What are the characteristics of effective interventions in educational programs for young children with autistic spectrum disorders?

There is general agreement across comprehensive intervention programs about a number of features of effective programs. However, practical and, sometimes, ethical considerations have made well-controlled studies with random assignment (e.g., studies of treatments that systematically vary only one dimension) almost impossible to conduct. In several cases, features have been identified through correlational or comparative analyses and then assumed to be factors of importance in intervention programs, without further direct evaluation.

The consensus across programs is generally strong concerning the need for: early entry into an intervention program; active engagement in intensive instructional programming for the equivalent of a full school day, including services that may be offered in different sites, for a minimum of 5 days a week with full-year programming; use of planned teaching opportunities, organized around relatively brief periods of time for the youngest children (e.g., 15- to 20-minute intervals); and sufficient amounts of adult attention in one-to-one or very small group instruction to meet individualized goals. Overall, effective programs are more similar than different in terms of levels of organization, staffing, ongoing monitoring, and the use of certain techniques, such as discrete trials, incidental learning, and structured teaching periods. However, there are real differences in philosophy and practice that provide a range of alternatives for parents and school systems.

The committee recommends that educational services begin as soon as a child is suspected of having an autistic spectrum disorder. Those services should include a minimum of 25 hours a week, 12 months a year, in which the child is engaged in systematically planned, and developmentally appropriate educational activity toward identified objectives. What constitutes these hours, however, will vary according to a child’s chronological age, developmental level, specific strengths and weaknesses, and family needs. Each child must receive sufficient individualized attention on a daily basis so that adequate implementation of objectives can be carried out effectively. The priorities of focus include functional spontaneous communication, social instruction delivered throughout the day in various settings, cognitive development and play skills, and proactive approaches to behavior problems. To the extent that it leads to the acquisition of children’s educational goals, young children with an autistic spectrum disorder should receive specialized instruction in a setting in which ongoing interactions occur with typically developing children.

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