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Does Research Show that ABA is Successful in Treating Children with Autism?

Yes—research does show that ABA is successful in treating children living with autism. As a matter of fact, since the early 1960s, the effectiveness of ABA based interventions has been very well documented particularly when helping children with developmental disabilities. Over 400 research articles were published between 1964 and 1970 alone and all have concluded that behavior analytic interventions demonstrated the most consistent results with individuals living with developmental disabilities. From the mid ‘80’s to 2010, there were over 500 peer-reviewed, published articles on autism and Applied Behavior Analysis.

Many families of children with autism are or are becoming familiar with the 1987 study published by Lovaas. That 1987 study was the first “group study” looking at children with autism receiving intensive ABA treatment (i.e., 40 hours per week) and children with autism that received 10 hours of ABA treatment or none at all.  In this famous study, Lovaas and his research team implemented many of the basic principles and techniques of behavior analysis into an early intensive intervention program for children with autism. After approximately two years of ABA based interventions, 47% of the children in his study made tremendous gains and were able to enter a typical first grade classroom without any additional assistance and scored in the average range in IQ tests when prior to the intervention these same children scored in the low range in IQ tests. Of the control groups, the children in the study that did not receive ABA interventions but only community supports, only one child was placed in a first-grade placement and scored average IQ.

While this study is over 30 years old, there are recent replications and research studies that indicate similar findings. While it’s beyond the scope of this post to go into all the research studies indicating the effectiveness of ABA programs for children with autism, ABA currently is widely recognized as a safe and effective treatment for autism.  It has been endorsed by a number of state and federal agencies, including the US Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health. And for that reason, the use of ABA principles and techniques has rapidly expanded in recent years as more studies demonstrate that these principles help individuals with autism live more independent and more productive lives.

Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis…Explained for Parents

In the first Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis article in 1968, Baer and colleagues described six dimensions of behavior analysis. To facilitate your understanding of this seminal article, we suggest that you substitute the word “characteristic” for the word “dimension.” We will do so for you in the following description. The six characteristics are; 1) that it is Applied; 2) that it is Behavioral; 3) that it is Analytical; 4) that it is Technological; 5) that it is Conceptually Systematic and Effective; and 6) that it has Generality. The reason why these six dimensions identified almost 40 years ago still pertain to this day has to do with their importance in the effectiveness of an ABA program when it comes to the treatment of children with autism. We will discuss each dimension briefly; however, for more in-depth analysis of these dimensions, I recommend you reviewing the article mentioned previously. It is available online at the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) for free.

Some of the implications of the article were to distinguish ABA from laboratory research and also from other fields that worked with behavior (e.g., psychology). There is nothing wrong with laboratory research. In fact, it has supplied us with a lot of the principles, laws, and techniques we use in ABA today. However, ABA was a relatively new applied science and setting the foundations was very important.

Let’s take a look at each of the dimensions in greater detail. The first dimension mentioned by the authors was that of behavior analysis being Applied. Everything that is typically studied in the research and/or addressed by change procedures in applied behavior analysis is studied because of its potential social significance in society rather than for the means of theory alone. If what’s being studied doesn’t have any social importance (i.e., it is not important to the majority of people), behavior analysts typically do not see it as important. This has direct implications on the implementation of the research being conducted in ABA as the research findings can be used in everyday settings to help people in socially significant and important ways. This also has relevance to individuals with autism. It is apparent that society values the use of applied behavior analysis to teach individuals with autism to communicate or to reduce self-injurious behavior for example. Without social significance, or intent to actually apply to the every-day world what’s being researched, everything a person could find out in a research study would contribute to theory, but would not immediately impact society. Research conducted in this manner would add to our scientific knowledge but not improve our everyday lives. The same applies to intervention. So, application in socially significant ways is the first dimension of ABA.

Second, the authors described one of the dimensions as being Behavioral. Unlike some forms of psychology and education which might rely on people’s personal accounts and other indirect representations of behavior, ABA is concerned with direct measures of actual behavior. Behavior, of course, is composed of physical, observable events. In other words, ABA is concerned with facts and actual occurrences of behavior, things that can be observed and measured. It’s pragmatic in that it is guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory. With intervention programs for individuals with autism, teams are focused on observing behavior—teaching behavior and not so much with that individuals inferred thoughts are.

Next is the suggestion that ABA is Analytical. What does this mean? Well according to the authors of the article, in order for results of any experiment to be credible, a researcher or the person actually conducting the experiment has to show that somehow the variables used or manipulated in the study actually controlled the behavior that they were looking at to the greatest extent possible (e.g., antecedent and consequence stimuli). In other words, the experimenters must show that by changing one or more aspects in a person’s environment a change in behavior occurred, and by returning those variables back to what they were before the experiment, you can stop the behavior from happening (this is sometimes referred to as experimental control or is referred to as the process of establishing a functional relationship). In an intervention program for children with autism, Analytical would refer to the fact that the individual performs behaviors when asked to do so (e.g., “touch the blue card” and the individual touches the blue card) and that the function of behaviors is analyzed (Baer does not explicitly state this in the article and this article pre-dates the concept of the behavioral function, but he is describing the foundations of the concept of behavioral function intentionally or not when he says ….”a believable demonstration of the events that can be responsible for the occurrence or non-occurrence of that behavior (p 94)”). So applied behavior analysis is Analytical.

The fourth dimension described by Baer and his colleagues pertains to the dimension of ABA being Technological. This simply means that the procedures used in ABA have to be thoroughly identified and described so that someone who has no familiarity with the procedures can read the description and know exactly what behavior to look for and how to implement the techniques needed. This is an important concept in ABA programs for individuals with autism. Operational definitions are used. The information is written clearly, objectively, and in a way in which it’s easily understandable for people involved. This concept is consistent with good practices in science and scientific practice in other fields.

Next, we have the dimension referred to as Conceptual. In the field of behavior analysis, it is important that any analysis conducted on changing behavior in socially significant ways can be related back to the basic principles of behavior.  When describing any teaching procedure with an individual with autism, it is important to describe the procedure in enough detail for others to follow (Technological), but to also tie that procedure back to the underlying concept or principle (e.g., forward chaining procedure). This provides others with two bits of information to assist them to recreate what you have done (i.e., the technical and the conceptual). Results of any analysis or any experiment can be and should be applicable to the basic principles of behavior analysis.

The fifth characteristic of ABA is Effectiveness. This notion of effectiveness means that the changes that were brought about by the ABA techniques must be significant enough to be of practical value and seen as helpful or significant to the people being helped (a conceptual precursor to social validity and the introduction of the concept of effect size in ABA). In addition, the change in behavior must be large enough to make a difference in an individual’s life (e.g., increasing attending to the classroom teacher during instruction time from 1-2 seconds to 3-5 minutes rather than increasing attending to the classroom teacher from 1-2 seconds to 4-5 seconds). The qualification of social importance can be determined by the child, the parents, the student, the teacher, and so on (and all should have a say in determining this). If the changing behavior isn’t seen as significant (i.e., meaningful) to the people you are trying to help, then all your efforts are wasted.

Lastly, Baer and colleagues looked at the dimension of Generality. Simply put, generality refers to changes that have been produced by behavioral techniques and the necessity that these changes should be durable over time, observable in a wide variety of environments, or spread to a wide variety of related behaviors.  All of us that work with individuals with autism know very well the importance of generalization of skills.

In 1987 Baer, Wolf, and Risley revisited the dimensions of ABA and found them still very relevant. Some of the dimensions were refined in terms of tactics, but still represent ABA. Now while all these dimensions were highlighted back in 1968 and 1987, all of these dimensions are still directly related with what experts believe as being effective characteristics of treatment programs for children with autism today.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? An elaboration

Applied Behavior Analysis is the applied science of behavior formalized by B.F. Skinner. It is sometimes referred to as Behavior Modification, ABA, or Behavior Analysis. The theories, laws, and techniques have their foundations in years of basic research and describe some of the most fundamental things we know about behavior. Some early influences on the field of ABA include Watson, Thorndyke, Pavlov, and groups of psychologists, philosophers, and scientists in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that pursued empirical science.

Contemporary hallmarks of ABA include the Law of Reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism. Let’s briefly look at these areas to get a better understanding of the field of applied behavior analysis.

Simply put, the Law of Reinforcement states that behavior that is reinforced will continue to occur or will occur more often in the future. Conversely, a behavior that is not reinforced will not occur or will decrease in occurrence over time (though, sometimes we see a short increase after reinforcement is discontinued for a behavior that has been previously reinforced).

Through a great deal of clinical experience, it has become apparent that one challenge with really applying this law and understanding its fundamental truth relates to a not having a good understanding of what reinforcement is or can be. Some general misunderstandings include the assumption that consequences most people would describe as positive or pleasant will function as reinforcers. For example, most people would assume that receiving a thank you note would be a reinforcer for a job well done. In practice, this is not the case. There are individuals that would have no interest in a thank you note, but would rather prefer a pay increase. There are, of course, some that would.

Often times, people attribute what they would find reinforcing to another person. Life shows us, this is not the case. Conversely, when we talk about reinforcement, something that we think may be reinforcing may in fact be punishing (a consequence that causes a behavior not to occur or to decrease in the future). Similarly, reinforcers can vary in their magnitude or effectiveness dependent on the environment and on what has happened in the time before the reinforcer is being used.

One final thought is that behavior is often under multiple schedules. Some of the schedules are reinforcing and some of them are punishing. The effects of the reinforcers and punishers that are a part of each schedule vary. This makes it challenging for all but only the most skilled Behavior Analysts to have a good understanding of reinforcement, reinforcers, and schedules of reinforcement. The field of Behavioral Economics is making strides in empirically describing these concerns. However, the law of reinforcement remains one of the important concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis.

One of the more recent (relatively speaking as it dates back to the very early ’80’s) concepts in Applied Behavior Analysis is behavioral function. Previous to this notion, the field was more commonly known as behavior modification and behavior was mainly changed by modifying consequences (e.g., reinforcers and punishers).

Research in the early 80’s demonstrated functional relationships between problem behavior and the conditions that reinforced it. This research led to the concept of behavioral function. Simply, a behavior must be analyzed in terms of what function (i.e., purpose) the behavior served for the individual performing it.

Nowadays, we commonly look at the inappropriate behavior that children with autism perform in these terms. We ask, “are they performing this behavior for attention? Are they performing it to escape or avoid something that they do not like? Are they performing the behavior to get access to something that they want? Are they doing it because it gives them some sort of pleasure?”

Additionally, there are two questionnaire-based assessments, the Questions About Behavior Function (QABF) and Motivation Assessment Scale (MAS), that assist users with determining the function of the behavior in question. The QABF was developed with adults with developmental disabilities and the MAS was developed on children with developmental disabilities.

Contextualism is a concept somewhat close to behavior function. In short, contextualism refers to analyzing behavior in terms of the context that it occurs. What are the characteristics of the environment? Is it loud? Quiet? Hot? Who is there when the behavior happens?  What happens right before the behavior occurs? What happens earlier in the lead up to the occurrence of the behavior? What happens after?

All of these questions are things that we ask when we analyze behavior. Taking these things into consideration is why we refer to Applied Behavior Analysis as contextual.

Our final hallmark of ABA is one of the more ephemeral concepts. It is complex and philosophical in nature and often times needs to be reflected on to really get a grasp of it. This is the concept of determinism. This is also one of the more controversial concepts in ABA. Essentially, the concept of determinism says that our behavior is under the influence of our learning histories, the antecedents that occasion the behavior, and the consequences that reinforce or punish it. We are not operating under the umbrella of free will.

Like was said earlier, this is a controversial concept. Some say that our verbal behavior (i.e., thoughts) can control our behavior. In some cases, it may mitigate our behavior and, of course, it is behavior and therefore is under the same influences of antecedents, consequences and learning history. However, with the exception of the species-specific behavior we are born with, we are products of our learning histories and present environmental factors.

Applied Behavior Analysis is an elaborate science of behavior and it has been applied in many arenas (businesses, animal training, individuals with developmental disabilities, individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury, etc.,). There are many laws and principles and even more techniques based on these laws and principles. Some of the main hallmarks remain those referenced above (i.e., reinforcement, functions of behavior, contextualism, and determinism).

Why Does ABA Help Children With Autism?

Why is Applied Behavior Analysis treatment helpful when teaching children with autism?  What is it about these principles and techniques that seem to be a good fit in helping improve the lives of those affected with autism? These are very important questions to ask and their answers are imperative to understanding why individuals with autism often need specialized teaching environments to learn.

We all know that typically developing children learn throughout all waking hours, even when they are not being formally taught. Typically developing children watch other children, watch adults, watch TV, learn from school, and incorporate what they have learned into their repertoire.  Often times they only need to see something once or twice before it comes easily to them. Parents are often amazed at what their children are learning and frequently ask, “where did you learn to do that?” Furthermore, when children acquire language, they often begin to ask questions of others in their environment. From the basic “why” question that parents so often get asked to more elaborate questions about “How this thing works, or how that thing works”. They become their own information seeking beings.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of children with autism. Children with autism learn much less from their environment. They have a weakness in what’s called observational learning or learning via imitation, that is, watching someone else do something, and learning to do it themselves without any specific teaching.  Children with Autism typically have decreased language skills and thus attend less to others, or they understand less of what is said to them, or they ask fewer questions of others. For most children with autism, you cannot expect to put them in a classroom setting and have them learn and absorb what the teacher is saying, mainly as a direct result of the characteristics of autism.

However, ABA programs create a very structured environment where conditions are optimized for learning, and over time, this very structured environment is systematically changed so that it mimics what a child could expect if and when they are placed in the classroom. In other words, initially, an ABA program will create a somewhat unnatural or atypical learning environment for a child, such as teaching them in a distraction free, one-to-one environment in their home, but over time, this environment will slowly change so that it looks like every other classroom that a child may encounter in their school years.  It is important to note that the main premise of an ABA program is teaching a child, “how to learn,” so that they will no longer need such structured and specialized services.

Also, ABA programs take into consideration generalization and maintenance and plan accordingly for these issues. That is, another common challenge with children with autism is that they don’t easily apply something that was learned in one environment into another environment (e.g., if something was taught at home, the child may not do it at school). Last, it is sometime difficult for children with autism to remember something that was taught at some time in the future. That is tough for all of us sometimes. However, it is essential for children with autism as their programs often are composed of skills that build on one another.

Individualization in the Treatment of Children with Autism

In ABA programs, the individual’s behavior is the primary focus when it comes to intervention development, execution, and monitoring. As such, the design and implementation of all ABA programs must be individualized. This is not only an ethical requirement, but also clinically relevant because each child has their own strengths, skill deficits, environments they spend time in, learning histories, and a unique biology. These factors must be considered during the design of an ABA program. Autism is a spectrum disorder and that means there are a lot of differences in the characteristics that each individual may have.

To illustrate, the goal of teaching pretend play skills to a child who has limited pretend play skills might be a high priority goal. However, the same goal might not be a high priority goal for a different child who already demonstrates age level pretend play skills since he or she already has this skill in their repertoire. In the case of the latter scenario, it may be more clinically appropriate to teach ways in which the pretend play skills can be expanded upon, generalized, or to target different curricular areas in which there are deficits. This is an example of how one particular goal may not be clinically appropriate for two different children.

As mentioned earlier, individualization should take a learner’s strengths and skill deficits into consideration. With this, a learner’s strengths can be built upon while the areas of deficit are strengthened. Remember, ABA is never ‘one size fits all’ and a good program should rely on assessment tools such as observations, interviews, clinical assessments, and collaboration with the learner’s family to establish individualized goals that are in the best interest of the client.

Below are a few ways in which individualization can be achieved in an ABA program:

  • Consider the interests and preferences of the child. Create ways to incorporate these in to the ABA program.
  • Consider the sociocultural values of a child’s family, along with their top concerns as they relate to behavior challenges and skill deficits.
  • Through use of validated clinical methods, explore the child’s strengths and deficits as they relate to major domains – socialization, communication, self-care, motor skills, etc.
  • Promote collaboration between a child’s family members, other professionals (teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists) in the child’s life, and the ABA provider.

Though the list above is not exhaustive, we hope this post has provided you with some information about individualization in ABA programs!

Some Considerations and Strategies for Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

When creating an educational program for students with ASD, each student’s unique characteristics present unique challenges for administrators and school support staff. An effective classroom must include a physical structure that enhances learning opportunities and instructional approaches that facilitate learning, language acquisition, behavior management, social skills, and academic goals. We can apply many of the basic principles of effective instruction that are used in within the general education classroom as we work with students with autism and Asperger Syndrome, however, there are certain strategies that have been proven to be particularly effective. These strategies provide structure and predictability to the learning process, allow students to anticipate task requirements and setting expectations, and teach a variety of skills across content areas in the natural environment, enhancing the likelihood of generalization.

Predictability and sameness are significant factors throughout student’s daily lives. One way to address these elements in the classroom is with “Environmental Supports”. Environmental supports help students organize the physical space in ways that help our students predict any changes in their daily routines or deviations from typical expectations that may take place during the school day; different activities or events, a substitute teacher, or fire drills. We can help students understand expectations, and in general, make sense of their entire environment. Researchers have defined environmental support as “aspects of the environment, other than interactions with people, which affect the learning that takes place”. Examples of environmental supports are: Labels, Boundary settings, Visual schedules, Behavioral-based education tools, Activity completion signals, Choice boards, and Waiting supports.

All of these environmental support strategies are a simple yet effective way to help a student respond appropriately in their day-to-day activities throughout their school day. Environmental supports can be effectively utilized across all environments and all settings to help support individual with ASD. Additionally, environment supports have been shown to increase student independence, and help stimulate language.

The physical organization of the classroom can be a crucial element for them enhancing success. Structure and predictability facilitate the students understanding of the environment, which can help decrease worry or agitation the student might have. This is really important for students with autism who tend to react negatively or really that difficult time with changes and unsent uncertainty in their environment. Something as simple as labeling furniture and objects in a classroom can have numerous benefits for students with autism; label boxes or containers with visual representations such as icons or hand-written labels. Students can then be taught to match the label on the container to the label on the shelf, allowing independents in retrieving or returning an activity to its appropriate place in the classroom.

Again, we want to emphasize that each student is unique and the strategies used need to reflect their unique needs.

What is ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. Behavior Analysis is a theory with principles and laws that are derived from research. All of the practices in Applied Behavior Analysis are derived from basic research. ABA is considered an evidence-based practice, which means that ABA has passed scientific tests of its usefulness, quality, and effectiveness. When such principles and laws are put into practice, it is said that behavior analysis is being appliedbehavior analysis helps us to understand how behavior works, how behavior is affected by the environment and how learning takes place, thus the term APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS or ABA for short.

Simply put, applied behavior analysis is a science concerned with the behavior of people, what people do and say, and the behavior of animals. Behavior analysis attempts to understand, describe, and predict behavior – why is it we do what we do and how did we learn to do what we do? The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.

The years of basic research in Applied Behavior Analysis have given us many Laws of Human Behavior that we can apply to the treatment of children with autism.  ABA has its roots in behavior therapy since the 20th century. The earliest behavior analysis on children with autism spectrum appeared in the early 1960’s and 1970’s in the USA.  ABA requires implementation of established principals of learning, behavioral strategies and environmental modifications to improve and teach new behaviors. Applied Behavior Analysis is founded on 7 core dimensions.  This means that all interventions that are provided through ABA services should fall within these 7 categories.  The 7 dimensions are, Generalization, Effective, Technological, Applied, Conceptually Systematic, Analytic and Behavioral. Generalization is when skills and or behaviors occur in environments other than where they were taught. Effective interventions are monitored to evaluate the impact on the target behavior.  Technological procedures are described clearly and concisely so that others may implement accurately. Applied is when socially significant behaviors are selected. Conceptually Systematic interventions are consistent with principals demonstrated by literature.  Analytic decisions are data based. Behaviors targeted are observable ad measurable.

It is important to understand that Applied Behavior Analysis is not only limited to autism. There is a variety of populations and fields that ABA can be applied to. The interventions that have been developed based on ABA principals are used in every walk of life and every profession.  Different types of people use ABA in their jobs and in their lives. Parents, teachers, psychologists and these ABA principals can be used in education, weight loss, animal training, sports and within many other fields and activities.  The ultimate goal of Applied Behavior Analysis is to establish and enhance socially important behaviors!

Observational Learning and Children with Autism

One of the main obstacles to learning that many children with autism face is a lack of observational learning skills. What is observational learning? It is learning that occurs without explicit teaching and by observing another person do something and simply doing what they do. Children with autism have difficulty learning by watching someone else and absorbing that information incidentally. For example, a typically developing child may look across the classroom and watch another child building a house using blocks. The next day at school this child may then build his or her own house using blocks without specifically being taught this task. This child simply watched another child, observed what the child was doing, was able to retain this information in his or her memory, and then accessed this information the next day in order to build a house. On the other hand, parents of typically developing children sometimes complain that their children are learning bad habits at school. This can also be observational learning at work. A child with autism may lack these imitation skills and so when they are in an environment filled with peers from which to learn, often times very little learning takes place. Opportunities for observational learning occur throughout the day and may contribute to a considerable amount of what we learn. Just think, was everything that you know explicitly taught to you? Chances are you answered “no”.

In an ABA program, one of the first skills taught to a child with autism is the skill of attending and imitating. Initially, this imitation might be as simple as imitating a handclap, or a wave. Over time, these imitation skills will expand so that the child can imitate complex behaviors such as how to watch a child from afar and build what they are building, how to play T-ball, how to draw pictures, or how to engage in self-care tasks such as brushing their teeth simply by watching, absorbing, and imitating. Imitation is one of the basic foundational skills needed for any child to be a successful learner. Therefore, there is much emphasis placed on imitation in ABA programs, particularly in the beginning stages of programs.

Using Boundary Markers to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

Boundary settings are a type of environmental support for students with ASD. Basic boundary markers which establish physical space for specific activities such as break time areas, and reading areas help students differentiate expectations across settings, especially when one area is used for different activities (this is very common in classrooms around the world). For example, if two or more tasks must be completed at the same work space or work area, using a colored tablecloth can help distinguish one activity from another. Reading could take place at the table and then it could be covered with an orange tablecloth when it is time for math. Additionally, sectioning off an area on the floor with colored tape, rugs, or anything else that would indicate where a student is expected to be during any given activity is an effective environmental support. This type of marking or labeling is simple and seems to be a minor modification, but in fact, it is highly effective for working with students with ASD. These modifications can reduce students’ confusion and increase clarity by identifying expectations.

It is important to note that simply applying these types of environmental supports without explicitly demonstrating them to the student and explaining what they are intended for will likely not result in the desired outcome. It is almost always necessary to show the student how they are intended to be followed for the markers and boundaries to be effective. Often times, showing or demonstrating to the students how the boundaries and markers are to be followed needs to be done repeatedly and over time.

Finally, when boundaries and markers begin to show effectiveness with students with ASD, rewards for appropriately following the supports should be utilized. That is, when a student correctly follows them they should be provided with social praise or other types of rewards.

What Constitutes Effective Intervention for Individuals with Autism? The National Research Council’s report on Effective Treatments for Autism Still Stands True

In 2001, the National Research Council published findings effective treatments on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism from birth to age 8. The committee set out with the question “What are the characteristics of effective interventions in educational programs for young children with autism spectrum disorders?” The findings were published in a comprehensive book titled, “Educating children with autism.”

In answering the above question, the committee recognized that there were numerous articles written on autism treatment and that there were numerous treatment programs across the country claiming to be effective in helping children with autism. Treatments ranging from ABA-based programs to developmentally-based programs to diet-based programs or more idiosyncratic programs such as sensory integration. In order to base their recommendations on clear evidence of effectiveness, the committee ruled out treatment that did not base their statements on some form of data regarding the outcome of the children.

They took a look at over 900 articles written on the treatment of autism and also enlisted the assistance of ‘model’ programs currently in place for the treatment of autism.  These model or state-of-the-art programs were typically university or research ran programs who that enlisted the services of highly qualified professionals. Of the ten model programs selected, seven were from an applied behavior analysis framework, one was from a developmental framework, one was purely parent training, and the last was a combination of behavioral and developmental frameworks.

The committee listed key features seen as variables of effective programs in an effort to use this information from these state-of-the-art programs and translate it to publicly funded early education programs across the country and to begin some quality control.

The first characteristic identified as a key feature of an effective treatment program is that of early entry into a program.  When reviewing the information from these model programs and based on findings from the literature, the committee saw that the earlier a child is placed in treatment the better their chances of making gains.  Therefore, their first recommendation was that educational services begin as soon as a child is suspected of having an autism spectrum disorder highlighting the importance of early intervention. Early detection and treatment are key phrases often heard in the medical field and this is the exact same case when it comes to the treatment of autism.  So, early entry is recommendation number one.

Next, the committee looked at the intensity of these programs and what has been shown in the literature  to be an effective level of intensity. Their conclusion upon review of the information was that educational services include a minimum of 25 hours a week, 5 days a week, 12 months a year during which time a child is actively engaged. The word minimum in this recommendation is key as some children may need more than this minimum of hours given the severity of their symptoms or their resistance to treatment.

Additionally, the notion of active engagement is very important as the recommended number of treatment hours is not merely the number of hours recommended for a child to be placed in a treatment program, but the number of hours to child is actively learning while in the program.  This means that the child should not be just physically present in a treatment program, but that each and every hour of that program is designed in a way in which the child will learn for a minimum of 25 hours per week.

Another way of looking at this is if it was recommended that a child attend a special education program 30 hours a week, one would initially think that the recommendation for a minimum number of hours has been met. However, if, within these 30 hours, the child spends at least two hours a day playing alone in the playground, one hour a day eating lunch, a few hours a day in unstructured and unsupervised solitary play activities, and only two hours of actual teaching occurs within the school day, a child is left with only a 10-hour a week treatment program. And while play time is extremely important for any child, if a child does not yet have the skills to know how to play, how can the child be expected to interact with other children during these free play times without specific structured teaching?  So, it is important to look beyond the number of hours and actually look at what each hour of the treatment program will entail whether that be an ABA program, school-based program, or any type of recommended treatment program.  It’s imperative that a child be placed in a program where they can access the curriculum and where the teachers or therapists are actively engaging the child so as to capture each and every teaching opportunity and make it a worthwhile experience. There needs to be intensive teaching and learning occurring during a child’s time in an intervention program.

The committee actually described intensity as a “large numbers of functionally, developmentally relevant, and high-interest opportunities to respond actively.”  In other words, a child’s time spent in a treatment program should result in high levels of learning when it comes to the matter of reaching their educational goals. So, the higher the level of active engagement, the higher the intensity, the higher the change rate for steady gains.

Next on the list of key characteristics was the child to teacher ratio. The committee recommended that programs consist of sufficient amounts of adult attention in order for a child to meet their educational goals, either learning with one-to-one or very small group instruction. The decision of student-to-teacher ratio should be made, depending on the learning ability of the child rather than depending on the staffing needs of the program.  Therefore, if a child can learn in a small group of maybe two children and one teacher, then that should suffice; however, as is the case for many young children with autism, if the child cannot occupy their own free time in a constructive manner, redirect their attention when asked, or learn via observation of a peer, then the teaching instruction should be in a one-to-one manner, that is one teacher with one child.

The committee recognized the need for well-trained personnel.  The committee noted that all the model programs they reviewed were developed by persons with Ph.D.’s in autism-related fields and the programs were directed and implemented by teams of professionals who had extensive training and experience in autism spectrum disorders. It is so important that the person designing a treatment program for a child with autism has extensive knowledge not only in the field of autism, but hands on experience in designing effective programs.

Next, the committee recognized the notion of individualization. A key characteristic of these model programs was that of comprehensive, individualized treatment goals based on the needs of each individual child rather than a one-size-fits-all curriculum for all the children in the program. The curriculum or individualized plan developed for each child should be based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses.  The goals for each child should also focus on the development of a child’s social and cognitive abilities, their verbal and non-verbal communication skills, adaptive or self-help skills, and the reduction of behavioral difficulties using more positive behavioral approaches rather than punitive approaches.

The second part of this recommendation, that “goals “are frequently adjusted,” cannot be emphasized enough. While the initial curriculum and targets developed for a child may be individualized at the onset of a treatment program, it is critical that these goals and targets be reviewed routinely and adjustments be made when necessary.

And lastly, the committee recognized the important role parents have when it comes to the effectiveness of treatment programs. A key characteristic amongst all model programs was their emphasis on parental training and involvement in the program. The involvement of parents is a very valuable tool in the treatment of autism because children spend most of their time with their parents; therefore, parents must play an active part in the treatment team so as to continue where the formal treatment sessions end. With parents as active participants of the program, a child will always be in a consistent environment where their skills can be generalization generalized and maintained.