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Study: High Quality Matters More Than Specific Model for Preschoolers with Autism

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A comparison of two well-known interventions for young children with autism, LEAP and TEACCH, has found that both of them produce gains among students during the school year--and so does high-quality classroom instruction that is not tied to any particular model.

The findings suggest that common elements of good classroom instruction, including an orderly classroom environment, well-trained teachers and positive interactions between children and adults, may be more important for children with autism than instruction using any particular treatment model. The study was published in the June edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, and the researchers have written a layman-friendly version of their findings.

Researchers at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill compared two comprehensive treatment models: Learning Experiences Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their Parents, or LEAP, focuses on interactions between children with autism and their typically developing peers. The model was recently found to have positive results for children with autism by the strict criteria of the federal What Works Clearinghouse, and my colleague Sarah Sparks wrote an article last month about the program.

The second model researchers studied, TEACCH (now known only by its acronym, though it once stood for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Handicapped Children) focuses on structured and predictable activities for students and understanding the "culture of autism."

Eighty-five TEACCH students, 59 LEAP students, and 59 students taught under no specific model were part of the study. The students were ages 3 to 5 at the time of the study, and all were in what were considered to be high-quality classrooms. All of the students studied showed significant positive change in autism severity, communication, and fine motor skills, and there were no statistically significant differences between models, the researchers noted.

The finding was a surprise, said Brian Boyd, a fellow at the institute and one of the study's co-principal investigators. In an interview, he explained that researchers were expecting that each program might have stronger effects in different areas, not that the effects would be uniformly positive in all domains.

Among the common features of all the models, including the teachers who didn't adhere to any particular treatment strategy, were some form of assessment, progress monitoring, and family involvement, he noted. These common features may be more important than the elements that are specific to LEAP or TEACCH.

For school personnel, one takeaway would be "how can we better support and train teachers to provide a high-quality classroom environment?" Boyd said.

Photo: From left, preschoolers Eleanor Kimball, Thalia Lugo, and Sam Moschetto play paleontologist as they dig for dinosaurs buried in sand during class at Millville Elementary School in Millville, Mass. As part of the LEAP program used in the class, teachers encourage students to work and play together as much as possible.--Gretchen Ertl for Education Week

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