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Dr. Chris’ Autism Journal
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Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Strategies for Successful Generalization in Natural Environments


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Real Life, Real Progress for Children with ASDReal Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A book edited by our own Christina Whalen, Ph.D., BCBA has been released this month. To order your copy today click on the book icon.

“The best hands-on guide to the most important part of intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders: helping the children take the skills they learn in intervention and use them whenever and wherever they need them.” —Tristram Smith, Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities, University of Rochester Medical Center

Generalization is the key to effective autism intervention—when children can apply new skills across settings, they’ll make broad, long-term improvements in behavior and social communication. The first how-to guide to generalization is finally here! Practical and reader-friendly, this is the book that helps professionals take today’s most popular autism interventions to the next level by making generalization an integral part of them.

Pre-K–Grade 8 special educators, early interventionists, SLPs, and other professionals will

  • enhance 6 widely used autism intervention models with specific, evidence-based generalization strategies
  • get dozens of easy activities that really help children use new skills consistently—no matter where they are or who they’re with
  • learn about generalization from the experts who know best, with contributions from top autism authorities like Ilene Schwartz, Carol Gray, Andy Bondy, Laura Schriebman, and Bryna Siegel
  • provide positive, supportive parent education so they can be active partners in promoting their children’s generalization of skills
  • weave generalization strategies into every phase of intervention planning, not just at the end after skills have already been learned
  • modify generalization strategies for different settings, so children can achieve their ultimate goal: applying their skills successfully in school, at home, and in the community
  • assess the effectiveness of generalization strategies at multiple stages of instruction

Case studies and vivid examples bring the strategies to life in every chapter, and forms and checklists help professionals plan interventions, track children’s goals, and monitor their progress toward generalization. With this urgently needed guide to one of the most important facets of autism intervention, readers will help children generalize social behaviors and communication skills—and ensure better lives and brighter futures.

Make generalization strategies a part of these popular interventions:

  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Discrete Trial Instruction
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
  • Social Stories™
  • Computer-Assisted Intervention
  • JumpStart Learning-to-Learn

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.

Simons Foundation hosts article about digital tools and children with autism


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Last week, the Simons Foundation website published an article about using digital tools to help children and teens with autism. The article features a plethora of examples of current high tech products and their positive effect within the autism community. Some of the products mentioned in the article, such as TeachTown: Basics or the Behavioral Image (BI) Capture system, were specifically designed to be used with the special needs community. The article also reports that some autistic teens are benefiting from products not specifically designed for the special needs market, such as the SymTrend, a PDA designed to help teens track their school performance, or SecondLife, a web-based virtual reality game.

The whole article can be found here.

Discrete Trial Training - New Findings


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Over the Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Chris Whalen and Dr. Shannon Cernich attended the Applied Behavior Analysis International conference in Chicago.  There were many exciting presentations and new developments in the field of ABA related to autism.

Of particular interest was a poster presentation entitled “An Analysis of Instructor Errors in Discrete-Trial Teaching of Children with Autism” by Daniel Mruzek, Tristram Smith, and colleagues at the University of Rochester.  They found that the largest proportion of instructor errors when delivering discrete trial training (DTT) occurred when delivering reinforcement.

These errors were of two types:  The instructor reinforced an incorrect child response or the instructor failed to reinforce a correct child response.  For example, instructor says “Show me the big one.”   Child points at small item but instructor thinks the child pointed at big item and says, Great job!”  Or the child points at the big item but the instructor is looking at her data sheet and thinks the child did not respond and says, “Try again.”  As reinforcement (often colloquially known as reward) is what increases the rate of a response, DTT can result in the wrong responses being increased, even with a trained instructor.

This is not to suggest that DTT is a flawed methodology.  All training methods as well as life often result in the wrong responses being reinforced.  Imagine the following scenario:  You meet someone new named Shelly; you mishear her name and call her Sally.  She responds when you call her Sally and does not correct you.  Your behavior of calling her by the wrong name is reinforced.

So the point is not to end your child’s DTT program in place of some other methodology, but to make sure it is being properly supervised.  Trained, good ABA therapists will regularly make the errors describe above (they’re only human), but a good supervisor will detect and correct these errors while supervising your child’s session.

More highlights from the ABA conference will follow in future blogs, but in conclusion, Dr. Chris and Dr. Shannon gave presentations at the conference on the use of TeachTown: Basics, a computer-assisted program that delivers concepts during the computer sessions in a DTT format.  Although computerized instruction is meant to supplement human instruction, not replace it, we are proud to state that TeachTown: Basics delivers errorless reinforcement.  There are some things that computers can do better than people.  If only your computer would help you the next time your child tantrums!

Interview with Krista Schultz, Registered Psychologist and Autism Expert


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I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Krista Schultz, who works in Alberta, Canada with children with autism.  She is an ABA and developmental specialist and a frequent user of TeachTown with her clients.  I love her philosophy for teaching children and her passion for making a difference in the autism community.  I also really enjoyed her responses regarding technology and her feedback on TeachTown.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! 

Krista Picture.JPGInterview with Krista
May 2, 2007

1) Please provide us with a brief background about your education and credentials:

I am originally from Northern Alberta, Canada and received my first degree (Bachelor of Education) from the University of Alberta.  During teaching and then school counseling, I worked through a Master of Science degree in Educational Psychology with a Specialization in Developmental Psychology.  Since that time I have become a Registered Psychologist in the Province of Alberta and have continued to work in educational systems as well as home environments supporting children with special needs.

2) When and why did you start working with children with autism?

To be honest, it was quite unintentional.  Behavior has always been my key interest and I had been working with severe behavior disorders in children and adolescents. I am an avid proponent of the position that although we live in very rural areas, we should be providing children with services and professionals to the best of our abilities.  I received a call from a colleague who had a referral for an adolescent with autism and she asked if I would consult.  It was then that I realized that the area of autism and the families in our communities were sadly being under represented.  At that time, autism was not widely recognized.  Due to many factors, media included, I find there to be far more interest from the general public on the area of autism and thankfully, more recognition from service providers and educators to broaden their own knowledge of the diagnosis.

3) What positions have you had in the past and where do you work now?

I have been a teacher of many subjects, gifted students, educable mentally handicapped and those with severe behavioral disabilities.  As a Psychologist, I have a private practice and contract to school divisions, multidisciplinary teams and family agencies to provide assessment, support and programming for children with a variety of needs including those with medical conditions, FASD, severe behavioral disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders and learning disabilities.  I am also a workshop facilitator on several subjects surrounding special needs children and learning. 

B & E.JPG4) What is the best part of your job?

Watching my clients successfully meet objectives and seeing the joy on the faces of parents.  AND, having clients whom other professionals cannot pick out of the classroom as the child who has the autism diagnosis!

5) What part of your job is most difficult?

Supporting families while waiting for services to be put in place.

6) What is your approach to using ABA? 

I believe that ABA incorporates many different teaching methods.  It is flexible and transitions between developmental stages as well as changes that a child presents during the course of their programming.  It is that flexibility - and the knowledge and openness to accept and embrace those times - that allows ABA programs to meet the needs of the individual child and address behavioral teaching.  Generalizing to natural settings and a comprehensive interventionist program that eventually fosters the fading of reinforcers is my key approach with my primary work being in school settings.

7) Other than ABA, what other treatment approaches do you incorporate into your practice?

My treatment practices in my work with autism have largely been guided by the science of ABA and the writings of Lovaas, Fenske, etc. 

8) Do you find that many children you work with benefit from using visual strategies?

Absolutely.  Given the difficulties with self regulation and auditory “overload”, many of the children I work with can build increased independent and functional skills from incorporating the visual modality.

at_computer.jpg9) How do you think that computers can help children with autism?

Computers are tools in our society.  Working with children with autism and using computers allows behavioral teaching and independence with skill building.  While the face to face, social component of interactions is certainly important, there are many aspects of teaching that can be completed by the use of computers.

10) Do you think computers can help parents, in what way?

Often the parents with whom I consult are eager, interested and motivated but they are not therapists or teachers.  They are not autism specialists or experts.  Having the technology and support of a good program that is effectively addressing the unique needs of their child(ren) with autism is empowering and motivating.  It also allows parents to be parents and not have the worry of appropriate programming or seeking out multidisciplinary teams to do, essentially, similar work.  Given our shortage of professionals in many areas and the factor of rural living, computers also “shrink” and sometimes eliminate barriers to effective programming.

11) How can computers help schools?

In our province, technology in schools is priority and for children with autism we find that while teachers want to offer similar experiences, they are often at a loss to make these times meaningful and functional.  In several situations this year, I have been exploring the use of TeachTown in a variety of settings in schools.  Again, non-expert facilitation and the preparation time that computers offer teaching professionals has been invaluable.

12) How do you use computers in your position and how can other clinicians benefit from technology?

I have been far more open to using technology and computers as tools for increasing functionality, independence and skillstreaming.  We are fortunate in this day and age that assistive technology devices and technology such as TeachTown has vastly reduced barriers that would have otherwise made appropriate and beneficial teaching very difficult or unrealistic.

13) What aspects of TeachTown: Basics are most helpful for you?teachtown cloud background1.JPG

The non-expert model has been very motivating for those unfamiliar with autism.  The ease of setting the program up and moving parents and para-professionals through the trials has been excellent.  As an educational psychologist working with Individual Program Plans, the data, ease of collection and simplicity of results (graphs, etc.) have provided solid evidence of progress for clients.  Teachers have been thrilled with the explanations of objectives for sessions as it has allowed more meaningful short and long term goals to be added into the child’s program plan.

14) If you were on the design team at TeachTown, what would you do next to improve or enhance TeachTown: Basics?

Expand the developmental levels to promote additional training for older children!

15) What future directions should TeachTown take for developing other products?

I would like to see TeachTown work with assistive technology professionals to address the needs of children with autism who may present with additional impairments such as hearing impairments, visual problems or severe fine motor skill deficits. 

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