Whether it is your child’s first IEP or their last, you need an accurate assessment to develop IEP goals. But assessments for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have just not been available for all that long. Child Study Teams are often challenged with traditional standardized assessments when applying them to children with ASD. This is why you may see “untestable,” “unable to complete,” or “with modifications” when the results are presented.
What Information Does an Assessment Provide?
Standardized assessments that provide percentile scores of where your child falls in comparison to his/her typical peers are routinely performed. These are usually used to let you know that your child is not like everyone else, and therefore qualifies for special education services. Rarely, however, do they let you know what skills your child needs to put in that IEP. Sometimes new parents are asked, “You know your child best. What do you want them to work on?” That question can be quite challenging and stressful for any parent, especially if this is your first child and you have no basis for comparison. What they should be doing? You can feel like you are at a loss. If you’ve had children before this one, you might ask to have them do the same things as their siblings, but that’s not good. Maybe they’re not ready and that’s why we’re here.
Sometimes these standardized assessments go unfinished due to behavior challenges, or your child just was not able to perform their best under the conditions of being with a new evaluator or environment. What you need is an assessment that tells you what your child can do now. You want to know what the gaps are in their learning, what they need to know to be age-appropriate, and what we need to work on to get them there. Gould, Dixon, Najdowski, Smith, & Tarbox (2011) took some of the guesswork out of this task for us when they compared several assessments for young children with ASD.
What Information Should an Assessment Provide?
Gould et al.,(2011) gave us the “Critical Components” that any assessment should have. These include:
- Target Early Childhood Development
- Behavior Function
- Direct Link from Assessment Items to Speciﬁc Curricula Targets
- Tracking Child’s Progress
Let’s look into these with a bit more detail. Comprehensive means that the assessment covers all areas of development. As we already know, ASD is a developmental disorder, children with ASD do not develop skills evenly and therefore may be missing necessary skills in certain areas, but excel in others. It is crucial to identify these discrepancies so that the gaps can be closed.
Targeting Early Childhood Development means that it is important that the assessment look at skills considerably younger than the chronological age of the child. A 3-year-old may still need to work on skills of someone 9-months-old. While this study looked at young children, this is an important component for evaluations regardless of the child’s age since it is also likely that a 17-year-old may need to work on skills of a 7-year-old. Good assessments would provide that information to ensure that all gaps in development are identified and targeted for programming.
When the researchers said that the assessment should target Behavior Function, this was not specific to challenging behaviors, but also to the function of a child’s language. For example, if a child can say “juice” when they see a picture of juice, but doesn’t ask for juice when they are thirsty, it should not be assumed that saying “juice” has truly been mastered until it has been mastered across all areas of need – labeling, requesting, retrieving (listener responding), etc.
The Direct Link from the Assessment to a Specific Curricula Target component should emphasis the word specific. The assessment should provide specific enough detail that the skill missing can be identified and addressed in an IEP goal. For example, to say that a child is delayed in age appropriate play skills is vague. To say, instead, that a child does not independently play with toys appropriately is better; and even more specific, does not follow one-step directions to imitate play with an object.
And finally, Tracking Child’s Progress is vital for all to see if the IEP developed for the child is working. To have to administer a test over and over would be too much and probably not get done. To be able to track within a document the completion of areas and identify those that still need to be completed helps all to see how far the child has come, and gives direction for the future.
The Five Star Assessments – Maybe?
Of the 27 assessments the researchers looked at, the following 4 are the only ones that came close to meeting all 5 components:
- The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program – VB-MAPP
- Brigance Inventory of Early Development II – Brigance IED-II
- Vineland Adaptive Behavior Skills Second Edition – VABS-II
- Brigance Diagnostic Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills-Revised – CIBS-R
However, as the researchers pointed out, even these don’t quite make the grade:
The assessments reviewed and critiqued in this paper revealed that the VB-MAPP beneﬁts from including information on very speciﬁc skills and is based on a functional approach to language. However, it suffers from a lack of data on psychometrics, extends only to age 4, and is not as comprehensive as may be desired, with respect to including skills from all developmental domains. Others may be more comprehensive (e.g., Brigance IED-II) or have excellent psychometrics (e.g., VABS-II), but do not provide sufﬁcient information to identify speciﬁc behavioral targets for treatment. Most concerning, none of the assessments reviewed here are linked directly to a comprehensive curriculum (Gould et al., 2011 p.1000).
What’s New, and Is There Hope?
The above assessments are good for younger children, but what about older children with ASD? There are two additional assessments which were developed subsequent to the research by Gould and colleagues that meet the researchers’ criteria. The PEAK (Promoting the Emergence of Advanced Knowledge) is appropriate for all ages and is currently the only assessment which has been researched using individuals with ASD. From their website: “The PEAK Relational Training System is an evaluation and curriculum guide for teaching basic and advanced language skills from a contemporary behavior analytic approach (www.peakaba.com).” As behavior analysts and educators look to stay current they should be advocating for evidence based assessments, and PEAK is one of the few, if not the only one, that meets that requirement.
The Essential for Living (EFL) is also an assessment that meets the criteria for inclusion in the Five Star Assessments. It’s useful even for older children, although it is specifically designed for those who are moderately to severely affected by their disability and may not be appropriate for those with higher level language. For those who do struggle with verbal skills however, “Essential for Living will help you select an alternative, portable method of speaking that ‘matches the learner’s current skill repertoire,’ ‘results in virtually effortless speaking,’ ‘permits them to function as much as possible like someone who uses spoken words,’ and is much less likely to be abandoned (www.essentialforliving.com).”
Parents should expect behavior analysts and educators alike to remain current in the research. Using old, outdated, or unresearched assessment tools is unacceptable when better tools are available. And when even better ones come along, we should be using those. The best programs begin with good assessments, and are essential to your child’s success.
About POAC Autism Services
POAC Autism Services, a nonprofit organization, is making life better for every child with autism in our state. Each year POAC provides hundreds of free events for the autism community including: free training and education for parents and educators; free recreational and support services to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families: and free training for police and first responders which has been life-saving for many children all over NJ. Visit www.poac.net for more information.
Gould, Dixon, Najdowski, Smith, & Tarbox (2011). A review of assessments for determining the content of early intensive behavioral intervention programs for autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 990-1002.