Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Early Social Communication Indicators of Autism


It is well established that early identification and intervention are critical determinants in the course and outcome of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Although there are no “absolute” clinical indicators of autism, some of the early “red flags” include: • Does not smile by the age of six months • Does not respond to his or her name • Does not cry • Does not babble or use gestures by 12 months and • Does not point to objects by 12 months. Children with autism typically experience delays in speech and communication skills. Not only will they often develop spoken language later, but they are less likely to develop non-verbal communication skills such as “joint attention,” pointing, or gesturing. 
Social Communication Skills

Young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically exhibit core deficits in social communication skills, particularly in the areas of joint attention, shared affect, eye-contact, conventional and symbolic gestures, and related skills in functional and symbolic play. Children seek to share attention with others spontaneously during the first year of life. “Joint attention” is an early-developing social-communicative skill in which two people (usually a young child and an adult) use gestures and gaze to share attention with respect to interesting objects or events. Before infants have developed social cognition and language, they communicate and learn new information by following the gaze of others and by using their own eye contact and gestures to show or direct the attention of the people around them. These developments in the first two years of life are potentially important early indicators of ASD which can facilitate earlier diagnosis. Researchers have identified five core deficits (‘red flags’) evident in the early years, namely gaze shifting, gaze point following, rate of communicating, joint attention and gestures; these were the strongest predictors of symptoms of autism at three years of age.
Research

Researchers in Melbourne Australia, working on a long-term study of children from eight months to seven years of age found that those with autism used fewer gestures to communicate than other kids. Parents of 1,911 children participating in the ‘Early Language in Victoria Study’ in Melbourne, Australia, completed questionnaires about their child’s development from infancy through to school age. At four years of age, a group of children identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were compared to other children from within the study; those with a developmental delay, language impairment, or typical development. Comparisons were made between the children’s early social communication skills (including eye-gaze, non-verbal communication, gesture, and speech skills) at 8 months, 1 year, and 2 years of age. By one year of age, children with ASD used fewer early social communication skills than children with typical development. The only social communication skill that was found to be significantly different between children with ASD and all other children, however, was the use of gesture. Children with ASD used fewer gestures for communication than all other children at both 1 and 2 years of age.
Implications

Speech pathologist Carly Veness, who led the research, said there was a pattern of low gesture use among autistic children between the ages of eight months and two years. "We found that there was a decreased use of gestures like pointing, showing and giving,” she commented. The researchers noted that gestural deficits almost doubled the risk for ASD, pointing to the importance of targeting gesture deficits in infant early intervention approaches. They conclude that their results “… highlight the possibility of detecting risk signs for ASD as young as 12 months of age in a community sample, thus allowing for earlier recognition of the disorder.”
Veness, C., Prior, M., Bavin, E., Eadie, P., Cini, E., & Reilly, S. (2012). Early indicators of autism spectrum disorders at 12 and 24 months of age: A prospective, longitudinal comparative study. Autism, 16, 163-177.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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 Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Challenging Behavior in Children with Autism


Challenging Behavior

Challenging behavior is any behavior that interferes with a child’s learning, engagement, and social interactions with her peers or adults. Aggression is often observed as one form of challenging behavior in autism. Although aggression is not itself a symptom of autism and not all autistic individuals are aggressive, research suggests that rates of challenging behavior may be higher in individuals with autism compared to typically developing peers and those with other developmental disabilities. Children with autism don’t necessarily express anger, fear, anxiety or frustration in the same way as other children. However, irritability is a symptom of autism that can complicate adjustment at home and other settings, and can manifest itself in aggression, tantrums, and self-injurious behavior. 
Behavior as Communication
Children engage in problem behavior to communicate. The principles of behavior teach us that it does not occur in a vacuum – that is, behavior does not occur without regard to the context in which it is observed. When working with autistic children we should consider problem behavior as a communication attempt, and should determine what skill the child needs to learn in order to reduce the need for the problem behavior or what environmental modification makes the behavior unnecessary. The first step to developing an effective intervention strategy is to identify the function of the behavior. By function, we mean what the child is trying to access by engaging in the challenging behavior. In other words: you first must figure out what it is the child is trying to communicate. For example, a student might exhibit challenging behaviors with the goal of escape or the goal of seeking attention. When the curriculum is difficult or demanding, they may attempt to avoid or escape work through challenging behavior (e.g., refusal, passive aggression, disruption, etc.). Similarly, they may use challenging behavior to get focused attention from adults and peers, or to gain access to a preferred object or participate in an enjoyable activity. Problematic behavior may also occur because of sensory aversions. Because autistic students also have significant social and pragmatic skills deficits, they may experience difficulty effectively communicating their needs or influencing the environment. Thus, challenging classroom behavior may serve a purpose for communicating or a communicative function. 

Common Triggers

Research suggests that common triggers include disturbing breaks in routine, lack of sleep, jarring “sensory stimuli” (noises, lights, or smells) or even undiagnosed mental health problems. Children with significant aggressive behavior also tended to have mood and anxiety symptoms, and difficulty sleeping and paying attention. Clearly, it’s important to look beyond the behavior itself to identify the underlying cause or trigger. Children with significant aggressive behavior also tended to have mood and anxiety symptoms, and difficulty sleeping and paying attention. The studies also indicate that symptoms of aggression often overlap in patients with extreme anxiety and attention deficit issues. It has been reported that executive function deficits (e.g. issues with inhibition, working memory, planning and flexibility) are associated with anxiety and aggression in autism and may serve as a pathway to comorbid psychopathology (sensory stimuli, a change in routine, transition between activities, or physical reasons like feeling unwell, tired or hungry. Not being able to communicate these difficulties can lead to anxiety, anger and frustration, and then to an outburst of challenging behavior. 

                                                                             Comorbidity

Children with autism experience a number of related difficulties, including sleep problems, gastrointestinal (GI) problems, sensory issues, and self-injury. Many of these problems have been associated with aggression among typically developing children, and emerging evidence suggests a similar relationship in children with autism. For example, sleep problems occur in a large percentage of autistic children, with prevalence rates ranging from 50% to 80%. Sleep problems have been found to be highly associated with aggression in typically developing children. Likewise, research suggests that children with autism and sleep problems are more likely to demonstrate aggression than those without sleep problems.
Sensory problems, including sensory over-responsivity, sensory under-responsivity, and sensory seeking are also common problems in autistic children. In typical children, sensory problems have been associated with aggressive and externalizing behavior problems. Similarly, recent studies have been found correlations between sensory problems and broadly defined externalizing problem behaviors in autistic children. However, research has yet to specifically examine the potential contributing role of sensory problems in predicting physical aggression.

Self-injurious behavior also appears to be relevant to the occurrence of aggression. Individuals with autism are at an increased risk for demonstrating self-injurious behaviors, as compared to those without autism, with prevalence rates ranging from 30% to 53%. Although self-injury and other forms of challenging behaviors have been considered to be distinct forms of behavior, they are often related. For example, physical aggression and self-injury have been significantly associated among individuals with severe intellectual impairment and there is evidence that self-injurious behaviors are precursors of later aggression in this population. However, similar studies have not investigated the relationship between self-injury and physical aggression in autistic children.
Lastly, gastrointestinal (GI) problems may also have relevance to the occurrence of aggression. GI problems are common in autistic children, with prevalence rates ranging from 24% to 70% or higher, depending on symptom definitions. Although there some evidence of an association between behavior problems and GI problems, a population-based study of autistic children did not find significant differences in aggression when comparing children with and without GI problems.
    Predictors
Although the nature and developmental course of aggression have been a focus of research with typically developing populations, there have been few large-scale studies of group-level predictors of aggression among individuals with autism. Consequently, it is unclear whether findings from the general population are applicable to autistic children and adolescents. In an effort to investigate the extent of the problem in children and adolescents with autism, a recent large-scale study published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders examined the prevalence and correlates of physical aggression in a sample of 1584 children and adolescents with ASD enrolled in the Autism Treatment Network (ATN), a multi-site network of 17 autism centers across the US and Canada. The results indicated that the prevalence of aggression was 53% across the entire sample of children, with highest prevalence among young children. These results are highly consistent with recently reported prevalence rates (56%) in another large-scale study of children and adolescents with autism. The results also indicate that age-related decreases in aggression in autistic children are similar to what has been observed in typically developing children. It should be noted, however, that a large percentage (nearly 50%) of the adolescents in the study’s sample continued to demonstrate physical aggression. Thus, the relative decrease in aggression over time must be balanced by the finding that these behaviors continued to occur at a high rate among a large portion of adolescents with autism.
In terms of predictors, the results indicated that self-injury was highly associated with aggression among children with autism. This is consistent with the findings of other studies showing a strong association between self-injury and other challenging behaviors. The current results add to existing literature, and suggest that autistic children who demonstrate self-injury may be at risk for more severe behavioral problems.
Sleep problems emerged as a second significant predictor aggression. This association between sleep problems and aggression is largely consistent with previous findings among both typically developing children and those with autism, indicating may underlie (and exacerbate) aggressive behavior patterns for many autistic children. It should also be noted that sleep problems have been found to be associated with self-injurious behaviors among individuals with intellectual disabilities and that these two conditions may be related. In fact, there is some developing evidence suggesting shared neurobiological basis for both sleep disturbance and self-injurious behavior.
Sensory problems were also significantly associated with aggression. These findings are consistent with similar associations between sensory issues and aggression among typically developing children. While previous research has demonstrated an association between sensory problems and broadly defined behavior problems, the current results extend these previous findings by demonstrating a specific relationship between sensory problems and physical aggression.
Comparisons also indicated that children with aggression were more likely to experience GI problems, communication skill difficulties, and social skills difficulties. However, these variables did not appear as significant predictors of aggression, indicating that self-injury, sleep problems, and sensory issues accounted for the majority of the variance in predicting aggression.
In regards to potential sex differences, the results indicate that girls and boys with autism were equally likely to engage in aggression. This finding was unexpected in that research has consistently shown a significant gender difference among children without autism, with boys being much more likely to engage in physical aggression than girls. The results of the study suggest that the sex differential in aggression may not be salient in the autistic population.
Implications
This study provides evidence that challenging behavior may be much more prevalent among children with autism than in the general population and that some comorbid problems may place individuals at risk for aggression. Aggression was significantly associated with a number of clinical features, including self-injury, sleep problems, sensory problems, GI problems, and communication and social functioning. However, self-injury, sleep problems, and sensory problems were most strongly associated with aggression. These findings indicate that co-occurring problems specific to the autism phenotype may play an important role in the occurrence of aggression and that it is important to consider multiple domains of functioning when assessing and treating aggression in autistic children. For example, increased attention should be given to the identification and treatment of sleep problems, self-injury, and sensory problems. Given the significant relationship between sleep problems and aggression, it is possible that treatments targeting sleep problems may help reduce maladaptive behavior. Thus, assessment and treatment of sleeping problems might be included as a standard and integrated part of the assessment and treatment of autism. Programs for children with autism should also integrate an appropriately structured physical and sensory milieu in order to accommodate any unique sensory processing challenges. 

Behavioral interventions, particularly those based upon applied behavior analysis (ABA), have long had empirical support for addressing problematic behavior (for a review, see Schreibman, 2000). A comprehensive treatment plan for treating aggressive behaviors in children with autism begins with a precise and thorough assessment, followed by implementation of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Although assessment tools are limited, comorbid problems should be assessed whenever significant behavioral issues (e.g., inattention, mood instability, anxiety, sleep disturbance, aggression) become evident or when major changes in behavior are reported. Co-occurring disorders should also be carefully investigated when severe or worsening symptoms are present that are not responding to traditional methods of intervention. It is important to take the time to analyze these underlying causes of aggressive behavior in children with autism. By understanding the triggers of aggression, we are able to choose the most effective intervention strategies. Once we understand the function or goal of student behavior, we can begin to teach alternative replacement behavior and new interaction skills. 

Further research is needed in order to better understand the characteristics and course of different types of aggression. For example, future research should examine the longitudinal course of aggression, the role of these associated problems in predicting improvement or worsening of aggression, and possible changes in aggression in response to treatment for these co-occurring problems. Studies are also needed to examine the role of additional family- and community-level variables in the prediction and maintenance of aggression among children with autism.  
References and Further Reading

Cervantes P, Matson JL, Tureck K, Adams HL. The relationship of comorbid anxiety symptom severity and challenging behaviors in infants and toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2013;7(12):1528–1534.
Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Challenging behavior as communication. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. 
Farmer C.A. & Aman M. G. Aggressive behavior in a sample of children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2011;5(1):317–323.
Farmer, C., Butter, E., Mazurek M.O, et al. Aggression in children with autism spectrum disorders and a clinic-referred comparison group. Autism. 2015;19(3):281–291.
Farmer C, Butter E, Mazurek M.O, Cowan C, Lainhart J, Cook E.H, & Aman M. Aggression in children with autism spectrum disorders and a clinic-referred comparison group. Autism. 2014
Fitzpatrick, S. E., Srivorakiat, L., Wink, L. K., Pedapati, E. V., & Erickson, C. A. (2016). Aggression in autism spectrum disorder: presentation and treatment options. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment12, 1525–1538.
Healy O., Lydon S., Holloway J., Dwyer M. (2014). Behavioral interventions for aggressive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders. In: Patel V., Preedy V., Martin C. (eds). Comprehensive Guide to Autism. Springer, New York, NY
Hill, A. P., Zuckerman, K., Hagen, A. D., Kriz, D., Duvall, S., Van Santen, J., ... Fombonne, E. (2014). Aggressive behavior problems in children with autism spectrum disorders: Prevalence and correlates in a large clinical sample. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders8(9), 1121-1133. 
Hodgetts, S., Nicholas, D., & Zwaigenbaum, L. (2013). Home sweet home? Families’ experiences with aggression in children with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 28(3), 166-174.
Kaartinen M., Puura K., Helminen M., Salmelin R., Pelkonen E., & Juujärvi P. (2014). Reactive aggression among children with and without autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord., 44(10):2383–2391
Kanne, S. M., & Mazurek, M. O. (2011). Aggression in children and adolescents with ASD: Prevalence and risk factors. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(7), 926-937.  
Love, J.R., Carr, J. E, & LeBlanc, L.A. (2009).Functional assessment of problem behavior in children with autism spectrum disorders: a summary of 32 outpatient cases. J Autism Dev Disord., 39(2):363–372. 
Mayes, S.D., Calhoun, S.L., Aggarwal, R., Baker, C., Mathapati, S., Anderson, R., & Petersen C. (2012). Explosive, oppositional, and aggressive behavior in children with autism compared to other clinical disorders and typical children. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 6:1–10
Pugliese, C. E., Fritz, M. S., & White, S. W. (2015). The role of anger rumination and autism spectrum disorder–linked perseveration in the experience of aggression in the general population. Autism19(6), 704–712.
Schreibman, L. (2000), Intensive behavioral/psychoeducational treatments for autism: research needs and future directions. J Autism Dev Disord., 30(5):373-378.
Shea, S., Turgay, A., Carroll, A. et al. (2004), Risperidone in the treatment of disruptive behavioral symptoms in children with autistic and other pervasive developmental disorders. Pediatrics, 114(5):634-641.
Tremblay, R.E., Nagin, D.S., Séguin, J.R., Zoccolillo, M., Zelazo, P.D., Boivin, M., et al. (2004). Physical aggression during early childhood: Trajectories and predictors. Pediatrics, 114(1):e43–e50.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Williams, D. L., Siegel, M., Mazefsky, C. A., & Autism and Developmental Disorders Inpatient Research Collaborative (ADDIRC). (2017). Problem behaviors in autism spectrum disorder: Association with verbal ability and adapting/coping skills. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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 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, April 26, 2020

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

Leyfer, O.T., Folstein, S.E., Bacalman, S. et al. (2006). Comorbid psychiatric disorders in children with autism: Interview development and rates of disorders. J Autism Dev Disord, 36849–861. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0123-0
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

Simonoff E., Pickles A., Charman T., Chandler S., Loucas T., Baird G. (2008). Psychiatric disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders: Prevalence, comorbidity, and associated factors in a population-derived sample. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47, 921-929. https://doi.org/10.1097/CHI.0b013e318179964f

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
Weiss, J. A., Jason K. Baker, J. K., & Butter, E. M. (2016, September). Mental health treatment for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Spotlight on Disability Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/disability/resources/publications/newsletter/

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 (2nd ed.). London & Philadelphia : Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered 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 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).

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Multi-Tiered Screening for Autism in Schools


Autism Awareness Month

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 support personnel (e.g., school psychologists, special educators, school counselors, speech/language pathologists, and social workers) give greater priority to case finding and screening to ensure that children with ASD are identified and have access to the appropriate programs and 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, 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 lifetime version is recommended for screening purposes as it demonstrates the highest sensitivity value. 
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.
Limitations

Although the ASRS, SCQ, and SRS can be used confidently as efficient screening tools for identifying children across the broad autism spectrum, they are not without limitations. Some students who screen positive will not be identified with an ASD (false positive). On the other hand, some children who were not initially identified will go on to meet the diagnostic and/or classification criteria (false negative). Therefore, it is especially important to carefully monitor those students who screen negative to ensure access to intervention services if needed. Gathering information from family and school resources during screening will also facilitate identification of possible cases. Autism specific tools are not currently recommended for the universal screening of typical school-age children. Focusing on referred children with identified risk-factors and/or developmental delays will increase predictive values and result in more efficient identification efforts.

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, 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)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Self-Motivation and Positive Self-Talk


Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. 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).

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Social Narratives for COVID-19

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, may cause fear, anxiety, or confusion for many children and youth. While Social Narratives have been shown to be an effective strategy for children with autism, they are appropriate for individuals of any age who may be experiencing challenges with social communication. Social Narratives can help alleviate fears and anxiety many children may be experiencing at this time and help them cope during the coming days and weeks.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. 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 4, 2020

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) for Autistic Children


Positive Behavior Support for Autistic Students 

The problem behaviors of children on the autism spectrum (ASD) are among the most challenging and stressful issues faced by many 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, 2017). 
Initiating interactions. Teachers might notice that when a student with autism enters the classroom, group activity, or other social interaction, they 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 autistic students 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 autism 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. Autistic students 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 autism 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, chartered 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 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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