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

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).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Suicide Risk in Children & Youth on the Autism Spectrum

Suicide and suicidal ideation are serious public health problems among youth in the United States. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds and accounts for a greater number of deaths than the next three leading causes (cancer, heart disease and congenital anomalies) combined within this age group. It is estimated that 1 in 12 high school students may attempt suicide each year and that more than 2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 suffered a major depressive episode in the past year. Moreover, estimates for suicide deaths in younger age groups tend to be conservative because suicide deaths may be misclassified as accidental or undetermined. Large studies of individuals in general population and psychiatric samples report a strong relationship between depression and suicidal ideation or attempts.
Children and youth on the autism spectrum (ASD) frequently have co-occurring (comorbid) psychiatric conditions, with rates significantly higher than would be expected from the general population. In fact, depression is one of the most common comorbid conditions observed in individuals with ASD, particularly higher functioning youth. Studies of psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with ASD revealed that a majority had experienced at least one episode of major depression and reported recurrent major depression. Although depression is frequent in autism, there is little research available on suicidal ideation and attempts in children and youth with ASD. This knowledge is critical to help identify at-risk children and target risk factors for intervention in order to reduce and prevent suicide ideation and attempts.
Experts agree that much needs to be learned about suicide ideation and attempts, depression, and other psychiatric comorbidities in ASD. A study published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders examined the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts, as well as risk factors in 791 children with autism (1–16 years), 35 depressed children without ASD, and 186 typical children. Mothers rated their children on a 4-point scale from “not at all a problem” to “very often a problem” on a 165-item pediatric behavior scale (PBS). Dependent variables were two items assessing suicide ideation (“talks about harming or killing self”) and attempts (“deliberately harms self or attempts suicide”). Co-occurring problems scores on the PBS included teased by peers; behavior problems (e.g., disobedient, defiant, and aggressive); mood dysregulation (e.g., explosive, irritable, and temper tantrums); attention deficit, impulsive; hyperactive, anxious, depressed, poor peer relationship (e.g., difficulty making friends); psychotic features (e.g., hallucinations and confusing fantasy and reality); underaroused (e.g., drowsy and sluggish), eating disturbance (e.g., poor appetite, over eating, binging, and purging); excessive sleep, sleeping less than normal and difficulty falling and staying asleep; and somatic complaints (e.g., headaches and stomachaches).
Data analyses compared scores between the children with autism, depression, and typical development. Age, IQ, gender, race, socio-economic status (SES), autism severity, teased, and comorbid psychological problem scores also analyzed to predict children whose mothers rated suicide ideation or attempts as sometimes to very often a problem versus never a problem. The results indicated that the percentage of children with autism who had ideation or attempts was 28 times greater than that for typical children, but less than for depressed children. For children with autism, four demographic variables (age 10 or older, minority status, lower SES, and male) were significant risk factors of suicide ideation or attempts. The majority of children (71%) who had all four demographic risk factors had ideation or attempts. Comorbid psychological problems most highly predictive of ideation or attempts were depression, behavior problems, and teased. Almost half of children with these problems had suicide ideation or attempts. Depression was the strongest single predictor of suicide ideation or attempts in children with autism with 77% of children with ideation or attempts considered by their mothers to be depressed. A significant finding was that there was no difference in the frequency of suicide ideation or attempts between higher functioning children with ASD and those children with more severe impairment (e.g.., intellectual disability).
This study provides important information regarding the risk factors related to suicide in children and youth with ASD. A major finding is that many of the predictors of and variables associated with suicide behavior in adolescent and adult psychiatric and nonpsychiatric samples are also found in children with ASD. For example, ideation or attempts were associated with behavior problems (disobedient, defiant, and aggressive), impulsivity, and mood dysregulation (explosive, irritable, and temper tantrums). Children with these externalizing problems combined with the internalizing problem of depression are at high risk for suicide ideation and attempts. Teasing and bullying by peers is a common problem for children on the spectrum and was reported by a majority of mothers in the study. Suicide ideation or attempts were three times more frequent in children who were teased than in those not teased. The finding that the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts did not differ as a function of severity or IQ also suggests that many of the correlates of suicide behavior apply across the entire autism spectrum.
The authors recommend that all children with ASD be screened for suicide ideation or attempts because the frequency of ideation and attempts is significantly higher than in typical children and does not differ as a function of autism severity or IQ. This is especially important for children who have demographic and comorbid risk factors, including age 10 or older, male, minority status, lower SES, teased, depressed, impulsive, behavior problems, and mood dysregulation. Practitioners must fully be aware of the risk of suicide along with preventative and treatment methods. Addressing suicide in youth relies on prevention techniques and modification of risk factors, along with therapeutic intervention once children are identified as at-risk. Evidence-based techniques to reduce depression and prevent suicide should be incorporated into programs and services for children with ASD who present with risk factors. This should include interventions aimed at addressing co-occurring problems that may contribute to suicidal ideation and attempts, such as teasing, depression, behavior problems, impulsivity, and mood dysregulation. Lastly, future research should investigate other predictors (e.g., previous attempts, negative life events, family history of suicide, and biologic and neurochemical variables), which may improve identification of children at risk for suicide ideation and attempts.
Mayes, S. D., Gorman, A. A., Hillwig-Garcia, J., & Syed, E. (2013). Suicide ideation and attempts in children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 109-119.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Predictors of Self-Injury in Children with Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) frequently engage in maladaptive behaviors such as aggression and rituals. The most distressing to caregivers and challenging for health care providers are self-injurious behaviors (SIB). These behaviors are classified as any type of action directed towards the self, resulting in physical injury. They are often rhythmic and repetitive and can range from mild head rubbing to severe head banging and may become life threatening. An improved understanding of the incidence and risk factors associated with SIB in autism is needed to develop treatment options.
A study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders assessed 7 factors that may influence self injury in a large group of 250 children and adolescents with ASD: (a) atypical sensory processing; (b) impaired cognitive ability; (c) impaired functional communication; (d) deficits in social interaction; (e) age; (f) the need for sameness; and (g) ) compulsive or ritualistic behavior. Other factors that may influence SIB incidence such as gender and ASD severity were also assessed. A series of diagnostic tests were administered either directly to the children and adolescents or to their parents to assess: (a) autism severity; (b) cognitive and adaptive ability; (c) and receptive and expressive language; (d) repetitive behaviors; and (e) self-injury.
The results indicated that half of the children and adolescents demonstrated SIB. Atypical sensory processing was the strongest single predictor of self-injury followed by sameness, impaired cognitive ability and social functioning. Age, impaired functional communication, and ritualized behavior did not contribute significantly to self-injury. No significant effects of gender or severity of autistic symptoms were found in the study.
It appears that self-injury is highly prevalent in children and adolescents with ASD. Atypical sensory processing and the need for sameness were contributors to SIB in this study, indicating that clinicians may want to focus on these two risk factors to develop function-based treatment options for self-injury. It is critical that interventions that target the risk factors associated SIB be identified and implemented in clinical practice. Providing empirically supported behavioral interventions to children and adolescents with autism and SIB will not only impact directly on the problem behavior, but will enhance social, educational, and adaptive functioning as well. Further research is clearly needed to better understand additional contributing factors that may influence these complex behaviors in children with ASD. For example, temperament, ability to self-regulate emotions, and medication usage might contribute to increased self injury.
Duerden, E. G., Oatley, H. K., Mak-Fan, K. M., McGrath, P. A., Taylor, M. J., Szatmari, P., & Roberts, S. W. (2012). Risk factors associated with self-injurious behaviors in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42:2460–2470. DOI 10.1007/s10803-012-1497-9
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CPsychol, AFBPsS 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 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).

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, 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. He is also the 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 CBTHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd edition).

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