Posted by Simon Wallace, Autism Speaks director of scientific development for Europe
A fine mist was rolling in off the Atlantic as we made our way to the opening session of last week’s International Conference on Autism at the National University of Ireland, in Galway. Autism Speaks partnered with the university and the American Ireland Fund to put together a program that attracted not only researchers and clinicians, but also parents and policy makers. In all, more than 600 delegates attended this productive conference in the beautiful town of Galway, on Ireland’s west coast. The meeting was very much the brainchild of Autism Speaks board member Adrian Jones, a native of Ireland who now works for Goldman Sachs, in New York City. (You can view the full program here.)
We received a warm welcome from National University of Ireland President James Browne before spending two days hearing from international experts on advances in clinical practice, early intervention therapies and educational supports. As hoped, the presentations spanned the range of evidence-based practices in the United States and Europe. This included important information coming out of our own Autism Treatment Network (ATN) and other Autism Speaks programs and initiatives.
The morning presenters included Helen McConachie, of Newcastle University, who spoke about early intervention. Gillian Baird, a pediatrician from Guy’s Hospital in London, spoke as the chair of a committee that developed the United Kingdom’s clinical guidelines on referral and diagnosis of children and teenagers with autism. Also presenting was Cathy Lord, of Columbia University. Lord has been centrally involved in the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which physicians use to diagnose autism and related disorders. She explained that there would no longer be three separate diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). In the future, these will all be included under the unifying diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is to avoid the persistent inconsistencies in how physicians assign children to one of the three subtypes.
Afternoon workshops included a presentation by our own Vice President for Translational Medicine Rob Ring, who spoke about the latest evidence for clinical use of medications for patients with autism. ATN Program Director Nancy Jones presented on the network’s ongoing work developing best practices and clinical guidelines.
Connie Kasari, of the University of California-Los Angeles, presented the second day’s keynote address, which focused on the large numbers of children with autism who receive services in schools—and the need for more research on the effectiveness of these services. Among the interesting research findings that Kasari described was the insight that young children with autism are more “socially connected” than we previously assumed. Around 20 percent, she explained, enjoy close friendships. Intriguingly, Kasari has observed that this social connectedness drops when schoolchildren with autism go out for recess.
For me, the highlight of the second day was a presentation by Jamie Reilly, who spoke of the challenges growing up with autism and how he went on to graduate from Ireland’s top-rated university and is now studying for a master’s degree in Belfast. Reilly spoke of the importance of his family—in particular how his “mum” taught him strategies for overcoming many of the difficulties he encountered. He also described how he occasionally continued to make mistakes—for example, saying “good riddance” rather than “goodbye” to one of his teachers at the end of a lesson. With his fantastic sense of humor, Reilly kept us laughing throughout his presentation.
We also heard from Jamie Reilly’s father—James Reilly, a physician and Ireland’s current minister of health. Minister Reilly’s emotional presentation spoke of his pride in his son’s achievements and respect for his wife’s determined efforts to ensure that Jamie had the opportunities he needed. The minister spoke of the need to provide the best evidence-based approaches to help children with autism reach their full potential. He also announced his ministry’s commitment to provide an additional $4 million over the next three years to improve diagnostic and early intervention services. Minister Reilly will also be creating a senior post to coordinate autism-related activities across Ireland’s departments of health and education.
As we wrapped up this fantastic conference, many delegates told us that this was the largest conference ever held at the university and one that stood out in the sheer number of stakeholders from the autism community. We left for our homes and workplaces with the feeling that we are on the “front foot” for the New Year, thanks to what we learned about the latest research and guidelines on evidence-based practices.
Guest post by Connie Kasari, Ph.D., Center for Autism Research & Treatment, UCLA Semel Institute
ABC 20/20 recently aired a tragic story that brings up anew the controversy surrounding the intervention called Facilitated Communication (FC). Faced with a lack of success with prior efforts, the family reached out to include FC (an intervention involving a “facilitator” who physically supports the arm of the individual as they use a keyboard to type). As the story is told, the facilitator, trained for only one hour, assisted the child in making salacious sexual abuse allegations against her father. As the investigation evolves, the case against the father falls apart. FC and the facilitator become the focus of scrutiny, while the family is torn apart.
This story will undoubtedly strike many chords with families and researchers alike. As a tragic case in point, the story highlights the desperation families feel in trying to find an intervention that can help their older, nonverbal person. Multiple research studies have rejected the benefits of FC, mainly because the purported effects of the therapy are often the thoughts of the facilitator and not the child, as was discovered in the 20/20 story (Jacobson et al, 1995). Professional organizations have not supported the use of FC with consistent position statements from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1993), the American Academy of Pediatrics (1998), American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disorders (1994), the American Psychological Association (1994), the American Speech Language and Hearing Association (1994) and the Association for Behavior Analysis (1995). Yet parents still reach for disproven therapies, and even compel their schools to provide the therapy despite the research evidence.
Part of the issue here, is that there are few evidence -based communication interventions that have shown benefit to older, school aged children. This situation gives rise to the adoption of less effective interventions and should continue to call on researchers to pay greater attention to this group of individuals with autism. Indeed, the Interagency Coordinating Council for Autism, the National Institutes of Health and Autism Speaks have all placed a high priority on the development of innovative interventions for nonverbal individuals with autism.
While early intervention has decreased the numbers of nonverbal individuals, estimates are that between 30% and 40% of children with autism spectrum disorders remain minimally verbal, even after receiving years of interventions (NIH workgroup, 2010). Having access to communication is critical for all children. Augmentative systems can provide children with a voice, and some children have developed verbal abilities via typing or other communicative systems. Thus, the culprit in the intervention described in the 20/20 story was not the use of a keyboard but the methods used to help the child communicate. Teaching a child to use a keyboard often involves a period of physical prompting to teach the act of typing, but eventually the child should type independently, using little or no physical prompts. The addition of augmentative and alternative communication systems can have a profound effect on children’s ability to communicate, and indeed there are many cases of children who are able to type their responses or to use other augmentative systems. Witness the explosion of the iPad and speech generating applications for children with autism. These augmentative systems can result in improved communication and even increases in spoken language, although the evidence to date is anecdotal or limited to single case designs (Schlosser & Wendt, 2008).
High quality research studies are beginning to address this population of children who are school aged, and minimally verbal. Autism Speaks has funded a High Risk, High Impact intervention study on this population. The Characterizing Cognition in Nonverbal Individuals with Autism (CCNIA) intervention study is conducted at three sites: UCLA, Vanderbilt and Kennedy Krieger Institute and will finish this year.
CCNIA Intervention Study (Kasari, Kaiser, & Landa, 2009): Participants include children who are 5 to 8 years of age, produce fewer than 20 functional words, and who have already had at least two years of intensive intervention but are still not “talking”. The study utilizes an innovative design called a SMART (Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial) design (Murphy, 2005). This design recognizes the importance of consolidating early successes in treatment such that children are re-randomized to increased intensity of intervention or to the alternate intervention if they are not responding to the initial intervention to which they were randomized.
The interventions involve the merging of two evidence- based communication therapies JASPER (Joint Attention, Symbolic Play, Engagement & Regulation, Kasari et al, 2006, 2008, 2010); and EMT (Enhanced Milieu Training, Kaiser et al, 2000) with children randomized to JASPER/EMT only or to JASPER/EMT with the addition of a speech generating device. Children receive intervention twice per week for three months. Progress towards the initiation of socially meaningful communication is then evaluated. If children have met the defined criteria for improvement in communication, they stay the course for another three months. If they have not progressed they are re-randomized to receive increased intensity of the same therapy or to receive the speech-generating device if they received only the spoken language intervention initially. Children are followed up for three months after the six months of intervention.
While we won’t know the benefit of these interventions until the study is completed later this year, we believe that minimally verbal school aged children require an intervention approach that simultaneously (a) consolidates their early successes in intervention, and (b) adapts interventions to maximize their effects if there are early indications of non-response to the interventions. Sequential adaptations of intervention protocols may be needed to place all minimally verbal individuals on a positive, long-term course toward developing expressive language.
Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (2011). 2011 IACC Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research. http://iacc.hhs.gov/strategic-plan/2011/index.shtml.
Jacobson JW, Mulick JA, Schwartz AA. (1995). A history of facilitated communication: Science, pseudoscience, and antiscience: Science Working Group on Facilitated Communication. American Psychologist, 50, 750-765.
Kaiser, A. P., Hancock, T. B., & Nietfeld, J. P. (2000). The effects of parent-implemented enhanced milieu teaching on the social communication of children who have autism. Journal of Early Education and Development [Special Issue], 11(4), 423-446.
Kasari, C., Freeman, S., & Paparell, T. (2006). Joint attention and symbolic play in young children with autism: A randomized controlled intervention study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 611-620.
Kasari, C., Gulsrud, A.C., Wong, C., Kwon, S., & Locke, J. (2010). A randomized controlled caregiver mediated joint engagement intervention for toddlers with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1045-1056.
Kasari, C, Kaiser, A., & Landa, R. (2009). Developmental and Augmented Intervention for Facilitating Expressive Language. Sponsored by Autism Speaks, Grant 5666.
Kasari, C., Paparella, T., Freeman, S., & Jahromi, L.B. (2008). Language outcome in autism: Randomized comparison of joint attention and play interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 125-137.
Murphy, S.A. (2005). An experimental design for the development of adaptive treatment strategies. Statistics in Medicine, 24, 1455-1481.
Schlosser, R., Wendt, O (2008). Effects of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on speech production in children with autism: A systematic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 17 , 212–230.
On April 27, Autism Speaks partnered with PBS’ This Emotional Life to present a webinar called “Growing Up With Autism.” The webinar featured a panel of scientists, parents, and individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) explaining what it is like “Growing Up with Autism.” Dr. Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D, the Chief Science Officer at Autism Speaks and Research Professor at UNC Chapel Hill led a discussion with Connie Kasari, Ph.D. (UCLA), Holly Robinson Peete, and John Elder Robison, addressing the challenges that face individuals with an ASD and their families as they are initially diagnosed, navigate peer interactions and age out of services as they enter adulthood.
If you missed the webinar, we encourage you to watch it online and share your thoughts.