Brock-chaired Ontario taskforce releases report evaluating autism interventions

A new report launched ahead of Sunday’s World Autism Day says services for people with autism should be based on scientific methods that help understand and improve behaviours in different settings.

Julie Koudys, assistant professor in Brock’s Centre for Applied Disabilities Studies and chair of the province-wide task force that released the report, says applied behaviour analysis (ABA) interventions are the gold standard in autism care because they’re based on the best available research and have been applied effectively in the past.

“We strongly believe that evidence-based interventions for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are the best use of parents’ limited resources, including time and money,” says Koudys. “These interventions deliver immediate benefits in terms of improving quality of life, but also represent significant long-term benefit and cost savings.”

Koudys chairs the Ontario Scientific Expert Taskforce for the Treatment of ASD, which launched its report to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day Sunday, April 2.

The report describes a wide variety of evidence-based interventions that use ABA to bring about specific results. Examples include:

  • Language training: methods to help individuals with ASD produce sounds or spoken words
  • Cognitive behavioural intervention: learners are taught to examine their own thoughts and emotions, recognize when these are becoming too intense, and then use strategies to change their thinking and behaviour
  • Functional behaviour assessment: a systematic way of determining the underlying function or purpose of a behaviour so that an effective intervention plan can be developed
  • Parent training and parent-implemented interventions: includes programs in which parents are trained to carry out some or all of the intervention(s) with their own child. Parents may be trained to teach their child new skills, such as communication, play or self-help, and/or to decrease challenging behavior.

The report examines the research and guidelines behind effective interventions for individuals with ASD and makes recommendations on what to keep and what to change.

Its recommendations include:

  • Interventions that are new, unproven or do not meet the standards of evidence-based practice should not be supported; there needs to be a mechanism for regularly updating those interventions that are identified as evidence-based
  • An individual’s needs should determine the types, dosage and durations of ABA interventions and services
  • ABA interventions should be developed and supervised by a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst with extensive experience delivering, designing and supervising ABA interventions for individuals with ASD
  • Parents of individuals with ASD should be the central decision-makers and be heavily involved in goal setting and participation as a member of the ABA intervention team

In Ontario, waiting lists for programs and services that help children living with ASD have been increasing despite efforts to address the situation.

The Ontario government has announced that a new Ontario Autism Program will begin in June. The 2016 Ontario Budget committed $333 million over five years for the new autism program.

In response to this announcement, and the intense public debate that followed, the Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA) created the Ontario Scientific Expert Taskforce chaired by Koudys to synthesize research and practice guidelines in order to make recommendations to guide best practices.

“ONTABA’s board felt it had a duty to clarify the science around applied behaviour analysis,” says Koudys of the taskforce’s report, “Evidence-Based Practices For Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Recommendations for Caregivers, Practitioners, and Policy Makers.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as being “a psychiatric diagnostic category of a disorder characterized by persistent deficits in social communication, and restricted, repetitive behaviours or activities,” says the report.

The National Epidemiologic Database for the Study of Autism in Canada (NEDSAC) estimates that the prevalence of ASD in Canada is one per 94 children.

Brock University is a major player in the field of applied behaviour analysis.

Koudys says Ontario itself has “one of the highest concentrations of behaviour analysts per capita in the world,” and believes somewhere around half of these analysts are Brock graduates from the M.ADS and M.A. programs offered through the Centre for Applied Disability Studies.

The Ontario Scientific Expert Taskforce also includes Kimberley Zonneveld, assistant professor in the Centre for Applied Disability Studies, and Tricia Vause, associate professor in Brock’s Child and Youth Studies Program.

Professor and Centre for Applied Disabilities Studies director, Maurice Feldman, served as an external expert for the taskforce. He was also recently appointed as a member of the MCYS Clinical Expert Committee.

The taskforce received additional support from Brock alumni Jeffrey Esteves, Jacqueline Pachis, Milena Kako and Melissa Legree as well as current M.A. student Krysten Thompson.

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