Pick of the Week: NEW! Executive Function Curriculum Books

How can you help kids with autism be flexible, get organized, and work toward goals – not just in school but in everyday life? It’s all about executive function. This week, we’re offering 15% off* our newest books on teaching executive function: Unstuck & On Target: An Executive Function Curriculum and Solving Executive Function Challenges. Just use our promo code EXECFXN at check out to redeem these savings!

Unstuck_and_On_TargetThese practical resources for parents, teachers, and therapists help high-functioning students with autism improve on these critical skills.

Unstuck & On Target! is a robust classroom-based curriculum book that will help educators and service providers teach these executive function skills to high-functioning students with autism through ready-to-use lessons that promote cognitive and behavioral flexibility. This curriculum gives clear instructions, materials lists, modifications for each lesson, and intervention tips to reinforce lessons throughout the school day. Topics touched upon include flexibility vocabulary, coping strategies, setting goals, and flexibility in friendship, all introduced and reinforced with evidence-based lessons. Lessons will target specific skills, free up the instructor’s time, fit easily into any curriculum, ensure generalization to strengthen home-school connection, and best of all, make learning fun and engaging for students in the classroom.

Unstuck & On Target! also comes with an accompanying CD-ROM that contains printable game cards, student worksheets, and other materials for each lesson. The curriculum is targeted for students with cognitive ability and language skills ages 8-11.

Solving_Executive_Function_ChallengesSolving Executive Function Challenges is a strategy guide that offers teachers and caretakers various ways to teach EF skills, including setting and achieving goals and being flexible, as well as ideas for accommodations and actions to address common problems (e.g. keeping positive, avoiding overload, coping, etc.).

To be used with or without the robust curriculum Unstuck and On Target!, this strategy guide aims to show how to embed executive function instruction in everyday scenarios with specific examples, samples IEP goals, and scripts and worksheets that break down tasks into manageable chunks. This guide is appropriate for learners in grades K–8.

Don’t forget – you can save 15%* this week only on these new executive function books by applying promo code EXECFXN at check out!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EDT on October 7th, 2014. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

Guest Article: “Promoting Socialization in Children with Autism Through Play” by Julie Russell

We’re so pleased to bring you this guest post by Julie Russell, Educational Director at the Brooklyn Autism Center (BAC). BAC is a not-for-profit ABA school serving children aged 5–21. Here, Julie describes specific, simple strategies for promoting socialization in children on the spectrum.

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Promoting Socialization in Children with Autism Through Play
by Julie Russell, Brooklyn Autism Center

Socialization – defined as a continuing process where an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and appropriate skills – is a vital part of life. It is also a particularly difficult skill for individuals with autism. Children with autism often struggle with initiating conversation, requesting information, making contextual comments, and listening and responding to others. These difficulties can interfere with the development of friendships for children on the spectrum.

The best way to improve socialization in children with autism is to emphasize play. There are several strategies to teach play skills to children on the spectrum that can help them improve socialization and develop friendships.

One method of teaching socialization is to condition the typically-developing peer as a reinforcer by pairing the peer with items and activities that are reinforcing for the child with Autism. The peer can give the child with Autism a preferred edible or join in on a preferred activity for the child with autism. If Ben’s (the child with autism) favorite edible is Twizzlers and his preferred activity is completing a puzzle, Adam (his typically developing peer) can offer Ben a Twizzler and join in on completing the puzzle. The typically developing peer is then associated with both the preferred edible and the preferred activity, making Adam a reinforcer for Ben.

This method is a great way to make the peer more desirable for the child with autism. The items or activities used for conditioning should only consist of items/activities that the child with autism already enjoys. When trying to introduce a new item or activity to the child with autism, peers should not be included right away. Trying to teach how to play with the item and the peer simultaneously can be confusing and over-stimulating for the child with autism. The child with autism should first be taught how to play appropriately with the age-appropriate activity during individual instruction, and then the peer can be included in the activity once mastery of the activity has been demonstrated.

Another way to promote socialization is to engage the child with autism in cooperative games, or any activity that requires interaction where each child has a role that is needed in order to complete the activity. This way, the motivation to engage with the typically developing peer will be higher. When teaching the child with autism how to play cooperative games, such as board games, you can include teaching skills that target turn taking and sharing. Children with autism (or any child) may have difficulties with giving up preferred items/activities, so these may be challenging skills to teach. In order to teach these skills with success, begin by having the child with autism share and take turns with non-preferred items/activities, then gradually fade in more highly preferred items to take turns and share.

Evidence-based practices such as social stories, peer modeling, and video modeling are also excellent methods to promote socialization in children with autism. Reading social stories and watching “expert” peers interact will allow children with autism to view and understand appropriate behavior before interacting with a new peer or practicing skills such as turn-taking, requesting information, and listening and responding to others.

All of the above methods of promoting socialization are used in Brooklyn Autism Center’s after school program BAC Friends, which pairs our students with typically developing peers from neighboring elementary and middle schools. We also provide additional opportunities for our students to practice peer socialization (along with academic work) during our reverse inclusion program with Hannah Senesh Community Day School. These methods combined with enthusiastic peers have helped our students improve their socialization skills and develop meaningful friendships.

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WRITTEN BY JULIE RUSSELL, MS, BCBA

Julie holds an M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and received her BCBA in 2009. She has over 10 years of experience working with children with autism and related developmental differences in centers, schools, school districts and home-based programs. Julie received her supervision hours for board certification in behavior analysis by Dr. Nathan Blenkush, Ph.D., BCBA from JRC in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a Clinical Supervisor at ACES (Center for Applied Behavior Analysis) in San Diego California and Clinical Supervisor at the ELIJA School in Levittown, NY before joining the Brooklyn Autism Center as Educational Director.

States Begin to Include ABA Coverage

It looks like progress is being made on getting treatments such as ABA covered by insurance. Disability Scoop is reporting that states are finally starting to include coverage of treatments like Applied Behavior Analysis for children with autism under Medicaid. This means that states must cover services consistent with the categories defined by Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment services (EPSDT). This includes Applied Behavior Analysis, speech and occupational therapies, and other personal care services.

Read the full article here.

Has anyone in CA, NV, and CT had success with getting services like ABA covered?

 

 

 

Pilot Study Finds that Parent-led Early Intervention Can Reduce Autism Symptoms in Babies

Autism symptoms can display in babies as young as 6 months old. A new pilot study at the UC Davis MIND Institute found that parents could reduce symptoms of autism in babies under 12 months by using intervention treatments in the home as detailed in the Early Denver Start Model.

As reported in a recent Huffington Post article, the study involved parents and their babies between 7 and 15 months of age in a 12 week-long treatment conducted by parents in home-like environments. The treatment was based on the Early Denver Start Model and revolved around parent-child interactions, such as bathing, feeding, playing, and reading. Four comparison groups were also included: Those who were at a higher risk for autism because of an affected sibling; those who were at low risk; those who had developed autism by age 3; and those with early symptoms who received treatment at a later age.

At the start of the study, all babies displayed early signs of autism, such as low interest in interactions and repetitive behaviors, which increased by around 9 months. However, by 18 to 36 months of age, the children in the treatment group produced lower autism severity scores than the comparison groups who did not go through the treatment.

The Huffington Post article “Pilot Intervention Eliminates Autism Symptoms In Babies” highlights the importance of early intervention in autism treatment. While this research is highly preliminary, the findings show that therapy and early intervention are key factors in treating infants and children with early signs of autism, and possibly in reducing them altogether. This study offers hope for parents and professionals in helping their children succeed with more tools and resources for the earliest stages of autism.

Read more about the pilot study on Huffington Post here.

Pick of the Week: “The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules” – A teen’s guide to not-so-obvious social codes

It’s not easy for any teen or tween to fit in, but it can be especially tough for Asperkids. Jennifer O’Toole knows this first-hand, and has written a book she only wishes she had when she was a teen with Asperger Syndrome.

This week only, save 15%* on The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules by entering promo code ASPERKID at check out!

In The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules, O’Toole doesn’t offer advice on what Asperkids should not do, but on what they should do with witty and wise insights into baffling social codes. With helpful tips, practice scenarios, checklists, and quizzes, Asperkids will learn how to:

  • Thank people, apologize, and offer compliments
  • Build and maintain genuine friendships and how to deal with bullying
  • Actively listen and have a meaningful conversation
  • Step back and see the “big picture” instead of focusing on the details
  • Make a correction and let go of the need to be right

With over 30 social rules and logical explanations, this illustrated handbook offers information that tweens and teens can truly digest. And having been there herself, the author shares her experience and points out the potential pitfalls with humor and sensitivity.

Don’t forget to save 15%* on The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules this week by using our promo code ASPERKID at checkout!

*Offer is valid until 11:59pm EDT on September 16th, 2014. Not compatible with any other offers. Be sure there are no spaces or dashes in your code at check out!

ASD Brains Show Decrease in Neuronal Autophagy, Underlying Oversensitivity and Deficits in Social Interaction

SOURCE: New York Times article by Pam Belluck

A recent study led by David Sulzer at Columbia University Medical Center showed that in children and adolescents with autism, brain tissue within the temporal lobe exhibit a decrease in neuronal autophagy (the brain’s process of clearing out old and degraded cells), which underlies oversensitivity and deficits in social interaction.

NY Times: Guomei Tang, PhD and Mark S. Sonders, PhD/Columbia University Medical Center

In early development, synapses—connections that allow neurons to communicate with each other—allows for infants to develop with as much external stimuli and information as possible. However, in childhood and adolescence, these synapses are gradually “pruned” so that the brain can develop more specific and advanced functions by not being overloaded with stimuli. As one can imagine, brains of children with autism fail to “prune” these synapses, causing them to be constantly overloaded with stimuli. In this study, young children with and without autism show roughly the same number of synapses, suggesting a “pruning” problem in autism, rather a problem with overproduction. Dr. Sulzer’s team also found biomarkers in the brains of children and adolescents diagnosed with autism, which suggested malfunctions in the process of autophagy (the neural degradation of old cells and damaged cell organelles). Without autophagy, the synaptic pruning process can’t occur.

These findings give us some insight into how autism develops from childhood onward, and help explain symptoms like oversensitivity and deficits in social interactions. Whether autism is a problem of brains with too little connectivity or too much of it has been of debate in recent years in the field of autism research. Ralph-Axel Müller, at San Diego State University, found in his studies that there was too much connectivity within brains of individuals with autism. “Impairments that we see in autism seem to be partly due to different parts of the brain talking too much to each other,” he reported to the NY Times. “You need to lose connections in order to develop a fine-tuned system of brain networks, because if all parts of the brain talk to all parts of the brain, all you get is noise.1

Eric Klann, a professor at New York University, also acknowledged an autophagy decrease in ASD brains. “The pruning problem seems to happen later in development than one might think,” Dr. Klann informed the Times. “It suggests that if you could intervene in that process that it could be beneficial for social behavior.”1 With further research into how this decrease in autophagy—and thus the synaptic pruning process in brains of children with autism—can be addressed earlier in a child’s development, there is hope that symptoms of autism may be preventable in the future.

1 “Study Finds That Brains With Autism Fail to Trim Synapses as They Develop.” New York Times. 21 Aug. 2014. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/22/health/brains-of-autistic-children-have-too-many-synapses-study-suggests.html>.

Federal Ruling Ensures that Insurers Must Cover ABA Therapy

GavelFederal Judge Michael H. Simon in Oregon ruled last week that insurance providers cannot deny coverage of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit against Providence Health Plan, an insurance provider that denied coverage of ABA therapy for children diagnosed with autism, while simultaneously granting coverage for children without a diagnosis. ABA therapy, which can cost over $50,000 a year, involves a behavioral interventionist working with a child in the family’s home or in his school to address behavioral deficits for up to forty hours a week.

Oregon State Governor John Kitzhaber also agreed with this ruling and will adjust state health plans to reflect Judge Simon’s decision. The discrepancy between insurance policies and what providers actually cover arises because the medical community views ABA as “a medically necessary treatment of autism,”1 whereas some insurance providers accept it as an educational service that is provided in schools. Since autism is also classified as a “developmental disability,” instead of a mental health disorder, insurers exclude ABA coverage for those with autism, which is also a violation of mental health parity laws.

In some states like California, several warnings have been issued to insurance companies after several denials of ABA coverage had been overturned on appeal. Regional centers now fund ABA therapy by service providers, as well as insurance companies. With President Obama’s signing of Autism CARES last week, the federal ruling will hopefully set a precedent for insurance companies across the country to allow coverage of ABA therapy for families of children diagnosed with autism. ABA therapy is the most influential and widely cited form of therapy for autism, showing the most promise and efficacy in the treatment of autism.

1 http://exm.nr/1oJvnxa

Obama Signs Autism CARES to Renew Funding for Support

Late last Friday, August 8th, President Obama signed the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act (Autism CARES), a reauthorization of the U.S.’s primary autism legislation, which includes over a billion dollars in federal funding for autism research, services, and support.

Autism CARES is a renewal of what was previously called the Combating Autism Act, which was first enacted in 2006. The renewal calls for $260 million in funding per year through 2019 for autism research, prevalence tracking, screening, professional training, and other initiatives. It will also ensure a new point person in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to oversee research and support services and activities related to autism. Amendments will also be made to the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, mandating that a new report be conducted on the needs of young adults and youth during transition.

“The Autism CARES Act will allow us to continue to build on these efforts. It will increase understanding of the barriers that youth and young adults with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disability face as they transition from school-based services to those available during adulthood by charging federal agencies with assessing the particular needs of this population,” said Taryn Mackenzie Williams, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

To find out more about how the Department of Health and Human Services is supporting autism, visit their website here.

Tip of the Week: Minimize Tantrums with High and Low-Quality Attention

Recently I began working with a family who has a six year old boy with autism named Austin (all names and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality). His mother was describing Austin’s behaviors when he couldn’t have something he wanted. She told me about him hitting his parents and younger brother, sweeping all materials off tables and shelves, and throwing himself on the floor. She was worried that he might hurt himself or hurt someone else. She told me that when he started this behavior, they would say, “Stop hitting.” They had been doing this for months, but his behavior had not improved.

Later that week, she sent me a video of Austin having one of his “mega-tantrums.” It was exactly as she described, though there was one important detail she had missed. Austin consistently sought out eye contact and physical contact with both of his parents. If they were moving around to pick up an item, he would move his body and face to maintain eye contact. If one of them sat down, he would quickly clamber into their lap while screaming and pounding their arms or the furniture. If one parent walked out of the room, he would immediately run to the other parent. This behavior was clearly maintained by attention. In order to decrease the behavior, his parents had the very difficult task of ignoring it ahead of them.

The next week I went out to their house to help them practice ignoring the behavior. We put in place a three-pronged plan:

  • When Austin wanted something he was not allowed to have, he would be given a choice of options. The options should be for preferred activities. For example, if he wants to watch TV but isn’t allowed to right now, the parent can say, “Austin, you can play with trains or you can do a puzzle.”
  • Once Austin starts hitting or screaming, he does not receive any attention. This includes eye contact, physical contact, and verbal prompts/reminders from his parents.
  • The parents can start one of the motivating activities in another location. For this family, the parents sat with the younger brother at the dining room table and the mother read a book out loud.

As I had forewarned the parents, Austin’s behavior initially intensified as he realized he was getting zero attention. He took a box of toys, turned it upside down, and dumped it all over the floor. His mother kept reading to his brother. He ran over to his father and hit his legs while screaming, the father got up and walked away. Then, Austin did something he had never done before. He climbed up onto the table and started walking around on the edge of it.

His mother looked at me and said, “How do I avoid giving him attention for that?” This is when it’s important to consider high-quality attention and low-quality attention. In order to keep him safe, his mother needed to be more proximal. She walked near where he was on the table, but did not pick him up, did not make eye contact, and did not speak to him. (I let her know that if she felt he was very unsafe, she could pick him up and remove him from the table but quickly letting him go, and withholding eye contact and verbal interaction.) She stayed nearby to catch him if he fell, but she did not provide attention for this dangerous behavior. Her proximity (or if she had chosen to pick him up off the table without eye contact or verbal interaction) constitutes low-quality attention. High-quality attention is only saved for appropriate behavior.

Think about what high-quality attention means for a young child: big facial expressions, expressive tones of voice, big movements, and physical contact. Prior to our intervention, Austin was getting all of those types of high-quality attention for inappropriate behaviors. But now he wasn’t getting any of that type of attention.

However, Austin had been engaging in inappropriate behaviors for attention for 2-3 years now, so changing this behavior takes a little time. For our first day of the intervention, Austin continued to yell and throw items for 40 minutes before he finally went over to where his mom was sitting and reading aloud the story (actually, the third story in a row). When he was near and quiet, his mom started reading in a wonderfully expressive tone, adding voices to the characters. Austin came closer. When a funny part of the story happened, Austin laughed. And then Austin’s mother encouraged him and his brother to imitate the characters in another part of the story. After he imitated the characters, he sat next to his mom and she put her arm around him. All of these high-quality forms of attention were now being given for appropriate interaction.

Sometimes you have to provide some attention in order to keep a child safe, but think to yourself what is high-quality attention for your learner: it may be tickles, silly faces, expressive speaking, or physical contact. Reserve those things for appropriate behaviors.

A few final notes about this intervention: (1) Austin’s inappropriate behaviors will probably still continue for a little bit longer. I’m certain that he will test it out a few more times, and his parents will have to stick to the intervention in order to completely get rid of what they had deemed as “mega-tantrums”; (2) This intervention only works for behaviors maintained by attention. If you’re uncertain about the function of a behavior, confer with a BCBA or an ABA provider for help; and (3) If you’re not certain you can follow through if the behavior persists for a long time (such as 40 minutes in Austin’s case) then give in the first time the learner asks. For more information on this, look back at my tip on Choosing When to Battle.

Simplifying the Science: Using Evidenced-Based Practices to Increase Food Variety for Children with Autism

An essential part of ABA is providing evidence-based treatment. Research is consistently being done all around the world to determine best practices for working with learners with autism, as well as addressing many issues outside of the realm of special education. This week, we’re pleased to introduce the first in a new month series: Simplifying the Science. In this feature, BCBA Sam Blanco will highlight one paper from the world of research to help provide you with a deeper resource base. She’ll delve into the study and offer some strategies on how the findings apply to your programming needs. Our hope is that these monthly tips will shed a different light for you on the importance of looking to research for guidance.

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When faced with feeding issues, many parents or caregivers may not consider seeking out help from a BCBA or behavior analyst. There is a tendency to associate ABA with sitting at a table and completing discrete trials, but this is only one tool in a behavior analyst’s extensive toolkit. Whether you are providing intervention for feeding issues or seeking more information, it is essential to look to scientific research for help.

There are several studies available about feeding issues, and many of these studies are specific to feeding issues in individuals with autism. One such study was published in 2010 in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) by Hildur Valdimarsdóttir, Lilja Ýr Halldórsdóttir, and Zuilma Gabriela SigurÐardóttir. “Increasing the Variety of Foods Consumed by a Picky Eater: Generalization of Effects Across Caregivers and Settings” provides one detailed case in which a five-year-old boy with autism refused to eat anything beyond meatballs, fishballs, fruits, and cereal. While his school had had some success with getting him to eat a few new items, the boy’s parents were unable to reproduce the same results at home.

The intervention the researchers used involved multiple steps that would require the assistance of a BCBA or skilled behavior analyst if you wanted to replicate it at home. In order to increase the number of foods this boy ate, the intervention included several behavioral techniques such as escape extinction (not allowing the child to escape mealtime upon refusing to eat or engaging in inappropriate behavior), stimulus fading (setting goals of increasing difficulty), and a schedule of reinforcement (frequency of reinforcement for appropriate behavior) that was systematically thinned as the child experienced success. By the end of the intervention, the boy was consuming 39 new, “non-preferred” foods, including 14 vegetables.

You can read the research study here, which I recommend you share with your child’s ABA provider. I also suggest taking a peek at the references listed at the end for insight into other resources. This particular study is of a five-year-old boy with autism, but you may find studies that are more relevant for your particular child.

In the end, when you’re feeling at a loss for strategies on improving your child’s eating, there is a lot of research out there. It takes time to go through it and set up a similar system for your own child, but the end result can have a huge impact on your child’s health as well as the stress-level in your home during mealtimes. It is definitely worth the effort to attain more information.

Written by Sam Blanco, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-12 in NYC. Working in education for ten years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam has developed strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals.