Making Informed Choices

The needs of individuals with autism are unique, complex, and can impact their lives 24/7. There is often much for them to learn, and time is of the essence. So it is crucial to provide treatment that is most likely to be effective. Although much about autism is not yet fully understood, there are strategies that have been proven effective for learners with ASD, and others that have been proven ineffective or harmful. The supports provided can greatly affect each person’s ability to learn and succeed. Many can make great gains with specialized strategies customized for their particular strengths and challenges.

Whether you are a parent or a professional, it is important to know what research says about the many treatment options you may come across. Weighing the conflicting information marketed as autism treatment can be a confusing and overwhelming process. Autism New Jersey is here to help you understand what research suggests about diverse methodologies and how to document that the intervention is beneficial for a particular individual once it has begun.

A Framework for Understanding What Is Evidence-Based

Much treatment information is presented as factual when it may not be. Looking through the filter of science helps us differentiate opinions/testimonials from substantiated data and faulty or poorly designed research from well-designed studies. Autism New Jersey uses a simple stoplight analogy to translate the body of empirical autism-specific research.

  • GREEN LIGHTS: treatments shown through research to be most effective for individuals with autism
  • YELLOW LIGHTS: have not been studied enough (or at all) to put them in another category
  • RED LIGHTS: shown through research to be harmful or ineffective for individuals with autism

About Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Hundreds of autism-specific studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of ABA for teaching skills and reducing challenging behavior. While it is effective for other learners as well, it is considered the gold standard in autism intervention. Research also indicates that students in ABA programs make more progress than those in programs combining several different methods.

The goal of ABA is two-fold: to increase useful behaviors that improve quality of life and decrease those that are harmful or interfere with learning or relationships. It is a structured teaching approach that can be implemented in many settings to teach skills from many domains (communication, selfcare, academic, play/leisure, social skills, etc.). It involves understanding patterns of behavior and examining the influence of environmental factors including what happens before and after the behavior. Other key elements are motivation, reinforcement, and task analysis to break complex skills into small steps.

Considerations on the Yellow and Red Light Treatments

Many of the red and yellow light interventions fall into one of two categories:

  1. They were created to address an unproven theory about a cause of autism
  2. They may be beneficial for individuals with other special needs but don’t address the unique challenges faced by those with autism

Additionally, it is important to differentiate between treatment/therapy and recreation. Some of the activities which are not established as evidence-based practices for autism may be enjoyable to individuals and valuable as reinforcers (opportunities they would like to work for) or leisure activities (hobbies to enjoy). However, they do not qualify as therapeutic treatment unless they directly alleviate the challenges of autism, teach skills, or reduce challenging behavior.

Autism New Jersey understands that any one individual may respond well to an intervention that is not documented as effective for the majority of people with autism. As with any intervention, we recommend collecting and analyzing data regularly to assess progress with the team. Being alert to possible side effects is also important.

Measuring Effectiveness

For ANY strategy that is attempted, data should be regularly analyzed to determine if the intervention is bringing about improvement on a specific goal. Implementation can vary, so even established interventions need to be monitored and adjusted to maximize effectiveness. Progress may be slow, so it’s important to keep records that will guide the team’s decisions and keep everyone informed.