Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Early Childhood Intervention for Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

“What are the most important treatment strategies or program goals for treating younger children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism?”

Although treatment programs may differ in philosophy and emphasis on particular treatment strategies, they share many common goals. There is a growing consensus that important components of effective early childhood intervention for Asperger’s and HFA include the following:
  • entry into treatment as soon as a diagnosis is “seriously considered” rather than deferring until a “definitive” diagnosis is made
  • functional adaptive skills that prepare the youngster for increased responsibility and independence
  • functional, spontaneous communication skills
  • implementation of techniques to apply learned skills to new environments and situations (i.e., generalization) and to maintain functional use of these skills
  • in the educational setting, low student-to-teacher ratio to allow sufficient amounts of one-on-one time and small-group instruction to meet specific individualized goals
  • inclusion of a family component, including parent training
  • incorporation of a high degree of structure (e.g., predictable routine, visual activity schedules, clear physical boundaries to minimize distractions, etc.)
  • ongoing measurement and documentation of the youngster's progress toward educational objectives, resulting in adjustments in programming when needed
  • promotion of opportunities for interaction with “typically developing” peers to the extent that these opportunities are helpful in addressing specified educational goals
  • provision of intensive intervention with active engagement of the youngster at least 25 hours per week, 12 months per year
  • provision of developmentally appropriate educational activities designed to address identified objectives
  • reduction of disruptive or maladaptive behavior by using empirically supported strategies, including functional assessment (see below)
  • social skills (e.g., joint attention, imitation, reciprocal interaction, initiation, self-management, etc.)
  • traditional readiness skills and academic skills as developmentally needed
  • use of assessment-based curricula that address cognitive skills (e.g., symbolic play, perspective taking, etc.)

Applied Behavior Analysis—

One of the most important methods for treating younger children with Asperger’s and HFA is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is a process used to systematically change behavior and to demonstrate that the interventions used are responsible for the observable improvement in behavior. ABA techniques are used to:
  • generalize behaviors to new environments and situations
  • increase and maintain desirable adaptive behaviors
  • narrow the conditions under which maladaptive behaviors occur
  • reduce interfering maladaptive behaviors
  • teach new skills

ABA focuses on the reliable measurement and objective evaluation of observable behavior within relevant settings (e.g., home, school, community, etc.). The effectiveness of ABA in treating children with Asperger’s and HFA has been well documented through five decades of research by using single-subject methodology and in controlled studies of comprehensive early behavioral intervention programs in university and community settings. Kids on the spectrum who receive early intensive behavioral treatment have been shown to make significant and sustained gains in academic performance, adaptive behavior, IQ, language, and social behavior. Also, outcomes have been significantly better than those of kids in control groups.

Discrete Trial Training—

Comprehensive early intervention programs for kids on the autism spectrum (e.g., Young Autism Project) rely heavily on Discrete Trial Training (DTT) methodology, but this is only one of many techniques used within the field of ABA. DTT methods are useful in establishing learning readiness by teaching foundation skills (e.g., attention, compliance, imitation, discrimination learning, etc.). This methodology has been criticized because (a) there have been problems with generalization of learned behaviors to spontaneous use in natural environments, and (b) the highly structured teaching environment is not representative of natural adult-child interactions. However, traditional ABA techniques have been modified to address these issues. Thus, DTT is still a very useful tool in the therapist’s toolbox.

Functional Behavior Analysis—

Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is an important aspect of behaviorally-based treatment of unwanted behaviors in children with Asperger’s and HFA. Most problem behaviors serve an adaptive function of some type and are reinforced by their consequences (e.g., attainment of adult attention; attainment of a desired object, activity, or sensation; escape from an undesired situation or demand). FBA is an empirically-based method of gathering information that can be used to maximize the effectiveness of behavioral support interventions. It includes:
  • formulating a clear description of the problem behavior
  • identifying the frequency and intensity of the problem behavior
  • identifying the antecedents, consequences, and other environmental factors that maintain the behavior
  • developing hypotheses that specify the motivating function of the behavior
  • collecting direct observational data to test the hypothesis

FBA also is helpful in identifying antecedents and consequences that are associated with increased frequency of desirable behaviors so that they can be used to evoke new adaptive behaviors.

The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook

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