Converting to a Behavior Analysis Format for Autism Services: Decision-Making for Educational Administrators, Principals, and Consultants

Article excerpt

This article is intended to orient school administrators and managers to the existing evidence for usefulness of ABA-based instruction for children with autism spectrum disorders, and to identify salient aspects of the educational system and setting that should be addressed by consultants when newly implementing ABA-based instruction. No one dimension of ABA implementation in schools is fully addressed--rather, selected recommendations are included and readers are directed to the primary sources cited throughout.

The Need to Provide Behavioral Education Services to Children

Presently one of the areas of greatest controversy in special education is the development of intensive educational services for children with autism. Parents often arrive at preschools and schools and with their preschooler or primary schooler in tow, and high expectations for performance by the educational system. These expectations have been fueled by a variety of factors, not least of which is the emergence of a body of research studies demonstrating that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can realize very extensive benefits from intensive, behavioral educational intervention, in many instances benefits that include apparent and enduring recovery from the effects of ASD.

Although parental expectations for intensive intervention, and related benefits, may appear unrealistic at first blush to teams, principals, and educators who are not experienced in behavioral educational approaches, in fact there are several sources that have documented that these expectations are not out of line. A number of evaluation studies of intensive early intervention services have shown that substantial and continuing gains can be realized, including very substantial benefits for about half of the children referred at an early age, and varying benefits for others. These include studies by Anderson, Avery, DiPietro, Edwards, and Christian (1987), Graff, Green, & Libby (1998), Lovaas (1987), Perry, Cohen, and DeCarlo (1995).

Findings have suggested that more intensive rather than moderately intensive educational participation, and inception of services at an earlier age are associated with greater benefit (Birnbrauer & Leach, 1993; Fenske, Zalenski, Krantz, & McClannahan, 1985). But, either one of these considerations rules out value of interventions that begin upon primary school entry, and involve heightened instructional intensity, through an extended school day, extended school year, or parental participation as therapists in home and community.

The research foundations upon which behavior analytic strategies in autism education are based are extremely broad and well-developed, and, indeed, the research underpinning these strategies in educating children with autism is more extensive than the research foundation for any other educational model for children with ASD (Matson, Benavidez, Compton, Paclwaskyj, & Baglio, 1996). This conclusion, and the conclusions that behavioral approaches (a.k.a. applied behavior analysis--ABA--or behavior analysis) are of recognized utility and encompass instructional procedures with recognized utility, are supported by government reports from California and New York, an administrative review in Maine, and in a recent report on mental health by the Surgeon General of the United States (Collaborative Work Group on Autistic Spectrum Disorders, 1997; Department of Health, 1999; Department of Health and Human Services, 1999; MADSEC Autism Taskforce, 1999).

Although researchers and evaluators might be occasionally accused (usually entirely unjustified) of having a vested interest in reaching conclusions that reflect well on the services they provide, no such factors taint, however faintly, the conclusions of the comprehensive governmental reports cited above. The Surgeon General, New York, and Maine reports directly cite the benefits of ABA strategies in serving children with ASD, while the California report stresses the importance of a wide range of educational program characteristics that in turn are conspicuously present in ABA-based educational programs. …