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Dr. Chris’ Autism Journal
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Early Results of National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) Study with TeachTown Efficacy in Pre-1st ASD Classrooms


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Boy at chalkboardThe following is a summary of our results to date in a study in progress.  This is a collaborative research effort with Jigsaw Learning (TeachTown), Los Angeles Unified School District, and Cal State University, Los Angeles.  The study will conclude in June, 2009 and final results will be posted this summer.  In addition, the results will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal this fall.
To address the increasing need for solutions for serving children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the schools, it is important to consider options that are more accessible and affordable such as Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI).  However, it is even more essential that these solutions are effective and research is needed to address this issue.  In this collaborative study with TeachTown, Los Angeles Unified School District, and California State University, Los Angeles, a CAI program which targets language, cognitive, academic, social, and life skills will be assessed in a large public school system.  Approximately 50 preschool and kindergarten-1sTeachTown Mapt grade children with ASD are participating with 25 children in a treatment group and 25 children in a control group.  Children in the treatment group received 50-100 minutes per week of CAI and 50-100 minutes per week of supplementary off-computer activities designed to enhance generalization to the natural environment.  The CAI and off-computer activities were provided through TeachTown: Basics, which is currently being used in many schools across the United States, but which has not yet been tested in a randomized research study.  In addition to the automatic data collection provided by the software, students were assessed using behavioral and standardized outcome measures.  It was anticipated that the classrooms using the TeachTown: Basics program would demonstrate significantly higher rates of acquisition across learning areas and would also show more improvement in their spontaneous language and social interaction.  It was also expected that children in the treatment group would exhibit less inappropriate behaviors following treatment than their peers in the control group. Following this Gen Webinar study, it is also anticipated that teachers and parents involved in the Children at computertreatment group will show higher satisfaction ratings with their child’s program than those parents and teachers associated with the control group.  The results of this research will help demonstrate to school districts the effectiveness and social validity of implementing CAI, and will help districts such as LAUSD secure funding for these types of programs by having data to demonstrate the effectiveness.  The behavioral observation data is currently being coded by graduate students at California State University, Los Angeles, and children in both groups will use TeachTown: Basics through the rest of the school year to assess effectiveness between groups and within the control group.

About LAUSD Population
District Population: 688,138
Special Education Students: 82,326
English Language Learners (ELL) Students: 39,455
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students: 8,516

  • Primary eligibility
  • Additional 55 with ASD as secondary eligibility

LAUSD Autism Programs
Preschool Autism Special Day Programs (SDPs) - 1/2 day
Intensive Comprehensive Autism Program (ICAP) (ages 3-6)
Autism SDP (primary – high school)
Autism SDP for students with High Functioning Autism (HFA) /Asperger
Any/all other options

Issues in Autism Programs

  • Staff-student ratios
  • Funding
  • Staff training and implementation
  • Accountability
  • Behavior problems of students
  • Access to general curriculum
  • Rapid increases in ASD
  • Access to evidence-based interventions
  • Paucity of appropriate staff (have to contract out)

Potential Benefits of TeachTown: Basics for LAUSD Students
Evidenced-based intervention with built-in data collection
Differential instruction
Collaboration with parents
Curricular guidance for teachers
Motivation for “hard to teach” students
Flexibility as students transition to different settings

Treatment Procedure

  • TeachTown: Basics Curriculum (Dev Ages 2-7 years)
    • Academic/Cognitive Skills
    • Social UnderstandingPicture3.jpg
    • Receptive Language
    • Life & Community Skill Understanding
  • Daily computer sessions on school days for 20 minutes/day (can be done in 2
  • 10-minute sessions)
  • Daily off-computer activities on school days for 20 minutes/day (1:1, small group or circle activity)
  • 3 months of intervention

Purpose and Design of Research

  • Purpose: To assess the efficacy of the TeachTown: Basics program in self-contained special education classrooms in a large, urban school district.
  • Design: Between and Within-Subjects Group Design, 4 schools – each randomly assigned in the fall to Treatment or Control, in spring, Control classrooms begin treatment.

About the TeachTown: Basics Program (the Intervention)

Vacuum Reward.pngCheck out the website for information about the program: www.teachtown.com

TeachTown: Basics includes the following:

  1. ABC Screenshot.PNGOn-computer lessons where the child gets on the computer and completes lessons in an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) format with engaging reward games to keep them motivated;
  2. Off-computer activities to work on skills that are not targeted on the computer (e.g. Expressive Language, Play, Imitation, Social Interaction, Motor Skills) and to enhance generalization of skills learned on the computer to the natural environment;
  3. Automated data collection and tracking to assess the child’s progress as they move through the computer program and for school staff to use to assess the effectiveness of the intervention and to determine which skills may need more work off the computer;
  4. Note taking system for school staff to jot down anecdotal information about the child’s performance or any other relevant information to the child’s success with the program; and
  5. Synchronization and updating of data which allows the teacher to eventually share information with the families (not in this study) and for the child to be able to use the program at home (not in this study).  In addition, this feature allows the research team to look at data on a regular basis to determine how the study is progressing and to conduct final data analysis.

Participants Results: TeachTown: Basics Software Program
LAUSD Feb Melvin Dontell Computer_0001.jpgFifteen of the 22 students mastered lessons using the TeachTown:Basics software program.  This does not mean that the other students did not make progress on the program, it just means that some of the children are still working toward mastery on their lessons, which will likely result in some mastered lessons by the end of the school year for most students.  It is not unusual for students to not master lessons in only 3 months time.  Students not meeting mastery are those with more severe cognitive delays, and those that were unable to complete 20 minute sessions.  Data below is shown for the 15 students who did master lessons in 3 months time.  There was statistical significance at the p>0001 level from the Pre tests to the Post tests, which are a part of the TeachTown: Basics program and test the child’s knowledge of concepts using a different set of stimuli from the training to ensure that the children are learning the concepts (i.e. targets) and not just memorizing pictures. In 3 months, students, on average, mastered lessons in about 43 minutes (Preschool) to 52 minutes (K-1) and mastered 5-6 lessons (20-24 concepts/targets).

Results: Language Changes on the Brigance Assessment from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Brigance is a standardized developmental assessment that is frequently LAUSD Feb Parthenia Isaah Computer_0001.jpgused to identify deficits and track progress in various developmental areas including language, cognition, social skills, and motor skills.  LAUSD uses the
measure in their ICAP and other autism programs to asess the progress of the children enrolled in their programs.  This measure aligns well with the TeachTown: Basics curriculum and was used in this study to measure progress for students
in the Treatment and the Control groups.  Body Parts measures the knowledge of body parts; Receptive Language measures comprehension and vocabulary; and Expressive Language measures labeling and expressive communication.
All classrooms demonstrated improvement in language areas on the Brigance, but
–         The TeachTown Treatment Group showed much bigger changes in Body Image (i.e. identification of body parts) and Expressive Language.
–          The students in the preschool groups performed similarly on Receptive Language, but,
–         the K-1 students in the TeachTown Treatment group showed greater change than the Control K-1 students

NCTI- Brigance2.bmp

Results: Cognitive and Social Skill Changes on the Brigance Assessment from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Preschool students had similar improvements in Matching on the Brigance, but TTB students (Tx Grp) made bigger gains than the Control group in Auditory Memory, General Concepts, and Social Skills.
The K-1 Students had similar improvements in General Concepts and Social Skills, but the TTB students (Tx Grp) made bigger gains in Matching and Auditory Memory.
Matching measures the child’s ability to match objects and categorize, Auditory Memory measures the child’s ability to understand and follow directions and to remember information that was presented to them, General Concepts measure the child’s basic early academic abilities (e.g. letters, numbers, etc.), and Social Skills measure the child’s knowledge of social situations (e.g. emotions, friendship, etc.).

Results: Language Changes on the PPVT-III and EVT Assessments from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-III) and the Expressive Vocabulary Test (EVT) were used to further measures changes in Receptive and Expressive Language skills.  Age-Equivalents are not shown because many students did not establish basal in Oct.  In Feb, there was a larger increase in the number of Preschool students establishing basal in the TeachTown group (4 additional students on PPVT, 5 additional students on EVT) compared to the Control group (1 additional student on PPVT & EVT).  The TeachTown (Tx) group also had slightly more students establishing basal in Feb (2 additional students on PPVT & EVT) compared to the Control group (1 additional student on PPVT & EVT).

Summary of Results

  • The Treatment group demonstrated much bigger increases in
    • Receptive and Expressive language using the PPVT-4, EVT-2, and the Brigance
    • Auditory Memory, General Concepts, and Social Skills for the Preschool students using the Brigan000_94_Bill_throwing1.pngce
    • Matching and Auditory Memory for the K-1 students using the Brigance
  • They also showed slightly larger increases in
    • Matching for the Preschool students using the Brigance
    • General Concepts and Social Skills for K-1 students using the Brigance
  • After 3 months of using the TeachTown: Basics program, students in the Treatment group:
    • Made significant gains from Pre to Post Tests in the TeachTown: Basics software
    • Learned 34-39 target concepts (on average) in the TeachTown: Basics software with the largest gains in Receptive Vocabulary

This is a summary of our results to date in a study in progress.  This is a collaborative research effort with Jigsaw Learning (TeachTown), Los Angeles Unified School District, and Cal State University, Los Angeles.  The study will conclude this summer and final results will be posted later this summer. 

Calling All IEP Participants… Some Tools for the Trade


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How do you know your IEP is a good one?  It’s simple, it’s on the child’s table, wrinkled, splattered with juice, it’s dog-fileseared with turned up corners and is coffee stained throughout it’s many pages.  These are the signs of hard work, daily lesson planning, ongoing documentation and evaluation, individualized instruction, effective and meaningful goals, dedicated teachers… And well, let’s face it, it’s what every parent wants for their child who’s participating in the special education programs in our public schools across the country.

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan, it is essentially a contract between the school and the parents of the child with special needs.  An IEP shapes the child’s education and guides delivery of support and services while also providing a system of checks and balances for all of the people involved in the child’s program.  Essentially the purpose of the IEP is to provide an individualized document that will structure and organize the programing for the child with autism or other special needs and will allow the entire team a way of determining if the student is making meaningful progress.

There is no doubt that the IEP is the most important document in Special Education.  To create an effective and meaningful IEP, the parents, teachers, other school staff, and often other outside service professionals must come together and look closely at the child’s unique and individual needs.  Each team member will contribute in some way their experience, knowledge, and committment to this particular child to design an educational plan that will allow the child, as much as possible, access to the general education curriculum while preparing the child for employment and independence to the greatest extent possible.  Without fail, the design and implementation of each student’s IEP requires ongoing teamwork and careful communication among all IEP team members.

The team needs to work together to make a plan that is easily understood by all of the child’s IEP team members and the people who are involved in working with the child on a regular basis, this would include the parents, the paras, and the even the substitute teachers.  Goals and objectives should be clearly outlined  and include data collection procedures so that the team can objectively measure the child’s progress.  The team needs to be careful to not write an IEP that is too complicated, long, overwhelming, limited, etc. for the people who are implementing it.  The IEP should be as clear and as concise as possible.  However, with it’s clarity and concise attributes, the IEP also needs to be as close to perfect as the team can possibly get it which does take a certain amount of time and detail.  All parties coming to the table to meet for the child’s IEP need to come with an open mind and be ready to negotiate and compromise.  Parents should know however, that if they are in disagreement about something that is suggested or written in the IEP, they need to speak up immediately and make sure their disagreement is noted.

IEP cycleServing the entire spectrum of autism is not easy to do in one classroom, but teachers everywhere are up to the challenge as long as they have the support and teamwork required to do so.  The individual needs of students on the spectrum are unique and can vary quite extensively from one child to another.  It’s not uncommon to see a child’s IEP state that he or she will have SLP services 2 times a week, OT services for 20 mintues each week, attend adapted PE one hour a week, participate in small group social skills twice a week for 20 minutes, play therapy sessions throughout the school year, home visits each month, and positive behavior support planning throughout the year and across all settings.  It’s also not uncommon to attend 10 IEP meetings in 2 years for the same child, while at the same time another child may only have 2 meetings across the entire preschool program.  What really makes a difference is how involved the parents can and want to be and how supported and resourceful the school is in providing effective and accountable programs for the children in the special education programs.

Students with autism take the term “individualized” to the greatest extent imaginable.  There is definitely no cookie cutter approach for designing an effective curriculum for a child with autism or any child with special needs.  Clearly, assessment and ongoing evaluation are critical in understanding what the child can and cannot do.  For the student with ASD, this likely means a great deal of time will be spent on the present levels of performance (PLOP) so that the team knows where the child currently is and what the next steps should look like for the child.

IEP Goal Recommendations for Teachers:

Lower functioning or younger children on the spectrumteacher

  • functional communication skills
  • play skills
  • social interaction skills
  • adaptive behavior, daily living, or self help skills
  • academic skills
  • behavior support plans

Higher functioning or older students with autism or Asperger Syndrome

  • social skills/friendship skills
  • pragmatic language and conversation skills
  • organizational skills
  • academic skills
  • indpendence skills
  • employability and vocational skills
  • self advocacy and determination skills
  • behavior support plans

Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP) - sometimes a box on the IEP is checked if the student’s behavior is “impeding learning for self or others”.  If this is checked off, then a separate document should be attached to the IEP and should lay out a very clear plan for dealing with challenging behavior.  Below are the essential components to a BIP.

  • description of the problem behavior
  • position statement regarding the function of the behavior
  • triggers, setting events, antecedents
  • prevention strategies
  • replacement behaviors
  • proactive instructional strategies
  • reactive consequence strategies
  • safety plans
  • long term prevention strategies
  • re-evaluation and on-going monitoring plans and schedules

IEP Meeting Recommendations for Parents:

Be preparedparents

  • have a copy of your child’s current IEP and current goals
  • provide a list of your child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • share goals you feel need to be addressed
  • communicate clearly your ideas of what you want for your child
  • ask for any test/assessment results before the meeting
  • bring hard copies of any new information or outside evaluations

Know your rights

  • read up on the current laws pertaining to what you are requesting of the school
  • investigate law cases and bring copies to the meeting, if possible provide before the meeting
  • read up on current research and recommendations published in peer reviewed journals and manuals, provide this information to your school team, they may not know!

Be an advocate for your child

  • understand and articulate what you feel is important for your child
  • if the IEP team says no to what you feel is a reasonable request, continue to work on it and take it one step further, continue until the team can reach an agreement
  • nobody knows your child the way you do, work hard with your school team to create an equal partnership - you are the expert on your child, they are the expert on teaching, an equal partnership between parents and teachers is beneficial to the child in so many ways.
  • as a last resort, when the IEP team just can’t find a way to come to an agreement on something you feel is very important, at least know ahead of time the process and further steps you can consider taking to ensure that your priorities for your child are not lost in the shuffle… starting with pre-mediation with an advocate, mediation, due process, etc.

parent teacher confCreating an equal partnership between parents and teachers is a critical component to developing a “good” IEP.  As much time and energy that goes into writing the IEP should also go into building positive and receptive relationships between the home and the school.  It is not a lot to ask that the teachers and the school administrators see the parents as an equal partner in this process and as an expert on autism and this particular student.  There is nothing more discouraging for a parent than to come to their child’s IEP meeting and the IEP is already written, very little input from the parent was considered, and being told at the onset of the meeting that “we only have 50 minutes.”  Likewise the parents should come to the meetings believing that the teachers have every best intention in providng effective instruction for their child and that the progress of that child is just as important to the teachers as it is to the parents.  Every teacher runs into a situation where no matter what they do, it will never be enough.  Excellent school to home communication prompted by the teachers is critical for facilitating active involvement of parents while at the same time it’s the parent’s job and responsibility in this partnership to become a knowledgeable advocate for their child.

Good IEPs, the ones that are dog-eared and coffee stained, are the ones that come from a delicate balance of parent and teacher involvement.  Open lines of communication are critical in creating and managing this delicate balance.  Parent and teacher partnerships are the key to a successful school year.

Schools Need Help!


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It seems like every week I am reading an article about another school district struggling to keep up with the expenses of educating children with autism and how instead of adding resources, they keep getting taken away!

In South Carolina, $1.4 million were taken away from the already struggling programs.  This means that children might not get the needed treatment that they need, such as ABA.  More than $700,000 is being dedicated to serving the children with autism, which will cover ABA for only 30 students.  It seems to me that solutions must be found which can spread the limited amounts of money further, how can schools serve more children with the same amount of money while still providing the quality treatment that is needed?

000_86_Eric_catching.pngIt is time for researchers to start thinking about solutions for schools, there is a large amount of data supporting ABA and some other approaches as well.  However, I would like to see studies looking at how to develop ABA treatments further so as to be able to serve more children, perhaps in small group instruction, or utilizing technology, or simplifying procedures for less expensive staff to implement, or other creative solutions to deal with this critical issue in our education system.

In addition, I would like to see more funding and grants for school programs and more education for school staff to more effectively educate children with autism spectrum disorders.  This could be done easily through online learning programs or local conferences for educators.  In addition, more funding and research is needed for how to effectively and efficiently educate school staff so that they are empowered and motivated.

The other important thing that is needed for school systems is training and accountability for student outcome.  Researchers should consider designing assessments that are feasible and easy for schools to implement, and standards should be set for what exactly schools are expected to measure and report.  While some school districts require teachers to use standardized measures of assessment, these measures are often not appropriate or informative for measuring the progress of children with autism spectrum disorders.  If measurements are required, they should be scientifically validated for the autism population.  In addition, managable and efficient tools need to be developed and available to teachers to make data collection accurate and consistent.happyboy4_cl1.jpg

Some states are taking measures to address these important issues, such as California and the Blue Ribbon Commission.  I recently served on the task force for education for this group, and was pleased to see that I am not alone in these concerns and that there are initiatives out there that are working toward solutions.  I will post updates on this Commission as they are available.  Please post other initiatives or solutions that you think are helpful! 

Evidence-Based Practices


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B & E.JPGThere is certainly no shortage of interventions for autism.  However, not all treatment options have evidence to support them, and it is important for parents and professionals to look at the research behind various treatment options before choosing a program for their child.  This will put more pressure on those who develop new interventions to base their products on existing research and to continue doing research on their products. 

Manya & E.JPGThe National Research Council recommends early, intensive intervention for children with autism consisting of 25 hours of structured learning for each child.  The difficulty for parents and professionals is choosing how to fill these hours of intervention for their child.  Today, many efforts are taking place to help educate and evaluate treatment programs, but these efforts still lack the funding and the awareness to make them happen sooner rather than later.classhands.gif

One of the biggest problems in evaluating treatment approaches is that there is very little research comparing one approach to another or looking at combinations of interventions that might be effective.  In reality, professionals typically choose a variety of treatment approaches (e.g. Discrete Trial Training + Floortime + PECS) and make their choices based on what they think might be the best fit for the child’s individual needs.  Researchers need to make this type of study a priority or come to a consensus on how to evaluate treatment programs. 

Another obstacle is that people on the child’s treatment team may have very different philosophical ideas about treatment making it really tough to figure out what is best for the child.  Ultimately, the child’s needs are best served by the team coming to an agreement, so that the child has some consistency across treatment settings.

dmbtest.gifThe ultimate way to determine if the child is getting appropriate treatment is to measure the child’s progress with each new approach that is implemented.  Even less data-driven approaches must provide ways to assess how the child is doing.  Objective measurements are best and you are more likely to get reliabilty among team members.  

The National Standards Project is one of the best strategies for dealing with this issue - I talked about this in a previous post and am very excited about their initiative.

The Center for Evidence-Based Practices: Young Children with Challenging BehavioB & E 2.JPGr, which is funded by the Department of Education aims to raise awareness and implementation of positive, evidence-based practices and to build an enhanced and more accessible database to support those practices.  Their mission is not specific to autism, nor should it be, but has a huge impact on the autism community if they are able to achieve the goals that they state.

They are currently conducting research to address this mission:

Research Program Emphases

  • Longitudinal, multi-site study to investigate the developmental patterns, preventive factors, and predictive variables related to young children’s challenging behavior.
  • Effective services and interventions for young children with challenging behavior and their families
  • Administrative operations and systems variables
  • Personnel preparation and utilization of evidence-based practice

How to find a behavioral consultant


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Lisa_Simpson.gifWhen looking for a behavioral consultant, it is really important that you look at the qualifications of that person, particularly at the supervision level.

The California Association of Behavior Analysis provides a useful article about how to find a behavioral consultant: http://www.calaba.org/AAMR-BehConsultantsFlyer.pdf.

header.gifHere is another excellent article about finding a behavioral consultant from Community Gateway: http://communitygateway.org/faq/behavioral.htm

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board is the first organization to provide national certification credentials for behavioral consultants.  When you see BCBA or BCABA after sowia_photo.jpgmeone’s name, this assures you that the person has completed the required number of hours, supervision, education, and passing the national board exam.  If you would like to know if someone has these credentials, you can look them up on the BACB site!  This is a great place to start looking for someone to help you with a home program that lives in your state. 

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