Saturday, September 14, 2002
By John Griffiths LONDON (Reuters Health) - A novel program of tailored therapy for young children with autism can help youngsters attend a mainstream school, according to UK researchers
The results were "dramatic," said Professor Alec Webster, who directs the South West Autism Project (SWAP) at Bristol University. The program boosted academic skills, but more importantly, helped children acquire "the social skills to take part in group activities and follow everyday school routines," Webster said.
"When I first started in this profession, all autistic children went to special schools," he added.
He noted that recent figures suggest as many as 1 in 100 children are affected by autism spectrum disorder, a broad definition of autism, which is a neurological disorder that affects a child's behavior and ability to communicate and interact with others.
The study included children aged from 2 to 4 years from 26 families who were enrolled when the program began 2 years ago.
The researchers assessed the children's developmental quotient (DQ)--a measurement that ranged from 24 (severe learning disorders with autism) to 100 (normal learning functioning with autistic features) in the study, compared with 80-120 in normal school settings.
A tailor-made educational plan was then developed for each child and trained tutors spent an average of 10 hours per week with a child at home and in playgroups. His team used techniques such as picture exchange, where picture symbols are used to communicate words, and visual timetables where symbols depicting what a child is going to do on that day are represented by symbols.
Webster explained that many autistic children have behavioral problems such as obsessions and irrational fears.
"We devised games responsive to the needs of the child. For example, children with no eye contact and poor social skills were introduced to a bubble-blowing game, which depended on eye contact and required turn-taking," he told Reuters Health.
All children on the program made progress regardless of their original abilities.
"In the best case we had a child with severe learning difficulties and a DQ of 24, who gained more than 60 points over an 18-month period. One third of the group showed gains of more than 45 points and half showed DQ gains of 20 points or more," Webster said.
To date, 16 of the 17 children who completed the SWAP program have gone to mainstream schools.
"What's unique about this program is that we work in family context and are adaptable to their needs. Because it is a service run in conjunction with the (local education authority), we can manage transition into early year settings," Webster said.
Ross Fisher, age 4, was one of the children involved in the study. His mother Lisa told Reuters Health when he was diagnosed "there was a lot of head banging, he could not concentrate, or even hold a pen." Ross did SWAP four afternoons a week for 2 hours.
"Twelve months later, he is a different child. Now he knows the entire alphabet and his speech has come on fantastically. Ross has always been a bright child, but now he is reading more like a 6 or 7 year old, even though he is only 4 years old." He started in infants' school this week, and has coped extremely well, said Lisa.
When Ross went to nursery he had a SWAP tutor, an educational psychologist, a nursery teacher and a speech therapist.
"It was the multi-professional approach we valued, where we were all working together. We all met regularly to see how he progressed, and I was involved when the tutor wasn't."
Webster pointed out that the next step is to pursue these children into their new schools, "so we can determine the most effective environment for their progress. These children will need support and specialized help for much of their school careers, and probably for the rest of their lives. We are hopeful that because of this early start their inclusion in society will be facilitated."