Research Paper on Autism

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The International Journal of Special Education
2005, Vol 20, No.1.

Carolyn E. Stephens

University of Georgia

Identifying effective interventions to help children with autism reach their potential has been a source of disagreement among professionals and parents for decades. The complexities of the challenges that face children with autism, and uncertainty about best practices, have delayed progress. This article identifies seven critical program components that address some of the challenges associated with providing effective and efficient autism intervention programs. The results for children who participate in these programs encourage belief in the ability of children with autism to respond with positive change to appropriately designed and implemented interventions.

The number of children with autism entering public school systems has increased dramatically in the last 15 years (National Research Council, 2001; Yeargin-Allsopp, et al. 2003). In response, schools are struggling to meet the demands for skilled personnel and effective program structures (Peeters & Gillberg, 1999; Simpson, 1995). Professionals have disagreed about how best to identify components necessary for appropriate programs, how to implement programs that meet a broad range of children’s needs, and how to match efficient and effective services to specific characteristics of individual children (Anderson & Romancqyk, 1999; Brown & Bamberra, 1999; Cohen, 1999; Feinberg & Vacca, 2000; Pfeiffer & Nelson, 1992).

This article presents a brief historical perspective on factors that have complicated implementation of effective interventions on the large scale necessary to meet the needs of school systems in the United States. It also presents seven program components that, based on the literature, may significantly improve results of any comprehensive intervention. These seven program characteristics are supported by many professionals from multiple disciplines involved in studying needs of children with autism. In this regard, the use of the word professionals includes teachers as well as others, such as speech and language pathologists, psychologists, and program administrators. Changes in autism interventions are clearly moving in a positive direction in which children are demonstrating motivation to learn in programs that can address the developmental deficits that interfere with their learning (Bryan & Gast, 2000; Koegel, Koegel, & McNerney, 2001).

Multiple factors Influence Development of Effective Systems of Intervention

The literature identifies at least four factors that have contributed to the difficulty many program administrators face in trying to provide effective and sufficient services for children with autism (Conderman & Katsyannis, 1996; Feinberg & Vacca, 2000). They include the following: (a) Characteristics of autism interfere with learning, (b) Programs maintain low expectations based on historically poor long-term results, (c) Funding resources are limited and intensive programs are costly, and (d) Parents and professionals have had divergent points of view about some fundamental issues.

Characteristics of Autism Interfere with Learning

The unique learning characteristics of those diagnosed with autism vary widely from typical learners, and contribute to the complexities of determining a single best treatment (American Psychiatric Association (APA), 1994, Campbell, Schopler, Cueva, & Hallin, 1996). Atypical patterns of attending to stimuli impede children with autism from focusing on critical aspects of tasks (Koegel, Koegel, Frea, & Green-Hopkins, 2003; Smith & Lovaas, 1998). Atypical choices in reinforcement interfere with children’s correct responding to tasks assigned (Heflin & Alberto, 2001). Social interactions that contribute to early learning experiences of typically developing children are often...
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