IDEA requires that efforts be made to educate students with special needs in less restrictive settings, IDEA also recognizes that some students may require a more comprehensive program to provide FAPE.
6. School districts should provide on-going training and education in ASD for both parents and professionals. Professionals who are trained in specific methodology and techniques will be most effective in providing the appropriate services and in modifying curriculum based upon the unique needs of the individual child.

Key References and Further Reading

Aiello, R., Ruble, L., & Esler, A. (2017). National Study of School Psychologists’ Use of Evidence-Based Assessment in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Applied School Psychology33(1), 67-88. DOI: 10.1080/15377903.2016.1236307
American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education. (2014). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) Washington, DC: Author.

Campbell, J. M., Ruble, L. A., & Hammond, R. K. (2014). Comprehensive Developmental Approach Assessment Model. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention (pp. 51-73). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Doepke, K. J., Banks, B. M., Mays, J. F., Toby, L. M., & Landau, S. (2014). Co-occurring emotional and behavior problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In L. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children and Adolescence: Evidence-based Assessment and Intervention in Schools (pp. 125-148). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004).

Kratochwill, T. R. (2007). Preparing psychologists for evidence based school practice: Lessons learned and challenges ahead. American Psychologist, 62, 826-843.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2016). School Psychologists’ Involvement in Assessment. Bethesda, MD: Author.
National Research Council (2001). Educating children with autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. C. Lord & J. P. McGee (Eds). Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Ozonoff, S., Goodlin-Jones, B. L., & Solomon, M. (2005). Evidence-based assessment of autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34, 523–540.
Twachtman-Cullen, D., & Twachtman-Bassett, J. (2011). The IEP from A to Z: How to create meaningful and measurable goals and objectives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition (2007).

Yell, M. L., Katsiyannis, A, Drasgow, E, & Herbst, M. (2003). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate programs for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 182-191.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2016). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (second edition). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Zirkel, P. A. (2014). Legal issues under IDEA. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp 243-257). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning books,  A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Autism and Family-Centered Practice in Schools


 Parent Perspectives and Need for Support
Studies indicate that the demands placed on parents caring for a child with autism contribute to a higher overall incidence of parental stress, depression, and anxiety which adversely affects family functioning and marital relationships compared with parents of children with other disabilities. It is well established that social support is protective of optimal parent well-being and, therefore, a key element of intervention and treatment. Supporting and ensuring the family system’s emotional and physical health is a critical component of best practice.
 School professionals working with families of children with an ASD should be aware of the negative effects of stress and anxiety and assist in offering services that directly address parental needs and support mental health. Negative outcomes include: (a) increased risk of marital problems; (b) decrease in father’s involvement; (c) greater parenting and psychological distress; (d) higher levels of anxiety and depression; (f) added pressure on the family system; (g) more physical and health related issues; (h) decrease in adaptive coping skills; and (i) greater stress on mothers than fathers. Parents often experience stress as they decide how to allocate their attention and energy across family members. For example, they may feel guilty about the limited time they spend with their spouse and other children, when so much of their attention is focused on the child with ASD.
Understanding parent perspectives and targeting parental stress is critical in enhancing well-being and the parent-child relationship. School professionals who have knowledge and understanding of the stressors parents face are able to provide more effective assistance and support to the family. When families receive a diagnosis of autism, a period of anxiety, insecurity, and confusion often follow. Some autism specialists have suggested that parents go through stages of grief and mourning similar to the stages experienced with a loss of a loved one (e.g., fear, denial, anger, bargaining/guilt, depression and acceptance). Sensitivity to this process can help school professionals provide support to families during the critical period following the child’s autism diagnosis when parents are learning to navigate the complex system of autism services.
Mothers, in particular, may experience high levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and social isolation. Research has found that nearly 40% of mothers reported clinically significant levels of parenting stress and between 33% and 59% experienced significant depressive symptoms following their child’s diagnosis of ASD. Challenges in obtaining a timely ASD diagnosis and lack of appropriate treatment services and education were contributors to parental stress and dissatisfaction. Frequently reported important unmet needs include (1) financial support; (2) break from responsibilities; (3) rest/sleep; and (4) help remaining hopeful about the future.
Family-Centered Practice: Support, Educate, Advocate

School professionals can support parents by educating them about ASD; provide guidance and training; assist them in obtaining access to resources; offer emotional support by listening and talking through problems; and help advocate for their child’s needs. It is especially important to acknowledge the value of parents’ unique and important perspective, validate their observations and concerns, and reinforce their roles as important contributors to the educational process. Professionals should also help the family understand what the identification or diagnosis of ASD means and what the next steps are in addressing the issues of support and educational planning. This includes helping parents achieve a better understanding of how their child thinks and learns differently and become familiar with strategies that might help both at home and school. For example, parents can be taught evidence-based strategies that successfully support their children with ASD. Parent-implemented interventions have the potential to improve the child’s communication skills and reduce aggression and disruptive behaviors, as well as increase the functioning of the family system. Parents can learn to implement story-based interventions, visual supports/schedules, and Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) strategies in their home and/or community through individual or group training formats. Professionals can also assist families by offering parent training in behavior management, which has been shown to increase parents’ self-efficacy and decrease their child’s problematic behaviors. Establishing a school-based parent support group may also be consideration.
Another major strategy for helping families with children with ASD is providing information on the access to ongoing supports and services. This includes publicly funded, state-administrated programs such as early intervention, special education, vocational and residential/living services, and respite services. Professionals and family advocates need to be aware of the various programs and their respective eligibility requirements and help parents to access these services. Parents will also need timely and appropriate information regarding their children’s programs and services and may have questions about long-term educational planning. It is important to openly communicate the student’s strengths and weaknesses and encourage parents to play an active role in developing and implementing intervention plans and IEPs. Professionals should also remember that parents have a life-long role in their child’s development and realize that the family’s needs will change over time, and that they have other family responsibilities in addition to their child with autism. When schools use a family-centered approach and work to increase parental involvement and support, not only do the parents and children benefit, but school personnel do as well.

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2016).  A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (2nd Edition). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

Key References & Further Reading
Barnhill, G. P. (2014). Collaboration between families and schools. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 219-241). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Estes, A., Munson, J., Dawson, G., Koehler, E., Zhou, X., & Abbott, R. (2009). Parenting stress and psychological functioning among mothers of preschool children with autism and developmental delay. Autism, 13, 375-387.

Feinberg, E., Augustyn, M., Fitzgerald, E., Sandler, J., Ferreira-Cesar Suarez, Z., Chen, N…Silverstein, M. (2014). Improving maternal mental health after a child’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder: Results from a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Pediatrics, 168(1), 40-46. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3445.

Giallo, R., Wood, C. E., Jellett, R., & Porter, R. (2013). Fatigue, wellbeing and parental self-efficacy in mothers of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism, 17, 465-480.

Hardan, A. Y., Gengoux, G. W., Berquist, K. L., Libove, R. A., Ardel, C. M., Phillips, J…Minjarez, M. B. (2015), A randomized controlled trial of Pivotal Response Treatment Group for parents of children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56, 884-892. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12354

Hoffman, C. D., Sweeney, D. P., Hodge, D., Lopez-Wagner, M. C., & Looney, L. (2009)
Parenting stress and closeness: Mothers of typically developing children and mothers of children with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 178-187.

Kiami, S. R., & Goodgold, S. (2017). Support Needs and Coping Strategies as
Predictors of Stress Level among Mothers of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research and Treatment Volume 2017, Article ID 8685950, https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/8685950

Myers, S. M., & Johnson, C. P. (2007). Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 120, 1162-1182. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-2362

National Autism Center. (2015). Evidence-based practice and autism in the schools: An educator’s guide to providing appropriate interventions to students with autism spectrum disorder (2nd ed.). Randolph, MA: Author

Rogers, S. J., & Vismara, L. A. (2008). Evidence-based comprehensive treatments for early autism. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 37, 8-38.

Wagner, S. (2014). Continuum of services and individualized education plan process. In L. A.
Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 173-193). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wilkinson, L.A. (2016). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (2nd edition). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Weiss, J. A., Cappadocia, M. C., MacMullin, J. A., Viecili, M., & Lunsky, Y. (2012). The impact of child problem behaviors of children with ASD on parent mental health: The mediating role of acceptance and empowerment. Autism, 16, 261-274. doi: 10.1177/1362361311422708

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning books,  A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

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