Researchers at the Institute for Autism Research (IAR) at Canisius College were awarded an $880,431 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The grant will fully fund a three-year study of the long-term beneficial impacts from an innovative school intervention for high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorder (HFASD) developed by the IAR research team.
Children with HFASD comprise nearly half of all children with ASD and, despite relative strengths in cognitive and language skills, exhibit chronic and pervasive social impairments and restricted and repetitive behaviors that severely interfere with daily functioning leading to long-term negative outcomes. These long-term negative outcomes have led researchers to suggest that existing school interventions for these students are ineffective.
Addressing the social impairments and circumscribed and repetitive behaviors of children with HFASD is complex and requires a comprehensive treatment model. Researchers at the IAR have effectively treated the clinical impairments and symptoms of children with HFASD in their comprehensive summer program (summerMAX) for more than a decade. In an effort to more effectively treat these children in school settings, the research team adapted the summer program into a school-based intervention (schoolMAX), which they tested in a large-scale randomized trial funded by the U. S. Department of Education, IES. According to Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD, one of the principal investigators on the randomized trial and on the follow-up study, “it is essential to develop effective treatments that can be implemented in schools by school staff because students with HFASD have difficulty transferring skills across settings and they need to learn and practice critical skills in the authentic environments in which they are expected to demonstrate them.”
Results from the school study found that students with HFASD who received schoolMAX demonstrated significantly better social understanding and social skills and fewer ASD symptoms following treatment compared to students with HFASD who received their typical-educational programming.
“These results indicated large treatment gains immediately following the school year for children with HFASD that completed the treatment relative to the comparison group,” noted Jonathan D. Rodgers, PhD, an investigator on the original and follow-up study. “However little is known about the long-term beneficial impacts of the treatment or the durability of the gains.”
At present, there is widespread recognition among treatment researchers of the need for studies that examine the long-term effects of treatments, especially those that show large effects immediately following treatment, for children with HFASD. The current grant will allow the research team to track the skills and symptoms of the 102 children with HFASD that completed the original school study over a two-year period, with each child being tested twice per year.
“Testing the children who participated in the original study at two points over two consecutive follow-up years will allow us to examine not only the durability of the effects but also the long-term patterns and trajectories of the improvements for the children who completed schoolMAX,” noted Jennifer Lodi-Smith, PhD, a co-investigator on the follow-up study.
Results from the current study will help determine whether the schoolMAX program, conducted during one school year, leads to long-term sustained gains or whether the children will require ongoing supports to maintain the significant improvements that were found immediately following treatment.
“Identifying treatments that produce long-term and sustained gains is critically important to the overall quality of life of children with HFASD and their families and it has significant public health implications,” noted Christopher Lopata, PsyD and James P. Donnelly, PhD, principal investigators on the original school study and follow-up study.