Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Research Review for School Counselors

Article excerpt

The number of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has risen significantly in recent years (CDC, 2012), and students with ASD present unique challenges to schools and school counselors. This article presents a synthesis of recent research literature related to ASD for the purpose of providing school counselors with assistance in understanding and addressing the needs of students with ASD. Specific areas of focus include the prevalence, developmental course, and defining characteristics of ASD, and research on the effectiveness of interventions for students with ASD. Students with ASD are at increased risk for a range of problems including social deficits and limitations, anxiety, aggression, peer victimization, and underachievement (Ashburner, Ziviani, & Rodger, 2010). Interventions to address the social deficits of students with ASD have shown promise but also have been found to lack results that are generalizable and that persist over time (Schreiber, 2011). This article provides specific recommendations for school counselors.

Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella label that describes a set of developmental disabilities marked by significant impairments in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication and some level of restricted interests and/or repetitive behaviors. While the autism spectrum disorder label is increasingly being used in schools and by researchers as the preferred term for autistic conditions, other labels are used in other contexts. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) uses the label pervasive developmental disorder, which in itself is an umbrella label that encompasses autism and Asperger's disorder (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000). The relevant federally-defined label for autistic conditions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is autism. Further adding to this labeling complexity is the change in the new DSM-5 (APA, 2013), which eliminates Asperger's disorder and autistic disorder as labels and moves to the global autism spectrum disorder. To be consistent with current usage patterns, this article will use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) except when describing a specific research study that used a different label and that requires use of that label to fully understand the results of the study.

As the word spectrum implies, autism spectrum disorder can vary in its impact from mildly impactful to an overwhelming degree of impairment. Some students with ASD are severely disabled, lacking virtually all language capabilities and seemingly captive to an internal world that does not allow emotional contact with even the closest of caregivers. In contrast, other students with ASD are able to function successfully in regular education classrooms, often displaying strong academic abilities and exceptional knowledge bases in narrow areas of interest, only departing from typically developing peers in subtle social skill deficits and quirky, discrete areas of interest. Most students with ASD, of course, fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. All students with ASD, regardless of the severity of their disability, present special challenges for schools and need varying levels of special support in order to succeed academically and socially in school.

Although ASD can manifest itself in a wide range of severity, it does include some core characteristics that are the essence of the disorder. Strong overlap can be seen in the federal definition of autism that is used to guide identification of students with autism spectrum disorders in the schools and the DSM-5 criteria for autism spectrum disorder. The federal definition of autism in IDEA is as follows:

Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. …