Intensive, Early Education Said Best For Autism

By Todd Zwillich in Reuters Health

Educators looking for effective programs for children with autism should lean toward intensive interventions that last at least 25 hours per week all year round, the authors of a recent federal report on autism education said Wednesday.

But this is just about all of the direct advice the authors were willing to give educators who met with them at the headquarters of the National Academies of Sciences. Though a relatively large body on research on autism treatments is on the books, there is no standardized therapy, they said. "What we don't know is which treatment is best for which youngster," said James Gallagher, an autism education expert from the University of North Carolina and member of a National Research Council committee that last month released a report on interventions for autistic children.

"There aren't good links between particular treatments and recovery to normalcy," said Catherine Lord, a University of Chicago researcher and chairwoman of the committee.

Autism is a developmental and neurological disorder that causes varying degrees of social impairment, language deficits and mental dysfunction. Recent estimates put its prevalence at about 7.5 children per 10,000.

Federal disability law guarantees that most mildly or moderately autistic children can go to regular public schools and attend regular or special education classes.

Lord and Gallagher told educators that available methods for ameliorating autism in schools vary widely in their approach, philosophy and goals. With little reliable or standardized evidence, choosing the best treatments usually means fitting treatments into schools' budgets and teachers' training level.

However, most of the evidence does show that treatment that starts early and remains intense for 25 hours per week or more works best, they said. "Intensity of treatment is what is needed to make a difference here," Gallagher said.

"There's just no reason to wait to get started" with specialized education once autism is identified in children, Lord added.

Federal law also guarantees parents the right to participate in the planning and monitoring of an autistic child's school-based treatment program. But Lord and Gallagher warned that many parents go uneducated into meeting with experts and school officials.

Gallagher recommended that schools encourage parents to plan treatment with the help of a counselor.

Parents, teachers and principals should all set clear goals about what functional deficits-such as speech delay or social avoidance-they are hoping to improve for autistic kids, according to the researchers. Lord stressed that different treatments have been shown to work for different deficits, but that none work for a broad spectrum of problems that fall under autism.

"We're trying to say that the goal isn't recovery, the goal is getting better," she said.

The committee's report can be viewed on the National Academies of Sciences Web site at

Copyright 2001 Reuters News Service.


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