Monday, December 21, 2015

Multi-Tiered Screening for Autism in Schools

A Multi-Tiered Approach to Screening for Autism 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 support personnel (e.g., school psychologists, special educators, school counselors, speech/language pathologists, and social workers) give greater priority to case finding and screening to ensure that children with ASD are identified and have access to the appropriate programs and 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, 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 lifetime version is recommended for screening purposes as it demonstrates the highest sensitivity value. 
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.
Limitations

Although the ASRS, SCQ, and SRS can be used confidently as efficient screening tools for identifying children across the broad autism spectrum, they are not without limitations. Some students who screen positive will not be identified with an ASD (false positive). On the other hand, some children who were not initially identified will go on to meet the diagnostic and/or classification criteria (false negative). Therefore, it is especially important to carefully monitor those students who screen negative to ensure access to intervention services if needed. Gathering information from family and school resources during screening will also facilitate identification of possible cases. Autism specific tools are not currently recommended for the universal screening of typical school-age children. Focusing on referred children with identified risk-factors and/or developmental delays will increase predictive values and result in more efficient identification efforts.

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, 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)

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

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).
Research
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 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).


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Anxiety and Decision-Making in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Anxiety and Decision-Making in Autistic Adults

Although there has been a dramatic increase in the research and clinical studies related to children and adolescents, there is a paucity of information regarding more capable adults on the autism spectrum. It is only recently that psychologists have begun to appreciate the complex challenges faced by a “lost generation” of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Even though the core symptoms of ASD (impairments in communication and social interaction and restricted/repetitive behaviors and interests) may improve overtime with intervention for many individuals, some degree of impairment typically remains throughout the lifespan.  Consequently, the focus of intervention/treatment must shift from remediating core deficits in childhood to promoting adaptive behaviors that can facilitate and enhance ultimate functional independence and quality of life in adulthood. This includes new developmental challenges such as independent living, vocational engagement, post-secondary education, and family support. 
Decision-making is an important part of almost every aspect of life. However, several autobiographical accounts (e.g., Temple Grandin) suggest that making decisions can be stressful and anxiety-provoking for many adults with autism. Likewise, a small number of studies have suggested differences between the decision-making of adults on the spectrum and their neurotypical peers. Despite autobiographical accounts and limited studies, the extent to which, in everyday life, individuals with ASD experience difficulties with decision-making is largely unknown.  

Research 
A study published in the journal Autism sought to extend this important area of research by comparing the “real-life” decision-making experiences of adults with and without ASD. The researchers hypothesized that compared with a neurotypical group, participants with ASD would report: (a) more frequent experiences of problems during decision-making (e.g. feeling exhausted), (b) greater difficulty with particular features of decisions (e.g. decisions that need to be made quickly), and (c) greater reliance on rational, avoidant, and dependent styles of decision-making. In addition, it was expected that participants with ASD would report interference from their condition when making decisions.
The participants were 38 adults with ASD and 40 neurotypical comparison adults (with no family history of ASD), aged 16 to 65 years. The groups were matched for age, gender and verbal IQ. All participants completed a novel questionnaire to evaluate their decision-making experiences. The questionnaire asked participants to rate: (a) the frequency with which particular problems in decision-making were experienced; (b) the extent to which they perceived difficulties in relation to particular features of decisions; and finally, (c) the extent to which participants with ASD believed that their condition enhanced or interfered with their own decision-making. Ratings of the frequency of 12 potential problems in decision-making were indicated on a four-point Likert-type scale (from ‘never’ to ‘often’). Participants also completed the General Decision Making Style Inventory (GDMS), a 25-item questionnaire probing reliance on five, non- mutually exclusive, styles of decision-making (rational, intuitive, dependent, avoidant, and spontaneous). Levels of anxiety and depression were assessed using the well- established Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS).

Results
Compared with their neurotypical peers, the participants with ASD more frequently reported difficulties in decision making. Decisions that needed to be made quickly, or involved a change of routine, or talking to others, were experienced as particularly difficult, and the process of decision-making was reported to be exhausting, overwhelming, and anxiety-provoking. The participants with ASD reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression and were more likely to believe that their condition interfered with rather than enhanced the decision-making process. Not surprisingly, the participants with ASD were also more likely to report that they avoided decision-making.

Conclusion and Implications
The overall findings of the study suggest that, compared with neurotypical individuals, individuals with ASD experience greater difficulty with decision-making. Decision-making in ASD was associated with anxiety, exhaustion, problems engaging in the process, and a tendency to avoid decision-making. These findings are consistent with previous autobiographical accounts, known features of the condition, and previous studies of decision-making in ASD. In addition, the difficulties reported by the participants with ASD may be exacerbated by higher levels of anxiety and depression. The researchers found that ratings of perceived frequency of interference from ASD increased proportionally with levels of anxiety and depression. Despite limitations of the study (e.g., self-reports), the results are consistent with suggestions from the literature relating to decision-making for individuals with ASD. 

There are also some practical implications for improving the decision-making process for adults with ASD. For example, it may be helpful to: (a) provide additional time to reach a choice, (b) minimize irrelevant information, (c) present closed questions, (d) offer encouragement and reassurance, and (e) address general issues around anxiety. Unfortunately, expecting to make the perfect decision, postponing and second-guessing a choice, all leads to more anxiety. Strategies derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) might be helpful in coping with indecisiveness and perfectionism by focusing on accepting life’s unpredictability and changing behavior to more effectively work toward a goal. This includes examining several sides of an issue, and creatively generating options for action, all in the effort to engage in more thoughtful, realistic, and productive decision-making. Understanding how adults with ASD experience decision-making is essential for both family members and professionals in helping the individual achieve greater self-understanding, self-advocacy and improved decision-making in lifespan activities such as employment and personal relationships.
References

Luke, L., Clare, I. C. H., Ring, H., Redley, M., Watson, P. (2012). Decision-making difficulties experienced by adults with autism spectrum conditions. Autism, 16(6), 612–621.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming anxiety and depression on the autism spectrum: A self-help guide using CBT. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
 
Wilkinson, L. A. (2008). Adults with Asperger syndrome: A childhood disorder grows up. The Psychologist, 21, 764-770.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2007, May). Adults with Asperger syndrome: A lost generation? Autism Spectrum Quarterly.
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 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 CBTDr. 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, His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Inclusive Education for Students with Autism


Inclusive Education for Students with Autism

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) (P.L. 108-446) (http://idea.ed.gov/) 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 considered to be the best placement option for students with disabilities. It should also be noted that while 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 and intensive level of service.

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 School districts should make every effort to place students in integrated settings to maximize interaction with typical peers, 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. 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. The argument must shift from should we include students with ASD in general education to understanding how to include students with ASD successfully in inclusive settings. It is critical to identify how practices that benefit students with ASD, including structure (visual, communication, and social supports), positive behavior supports, and systematic instruction, can be implemented effectively 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.
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).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Group Pivotal Response Treatment for Parents of Children with Autism

More children than ever before are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The dramatic increase in the prevalence of children with ASD has created an urgent need for effective and efficient service delivery models. Parents and caregivers everywhere are eager for credible, research-based information on the most effective treatments for ASD. 

Utilizing a group training format, researchers have found that parents can learn to successfully incorporate an established treatment for ASD into everyday interactions with their children. According to findings published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, parents learned to successfully apply an evidence-based therapy method called Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT), also referred to as Pivotal Response Training, and observed meaningful improvement in their children.

PRT is one of the best studied and validated behavioral treatments for autism. It is a naturalistic behavioral intervention derived from the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). PRT builds on learner initiative and interests, and is particularly effective for developing communication, language, play, and social behaviors. PRT was developed to create a more efficient and effective intervention by enhancing four pivotal learning variables: motivation, responding to multiple cues, self-management, and self-initiations. According to theory, these skills are pivotal because they are the foundational skills upon which learners with ASD can make widespread and generalized improvements in many other areas.

The objective of the study was to evaluate a PRT parent training group (PRTG) for targeting language deficits in young children with ASD. For the study, researchers randomly assigned parents of 53 children with autism to participate in 12 weeks of classes on PRT or a psychoeducation group (PEG). All of the children were between the ages of 2 and 6 and had language delays. The PRTG taught parents behavioral techniques to facilitate language development. The PEG taught general information about ASD. All of the children were assessed at the outset of the study, at six weeks and at 12 weeks to determine their language abilities. Parents were also videotaped at six and 12 weeks to measure how well they were applying the treatment.

The results indicated that parents were able to learn PRT in a group format, as the majority of parents in the PRTG (84%) were using it correctly by the end of the study. Children also demonstrated improvement in adaptive communication skills. Children whose parents learned the technique reported greater gains in both the number of words used and how they used them as compared to children in the psychoeducation (control) group.

This study is considered the first randomized controlled test of group-delivered PRT and one of the largest experimental investigations of the PRT model to date. The findings suggest that specific instruction in PRT results in greater skill acquisition for both parents and children, especially in functional and adaptive communication skills. Even with the improvements, researchers said that parent-implemented approaches are intended to augment, not replace, autism therapies from professionals. Likewise, further research in PRT is warranted to replicate the observed results and address other core ASD symptoms. It should also be noted that 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 are also important.

Hardan, A. Y., Gengoux, G. W., Berquist, K. L., Libove, R. A., Ardel, C. M., Phillips, J., Frazier, T. W. and Minjarez, M. B. (2014), A randomized controlled trial of Pivotal Response Treatment Group for parents of children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12354

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sibling Study Reveals Early Signs of Autism


Younger siblings of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at high risk for developing ASD as well as features of the broader autism phenotype. About 20% of younger siblings of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will develop the condition by age 3. A study by Yale School of Medicine researchers has found that 57% of these younger siblings who later develop the condition already showed warning signs like poor eye contact and repetitive behaviors at just a year and a half old. Published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, this is the first large-scale, multi-site study aimed at identifying specific social-communicative behaviors that distinguish infants with ASD from their typically and atypically developing high-risk peers as early as 18 months of age. For the study, researchers looked at data on 719 infants who had older siblings on the spectrum. The children were assessed at 18 months and again at 36 months to identify social, communication and repetitive behaviors that could be predictive of autism.

Three distinct combinations of features at 18 months were predictive of ASD outcome: 1) poor eye contact combined with lack of communicative gestures and giving; 2) poor eye contact combined with a lack of imaginative play; and 3) lack of giving and presence of repetitive behaviors, but with intact eye contact. These 18-month behavioral profiles predicted ASD versus non-ASD status at 36 months with 82.7% accuracy in an initial test sample and 77.3% accuracy in a validation sample. Clinical features at age 3 among children with ASD varied as a function of their 18-month symptom profiles. Children with ASD who were misclassified at 18 months were higher functioning, and their autism symptoms increased between 18 and 36 months.

"While the majority of siblings of children with ASD will not develop the condition themselves, for those who do, one of the key priorities is finding more effective ways of identifying and treating them as early as possible," said lead author Katarzyna Chawarska, associate professor in the Yale Child Study Center and the Department of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. "Our study reinforces the need for repeated diagnostic screening in the first three years of life to identify individual cases of ASD as soon as behavioral symptoms are apparent." Early detection, especially when toddlers have siblings with autism, is critical. Chawarska added, "Linking these developmental dynamics with underlying neurobiology may advance our understanding of causes of ASD and further efforts to personalize treatment for ASD by tailoring it to specific clinical profiles and their developmental dynamics."

Other authors of the study included: Suzanne Macari, Frederick Shic, Daniel J. Campbell, Jessica Brian, Rebecca Landa, Ted Hutman, Charles A. Nelson, Sally Ozonoff, Helen Tager-Flusberg, Gregory S. Young, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Ira L. Cohen, Tony Charman, Daniel S. Messinger, Ami Klin, Scott Johnson, and Susan Bryson.

“18-Month Predictors of Later Outcomes in Younger Siblings of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Baby Siblings Research Consortium Study.” Published online 06 October 2014. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Citation: JACC doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2014.09.015


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).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Identification of Latino Children At-Risk for Autism



It is well established that early intervention is a critical determinant in the course and outcome of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The earlier the child is identified and intensive intervention can begin, the better the outcomes tend to be for children with ASD. In fact, numerous studies have described the benefits of early identification and intervention for children with developmental disabilities and, particularly, for children on the autistic spectrum. However, many children meeting ASD diagnostic criteria may be missed or diagnosed years after onset of symptoms. Moreover, studies have shown racial and ethnic differences in ASD diagnostic trends. For example, there is evidence to suggest that Latino children are diagnosed with ASD 2.5 years later than white children and have more severe symptoms at time of diagnosis.
The reasons for low rates of ASD diagnosis and diagnostic delay among Latino children are poorly understood. Delays may reflect family factors, including ethnic differences in parent knowledge, beliefs, and concerns about overall child development and developmental delay. A study published in the journal Pediatrics sought to examine why Latino children are diagnosed with ASD less often and later than white children. Researchers mailed a self-administered survey to a random sample of California pediatricians to assess rates of bilingual general developmental and ASD screening, perceptions of parent ASD knowledge in Latino and white families, reports of difficulty assessing for ASD in Latino and white children, and perceptions of barriers to early ASD identification for Latinos.
The results indicated that although 81% of respondents offered some form of developmental screening, 29% of pediatricians offered Spanish ASD screening per American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, and only 10% offered both Spanish general developmental and Spanish ASD screening per American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. Most practitioners thought that Latino (English and Spanish primary family language) parents were less knowledgeable about ASD than other parents. They also had more difficulty assessing ASD risk for Latino children with Spanish primary family language than for white children. The most frequent barrier to ASD identification in Latinos was access to developmental specialists.
These findings have important practice and policy implications. For example, rates of Spanish language developmental and ASD screening need targeted improvement. Developing and promoting free or low-cost screening resources could improve early identification and reduce language-based disparities. Pediatricians may also need information about bilingualism and language development, accurate interpretation of screening results in Latino children, and strategies for discussing this difficult topic with parents from a different culture.  In sum, promoting language appropriate screening, disseminating culturally appropriate ASD materials to Latino families, improving the specialist workforce, and providing practitioner support in screening and referral of Latino children may be important ways to reduce racial and ethnic differences in care.
Pediatrician Identification of Latino Children at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder Katharine E. Zuckerman, Kimber Mattox, Karen Donelan, Oyundari Batbayar, Anita Baghaee and Christina Bethell. Pediatrics; originally published online August 19, 2013 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-0383

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, 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. He is also editor of 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 CBTHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

The dramatic increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions among children and adolescents and the correspondingly large number of youth transitioning into adulthood has created an urgent need to address the problems faced by many adults on the autism spectrum. Unfortunately, there are few validated treatment options are available for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Much of the published literature is clinical or anecdotal, or purely based on theory. There is unquestionably a need for the development of treatment options for adults with ASD. At present, alternative treatment options to psycho-therapeutical interventions are social training programs and other group activities. Group settings enable social interaction and sharing experiences with others, thereby reducing social isolation. 

A study published in the peer reviewed journal Autism assessed the effectiveness of two group interventions for adults with ASD: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and recreational activity. A total of 68 adults with ASD participated in the study and were stratified by gender and blindly randomized to one of the two treatment conditions. Both interventions comprised 36 weekly 3-hour sessions led by two therapists in groups of 6–8 participants. The CBT group intervention was adapted to suit adults with ASD and consisted of five elements: (a) structure, (b) group setting, (c) psycho-education (e.g. lectures and discussions on ASD and psychiatric symptoms, including learning to identify and reappraise maladaptive thoughts), (d) social training (e.g. skill building such as practicing phone calls and asking for help) and (e) cognitive behavioral techniques (e.g. setting goals, role-playing, exposure exercises and conducting behavior analysis). A manual describing the 36 individual sessions was created prior to starting the treatment. Each session followed a strict agenda: (a) introduction and presentation of the agenda of the day, (b) review of homework assignments from the previous session, (c) psycho-educative lecture and discussions on the session topic, (d) coffee break with buns or sandwiches and social interaction, (e) relaxation or mindfulness exercise, (f) discussions and exercises on the session topic, (g) distribution of homework and (h) evaluation and end of session.
The purpose of the recreational activity intervention was to facilitate social interaction and to break social isolation. The therapists did not provide any deliberate techniques, such as psycho-education, social training, or CBT. Rather, this intervention relied on structure and group setting only. During the first session, participants were asked to write down group activities they would like to engage in. The therapists created a list of the suggested activities, such as visiting museums, playing board games, cooking, restaurant visits, boating, cinema, and taking walks. Each week, participants voted for the next session’s activity.
The researchers hypothesized that both interventions would lead to improvement in primary measures of quality of life, sense of coherence, and self-esteem, as well as in the exploratory analysis of the secondary measures of psychiatric symptoms. A greater effect in the CBT intervention compared to recreational activity was also expected, due to participants in the CBT intervention receiving a wider range of psychotherapeutic techniques. Several self-report questionnaire measures were administered to the adults before and after the interventions: Quality of Life Inventory (health, relationships, employment, and living conditions), Sense of Coherence (manageability and meaningfulness in life), Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale and an exploratory analysis on measures of psychiatric health (e.g., anxiety and depression). A long-term follow-up was conducted which ranged from 8 to 57 months after treatment termination.
Participants in both treatment conditions reported an increased quality of life at post-treatment, with no significant difference between the group CBT and group recreational activity interventions. Comorbid psychiatric symptoms, sense of coherence, and self-esteem were not affected by either intervention. CBT resulted in less attrition (drop out) than recreational activity. Participants who received CBT also rated themselves as more improved at post-treatment. At follow-up, CBT participants reported better well-being, greater understanding of their own difficulties and improved ability to express needs, compared to participants in the recreational activity intervention. This may reflect the recreation activity intervention’s focus on the intervention elements of structure and group setting, while the CBT intervention also included the elements of psycho-education, social training and CBT techniques. As a result, participants in CBT may have developed greater understanding of their own difficulties and improved ability to express needs and receive support because the objective of psycho-education and social training is to enhance these capabilities. The difference in well-being scores at follow-up may also represent greater insight gained from CBT rather than recreational activity.
Both interventions appear to be promising treatment options for adults with ASD, as they appeared to improve the participants’ quality of life. The similar efficacy of the interventions may be due to the common elements of structure and group setting. The group setting of both interventions enabled social interaction and sharing experiences. This may have promoted participants’ self-acceptance by allowing them to gain insight into both the impairments and the strengths that characterize ASD, and to recognize that others share similar challenges. CBT may be additionally beneficial in terms of increasing specific skills, greater understanding and insight, and minimizing dropout. Future studies on treatment of comorbid psychiatric symptoms in ASD should include larger samples to differentiate between adults with specific psychiatric problems in order to more effectively assess treatment effects.
Hesselmark, E., Plenty, S., & Bejerot, S. (2014). Group cognitive behavioural therapy and group recreational activity for adults with autism spectrum disorders: A preliminary randomized controlled trial. Autism, 18(6) 672–683. doi: 10.1177/1362361313493681

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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