Researchers found that preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) make significant improvements during the school year regardless of which special education model teachers use.
Two frequently used comprehensive treatment models have long histories in the field and are used frequently in the public school system. They are the Learning Experiences and Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their parents (LEAP) and the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH).
Anibal Gutierrez, assistant professor of psychology and co-director of the Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention program, is a co-author in the study which compares the LEAP and TEACCH models to each other and to other non-model specific programs (NMS). NMS programs are high-quality special education programs that do not use the LEAP or TEACCH models. Published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, this study is the first to do such a comparison.
“These results demonstrate that high quality classrooms can result in good treatment outcomes for children with autism in our public school systems,” Gutierrez said.
The multi-site study, funded by a grant from the Institute for Education Sciences, took place only in high-quality classrooms and enrolled teachers and 3- to 5-year-olds in public school districts. Each group of children showed significant positive change in autism severity, communication and fine motor skills and there were no statistically significant differences between treatment models.
Previous research has shown the benefits of early intervention programs for children with ASD. However, debate has persisted as to which approaches to use – until now.
The authors of the study note that perhaps it is not the unique features of the models that most contribute to child gains, but instead it is the common features of the models that most influence child growth.
“Future research will likely focus on individual child variables that affect response to intervention as well as investigating the common features shared by effective classrooms in order to design more effective school-based interventions,” Gutierrez said.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Miami and University of Minnesota also participated in the study.