Monday, September 15, 2014

Autism and Savant Syndrome



What are savant skills?
There is a long history of reports of individuals who despite having severe intellectual impairments, demonstrate remarkable skills in a particular area. The term “savant” has been variously defined as those individuals who show (a) normatively superior performance in an area and (b) a discrepancy between their performance in that area and their general level of functioning. Some researchers have differentiated “prodigious” savants (e.g., individuals possessing an exceptional ability in relation to both their overall level of functioning and the general population) from “talented” savants (e.g., individuals showing an outstanding skill in comparison with their overall level of functioning). 

Savant skills have been reported much more frequently in males than in females and have been identified in a wide range of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders. The most commonly reported savant skills are mathematical skills (calendrical calculations, rapid arithmetic and prime number calculations), music (especially the ability to replay complex sequences after only one exposure), art (complex scenes with accurate perspective either created or replicated following a single brief viewing) and memory for dates, places, routes or facts. Less frequently reported are “pseudo-verbal” skills (hyperlexia or facility with foreign languages), coordination skills and mechanical aptitude.
Research
Research in the past 10 years has generated some controversy about the actual incidence of savant syndrome in autism. Once thought to be rare in people with autism, found in no more than 1 out of 10 individuals, research over the past few years suggests savant skills may be more common than previous estimates. Although there have been many single case or small group studies of individuals with autism who possess savant abilities or exceptional cognitive skills, there have been few systematic, large-scale investigations in this area. Inconsistencies in definition and wide variation in diagnostic criteria, ages and ability levels of the cases reported are problematic, as is a paucity of valid information on rates of savant skills in ASD. The objective of this research study was to investigate the nature and frequency of savant skills in a large sample of individuals with autism who had been initially diagnosed as children.
The total sample was comprised 137 individuals, first diagnosed with autism as children, who were subsequently involved in an ongoing, longitudinal follow-up study. Cognitive assessments (Wechsler Scales) were completed for all participants (100 males and 37 females) between the ages of 11 and 48 years (mean age of 24). Parental report data on savant skills were obtained approximately 10 years later at a subsequent follow-up.  Cognitive ability ranged from severe intellectual impairment to superior functioning. Savant skills were judged from parental reports and specified as “an outstanding skill/knowledge clearly above participant’s general level of ability and above the population norm.”
Results
Of the 93 individuals for whom parental questionnaire and cognitive data were available, 16 (17.2%) met criteria for a parent-rated skill, 15 (16.8%) had an exceptional cognitive skill and 8 (8.6%) met criteria for both. There were 14 calendrical calculators (one also showed exceptional memory and another also showed skill in computation and music). There were four others with computational skills (in one case combined with memory and in another case with music). Visuospatial skills (e.g., directions or highly accurate drawing) were reported in three individuals. One individual had a musical talent, one an exceptional memory skill and one had skills in both memory and art. The subtest on which participants were most likely to meet the specified criteria for an area of unusual cognitive skill was block design followed by digit span, object assembly and arithmetic.
There was a sex difference (albeit statistically non-significant) in the prevalence of savant skills. Almost one-third (32%) of males showed some form of savant or special cognitive skill compared with 19 percent of females. No individual with a non-verbal IQ below 50 met criteria for a savant skill and contrary to some earlier hypotheses; there was no indication that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviours/interests were more likely to demonstrate savant skills.
Discussion
In total, 39 participants (28.5%) met criteria for a savant skill. Cognitively, 23 individuals (17% of total sample) met criteria for one or more exceptional area of skill on the Wechsler Scales. Combining the two, 37 per cent of the sample showed either savant skills or unusual cognitive skills or both, a far higher proportion than previously reported. These results suggest that the rates of savant skills in autism are significant, particularly among males, and although these estimates are higher than reported by other researchers, the findings parallel those of previous studies. Based on these findings, it appears likely that at least a third of individuals with autism show unusual skills or talents that are both above population norms and above their own overall level of cognitive functioning. It should be noted these data offer no support to claims that savant skills occur most frequently in individuals with autism who are intellectually challenged or that individuals with higher rates of stereotyped behaviors/interests are more likely to demonstrate savant skills.
Apart from the need for further research examining the underlying basis of savant skills and why certain individuals go on to develop any area of exceptional skill and why these skills encompass such different areas, there is a more practical and pressing question; “how can these innate talents be developed to form the basis of truly ‘functional’ skills?” In the present study, only five individuals with exceptional abilities (four related to math and one related to visuospatial ability) had succeeded in using these skills to find permanent employment. For the majority, the isolated skill remained just that, leading neither to employment nor greater social integration. As the authors conclude, “The practical challenge now is to determine how individuals with special skills can be assisted, from childhood onwards, to develop their talents in ways that are of direct practical value (in terms of educational and occupational achievements), thereby enhancing their opportunities for social inclusion as adults.”
Key References
Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2009). Savant skills in autism: Psychometric approaches and parental reportsPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1359–1367. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0328 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677586/

Marsa, L. (2016). Extraordinary minds: The link between savantism and autism. https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/extraordinary-minds-the-link-between-savantism-and-autism/

Treffert D. (2000). Extraordinary people: understanding savant syndrome. Ballantine Books; New York, NY.

Treffert, D. (2009). The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1351–1358. 

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 disorder. 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).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention Effective for Autism

It is well established that early intervention is a critical determinant in the course and outcome of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) is considered a central feature of intervention programming for children with autism. EIBI programs are among the most and best researched of the psychoeducational interventions. A new comparative effectiveness review prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) finds that there is substantially more evidence for behavior therapy in treating autism than just a few years ago. The report, Therapies for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Behavioral Interventions Update, is based on research conducted by the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center and brings practitioners up to date about the current state of evidence related to behavioral interventions.
Evidence from the original report published in 2011 and the current update suggests that early behavioral and developmental intervention based on the principles of ABA delivered in an intensive (>15 hours per week) and comprehensive (i.e., addressing numerous areas of functioning) approach can positively affect a subset of children with ASD. Across approaches, children receiving early intensive behavioral and developmental interventions demonstrate improvements in cognitive, language, adaptive, and ASD impairments compared with children receiving low- intensity interventions and diverse non–ABA-based intervention approaches. In sum, the report reflects a growing evidence base suggesting that behavioral interventions are associated with positive outcomes for some children with ASD. “We are finding more solid evidence, based on higher quality studies, that these early intensive behavioral interventions can be effective for young children on the autism spectrum, especially related to their cognitive and language skills,” said Amy Weitlauf of Vanderbilt who led the review. “But the individual response to these treatments often varies from child to child.”
The report also indicates a growing evidence base suggesting that children receiving targeted play-based interventions (e.g., joint attention, imitation, play-based interventions) demonstrate improvements in early social communication skills. Children receiving targeted joint attention packages in combination with other interventions show substantial improvements in joint attention and language skills over time. There is also evidence across a variety of play-based interventions that young children may display short-term improvements in early play, imitation, joint attention, and interaction skills. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for comorbid conditions such as anxiety had the largest number of high-quality studies in the current review. A strong evidence base now suggests that school-aged children with average to above average cognitive ability and co-occurring anxiety symptoms receiving manualized CBT therapy show substantial improvements in anxiety compared with wait-list controls.
It should be noted that the report is not intended to be a substitute for the application of clinical judgment. Research findings are not the only factor involved when selecting an intervention. Professional judgment and the values and preferences of parents, caregivers, and the individual’s unique needs and abilities are also important. Unfortunately, intervention research cannot predict, at the present time, which particular intervention approach works best with which children. No single approach, intervention strategy, or treatment is effective for all children with ASD, and not all children will receive the same level of benefit. Given the heterogeneity of the expression of ASD across children, a critical area for further research is understanding which children are likely to benefit from particular interventions. To date, studies have failed to adequately describe the characteristics of interventions (or the children receiving them) in a way that helps clarify why certain children show more positive outcomes than others. Substantial scientific advances are needed to enhance our understanding of which interventions are most effective for specific children with ASD and to isolate the elements or components of interventions most associated with effects. Finally, the literature lacks studies that directly compare interventions or utilize combinations of interventions (e.g., comparing medical interventions with behavioral interventions, with educational interventions, or with allied health interventions), despite the fact that most children receive multiple concurrent treatments.
Weitlauf AS, McPheeters ML, Peters B, Sathe N, Travis R, Aiello R, Williamson E, Veenstra-VanderWeele J, Krishnaswami S, Jerome R, Warren Z. Therapies for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Behavioral Interventions Update. Comparative  Effectiveness Review No. 137. (Prepared by the Vanderbilt Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2012-00009-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 14-EHC036-EF. Rockville,  MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; August 2014.

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