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.

Many individuals on the autism spectrum have a “flat affect” or reduced facial display. “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 expres­sivity may impede social discourse or provoke negative initial reactions to the person with ASD. 
Research
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.
Implications
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: http://aut.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/10/10/1362361313492392
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).

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) (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 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.
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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