Monday, December 21, 2015

A Multi-Tiered Approach to Screening for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools

There has been a dramatic worldwide increase in reported cases of autism over the past decade. Yet, compared to population estimates, identification rates have not kept pace in our schools. It is not unusual for children with less severe symptoms of ASD to go unidentified until well after entering school. As a result, it is critical that school-based educational support personnel (e.g., special educators, school counselors, speech/language pathologists, social workers, and school psychologists) give greater priority to case finding and screening to ensure that children with ASD are identified and have access to the appropriate intervention services. 

 Screening and Identification
Until recently, there were few validated screening measures available to assist school professionals in the identification of students with the core ASD-related behaviors. However, our knowledge base is expanding rapidly and we now have reliable and valid tools to screen and evaluate children more efficiently and with greater accuracy. The following tools have demonstrated utility in screening for ASD in educational settings and can be used to determine which children are likely to require further assessment and/or who might benefit from additional support. All measures have sound psychometric properties (e.g., discriminative validity), are appropriate for school-age children, and time efficient (10 to 20 minutes to complete). Training needs are minimal and require little or no professional instruction to complete. However, interpretation of results requires familiarity with ASD and experience in administering, scoring, and interpreting psychological tests.
The Autism Spectrum Rating Scales (ASRS; Goldstein & Naglieri, 2009) is a norm-referenced tool designed to effectively identify symptoms, behaviors, and associated features of ASD in children and adolescents from 2 to 18 years of age. The ASRS can be completed by teachers and/or parents and has both long and short forms. The Short form was developed for screening purposes and contains 15 items from the full-length form that have been shown to differentiate children diagnosed with ASD from children in the general population. High scores indicate that many behaviors associated with ASD have been observed and follow-up recommended.
The Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ; Rutter, Bailey, & Lord, 2003), previously known as the Autism Screening Questionnaire (ASQ), is a parent/caregiver dimensional measure of ASD symptomatology appropriate for children of any chronological age older than four years. It is available in two forms, Lifetime and Current, each with 40 questions. Scores on the questionnaire provide a reasonable index of symptom severity in the reciprocal social interaction, communication, and restricted/repetitive behavior domains and indicate the likelihood that a child has an ASD.
The Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition (SRS-2; Constantino & Gruber, 2012) is a brief quantitative measure of autistic behaviors in 4 to 18 year old children and youth. This 65-item rating scale was designed to be completed by an adult (teacher and/or parent) who is familiar with the child’s current behavior and developmental history. The SRS items measure the ASD symptoms in the domains of social awareness, social information processing, reciprocal social communication, social anxiety/avoidance, and stereotypic behavior/restricted interests. The scale provides a Total Score that reflects the level of severity across the entire autism spectrum.
A Multi-Tier Screening Strategy
The ASRS, SCQ, and SRS-2 can be used confidently as efficient first-level screening tools for identifying the presence of the more broadly defined and subtle symptoms of higher-functioning ASD in school settings. School-based professionals should consider the following multi-step strategy for identifying at-risk students who are in need of an in-depth assessment.
Tier  one. The initial step is case finding. This involves the ability to recognize the risk factors and/or warning signs of ASD. All school professionals should be engaged in case finding and be alert to those students who display atypical social and/or communication behaviors that might be associated with ASD. Parent and/or teacher reports of social impairment combined with communication and behavioral concerns constitute a “red flag” and indicate the need for screening. Students who are identified with risk factors during the case finding phase should be referred for formal screening.
Tier two. Scores on the ASRS, SCQ, and SRS-2 may be used as an indication of the approximate severity of ASD symptomatology for students who present with elevated developmental risk factors and/or warning signs of ASD. Screening results are shared with parents and school-based teams with a focus on intervention planning and ongoing observation. Scores can also be used for progress monitoring and to measure change over time. Students with a positive screen who continue to show minimal progress at this level are then considered for a more comprehensive assessment and intensive interventions as part of Tier 3.  However, as with all screening tools, there will be some false negatives (children with ASD who are not identified). Thus, children who screen negative, but who have a high level of risk and/or where parent and/or teacher concerns indicate developmental variations and behaviors consistent with an autism-related disorder should continue to be monitored, regardless of screening results.
Tier three. Students who meet the threshold criteria in step two may then referred for an in-depth assessment. Because the ASRS, SCQ, and SRS-2 are strongly related to well-established and researched gold standard measures and report high levels of sensitivity (ability to correctly identify cases in a population), the results from these screening measures can be used in combination with a comprehensive developmental assessment of social behavior, language and communication, adaptive behavior, motor skills, sensory issues, and cognitive functioning to aid in determining eligibility for special education services and as a guide to intervention planning.
Concluding Comments
Compared with general population estimates, children with mild autistic traits appear to be an underidentified and underserved population in our schools. There are likely a substantial number of children with equivalent profiles to those with a clinical diagnosis of ASD who are not receiving services. Research indicates that outcomes for children on the autism spectrum can be significantly enhanced with the delivery of intensive intervention services. However, intervention services can only be implemented if students are identified. Screening is the initial step in this process. School professionals should be prepared to recognize the presence of risk factors and/or early warning signs of ASD, engage in case finding, and be familiar with screening tools in order to ensure children with ASD are being identified and provided with the appropriate programs and services. 

Best practice screening and assessment guidelines are available from: Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd ed.). 

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson 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, and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Friday, December 18, 2015

Adults with Autism Face Many Health Problems

A study found that adults with autism are at higher risk for a number of health problems, ranging from diabetes and obesity to heart failure. In a review of insurance records for more than 23,000 adults, researchers found that medical and psychiatric issues are much more prevalent in those with autism as compared to individuals without the neurodevelopmental disorder. Nearly all medical conditions were significantly more common in adults with autism than controls, including diabetes, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, epilepsy, sleep disorders, dyslipidemia, hypertension and obesity, researchers reported in a summary of their findings presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research.
Eating disorders, mechanical falls, vision and hearing impairments, osteoporosis and chronic heart failure were significantly more common among adults with autism than controls. Depression and anxiety were more than twice as common for those on the spectrum while bipolar disorder was eight times as likely. There was also 12-fold increase in the risk of epilepsy for this group. Nearly a third of those with autism in the study had obesity or hypertension, conditions that affected less than 20 percent of those without the neurodevelopmental disorder. Cancer rates, however, were similar for those with and without autism.
Although it’s well-known that children with autism face more medical and psychiatric diagnoses than their peers, this is the first large study to examine how common these issues are in adults. Researchers suggest that one reason for the high prevalence of health problems among adults with autism could be that the social and communication difficulties as well as the sensory sensitivities common among this population may lead to reduced preventive care. They conclude that physicians need better training on how to treat individuals on the spectrum throughout the life span and improvements needed in the transition from pediatric to adult medical care systems.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Gender Gap in Autism: Where are the Girls?

There has been a dramatic increase in reported cases of autism over the past decade. Prevalence rates have risen steadily, from one in 150, to one in 110, and now to one in every 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 8-year-olds). According to the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, autism is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). Statistics also indicate that referrals for evaluation of boys are nearly ten times higher than for girls. Moreover, girls are diagnosed with autism at later ages compared to boys. This gender “gap” raises serious questions because many female students with ASD are being overlooked and will not receive the appropriate educational supports and services. 
Why are fewer girls being identified?  Why do parents of girls experience a delay in receiving a diagnosis?  Are there gender differences in the expression of the disorder? Answers to these questions have practical implications in that gender specific variations may have a significant impact on identification practices and the provision of clinical and educational services. Although few studies have examined gender differences in the expression of autism spectrum disorders, we do have several tentative explanations for the underdiagnosis and late identification of girls with ASD. They include the following. 
  • Social communication and pragmatic deficits may not be readily apparent in girls because of a non-externalizing behavioral profile, passivity, and lack of initiative. Girls who have difficulty making sustained eye contact and appear socially withdrawn may also be perceived as “shy,” “naive,” or “sweet” rather than   having the social impairment associated with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • The diagnosis of another disorder often diverts attention from autism-related symptomatology. In many cases, girls tend to receive unspecified diagnoses such as a learning disability, processing problem, or internalizing disorder. A recent survey of women with Asperger syndrome indicated that most received a diagnosis of anxiety or mood disorder prior being identified with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • The perseverative and circumscribed interests of girls with autism spectrum disorders may appear to be age-typical. Girls who are not successful in social relationships and developing friendships might create imaginary friends and elaborate doll play that superficially resembles the neurotypical girl.
  • Although Students with ASD are more likely to be the target of bullying than typical peers, this may not be recognized in girls due to gender differences in preferred modes of aggression. For example, girls may use covert verbal, social, and psychological forms of aggression while boys tend to rely on confrontational and direct modes of bullying. As a result, the more subtle nature of relational and indirect aggression (social exclusion and rejection) used by girls may be taken less seriously than the more obvious, direct aggression exhibited by boys.
  • Although girls may appear less symptomatic than boys, the genders do share similar profiles. Research suggests that when IQ is controlled, the main gender difference is a higher frequency of idiosyncratic and unusual visual interests and lower levels of appropriate play in males compared to females. As a result, the behavior and educational needs of boys are much more difficult to ignore and are frequently seen by teachers and parents as being more urgent, further contributing to a referral bias.
  • Over reliance on the male model with regard to diagnostic criteria might contribute to a gender “bias” and underdiagnosis of girls. Clinical instruments also tend to exclude symptoms and behaviors that may be more typical of females with ASD. For example, assessment instruments such as the Autism Spectrum Rating Scales (ASRS) and Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) have generally reported higher mean scores for boys than girls. The lower symptom scores for girls may reflect gender differences and expression of the phenotype. Recent research suggests that certain single test items may be more typical of girls than of boys with ASD, and examining symptom gender differences at the individual level might lead to a better understanding of the gender difference in ASD.
  • Apart from biases in reporting or diagnosis, there is significant evidence to suggest that multiple biological factors contribute to the sex differences seen in autism. These include genetic and hormonal differences between males and females that may provide a “protective” mechanism for girls and lead to differences in symptoms and vulnerability to the disorder.
If girls do process language and social information differently than boys, then clinical and educational interventions based largely on research with boys may be inappropriate. As a result, girls may receive less than optimal academic and behavioral interventions. If gender specific variations do exist, then the predictive validity of the diagnosis and developmental course may well differ between the sexes. Unfortunately, the consequences of a missed or late diagnosis can result in social isolation, peer rejection, lowered grades, and a greater risk for mental health and behavioral distress such as anxiety and depression during adolescence and adulthood. As a result, there is an urgent need for research to compare girls with ASD to typical boys and girls to more fully comprehend the implications of being a girl on the autism spectrum. 

It is recommended that clinicians and educators question the presence of an ASD in girls referred for internalizing disorders such as anxiety or depression. Best practice also recommends that when a girl presents with a combination of social immaturity, restricted interests, limited eye gaze, repetitive behaviors, social isolation, and is viewed as “unusual” or “different” by parents, teachers and peers, the possibility of an ASD should be given consideration.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor a best-selling text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools, and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. Dr. Wilkinson's most recent book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Legal and Appropriate Educational Programs for Children on the Autism Spectrum

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. It’s critically important that parents and educators understand the provisions for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services for students identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Research indicates that education is the most effective treatment/intervention for children with ASD. The most recent re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) entitles all students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE encompasses both procedural safeguards and the student’s individual education program (IEP). The IEP is the cornerstone for the education of a child with ASD. When a student is determined eligible for special education services, an IEP planning team is formed to develop the IEP and subsequently determine placement.
Although clinical diagnoses, psychiatric reports, and treatment recommendations can be helpful in determining eligibility and educational planning, the provisions of IDEA are the controlling authority with regard to decisions for special education. While clinical information is professionally helpful, it is neither legally required nor sufficient for determining educational placement. Therefore, it’s especially important for administrators, parents, advocates, teachers and non-school professionals to keep in mind that when it comes to special education, it is state and federal education codes and regulations (not clinical criteria) that determine eligibility and IEP planning decisions. Legal and special education experts recommend the following guidelines to help school districts meet the requirements for providing legal and appropriate educational programs and services to students with ASD.
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.
References and Further Reading
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004). 
Mandlawitz, M. R. (2002). The impact of the legal system on educational programming for young children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 495-508.
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.

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. (2010). Best practice in special needs education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism and Asperger syndrome in schools (pp. 127-146). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 
Wilkinson, L. A. (Ed.). (2014). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2016). Best practice in special education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (pp. 157-200). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Zirkel, P. (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. 
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.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also editor a best-selling text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and AdolescentsEvidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools, and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. Dr. Wilkinson's latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
©Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

Fears and Phobias on the Autism Spectrum

Fears and Phobias in Children on the Autism Spectrum
Anxiety Disorders are a frequent co-occurring (comorbid) problem for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although prevalence rates vary from 11% to 84%, most studies indicate that approximately one-half of children with ASD meet criteria for at least one anxiety disorder. Of all types of anxiety disorders, specific phobia is the most common, with prevalence estimates ranging from 31% to 64%. In contrast, estimates of phobias in children in the general population range from 5% to 18%.
Unusual fears have long been recognized as a feature of autism. In fact, 70 years ago, Leo Kanner wrote in his initial account of autism that “loud noises and moving objects” are “reacted to with horror” and things like “tricycles, swings, elevators, vacuum cleaners, running water, gas burners, mechanical toys, egg beaters, even the wind could on occasions bring about a major panic.” We now know that children with autism perceive, experience, and respond to the world very differently than children without autism. Experiences that may be tolerable for most typical children might be frightening, disturbing, or irritating for a child with ASD. Children with autism may also be unresponsive to other experiences (e.g., insensitive to pain), may not show stranger or separation anxiety, and may be seemingly unaware of obvious dangers (e.g., running into traffic).
Previous research examining the types and frequencies of fears in children with autism have found odd and intense fears in approximately 40% of children with autism, whereas unusual fears were present in only 0–5% of children without autism, including children with a learning disability, language disorder, ADHD, intellectual disability, and typical development. Studies also indicate that while some of the most common fears for children with autism and typical development overlap, children with autism have frequent fears that were not amongst the most frequently reported for typical children. These include fear of thunderstorms, large crowds, and closed spaces.
A large scale study reported in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders investigated unusual fears in a sample of 1033 children ages 1-16 with autism. The purpose of the study was to categorize and determine specific types of unusual fears in children with autism as well as identify variables related to the presence or absence of these fears. Unusual fears were reported in 421 (40.8%) of the 1033 children with autism. A total of 487 unusual fears were reported, representing 92 different fears. The most common unusual fears in three or more children with were toilets, elevators, vacuum cleaners, thunderstorms, heights, and visual media (characters in or segments of movies, television shows, commercials, or computer games). Many children also had common childhood fears and phobias (including fear of dogs, bugs, spiders, snakes, the dark, doctors, barbers, monsters, people in costumes, mechanical toys, sleeping alone, fire, and swimming), which increased the overall proportion of children with autism who had intense fears and phobias to more than 50%.
Categories and Frequency of Unusual Fears
The most frequently reported categories of unusual fears were:
§        Mechanical things (Blenders, can openers, cassette players, ceiling fans, clothes, dryers, drills, electric toothbrushes, exhaust fans, hair dryers, hand dryers, leaf blowers, toilets, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, water fountains, wheelchairs, windshield wipers) 
§        Heights (Elevators, escalators, heights, steps) 
§        Weather (Cloudy weather, natural disasters such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, rain, thunderstorms, wind) 
§        Non-mechanical things (Balloons, black television screen, buttons, clam shells, crayons, dolls, drains, electrical outlets, eyes on toys garden hose, glass tabletops, glow in dark stars, gum under table, hair in bathtub, lights, mole on person’s face, moon, shadows, strings, stuffed animals, swinging or rocking things, tall things, things on ceiling, vent on house)
§        Places (Bathroom, bedroom, certain house or restaurant, closed or small spaces, garage, large or open space, room with doors unlocked or open)
§        Worries - Events (car accident, heart attack, natural disaster, germs or contamination, running out of certain foods, running out of gas, something falling over, toilet overflowing, tree falling on house)
§        Visual media (Characters in or segments of movies, television shows, commercials, computer games)
Types and Frequency of Unusual Fears
Unusual fears reported by parents fell into two categories: (1) uncommon fears not typically reported in children in the general population or in children with specific phobias and (2) fears that have been reported in studies of children without autism but which were considered unusual by parents because of their intensity, obsessiveness, irrationality, or interference with functioning. Of the total number reported, the most common unusual fears in three or more children with autism were:
§         Toilets
§         Elevators
§         Vacuum cleaners
§         Thunderstorms
§         Tornadoes
§         Heights
§         Visual media 
Associated variables
Children with and without unusual fears did not differ in age, IQ level, mental age, autism severity, race or parent occupation. Of all the demographic variables, only female gender was associated with the presence or absence of unusual fears. More girls had unusual fears (48.8%) than did boys (39.1%). This is consistent with the earlier studies indicating that girls with autism had more fears than boys and with general population studies showing that girls had more fears and higher fear survey scores than boys. The finding that children with and without unusual fears did not differ in age suggests that unlike most typical children, those with autism may not outgrow unusual fears. Likewise, the findings regarding autism severity and parent occupation suggest that the presence of unusual and intense fears may be present across SES and the entire autism spectrum. The authors note that the lack of demographic differences in the study may suggest a neurobiological basis for fears overriding developmental and environmental influences.
Conclusion and Implications
Research suggests that it is critical to assess for unusual and intense fears in children with ASD because they are common and can interfere significantly with functioning. Specific fears and phobias have been cited as frequent anxiety triggers/stressors for children with ASD. The impact of anxiety includes personal distress in children, parents, and siblings, increase in challenging behavior and stereotyped behaviors, restriction of activities/opportunities and negative impact on quality of life for child and family. For example, children with autism may avoid necessary life situations (e.g., refusing to go to school because there may be a fire drill) or be in a constant state of anxiety and unable to function optimally because of their fears.
Identification of specific fears and phobias can help educators and interventionists improve programs and services for children on the autism spectrum. This information may be especially useful for clinicians, particularly those utilizing CBT as a treatment approach for children and youth with ASD. There is evidence to suggest that the interventions used to treat intense fears and phobias in children without autism (exposure, desensitization, modeling, shaping, and reinforcement) might also be effective for children who have autism. Lastly, further research is needed to investigate why some specific unusual fears are common to autism but not the general population. As more individuals with ASD communicate about their fears and reasons for their idiosyncrasies, we may come to a better understanding of autism and its symptoms.
Mayes, S. D., Calhoun, S. L., Aggarwal, R., Baker, C., Mathapati, S., Molitoris, S., & Mayes, R. D. (2013). Unusual fears in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 151–158.
Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Dr. Wilkinson 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 and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Crisis in Mental Health Services for Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum

The dramatic increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions among children over the past decade indicates that a correspondingly large number of youth will be transitioning into adulthood in the coming years. It is estimated that more than 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18 years old this year in the U.S. As these numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to address the mental health issues faced by many adults on the autism spectrum.
Although we know that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism, there are fewer mental health services available for adults on the spectrum, particularly for individuals who are not intellectually challenged. A review in the open access journal, Autism Research and Treatment, highlights the service needs and the corresponding gaps in care for this population. The authors posit that the mental health system is in crisis and that although the rates of mental health issues for adults on the spectrum is high, accessing services to address these symptoms remains difficult. Poor recognition tends to occur for a number of different reasons, including restrictive intake criteria, misdiagnosis, limited knowledge or awareness of autism spectrum conditions, clinicians who lack confidence or experience in caring for this group of adults, and the belief that other service providers will provide this care. Consequently, many adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum, because of their diagnosis, are excluded from community mental health services, leaving them grossly underserved.
Mental Health Issues
Comorbid (co-occurring) psychiatric disorders are well documented in individuals with autism across the lifespan. Research suggests that a very high proportion of adults and teens on the spectrum present with co-occurring (comorbid) psychiatric conditions, particularly depression and anxiety. For example, recent studies examining psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with autism spectrum conditions found that 70% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, 50% had suffered from recurrent depressive episodes, and 50% met criteria for an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, it appears that co-occurring psychiatric disorders and even the diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition itself often go unrecognized among more capable adolescents and adults on the spectrum seeking psychological or psychiatric care. Many youth and young adults report significant difficulties accessing healthcare services, particularly comprehensive health services. Part of the reason for this difficulty may stem from service providers feeling ill equipped to work with individuals with autism, particularly individuals with co-occurring mental health issues. As a result, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum conditions have access to significantly fewer programs than adolescents and adults with other types of developmental disabilities. Not surprisingly then, a consistent theme for parents of individuals with autism is the fear that their child will fall through the cracks when transitioning from child to adult services. Similar concerns have been voiced by the individuals on the spectrum themselves, who describe how their needs are infrequently recognized and the programs and services available are not designed for people with autism spectrum conditions in mind.
Adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum represent a complex and underserved population. Of the studies completed to date, findings suggest that this group of adolescents and adults faces a multitude of psychiatric and psychosocial issues, alongside significant challenges in accessing services. Social skills deficits for individuals on the spectrum persist into adulthood, and adults appear to be at an increased risk for developing depression and anxiety. Despite this, very few studies have examined treatment approaches and interventions (pharmacological and psychosocial) for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum conditions. While evidence is beginning to emerge for interventions targeting this population, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), and social skills training (SST), further large-scale studies which compare the effectiveness of, for example, CBT or MBT versus other treatment options (e.g., medication, counseling, etc.) are required. Likewise, there is an immediate need for mental health clinicians who are trained to apply these techniques. In developing interventions, programs must also consider what adolescents and adults want. For example, adolescents and adults on the spectrum may be more interested in interventions which focus on vocational opportunities than interventions targeting social skills. Moreover, both individuals and their family must be viewed as valuable contributors and fully involved in this process. Lastly, researchers must look at issues of service cost and efficiency when evaluating the impact of interventions.
The findings of this review article point to the following important practice recommendations.
1. Developmental disability agencies or agencies supporting individuals with autism spectrum conditions must partner with community mental health agencies to help train, mentor, and build capacity to care for this group across the lifespan. It is important to note that many clinicians working within community mental health agencies already have the skills to effectively deliver this care, but programs either preclude their ability to do so or they lack the confidence to work with this population.
2. There is a critical need for community mental health agencies to review their exclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions. For example, agencies providing care for persons with mood or anxiety disorders should not exclude individuals on the basis of a diagnosis of autism. Community mental health agencies have the resources and expertise in mental health, along with the programs to deliver services for individuals with mental health issues (e.g., vocational programs, counseling, and therapies), but will need guidance from developmental disability agencies to successfully adapt these programs for adults on the autism spectrum.
3. Developmental disability agencies must reevaluate their inclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions, regardless of IQ, and across the lifespan. Organizations must work together, combining expertise in autism from developmental disability agencies with knowledge and resources from community mental health agencies.
4. There is a need to study and identify programs and supports that are most effective in both school and community settings. This will require a full continuum of mental health services including counseling, vocational training, supported employment, inpatient services, and outpatient services. It will also require a network of experienced clinicians and community partners. Many of these efforts are already underway in pediatric settings; however, these same efforts are required in adolescent and adult mental health services.
5. Finally, there is a need to prepare and equip older youth with autism spectrum conditions for the transition to adult services.
Johanna K. Lake, J. K., Perry, A., & Lunsky, Y. (2014). Mental Health Services for Individuals with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research and Treatment, Volume 2014, Article ID 502420.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

First Impressions Matter: Facial Expression & Peer Acceptance in Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by two core-defining features: impairments in (a) social communication and (b) restricted and repetitive behaviors or interests (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). Social-communication deficits include difficulties making affective (emotional) contact with others. This includes deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction which range from poorly integrated- verbal and nonverbal communication, through abnormalities in eye contact and body-language, or deficits in understanding and use of nonverbal communication, to a lack of facial expression or gestures.
Research investigating facial expressivity in children with ASD has reported “flat affect” or odd facial expressivity within this population. “Flat affect” is a term used to describe a lack of emotional reactivity. With a flat affect, expressive gestures are minimal, and there is little animation in facial expression or vocal inflection. Facial expressions are a form of non-verbal communication essential to interpersonal relationships. An inability to read facial and social cues makes “connecting” to others very difficult. Likewise, reduced or odd expres­sivity may impede social discourse or provoke negative initial reactions to the person with ASD. 
A study published in the journal Autism examined the impact of facial expressivity on first impression formation and found that typically developing children formed their impressions of peers with ASD in as little as 30 seconds. Videos of children with ASD were initially rated for facial expressivity by adults who were unaware of the condition. Researchers further investigated the friendship ratings given by 44 typically developing children to the same videos. The children making friendship judgments were also unaware that they were rating chil­dren with ASD. These ratings were compared to friendship ratings given to video clips of typically developing children. Adult participants rated children with ASD as being less expressive than typically developing children. The 44 child participants also rated peers with ASD lower than typically developing children on all aspects of friendship measures. Children with ASD were rated not as trustworthy as the typically-developing children in the films. Moreover, study participants were less likely to say that they wanted to play with or be friends with the video subjects on the spectrum. These results suggest that impression formation is less positive towards children with ASD than towards typically developing children even when exposure time is brief.
The findings of this study have important implications for intervention. First impressions make a difference: whether you are looking at facial expressions, gestures, or just general appearance, people are quick to form judgments about others. Children with ASD experience more peer rejection and have fewer friendships than their typically developing peers. Limited facial expres­sivity may further remove children with ASD from meaningful interactions and reciprocal emotional related­ness with others. Negative peer responses can be especially upsetting for more socially aware children with ASD who may be strive but fail to form friendships. Further, distress often increases as children approach adolescence and the social milieu becomes more complex. 
Social relationship skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and to long-term outcomes for all students. An increase in the quality of social relationships can have a major influence on the social and academic development of both typically developing children and those with ASD. Consequently, intervention needs to be focused on both groups in poten­tial interactions rather than solely on the child with ASD. This includes strategies designed to promote skill acquisition in building social relationships such as direct instruction, modeling, role-play, structured activities, social stories, formal social groups, pivotal response teaching, self-monitoring, and coaching. Students in general education could help the process of cohesion by serving as prosocial role models for students with ASD. Teachers may also provide reinforcement for prosocial behavior or assign students in general education to work with students with ASD in small groups on class projects together to promote positive interaction. Schools should make a dedicated effort to educate typically developing children about autism and associated symptoms. Educating children and increasing awareness will hopefully encourage a more thoughtful first impression formation process. Teaching social skills can have both preventive and remedial effects that can help reduce the risk for negative outcomes not only for children on the autism spectrum, but also for all children. 
Does facial expressivity count? How typically developing children respond initially to children with Autism. Steven D Stagg, Rachel Slavny, Charlotte Hand, Alice Cardoso and Pamela Smith. Autism published online 11 October 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1362361313492392 
The online version of this article can be found at:

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Inclusion for Students with Autism Varies by State

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) (P.L. 108-446) ( guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for every student with a disability. The LRE provision mandates that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”  In general, inclusion (or inclusive education) with typical peers is often considered to be the best placement option for students with disabilities. 

Child characteristics such as severity of autism symptoms are thought to determine educational placement. However, where a child lives may significantly impact whether they are placed in an inclusive or segregated classroom, a national analysis suggests. The study published online in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities examined external factors, including state of residence and state funding formulas, to determine their potential influence on placement outcomes. On average, about 37 percent of students on the autism spectrum spent at least 80 percent of their school day in inclusive environments. But the numbers varied considerably from one state to the next, ranging from just 8 percent in Washington, D.C. to 62 percent in Iowa. 

There was considerable variation among states in placing students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in inclusive, mainstreaming, self-contained, and separate schools. Specifically, states varied substantially in the percentage of students with ASD educated in each setting, with some states consistently favoring inclusion (Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). Other states, however, generally leaned toward more restrictive settings (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C.). States in the Eastern United States tended to have more restrictive placement rates than states in the Western United States. State special education funding was found to have a minimal impact on placement outcomes.
These findings suggest that factors that are external to child characteristics (e.g., severity of ASD symptoms) influence educational placement decisions for students with ASD. “If child-specific factors were solely responsible for education placement decisions, one would expect states to have similar rates of inclusive, self-contained, mainstreaming and separate school placements for students with ASDs,” the author commented. “Instead, … results indicate that educational placement varies by state.” 

Overall, it is unlikely that child characteristics alone determine placement outcomes. Although it is arguably safe to assume that the first placement for a student with ASD would be an inclusive setting, analysis of the public data presented in this study suggests that many states are still falling short of including students with ASD in general education settings for significant portions of the day. The argument must now shift from should we include students with ASD in general education to understanding how to include students with ASD meaningfully and successfully in inclusive settings. It is critical to identify how those practices that benefit students with ASD, including structure (visual supports, communication supports, and social supports), positive behavior supports, and systematic instruction, can be implemented meaningfully and seamlessly in general education settings. Lastly, those who place students with ASD in educational settings should determine the unique needs of the individual, and match those needs to specific supports and services that will be provided in general education settings.
Jennifer A. Kurth,  Educational Placement of Students With Autism: The Impact of State of Residence, Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, first published on September 3, 2014 doi:10.1177/1088357614547891.

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