Evidence-Based Autism Interventions
Teaching and Lifelong Learning
Rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have risen to an estimated one out of 59 children in the United States, and the specific presentation of ASD varies dramatically from child to child, making educational interventions as challenging as they are essential.
That challenge inspires the work of the students and faculty who staff Texas State University’s Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support (CARES). Under the leadership of CARES’ executive director, Dr. Russell Lang, master’s degree students in the College of Education research strategies for improving education and functional skills training for people with ASD.
As children and youth with autism grow into adulthood, often there is a shortage of specialized services.
Most research models employ a top-down approach; the principal investigator begins with a research question and hypothesis, and then looks for participants to populate the study. In contrast, the CARES model “looks for places to help within the community in a way that is meaningful to our graduate students’ training.” For example, according to Dr. Brenda Scheuermann, coordinator of Texas State’s special education program, “As children and youth with autism grow into adulthood, often there is a shortage of specialized services. Within the last couple of years, CARES has begun providing intervention services to older adolescents and young adults.” Likewise, recent CARES research established the importance of delivering instruction to ASD children in the same language their parents speak at home, even when the children test as totally nonverbal, a result that could substantially affect service delivery strategies in places like Central Texas, with large Spanish-speaking populations.
CARES research established the importance of delivering instruction to ASD children in the same language their parents speak at home.
From start to finish, graduate students’ research projects are guided by the specific needs of individual clients and the community. Students’ research questions often arise from the observation that existing evidence-based interventions are unavailable or inadequate to meet a particular client’s needs. This deficit motivates the applied intervention research conducted at CARES. Additionally, CARES uses socially valid evidence-based practice, gathering data about teachers’ experiences with CARES’ intervention strategies. Evaluating teachers’ receptiveness to particular interventions is essential, because when teachers see and endorse the strategies’ value, Lang says, “they are more likely to continue using the intervention over time, which is associated with improved child outcomes.”
Allowing client needs to guide the selection of research questions is directly linked to the CARES model’s prioritization of small-scale research. According to Lang, these smaller studies give master’s students the opportunity to participate “from the bottom up.” Rather than being assigned a small component of a long-term study with hundreds of research subjects, graduate students gain experience with every stage of the process — from framing the initial research question to writing up the results — during their two-year master’s program.
Rather than being assigned a small component of a long-term study with hundreds of research subjects, graduate students gain experience with every stage of the process.
CARES also prioritizes translational research, in which both basic research and innovative evidence-based interventions are adapted in community- and client-specific applications, allowing graduate students to replicate and extend existing research in exciting new ways. For example, in one recent paper published in the International Journal of Developmental Disabilities, CARES researchers used iPods to deliver visual activity schedules and video modeling (VAS/VM) to two children with ASD, helping them develop mathematics and vocabulary-building skills while minimizing the need for active monitoring and instruction by teachers. Reducing the need for frequent teacher prompting can make intervention strategies more effective, particularly in overcrowded schools. Although limited to two participants, this research was recognized both for its application of VAS/VM, which has rarely been used in autism research, and for its results, which documented improved educational outcomes as well as reduction of challenging behaviors (such as repetitive self-soothing movements), while minimizing the need for teacher prompting. Lang and the graduate student who led that project were invited to present their study in Rome, at the International Conference on Assistive Technology and Disabilities.
The numbers bear out the efficacy of the CARES strategy. CARES has more than doubled in size — currently serving more than 50 master’s students — and averages six to eight peer reviewed publications per year, half of which are student-led. This hands-on role for students pays dividends. “This year alone we had four graduate students go on to Research 1 institutions, with full rides and full stipends, because of research that they contributed to here, and we’ve had dozens over the last five years do so,” Lang says. Many other students have found employment with school districts who have partnered with CARES. Community interest demonstrates that CARES is doing just as good a job serving the community as it is serving students, with more than 100 clients served per year and a substantial waiting list of people in need of services.
Accurate as of July 2019