Monday, December 21, 2015

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 educational support personnel (e.g., special educators, school counselors, speech/language pathologists, social workers, and school psychologists) give greater priority to case finding and screening to ensure that children with ASD are identified and have access to the appropriate intervention services. 

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

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

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



Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Gender Gap in Autism: Where are the Girls?



There has been a dramatic worldwide increase in reported cases of autism over the past decade. The prevalence rates have risen steadily, from one in 150, to one in 110, and now to one in every 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 8-year-olds). According to estimates from CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, autism is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). Statistics also indicate that referrals for evaluation of boys are approximately ten times higher than for girls. Moreover, girls are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders at later ages relative to boys. 

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

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


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Legal and Appropriate Educational Programs for Children with Autism

Since Congress added autism as a disability category to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the number of students receiving special education services in this category has increased over 900 percent nationally. It’s critically important that educators understand the provisions for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services for students identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Research indicates that education is the most effective treatment/intervention for children with ASD. The most recent re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) entitles all students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE encompasses both procedural safeguards and the student’s individual education program (IEP). The IEP is the cornerstone for the education of a child with ASD. When a student is determined eligible for special education services, an IEP planning team is formed to develop the IEP and subsequently determine placement.
Although clinical diagnoses, psychiatric reports, and treatment recommendations can be helpful in determining eligibility and educational planning, the provisions of IDEA are the controlling authority with regard to decisions for special education. While clinical information is professionally helpful, it is neither legally required nor sufficient for determining educational placement. Therefore, it’s especially important for administrators, parents, advocates, teachers and non-school professionals to keep in mind that when it comes to special education, it is state and federal education codes and regulations (not clinical criteria) that determine eligibility and IEP planning decisions. Legal and special education experts recommend the following guidelines to help school districts meet the requirements for providing legal and appropriate educational programs and services to students with ASD.
1. School districts should ensure that the IEP process follows the procedural requirements of IDEA. This includes actively involving parents in the IEP process and adhering to the time frame requirements for assessment and developing and implementing the student’s IEP.  Moreover, parents must be notified of their due process rights. It’s important to recognize that parent-professional communication and collaboration are key components for making educational and program decisions.
2. School districts should make certain that comprehensive, individualized evaluations are completed by school professionals who have knowledge, experience, and expertise in ASD. If qualified personnel are not available, school districts should provide the appropriate training or retain the services of a consultant.
3. School districts should develop IEPs based on the child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Goals for a child with ASD commonly include the areas of communication, social behavior, adaptive skills, challenging behavior, and academic and functional skills. The IEP must address appropriate instructional and curricular modifications, together with related services such as counseling, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, physical therapy and transportation needs. Evidence-based instructional strategies should also be adopted to ensure that the IEP is implemented appropriately.
4. School districts should assure that progress monitoring of students with ASD is completed at specified intervals by an interdisciplinary team of professionals who have a knowledge base and experience in autism. This includes collecting evidence-based data to document progress towards achieving IEP goals and to assess program effectiveness.
5. School districts should make every effort to place students in integrated settings to maximize interaction with non-disabled peers. Inclusion with typically developing students is important for a child with ASD as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient, evidence-based intervention and training is also necessary to address specific skill deficits. Although the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision of IDEA requires that efforts be made to educate students with special needs in less restrictive settings, IDEA also recognizes that some students may require a more comprehensive program to provide FAPE. 
6. School districts should provide on-going training and education in ASD for both parents and professionals. Professionals who are trained in specific methodology and techniques will be most effective in providing the appropriate services and in modifying curriculum based upon the unique needs of the individual child.
References and Further Reading
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004). 
Mandlawitz, M. R. (2002). The impact of the legal system on educational programming for young children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 495-508.
National Research Council (2001). Educating children with autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. C. Lord, J. P. McGee (Eds). Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Wagner, S. (2014). Continuum of Services and Individualized Education Plan Process. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 173-193). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2010). Best practice in special needs education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism and Asperger syndrome in schools (pp. 127-146). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

Wilkinson, L. A. (Ed.). (2014). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zirkel, P. (2014). Legal Issues Under IDEA. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 243-257). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 
Yell, M. L., Katsiyannis, A, Drasgow, E, Herbst, M. (2003). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate programs for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 182-191.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD is the 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 volume 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 new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.
©Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

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