Drexel University Online - March and May

Public Schools and the Autism Epidemic: A Preliminary Report on Consultation Services

With the recent rise in the incidence of autism, there is a growing need for effective, ABA-based intervention programs in public schools. In 2006, the number of students with autism ages 6-22 in New York State alone was reported as 13,951 (Part B IDEA). Various agencies and programs that serve students with autism have developed Outreach programs which provide comprehensive consultation services to public schools and district programs. Consultation services typically take one of the following forms: (a) trainings and workshops offered to school personnel, parents, or the community at large; (b) on-site consultation provided on an individual or classroom-wide basis; or (c) partner or model classroom programs, in which the outreach agency sets up a partner or model classroom within the public school/school district. In many cases a school district will contact the agency and request assistance with their autism program in the form of one of the aforementioned services.

The benefits of using techniques based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for educating children with autism have been well documented in the empirical literature (Lovaas, 1987; Eikseth et al., 1992; Fenske et al., 1985; McClannahan & Krantz, 2001; McEachin, Smith, & Lovaas, 1993). Much of the research that has been published demonstrating the effectiveness of ABA-based programming has examined the effects of early, intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI), focusing on children below the age of seven receiving individualized instruction. This body of research has confirmed that children who participate in both home- and center-based programs make substantial progress in learning new skills. However, there is a paucity of research documenting the effectiveness of consultation programs serving public school students with autism above the age of seven.

In an effort to gather preliminary information regarding outreach program successes, challenges, and outcomes, a structured interview was designed and administered to three directors of outreach programs that provide comprehensive consultation services to public school programs for children with autism. Each of the programs surveyed provide all three of the consultation services described above. All directors provided similar accounts regarding the resources and effects of the various methods of consultation. Trainings and workshops require the lowest amount of resources, and reach the greatest number of people. The interviewees all reported that it remains unknown what, if any, effect conducting these trainings and workshops in public school settings has for individual students with autism, due to the lack of follow up after the trainings and workshops. Indeed, research has demonstrated that while classroom-based didactic training can be effective in increasing staff members’ ability to describe concepts, terms, and procedures, generalization to teaching and improvement in student behavior is typically not seen until hands on, direct training is provided (e.g., Ducharme & Feldman, 1992).

In contrast to trainings and workshops, on site consultation and model classroom programs require a substantially greater amount of resources, and typically have a smaller scope, reaching fewer individuals. The impact on individual students, however, can be directly and objectively measured (e.g., calculating the number of new skills learned by each student). The interviewees reported that although these services are more challenging to implement, they have been shown to be extremely effective at increasing the quality of services and learning opportunities afforded to individual students.

Participants of the structured interview reported similar predictors of success for their outreach program. All participants specified motivation of administrative and teaching staff as being a key factor of success. More specifically, they stated that in order for the consultation services to be implemented effectively the administration of the public school (e.g., superintendent, director of special education services, building principal) as well as the direct teaching staff (teachers, instructional aides) all had to be motivated to provide the services as dictated by the consultants, as well as committed to providing ABA-based autism treatment and teaching interventions. A second factor mentioned as being crucial to success was the need for ongoing collaboration between the consultant, district administrators, school supervisors, and teachers. Regularly scheduled meetings attended by all four groups were noted as a necessary component for long-term success of consultation services.

When discussing recommendations for building a new outreach program, the participants all made similar suggestions. First, they all highlighted the importance of beginning with a systematic model, with responsibilities and expectations of all involved parties (e.g., the school district administration, the outreach program, the teaching staff, etc.) clearly outlined from the start. Second, they all strongly emphasized the need to start small (e.g., one classroom with 6 students). The participants mentioned cases in which they started in-district programs with larger numbers of classrooms and students. In those cases they did not achieve the same levels of success, and in some cases had to cut back on the number of students served the following year. They all reported having substantially more success beginning with fewer students and expanding the program slowly and systematically. Third, all participants specified the importance of making use of the inclusive setting of an in-district program, specifically being sure to include regularly scheduled opportunities for the students with autism to socialize with the typically developing public school students (e.g., peer mentoring programs). Fourth, all participants advised that administrators of the outreach program carefully select the site of their program, and attempt to collaborate with motivated staff at all levels.

While the best method for implementing effective consultation services in a public school setting remains unknown, the information garnered from this interview provides a starting point for continued investigation.

This study was completed at the New York Center for Autism Charter School, through funding provided by the New York State Education Department. Special thanks to Mary McDonald, Amy Geckeler and Rita Gordon for their participation in the structured interview.

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