FPG Study on Autism Treatments Makes List of Top Advances

Date Published: 05/05/2014

The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has released its annual list of scientific studies that represent significant progress--naming FPG's groundbreaking study on autism treatments one of the field's top 20 advances in 2013.

It was the first study designed to compare longstanding comprehensive treatment models for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A team of researchers from FPG and three other universities determined that preschoolers with ASD in high-quality classrooms make gains during the school year regardless of the treatment model--findings with substantial implications for the field.

“Previous research has shown that when children with autism spectrum disorders have access to high quality early intervention, the result is improved developmental performance, but until now debate has persisted over which approach to use,” said FPG fellow Brian Boyd, shortly after the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders first published the findings in 2013. Boyd was the study’s co-principal investigator and lead author of the article.

Early diagnosis and effective intervention can reduce ASD’s lifetime $3.2 million price tag by two-thirds, and more children are being diagnosed with autism each year. Two frequently used comprehensive treatment models for ASD have a long history: LEAP (Learning Experiences and Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their Parents) and TEACCH (now known only by its acronym).

The TEACCH model is based on creating an environment that meets the characteristics and learning needs of young children with autism, often using visual schedules and work systems. LEAP bases its treatment approach on making accommodations in regular early childhood education settings that include children who are typically developing.  

FPG’s study examined the relative effects of the LEAP and TEACCH school-based comprehensive treatment models when compared to each other and to special education programs that do not use a specific model. The multi-site study took place only in high-quality classrooms and enrolled 74 teachers and 198 3-5 year-olds in public school districts.

The study found that children made gains over the school year regardless of the classroom’s use of TEACCH, LEAP, or no specific comprehensive treatment model. “Each group of children showed significant positive change in autism severity, communication, and fine motor skills,” said FPG scientist Kara Hume, coauthor of the article, commenting when the study was published. “No statistically significant differences were found between models, which challenged our initial expectations—and likely the field’s.”

Research has long demonstrated that classroom quality is an important predictor of typically developing children’s social, language, and academic outcomes. This study may reflect the importance of general classroom quality in promoting the positive development of children with ASD, too.  

Because all of the classrooms in FPG’s study were high quality, the findings also could reflect that teachers in high-quality classrooms are aware of and use similar practices to educate children with autism.

“This study may shift the field’s thinking about comprehensive treatment models designed for young children with ASD,” said co-author Samuel L. Odom at the time. Odom serves as FPG’s director and was the study’s principal investigator. “Perhaps it’s not the unique features of the models that most contribute to child gains but the common features of the models that most influence child growth.”

Joining Boyd, Hume, and Odom as coauthors were Matthew T. McBee of East Tennessee State University, Michael Alessandri of University of Miami, Anibal Gutierrez of Florida International University, LeAnne Johnson of University of Minnesota, and Laurie Sperry of Griffith University.

Two-page Snapshot of the journal article

FPG study: Comparison of Two Comprehensive Treatment Models for Preschool-Aged Children With Autism

Contact:
Brian A. Boyd
Fellow, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute
Assistant Professor, Division of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
919.843.4465
brian_boyd@med.unc.edu

Full article:
“Comparative Efficacy of LEAP, TEACCH and Non-Model-Specific Special Education Programs for Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, June 2013

FPG grants permission to publish this story in part or in its entirety.

D. Shaw