Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Empathy Myth in Autism

The Empathy Myth in Autism

One of the most common myths about autistic individuals is that they don’t feel empathy towards others. There are two interrelated types of empathy: affective or emotional empathy, which involves feeling an appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotion, and cognitive empathy, or Theory of Mind (ToM), which involves understanding or predicting another person’s perspective. The affective component of empathizing involves feeling an appropriate emotion triggered by seeing/learning of another’s emotion. When engaged in affective empathy, we vicariously experience the emotional states of others, understanding that our feelings are not ours, but rather those of the other person. Sympathy is also considered an affective component of empathy. It is the feeling or emotion triggered by seeing or learning of someone else’s distress which moves you to want to take an action that will help ease their suffering.

The cognitive or ToM component of empathy involves the understanding and/or predicting what someone else might think, feel, or do. It is the ability to identify cues that indicate the thoughts and feelings of others and “to put oneself into another person’s shoes.” It is also referred to as “mentalizing,” “mindreading,” and “perspective taking.” The ability to reflect on one’s own and other people’s minds (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination and emotions) allows us to interact effectively with others in the social world. ToM may also be thought of existing on a continuum with some individuals able to “mindread” relatively easily and intuitively, while others experience varying degrees of problems interpreting and predicting another person’s behavior. Most (but not all) typical individuals are able to mindread relatively easily and intuitively. They can read another person’s facial expression and body language, and tone of voice and recognize his or her thoughts and feelings, and the likely course of their behavior. In other words, they interpret, predict, and participate in social interaction automatically, and for the most part, intuitively. Often referred to as "mindblindness," it is this cognitive component of empathy that is delayed in autism.
Unfortunately, the failure to understand the difference between cognitive empathy and affective empathy has led to a persistent myth and stereotype that people with autism are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. It’s critically important to recognize that autism is characterized by challenges associated with cognitive empathy (ToM), not emotional empathy which is intact. Although autistic individuals may have difficulty with social cues and understanding and predicting another’s thoughts, motives and intentions, they have the ability to care and be concerned about other people’s feelings. Autism does not deprive someone of emotional empathy! Autistic people can and do experience feelings and emotions intensely as everyone else, even though it may not always be obvious to others in a "typical" way. 
Key References and Further Reading
Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). The theory of mind deficit in autism: how specific is it? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9. 301-314.
Baron-Cohen, S., Jolliffe, T., Mortimore, C., & Robertson, M. (1997). Another advanced test of theory of mind: evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38. 813-822.
Baron-Cohen, S., Ring, H. A., Bullmore, E. T., Wheelwright, S., Ashwin, C., & Williams, S. C. R. (2000). The amygdala theory of autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 24(3), 355-364.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Swettenham, J. (1997). Theory of mind in autism: Its relationship to executive function and central coherence. Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders, 880-893.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2000). Theory of mind in autism: A fifteen year review. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. TagerFlusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience (pp. 3–20). New York: Oxford University Press
Fletcher-Watson, S, McConnell, F, Manola, E & McConachie, H 2014, 'Interventions based on the Theory of Mind cognitive model for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)' Cochrane database of systematic reviews. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008785.p
Begeer S. Theory of mind interventions can be effective in treating autism, although long-term success remains unproven Evidence-Based Mental Health 2014;17:120.
Fletcher-Watson S, McConnell F, Manola E, McConachie H. Interventions based on the Theory of Mind cognitive model for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD008785. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008785.pub2
Gray, C. A. (1998). Social stories and comic strip conversations with students with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning Autism. In E. Schopler, G. B. Mesibov, & L. J. Kunce (Eds.), Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism? (pp. 167-194). NY: Plenum Press.
Hutchins, T., & Prelock, P. A. (2008). Supporting theory of mind development: Considerations and recommendations for professionals providing services to individuals with ASD. Topics in Language Disorders, 28 (4), 340-364.
O’Brien, K., Slaughter, V. & Peterson, C.C. (2011). Sibling influences on theory of mind development for children with ASD. J Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 52(6), 713-719.
O’Hare, A.E., Bremner, L., Nash, M., Happe, F., Pettigrew, L.M. (2009). A clinical assessment tool for advanced theory of mind performance in 5 to 12 year olds. JADD, 39(6), 916-928.
Sprung, M. (2010). Clinically relevant measures of children’s theory of mind and knowledge about thinking: Non-standard and advanced measures. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 15(4), 204-216.
Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). A reexamination of the theory of mind hypothesis of Autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman., N. Yirmiya., & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp.173-193). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wellman, H. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Caswell, R., Gomez, J. C., Swettenham, J., Toye, E., & Lagattuta, K. (2002). Thought-bubbles help children with autism acquire an alternative to a theory of mind. Autism, 6(4), 343-363.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2011). Mindblindness in Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, Part 13, 955-956, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_1795
Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTLondon and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia.
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).

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Crisis in Mental Health Services for Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum


The Crisis in Mental Health Services

The dramatic increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions among children over the past decade indicates that a correspondingly large number of youth will be transitioning to adulthood in the coming years. It is estimated that more than 50,000 adolescents with autism will turn 18 years old this year in the U.S. As these numbers continue to rise, there is an urgent need to address the mental health issues faced by many adults on the autism spectrum.
Although we know that children with autism grow up to be adults with autism, there are fewer mental health services available for adults on the spectrum, particularly for individuals who are not intellectually challenged. A review in the open access journal, Autism Research and Treatment, highlights the service needs and the corresponding gaps in care for this population. The authors posit that the mental health system is in crisis and that although the rates of mental health issues for adults on the spectrum is high, accessing services to address these symptoms remains difficult. Poor recognition tends to occur for a number of different reasons, including restrictive intake criteria, misdiagnosis, limited knowledge or awareness of autism spectrum conditions, clinicians who lack confidence or experience in caring for this group of adults, and the belief that other service providers will provide this care. Consequently, many adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum, because of their diagnosis, are excluded from community mental health services, leaving them grossly underserved.
Mental Health Issues
Comorbid (co-occurring) psychiatric disorders are well documented in individuals with autism across the lifespan. Research suggests that a very high proportion of adults and teens on the spectrum present with co-occurring (comorbid) psychiatric conditions, particularly depression and anxiety. For example, recent studies examining psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with autism spectrum conditions found that 70% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, 50% had suffered from recurrent depressive episodes, and 50% met criteria for an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, it appears that co-occurring psychiatric disorders and even the diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition itself often go unrecognized among more capable adolescents and adults on the spectrum seeking psychological or psychiatric care. Many youth and young adults report significant difficulties accessing healthcare services, particularly comprehensive health services. Part of the reason for this difficulty may stem from service providers feeling ill equipped to work with individuals with autism, particularly individuals with co-occurring mental health issues. As a result, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum conditions have access to significantly fewer programs than adolescents and adults with other types of developmental disabilities. Not surprisingly then, a consistent theme for parents of individuals with autism is the fear that their child will fall through the cracks when transitioning from child to adult services. Similar concerns have been voiced by the individuals on the spectrum themselves, who describe how their needs are infrequently recognized and the programs and services available are not designed for people with autism spectrum conditions in mind.
Conclusions
Adolescents and adults on the autism spectrum represent a complex and underserved population. Of the studies completed to date, findings suggest that this group of adolescents and adults faces a multitude of psychiatric and psychosocial issues, alongside significant challenges in accessing services. Social skills deficits for individuals on the spectrum persist into adulthood, and adults appear to be at an increased risk for developing depression and anxiety. Despite this, very few studies have examined treatment approaches and interventions (pharmacological and psychosocial) for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum conditions. While evidence is beginning to emerge for interventions targeting this population, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), and social skills training (SST), further large-scale studies which compare the effectiveness of, for example, CBT or MBT versus other treatment options (e.g., medication, counseling, etc.) are required. Likewise, there is an immediate need for mental health clinicians who are trained to apply these techniques. In developing interventions, programs must also consider what adolescents and adults want. For example, adolescents and adults on the spectrum may be more interested in interventions which focus on vocational opportunities than interventions targeting social skills. Moreover, both individuals and their family must be viewed as valuable contributors and fully involved in this process. Lastly, researchers must look at issues of service cost and efficiency when evaluating the impact of interventions.
Recommendations
1. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, over the course of a year, approximately 20% of children and adolescents in the U.S. experience signs and symptoms of a mental health problem. Unfortunately, most children and youth who are in need of mental health services do not actually receive them. Psychological services should be expanded in schools to include a major focus on the delivery of mental health services to all students. 
2. Developmental disability agencies or agencies supporting individuals with autism spectrum conditions must partner with community mental health agencies to help train, mentor, and build capacity to care for this group across the lifespan. It is important to note that many clinicians working within community mental health agencies already have the skills to effectively deliver this care, but programs either preclude their ability to do so or they lack the confidence to work with this population.
2. There is a critical need for community mental health agencies to review their exclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions. For example, agencies providing care for persons with mood or anxiety disorders should not exclude individuals on the basis of a diagnosis of autism. Community mental health agencies have the resources and expertise in mental health, along with the programs to deliver services for individuals with mental health issues (e.g., vocational programs, counseling, and therapies), but will need guidance from developmental disability agencies to successfully adapt these programs for adults on the autism spectrum.
3. Developmental disability agencies must reevaluate their inclusion criteria to include persons with autism spectrum conditions, regardless of IQ, and across the lifespan. Organizations must work together, combining expertise in autism from developmental disability agencies with knowledge and resources from community mental health agencies.
4. There is a need to study and identify programs and supports that are most effective in both school and community settings. This will require a full continuum of mental health services including counseling, vocational training, supported employment, inpatient services, and outpatient services. It will also require a network of experienced clinicians and community partners. Many of these efforts are already underway in pediatric settings; however, these same efforts are required in adolescent and adult mental health services.
5. Finally, there is a need to prepare and equip older youth with autism spectrum conditions for the transition to adult services.
Johanna K. Lake, J. K., Perry, A., & Lunsky, Y. (2014). Mental Health Services for Individuals with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Research and Treatment, Volume 2014, Article ID 502420. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/502420
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 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 SchoolsHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Anxiety, Depression, & Comorbidity in Autism


Comorbidity in Autism Spectrum Disorder

There is robust research to suggest that 70 to 80 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) meet diagnostic criteria for one or more co-occurring (comorbid) disorders and 40 to 50 percent meet criteria for two or more. A Comorbid disorder is defined as a condition that co-occurs with another diagnosis so that both share a primary focus of clinical and educational attention. The most prevalent comorbid conditions are anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disruptive behavior problems, and chronic tic disorders, all which contribute to overall impairment.
  
 Internalizing Problems
Studies have consistently reported an association between ASD and internalizing symptoms, in particular, anxiety and depression. A bidirectional association has been identified between internalizing disorders and autistic symptoms. For example, both a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders has been found in ASD and a higher rate of autistic traits has been reported in youth with mood and anxiety disorders. 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. Individuals with ASD also display more social anxiety symptoms compared to typical individuals, even if these symptoms were clinically overlapping with the characteristic social problems of ASD. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that adolescents and young adults with ASD show a higher prevalence of bipolar disorders as compared to controls.
Depression is one of the most common comorbid conditions observed in individuals with ASD, particularly higher functioning youth. A study of psychiatric comorbidity in young adults with ASD revealed that 70% had experienced at least one episode of major depression and 50% reported recurrent major depression. Although another documented association is with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it is difficult to determine whether observed obsessive-repetitive behaviors are an expression of a separate, comorbid OCD, or an integral part of the core diagnostic features of ASD (i. e., restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities).
Externalizing Problems
An association between ASD and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other externalizing problems (i. e., oppositional defiant disorder) have been reported. Studies have found that children with ASD in clinical settings present with co-occurring symptoms of ADHD with rates ranging between 37% and 85%. Although there continues to a debate about ADHD comorbidity in ASD, research, practice and theoretical models suggest that co-occurrence between these conditions is relevant and occurs frequently. For example, case studies suggest that ADHD is a relatively common initial diagnosis in young children with ASD. It is also important to note that a significant change in the DSM-5 is removal of the DSM-IV-TR hierarchical rules prohibiting the concurrent diagnosis of ASD and ADHD. When the criteria are met for both disorders, both diagnoses are given.
Other Comorbidities
Tourette Syndrome (TS) and other tic disorders have been found to be a comorbid condition in many children with ASD. A Swedish study showed that 20% of all school-age children with ASD met the full criteria for TS. There also appears to be a higher incidence of seizures in children with autism compared to the general population. The comorbidity of ASD and psychotic disorders has received some research attention. A study of children with ASD who were referred for psychotic behavior and given a diagnosis of schizophrenia showed that when psychotic behaviors were the presenting symptoms, depression and not schizophrenia, was the likely diagnosis. Thus, individuals with ASD may present with characteristics that could lead to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Other co-occurring conditions include physical (cerebral palsy, atypical gait), and medical (allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal) conditions. Behavior problems associated with GI distress may include sleep disturbances, stereotypic or repetitive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors, aggression, oppositional behavior, irritability or mood disturbances, and tantrums. In addition, unusual responses to sensory stimuli, chronic sleep problems, catatonia, and low muscle tone often occur in individuals with ASD. Specific learning difficulties are also common, as is developmental coordination disorder. 
Implications
Many individuals with ASD have symptoms that do not form part of the diagnostic criteria for the disorder (about 70% of individuals with ASD may have one comorbid disorder, and 40% may have two or more comorbid conditions). The most common co-occurring diagnoses are anxiety and depression, attention problems, and challenging behavior disorders. When the criteria for a comorbid disorder is met, both diagnoses should be given. Medical conditions commonly associated with ASD should also be noted.

The core symptoms of ASD can often mask the symptoms of a comorbid condition. The challenge for practitioners is to determine if the symptoms observed in ASD are part of the same dimension (i. e, the autism spectrum) or whether they represent another condition. Although various psychometric instruments, such as clinical interviews, self-report questionnaires and checklists, are widely used to assist in diagnosis, these tools are designed and standardized to identify symptoms in the general population, and may not be appropriate and valid for use with ASD. Likewise, their administration may be problematic in that individuals with ASD may have difficulties in sustaining a reciprocal conversation, reporting events, and perspective taking. Nevertheless, comorbid problems should be assessed whenever significant behavioral issues (e.g., inattention, impulsivity, mood instability, anxiety, sleep disturbance, aggression) become evident or when major changes in behavior are reported. Individuals who are nonverbal or have language deficits, observable symptoms such as changes in sleeping or eating or increases in challenging behavior should be evaluated for anxiety and depression. Co-occurring conditions should also be carefully investigated when severe or worsening symptoms are present that are not responding to intervention or treatment.

Further information on best practice guidelines for assessment and intervention is available from A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
References and Further Reading

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) Washington, DC: Author.

Colombi, C., &  Ghaziuddin, M. (2017). Neuropsychological Characteristics of Children with Mixed Autism and ADHD. Autism Research and Treatment, 2017, 1-5. doi:10.1155/2017/5781781

Doepke, K. J., Banks, B. M., Mays, J. F., Toby, L. M., & Landau, S. (2014). Co-occurring emotional and behavior problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. In L. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children and Adolescence: Evidence-based Assessment and Intervention in Schools (pp. 125-148). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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
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
Mayes, S. D., Calhoun, S. L., Murray, M. J., & Zahid, J. (2011). Variables associated with anxiety and depression in children with autism. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 23, 325–337.
Mazurek, M. O., Vasa, R. A., Kalb, L. G., Kanne, S. M., Rosenberg, D., Keefer, A., et al. (2013). Anxiety, sensory over-responsivity, and gastrointestinal problems in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 41, 165–176.
Mazurek, M. O., Kanne, S. M., & Wodka, E. L. (2013).  Physical aggression in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 455–465.
Mazzone et al.: Psychiatric comorbidities in asperger syndrome and high functioning autism: diagnostic challenges. Annals of General Psychiatry 2012 11:16. doi:10.1186/1744-859X-11-16
Sikora, D. M., Vora, P., Coury, D. L., & Rosenberg, D. (2012). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms, Adaptive Functioning, and Quality of Life in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics, 130, S91-97. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-0900G

Strang, J. F., Kenworthy, L., Daniolos, P., Case, L., Wills, M. C., Martin, A., et al. (2012). Depression and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders without intellectual disability. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 406–412.

Tureck, K., Matson, J. L., May, A., Whiting, S. E., & Davis, T. E., III. (2013). Comorbid symptoms in children with anxiety disorders compared to children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities. doi: 10.1007/s10882-013
Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTLondon and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2017).  A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. Philadelphia & London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, 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 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 CBT. 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 SchoolsHis latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Autism, Assistive Technology, and Augmentative Communication

 Assistive Technology
Assistive technology (AT) refers to a number of accommodations and adaptations which enable individuals with disabilities to function more independently. This includes any type of technology that provides students with disabilities greater access to the general education curriculum and increases the potential to master academic content, interact with others, and enhance functional independence and quality of life. While AT is not necessary or required for every student receiving special education services, schools are required to provide the appropriate assistive technology system when it supports the child’s access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). There are various types of technology ranging from "low" to "high" tech that might be incorporated into the educational setting to increase children’s independent functioning skills and reduce barriers that may prevent them from performing at a similar level as their peers. For example, students may use software with word prediction capabilities that allow them to have more success with written composition. Hardware such as portable keyboards, laptop computers, and tablets may lessen the physical demand of writing for students with weak fine motor skills or difficulty coordinating ideas with writing. Similarly, a speech-generating device or voice output communication aids may meet the needs of children with limited expressive language, by providing an effective means of verbal communication.
 Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
 Communication impairments can impact an individual’s ability to communicate with others (expressive communication) and/or receive communication from others (receptive communication). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is a type of assistive technology that can help assist children with communication impairments to increase skills in this area and to become more competent communicators. Some students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have difficulty with expressive communication may be successful in social interaction and expressing their wants and needs with a low technology AAC system such as the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS©). PECS is considered an evidence-based practice that incorporates both behavioral and developmental-pragmatic principles to teach functional communication to children with limited verbal and/or communication skills. There are six phases of PECS instruction, with each phase building on the last. The phases are: (1) Teaching the physically assisted exchange, (2) Expanding spontaneity, (3) Simultaneous discrimination of pictures, (4) Building sentence structure, (5) Responding to, “What do you want?” and (6) Commenting in response to a question. PECS relies on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) so that distinct prompting, reinforcement, and error correction strategies are specified at each training phase in order to teach spontaneous, functional communication. The research evidence suggests that PECS can be used in multiple settings, including schools, homes, and therapy settings to successfully improve functional communication, play, and behavioral skills.
It is important for educational teams to consider AAC for any student with ASD. For some students, AAC may act as the primary mode of communication. For others, it may be a secondary form. A referral to an assistive technology specialist or speech-language pathologist for an evaluation should be made for a student who may benefit from assistive technology and/or an augmentative communication system. As with all assessment and intervention procedures, a team approach is necessary to determine the child’s strengths and limitations, and the range and scope of potential assistive technology options to address his or her specific needs.
Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Key References and Further Reading
Charlop-Christy, M. H., Carpenter, M., H., LeBlanc, L. A., & Kellet, K. (2002). Using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) with children with autism: Assessment of PECS acquisition, speech, social-communicative behavior, and problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35, 213–231.
Frost, L., & Bondy, A. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System Training Manual (2nd ed.). Cherry Hill, NJ: Pyramid Educational Consultants.
Ganz, J. B., Davis, J. L., Lund, E. M., Goodwyn, F. D., & Simpson, R. L. (2012). Meta-analysis of PECS with individuals with ASD: Investigation of targeted versus non-targeted outcomes, participant characteristics, and implementation phase. Research in Developmental Disorders, 33, 406-418. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2011.09.023.
Hart, S. L., & Banda, D. R. (2010). Picture Exchange Communication System with individuals with developmental disabilities: A meta-analysis of single subject studies. Remedial and Special Education, 31, 476-488. doi: 10.1177/0741932509338354.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004).
Kabot, S., & Reeve, C. (2014). Curriculum and Program Structure. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 195-218). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
National Autism Center (2015). Findings and conclusions: National standards project, phase 2. Randolph, MA: Author. Available from: http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/national-standards-project/phase-2/
Sulzer-Azaroff, B., Hoffman, A. O., Horton, C. B., Bondy, A., & Frost, L. (2009).
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): What do the data say? Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24, 89-103.
Twachtman-Cullen, D. & Twachtman-Bassett, J. (2014). Language and Social Communication. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 101-124). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (Ed.) (2014). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2014). Introduction: Evidence-Based Practice for Autism Spectrum Disorder. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp 3-13). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). Best Practice in Special Education. In A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (pp. 157-200). London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, C. W., Fettig, A., Kurcharczyk…Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 1951-66. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a nationally certified and licensed 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. 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 CBT. He 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, February 17, 2019

Pragmatic Language Skills and the Autism Spectrum


Pragmatic Language Skills

The diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. Problems with the pragmatic/social use of language or impairment in the ability to understand and use language in social-communicative contexts is a core feature of ASD. Pragmatic skills involve: (a) using language for different purposes; (b) changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation; (c) understanding non-literal language; and (d) following rules for conversations.  

There are many unwritten rules in society that govern our behavior. While most of us intuitively understand these rules, individuals with ASD have not automatically learned the conventions and nuances that make up their social environment. These unspoken or “hidden” social standards can make the world a confusing place and result in life-long challenges. For example, social expectations such as “it is not polite to interrupt others while they are talking,” “take turns in conversation” and “discuss other topics besides only those you are interested in” are not taught and are assumed to be known and understood. We seem to have an “unconscious” navigator that allows us to make intuitive sense of the unspoken rules in society and adjust to the social demands of our everyday lives.
Unspoken Rules

The unspoken rules of social engagement involve the use of the pragmatic, social communicative functions of language (e.g., turn taking, understanding of inferences and figurative expressions) as well as nonverbal skills needed to communicate and regulate interaction (e.g., eye contact, gesture, facial expression). This includes body language and idioms, metaphors, or slang – phrases and meanings that we intuitively assimilate or learn through observation or subtle cues. Individuals with ASD tend to interpret language literally and may be puzzled by the common everyday expressions used by a typical peer or adult. They may fail to use appropriate nonverbal communication skills, such as eye contact and have impairments in comprehension, or generally have difficulty communicating with others. As a result, peers often feel ineffective when engaged in social exchanges with a child on the autism spectrum and may avoid that person and/or react in a negative way (e.g., teasing or bullying), further impacting the development of appropriate social skills. 
Consider how idioms or figurative speech such as “how the cookie crumbles,” “curiosity killed the cat,” "kill two birds with one stone," "everything but the kitchen sink," and “when it rains, it pours” will have a totally different meaning and result in confusion if taken literally. In order to understand language, we must understand what the idioms in that language mean (there are well over 3,000 idioms in the English language). If you try to figure out the meaning of an idiom literally (word by word), you will be bewildered. While the typical individual might understand that the phrase “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” and accompanying body language (e.g., voice, body) communicates to the listener that something unfortunate has happened, to someone with a pragmatic social-communication problem, this idiom will have a completely different meaning and be confusing.

Assessment

Because social communication deficits are among the core challenges of ASD, a best practice student assessment should include an evaluation of pragmatic competence and not be limited to the formal, structural aspects of language (i.e., articulation and receptive/ expressive language functioning). As a group, more capable students with ASD tend to demonstrate strength in formal language, but a weakness is pragmatic and social skills. As a result, they often fail to qualify for speech-language services because they present strong verbal skills and large vocabularies, and score well on formal language assessments. 
A variety of assessment strategies should be used, including direct assessment, naturalistic observation and interviewing significant others, including parents and educators, who are valuable sources of information. 

Assessments to identify pragmatic language deficits tend to be less well developed than tests of language fundamentals. There are fewer standard measures available to assess these skills in children with ASD. Valid norms for pragmatic development and objective criteria for pragmatic performance are also limited. Among the standardized instruments that focus on the social communicative functions of language are the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL; Carrow-Woolfolk, 1999), Test of Pragmatic Language, 2nd Edition (TOPL-2; Phelps-Terasaki & Phelps-Gunn, 2007), Social Language Development Test-Elementary (SLDT-E; Bowers, Huisingh, & LoGiudice, 2008), Children's Communication Checklist, Second Edition (CCC-2; Bishop, 2006) and Pragmatic Language Skills Inventory (PLSI; Gilliam & Miller, 2006). 

It is imperative that speech/language services for children with ASD include particular attention to the pragmatic, social communicative functions of language (e.g., turn taking, understanding of inferences and figurative expressions) as well as to the nonverbal skills needed to communicate and regulate interaction (e.g., eye contact, gesture, facial expression, and body language). Significant and severe deficits in the ability to communicate and interact with others can limit participation in mainstream academic settings and community activities. Moreover, pragmatic deficits tend to become even more obvious and problematic as social and educational demands increase with age. Students with pragmatic language deficits who do not meet the DSM-5 ASD criteria for restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD).  

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). 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).

© 2017 Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

Monday, February 11, 2019

Positive Behavior Support in the classroom for Learners on the Autism Spectrum


Positive Behavior Support for Students with Autism

The problem behaviors of children on the autism spectrum (ASD) are among the most challenging and stressful issues faced by schools and parents. The current best practice in treating and preventing undesirable or challenging behaviors utilizes the principles and practices of positive behavior support (PBS). PBS is not a specific intervention per se, but rather a set of research-based strategies that are intended to decrease problem behaviors by designing effective environments and teaching students appropriate social and communication skills. PBS utilizes primary (school-wide), secondary (targeted group), and tertiary (individual) levels or tiers of intervention, with each tier providing an increasing level of intensity and support. 
 PBS Strategies in the Classroom

Other than families, teachers are the most influential resource for students with and without special needs. Although functional behavior assessment (FBA) and intensive individual support is recommended for students with serious and persistent challenging behaviors, teachers may prevent the possibility of problematic behavior through the implementation of class-wide and targeted group PBS strategies. For example, effective prevention of challenging social behavior can be addressed through arranging the classroom environment and/or by adapting instruction and the curriculum. Changing the classroom environment or instruction may lessen the triggers or events that set off the challenging behavior. Teaching effective social interaction and communication as replacements for challenging behavior is also a preventive strategy for improving little used student social interaction and communication skills. Teachers can model, demonstrate, coach, or role-play the appropriate interaction skills. They can teach students to ask for help during difficult activities or negotiate alternative times to finish work. Encouraging positive social interactions such as conversational skills will help students with challenging behavior to effectively obtain positive peer attention. The following are examples of PBS strategies for improving social skills and prosocial behaviors in the classroom (Vaughn, Duchnowski, Sheffield, & Kutash, 2005; Wilkinson, 2016). 
Initiating interactions. Teachers might notice that when a student with ASD enters the classroom, group activity, or other social interaction, he or she may have particular difficulty greeting others students or starting a conversation. For example, they may joke, call another student a name, laugh, or say something inappropriate. In this situation, the student may have trouble ini­tiating interactions or conversations. The teacher might talk to the student individually and offer suggestions for ways he or she can provide an appropriate greeting or introduce a topic of conversation. The student might then be asked to practice or role-play the desired behavior.
Example: “why don’t you ask students what they did last night, tell them about a TV show you watched, or ask if they finished their homework, rather than shouting or saying ‘Hey, Stupid.’ Other students in the class want to be your friend, but you make it difficult for them to talk with you. Let’s practice the next time the class begins a new group activity.”
Maintaining interactions. Many students with ASD struggle to maintain a conversation (e.g.., turn taking). Some may dominate the conversation and make others feel that they have nothing to contribute, while other students may experience difficulty keeping up with the flow of conversation and asking questions. Students may also have lim­ited topics of interest and discuss these topics repetitively.
Example: “I’ve noticed that other students cannot share their thoughts and ideas with you when you start a conversation because you do all the talking. It may seem to them that you don’t care what they have to say. Other students will be more willing to talk if you stop once you’ve stated your idea or opinion and allow them a turn to talk. When you stop, they know you are listening. You can say to them, “What do you think?” or “Has this ever happened to you?’”
Terminating interactions. Some students with ASD may not know how to appropriately end a conversation. They may abruptly walk away, start talking with another student, or bluntly tell a student they don’t know what they’re talking about. Other students may interpret this as rude and impolite behavior. Teachers might point out to the student some ac­ceptable ways of ending a conversation.
Example: “You just walked away from that student when they were talking. Rather than walk away, you might say “‘I have to go now,’ ‘It’s time for my next class,’ ‘Or ‘I’ll see you later and we can finish our talk.’”
Recognizing body language. The recognition of body language or nonverbal cues is critical to suc­cessful social interactions. Students with ASD typically have difficulty interpreting these cues from teachers or other students. Body language tells students when they violate a person’s personal space, a person needs to leave, or they need to change behavior. Teachers can incorporate these skills into their class time or school day.
Example: Before leaving the classroom, demonstrate  nonverbal cues by holding a finger to your lips and telling students that means “quiet,” a hand held up with palm fac­ing outward means “wait” or “stop,” and both hands pushing downward means “slow down.” You may need to demonstrate facial expressions you use to “deliver messages” and what they mean. Other students can demonstrate nonverbal cues they use. When students move through the halls, you may want to teach them the “arms length” rule for personal space.
Transitions. Many students with ASD have significant problems changing from one activity to the next or moving from one location to another. They may be easily upset by abrupt changes in routine and unable to estimate how much time is left to finish an activity and begin the next one. Poor executive function skills such as disorganization may also prevent them from putting materials away from the last activity or getting ready for the next activity. They may also need closure and preparation time for the transition. Problems arise if the teacher tries to push them to transition at the last minute.
Example: About 10 minutes prior to the transition, refer to the classroom schedule and announce when the bell will ring or when the next activity will begin. Provide a 5-minute and then a 1-minute warning. This countdown helps students finish assignments or end favorite activities. For students that have difficulty getting started after a transition, place assign­ment folders on their desks so that they have their assignments and don’t have to wait for instructions or materials. They can use the same folder to submit assignments (the folders can be left on their desks at the end of the period).
Conclusion 
Students on the autism spectrum often lack the social skills to communicate and interact effectively with peers and adults. They may use challenging or disruptive behavior to communicate their needs. These examples illustrate how PBS provides a proactive framework for assessing social interaction and communication needs and for teaching new, effective skills that replace the challenging behavior. When used consistently, these strategies fit within the framework of the classroom and can help promote positive student behavior.

Key References and Further Reading 
Alberto, P., & Troutman, A. (2006). Applied behavior analysis for teachers (7th edition). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall.
Crone, D. A., Horner, R. H., & Hawken, L. S. (2004). Responding to problem behavior in schools: The behavior education program. New York: Guilford Press.
Crone, D. A., & Horner, R. H. (2003). Building positive behavior support systems in schools: Functional behavioral assessment. New York: Guilford.
Dunlap, G., Iovannone, R., Kincaid, D., Wilson, K., Christiansen, K., Strain, P., & English, C., (2010). Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: A school-based model of positive behavior support. Baltimore: Brookes.
Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., Todd, A. W., & Lewis-Palmer, T. (2005). School-wide positive behavior support. In L. Bambara & L. Kern (Eds.), Individualized supports for students with problem behaviors: Designing positive behavior plans (pp. 359-390). New York: Guilford Press.
Martella, R. C., Nelson, J. R., & Marchand-Martella, N. E. (2003). Managing disruptive behaviors in the schools: A schoolwide, classroom, and individualized social learning approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.
OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. http://www.pbis.org/default.aspx 
Sprague, J. R., & Walker, H. M. (2005). Safe and healthy schools: Practical prevention strategies. New York, NY: Guilford.
Sprick, R.S., & Garrison, M. (2008). Interventions: Evidence-based behavioral strategies for individual students. Eugene, OR: Pacific Northwest Publishing.
Vaughn, B., Duchnowski, A., Sheffield, S., & Kutash, K., (2005). Positive behavior support: A classroom-wide approach to successful student achievement and interactions. Department of Child and Family Studies, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London: 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).

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