Tuesday, March 15, 2016

GI Distress in Children on the Autism Spectrum

GI Distress in Autistic Children 

A number of clinical and epidemiological studies have indicated that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are at increased risk for gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Research suggests that certain behaviors among children with ASD may reflect underlying GI problems and that the presence of these behaviors may indicate the need to evaluate a child with ASD for GI problems. Specific behavior problems proposed as possible expressions of GI distress include sleep disturbances, stereotypic or repetitive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors, aggression, oppositional behavior, irritability or mood disturbances, and tantrums. A recent pediatric consensus report called for additional research on the association between problem behaviors and GI problems, and for the development of a screen for GI problems in autistic children.            
                                                                    
                                                                              Research

A brief report published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities compared the behavioral features of children with and without a history of GI problems. The purpose of this population-based study of 487 children with ASD, including 35 (7.2%) with a medically documented history of GI problems, was to determine whether particular behavioral characteristics occur more frequently among those who have been diagnosed with a GI problem than those without a medically documented history of GI problems. The researchers implemented a cross-sectional study of children who were 8 years of age and met the case definition for ASD through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM).  
Eight behavioral features were identified that may be indicative of GI problems among children with ASD which had analogous measures in the ADDM data set: 1. abnormalities in sleeping; 2. stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms; 3. self-injurious behaviors; 4. abnormal eating habits, 5. abnormalities in mood or affect; 6. argumentative, oppositional, defiant, or destructive behaviors; 7. aggression; and 8. temper tantrums. Demographic data, healthcare and medical records, descriptions of behaviors, diagnostic summaries, psychometric test results, and information about co-occurring disorders or disabilities were collected and entered into a centralized composite record and reviewed by trained clinicians according to a specified protocol to determine case status and associated behavioral features (e.g., abnormalities in sleeping).
Results
The results indicated that children with sleep abnormalities were more likely to have a medically documented history of GI problems (11%) than those without sleep problems (3.6%). Similar associations were seen for argumentative, oppositional or destructive behavior, abnormal eating habits, mood disturbances and tantrums, although the associations for mood disturbances and tantrums did not reach statistical significance. In contrast, the researchers found no associations between the presence of GI problems and stereotypic/repetitive behaviors and self-injurious behaviors.  Notably, nearly all of the children with ASD, including all 35 with a documented history of GI problems, exhibited at least one of the behavior problems hypothesized to be potential indicators of GI distress. For this reason, these behaviors would not be useful as a potential screen for GI problems in that virtually all children with ASD would potentially be referred for GI evaluations.
Implications
This study provides some support for the association between selected behavioral characteristics in autistic children and the occurrence of GI problems. The study found significant positive associations for several behaviors hypothesized to be expressions of GI problems in children with ASD. Certain behaviors, including abnormalities in sleep patterns, abnormalities in eating habits, and argumentative, oppositional, defiant or destructive behavior were described significantly more often in autistic children who also had GI problems than in those with ASD and no history of GI problems.
Perhaps the most important contribution of this study is the finding that the behavioral characteristics hypothesized to be expressions of GI problems are very common in autistic children, yet not specific to those with GI problems. Although GI problems may contribute to selected behaviors in some children with ASD, these behaviors are also frequent in children with and without ASD (nearly all children had 1 or more behaviors) and are unlikely to efficiently predict GI problems in children with ASD. As a result, the presence of these behaviors would not be useful on their own for screening or identifying children requiring GI evaluation.
Practitioners should be aware that certain behavioral problems observed in autistic children may be indicative of a child’s response to, or attempt to communicate the discomfort of, an underlying GI problem. This condition can seriously affect the individual’s quality of life and ability to participate education and therapeutic activities. Consideration of medical, biological, or physiological co-occurring conditions, genetic susceptibility, diet and nutrition, and medication use are necessary to determine whether co-occurring behavioral problems and GI distress may be present in a child with ASD. A comprehensive developmental assessment approach requires the use of multiple measures including, but not limited to, verbal reports, direct observation, direct interaction and evaluation, and third-party reports. This should include a record review, developmental and medical history, further medical screening and/or evaluation, and parent/caregiver interview. Lastly, further research is needed to develop recommendations for diagnostic evaluation and management of GI problems for individuals on the spectrum. 
Maenner, M. J., Arneson, C. L., Levy, S. E., Kirby, R. S., Nicholas, J. S., & Durkin, M. S. (2012). Brief report: Association between behavioral features and gastrointestinal problems among children with autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 42:1520–1525. DOI 10.1007/s10803-011-1379-6

Monday, March 7, 2016

Teaching Social Skills to Children with Autism

Impairment in social communication and interaction is a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Social skills deficits include difficulties with initiating interactions, maintaining reciprocity, taking another person’s perspective, and inferring the interests of others.  Unfortunately, many children with ASD do not receive consistent and intensive social skills programming in school. This is problematic, especially considering social impairments may result in negative outcomes, such as poor academic achievement, social failure, isolation, and peer rejection, which often leads to co-occurring (comorbid) anxiety and depression. 

Because social skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and long-term outcomes, best practice indicates that social skills instruction should be an integral component of educational programming for all children with ASD. Research evidence suggests that when appropriately planned and systematically delivered, social skills instruction has the potential to produce positive effects in the social interactions of children with ASD. Both the National Professional Development Center on Autism (NPDC) and the National Autism Center (NAC) have identified social skills training/instruction as an evidence-based intervention and practice. Social skills training is typically offered as small-group instruction with a shared goal or outcome of learned social skills in which participants can learn, practice, and receive feedback. These interventions seek to build social interaction skills in children and adolescents with ASD by targeting basic responses (e.g., eye contact, name response) to complex social skills (e.g., how to initiate or maintain a conversation). 

Most often, schools are expected to assume the responsibility of delivering social skills training programs to children with social skills deficits, because these impairments significantly interfere with social relationships and have an adverse effect on academic performance. Although equipped to teach social skills, implementing social skills programming can be challenging for school personnel (teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers), who often have limited time and resources. Recent meta-analysis research suggests that the effectiveness of social skills training can be enhanced by increasing the quantity (or intensity) of social skills interventions, providing instruction in the child’s natural setting, matching the intervention strategy with the type of skill deficit, and ensuring treatment integrity (fidelity). In order for students to learn, practice, and maintain expected social behavior, educators must teach social skills within the context of the various school settings that students encounter each day (i.e., classroom, special subject areas such as art and music, cafeteria, and playground). 
The following are recommended when developing a social skills intervention strategy:
  • Avoid a "one size fits all" approach and adapt the intervention to meet the needs of the individual or particular group. 
  • Employ primarily positive strategies and focus on facilitating the desirable social behavior as well as eliminating the undesirable behavior. 
  • Emphasize the learning, performance, generalization, and maintenance of appropriate social behaviors through modeling, coaching, and role-playing
  • Provide social skills training and practice opportunities in a number of settings with different individuals in order to encourage students to generalize new skills to multiple, real life situations. 
  • Use assessment strategies, including functional assessments of behavior, to identify children in need of more intensive interventions as well as target skills for instruction. 
  • Enhance social skills by increasing the frequency of an appropriate behavior in "normal" or typical environments to address the naturally occurring causes and consequences. 
  • Include parents and caregivers as significant participants in developing and selecting interventions (they can help reinforce the skills taught at school to further promote generalization across settings).
The type of skill deficit (performance deficit versus skill deficit) should also be considered when developing a social skills intervention plan. A performance deficit refers to a skill or behavior that is present but not demonstrated or performed, whereas a skill acquisition deficit refers to the absence of a particular skill or behavior. School professionals should make an intensive effort to systematically match the intervention strategy to the type of skill deficit exhibited by the child. For instance, if the child lacks the skills necessary to join in an interaction with peers, an intervention strategy should be selected that promotes skill acquisition. In contrast, if the child has the skills to join in an activity but regularly fails to do so; a strategy should be selected that enhances the performance of the existing skill.
Social relationship skills are critical to successful social, emotional, and cognitive development and to long-term outcomes for students. Thus, systematic social skills instruction should be considered a critical component of treatment for children with autism. 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 for all children. 

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2016). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


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, March 2, 2016

Improving Maternal Mental Health After a Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder


Improving Maternal Mental Health After a Diagnosis of Autism

Parents worldwide often experience a range of emotions when their child is first diagnosed with autism, including shock, sadness and grief, anger, and loneliness. Mothers, in particular, appear to face unique challenges that potentially have an impact on their mental health and wellbeing. This includes high levels of psychological distress, depressive symptoms, and social isolation. Almost 40% of mothers report levels of clinically significant parenting stress and between 33% and 59% report significant depressive symptoms following a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The prevalence of psychological distress among mothers of children with ASD suggests a need to address parental mental health during the critical period after the child’s autism diagnosis and when parents are learning to navigate the complex system of autism services.
Research

A study published in the journal Pediatrics examined whether a brief cognitive behavioral intervention, problem-solving education (PSE), decreases parenting stress and maternal depressive symptoms during the period immediately following a child’s diagnosis of ASD. A randomized clinical trial compared 6 sessions of PSE with usual care. Settings included an autism clinic and 6 community-based early intervention programs. Participants were mothers of 122 young children who recently received a diagnosis of ASD. The intervention group received PSE, a manualized cognitive behavioral intervention delivered in six 30-minute individualized sessions. The usual care group mothers received the services specified in the child’s Individualized Family Service Plan or Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) which typically includes speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training. Neither specifically includes parent-focused mental health services.
The results indicated that at a 3-month follow-up assessment, PSE mothers were significantly less likely than those serving as controls to have clinically significant parental stress (3.8% vs 29.3%). For depressive symptoms, the risk reduction in clinically significant symptoms did not reach statistical significance; however, the reduction in mean depressive symptoms was statistically significant. The findings demonstrate evidence of PSE’s short-term efficacy and potential to reduce clinically significant psychological distress during this critical juncture—when parents first learn of an ASD diagnosis and must navigate a complex service system on their child’s behalf.
Implications

The findings have implications for practice in both clinical and educational contexts. Practitioners need to be aware that parents experience a myriad of emotions when receiving a diagnosis of ASD and many go through stages of grief. Likewise, professionals working with families of children with an ASD should be aware of negative effects of stress and anxiety and assist in offering services that directly address parental needs and support maternal mental health. Strengthening maternal problem-solving skills might serve as a buffer against the negative impact of life stressors and thereby reduce parental stress and attenuate depressive symptoms in the months immediately following a child’s ASD diagnosis. Future research is needed to examine the effect of intervention over a longer follow-up period and to assess whether the intervention worked differently among subgroups of mothers, which could help better identify those who are most likely to benefit from the intervention.
Reference

Improving Maternal Mental Health After a Child’s Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Results From a Randomized Clinical Trial. Emily Feinberg, CPNP, ScD; Marilyn Augustyn, MD; Elaine Fitzgerald, DrPH; Jenna Sandler, MPH; Zhandra Ferreira-Cesar Suarez, MPH; Ning Chen, MSc; Howard Cabral, PhD; William Beardslee, MD; Michael Silverstein, MD, MPH. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.3445
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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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