Over recent years, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has received broad media exposure. ASD remains among the world’s most misunderstood medical conditions. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder most often manifest during social interactions. Thus, primary targets of treatment are improving social interactions.
It is unfortunate that the misconceptions about autism spectrum disorders persist, as does the difficulty those who suffer from ASD have in communicating and interpreting the behavior of those around them. Confusion about ASD abounds due to the complexity and heterogeneity of ASD symptoms.
Recent changes in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) have clarified misconceptions of ASD. Terminology and symptoms are now more fully explained to aid in the diagnoses of ASD. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was believed that about one out of every 2,000 children had autism spectrum disorder, whereas in the CDC’s most recent report in 2014, one in 68 eight-year-old children is estimated to have a form of ASD.
In one effort to quell confusion about autism spectrum disorders, Dr. Elizabeth McKenney, assistant professor of psychology, has devoted her time to the clinical research of ASD. She is working with child educators and her local community to not only educate the public on ASD, but to uncover and interpret new data that can be used to improve the lives of those diagnosed with ASD.
Most notably, McKenney acts as a consultant for Project CASTLE, a research and outreach collaboration with the Edwardsville Community Unit School District. She provides support for students with ASD, and their teachers and parents. The project’s research, according to McKenney, focuses on the students, evaluating the usefulness of existing educational and public-service practices. Meanwhile, studies conducted with the program’s staff and students have supported the teachers and parents, and they have introduced new methods to improve students’ social communication and academic performance.
Project CASTLE encourages accurate delivery of Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) for those involved with educating and supporting children with ASD. Discrete Trial Teaching is an evidence-based treatment for ASD which is procedurally complex to implement in a classroom setting.
During the projects first year, McKenney explored the effectiveness of giving performance feedback to special education teachers and teaching assistants in three elementary classrooms for students with ASD. Teachers in these classrooms often deal with students with various needs, such as inattention, difficulty completing work, and disruptive behavior.
McKenney found that encouraging behavioral development is effective as a means of supporting teachers, as well as treating these students. Despite this fact, McKenney’s is the first study to measure how performance feedback impacts a teacher’s accuracy to DTT procedures within a public elementary school setting. After the study’s initial stages, the research team was able to use its findings to train school psychologists and social workers to offer consultation and performance feedback to teachers on a continuing basis.
In its second year, the CASTLE project shifted focus to working with families, ensuring stronger results for children with ASD both at home and at school. According to McKenney, children with ASD often have a hard time applying what they learn in one setting to another environment, and therefore, close collaboration between parents and teachers is important to ensure success for all parties involved.Although there is no “cure” for ASD, McKenney points out that in many cases one’s symptoms will improve with treatment. Current research is focused on the consultation activities that support teachers’ use of Pivotal Response Training (PRT) procedures within classroom environments. Like DTT, PRT is only just beginning to be explored as a form of ASD service delivery in need of consultative support within public education settings. In some areas, PRT has been shown to facilitate faster increases in students’ skill acquisition than DTT. Thus, supporting this form of service delivery may produce even better outcomes.