Conducting Comprehensive Autism EvaluationsAccording to the CDC, 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with boys four times more likely than girls to receive that diagnosis. While no one cause for Autism has been identified, many debates are ongoing with various hypotheses about a cause(s), as well as if Autism is being overly diagnosed. The rapid increase in prevalence also prompted significant changes to the diagnostic criteria for Autism in the soon-to-be-published DSM-5, due to be released May 2013. One way we, as school psychologists, can help ensure that only students who meet diagnostic criteria are labeled as having Autism is by conducting comprehensive evaluations. How can we be sure our evaluations cover all bases?
- Screen, screen, screen! How many times have you been pulled aside by a teacher or parent stating that a student may have Autism because they do not make eye contact? Or does not speak in class? Prefers to play alone? Each one of those observations is a symptom of ASD, but in isolation, does not necessarily mean a child warrants a formal diagnosis of an Autism spectrum disorder. Just as we do not automatically rush to evaluate for Emotional Disturbance based on a single tantrum or ADHD if they are easily distracted, it is best practice to do classroom observations and gather information to develop a profile of behaviors for a particular student before rushing to obtain consent for an evaluation for special education. Screening is a relatively quick and easy way to do that – and there are screeners published for both the home and school settings. (We use the Autism Screening Instrument for Educational Programming – 3rd Ed (ASIEP-3) for school and Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) for parents.) Screeners help you know how to proceed with your evaluation, as well as to help further educate parents and teachers. If they are insistent on an Autism evaluation based on one isolated symptom (e.g., does not make eye contact) but the screeners do not show that a full evaluation is warranted, you have documentation that you addressed their concern and can provide that information to the team without completing a full Autism evaluation (though an evaluation in another area may be indicated).
- Social-Developmental/Medical History is crucial! Diagnostic criteria clearly state that symptoms must be present before age 3 for a student to be diagnosed with Autism. How else can you gather that information other than interviewing a parent? Although some questionnaires can be sent home with a student for the parent to complete and return, I have found that it is better to do these interviews face to face or via phone conference so that you can ask follow up questions. Remember to include questions about sensory differences, responses to transitions/schedule changes, and family/peer relationships in any interview you use. Part of the history gathering should also include a medical history to rule out any possible diagnosis that could be causing the behaviors of concern.
- There is no “I” in play based evaluations! ASD is characterized by significant disruptions in language and communication, reciprocal social interactions, and repeated/restricted stereotyped behaviors. The best way to assess those areas is thru a structured play-based assessment. The Psychoeducational Profile – 3rd Ed (PEP-3) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – 2nd Ed (ADOS-2) are the two most commonly used standardized play-based assessments used in Autism evaluations and allow direct assessment of those specific areas through activities or presses. As communication and sensory differences are two main diagnostic areas, Autism evaluations should be completed using a multi-disciplinary team approach to the greatest extent possible. If that is not the practice in your school district, consider seeking out your Speech/Language Pathologist or Occupational Therapist to see if the findings they found in the course of their evaluations support or contradict your own. The ADOS-2 has a scoring algorithm built in to quantify observations through ratings to determine if a student’s behaviors rise to the diagnosis of an ASD. When doing the PEP-3, teams in my district complete the CARS-2 rating scales to quantify our observations. The focus of your report should be on the behaviors observed in response to the presses/activities and NOT on the scores obtained. In fact, the authors of the ADOS-2 advise NOT to report scores from the ADOS-2 in the report.
- What – more behavior rating scales? In most instances, Autism is considered to be a life-long disability. A student may (and should!) learn compensatory strategies to be productive in school and the community, but in most cases Autism will always be present. This “life-long disability” label should not be taken lightly. Additional rating scales can be collected to further validate your observations. Preferred rating scales for teams I have been involved with include the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) and Gilliam Autism Rating Scale-2nd Ed (GARS-2).
A word about cognitive testing: I would strongly recommend using low-verbal batteries that utilize manipulatives such as the KABC-II NVI or Stanford-Binet 5. Remember that while we engage our worlds socially and through language, those with ASD tend to engage through the sensory realm. It may help to start a student with a brief sensory activity (e.g., using a Rain Stick, Bumble Ball, texture bocks, or digging through a bucket of dried beans) to help them regulate emotionally before putting academic stressors on them. To keep sessions structured, I almost always use a sticker chart and allow students to put a sticker in a box for every activity (subtest) completed. The chart gives students a visual of the progress made, how much is left, and something to take with them as tangible evidence of how much was able to be completed during a given session.
Recommendations should address particular concerns that drove the initial referral as well as behaviors observed throughout the evaluation. Commonly, recommendations include strategies to increase structure in the classroom (including structuring play scenarios for younger students), warn students of impending transitions, provide frequent sensory breaks, and explicit teaching of expected behaviors followed by immediate consequences or rewards. Often, it takes students with ASD a significantly longer time to directly associate specific behaviors with rewards or consequences. Many more discreet trials are often needed. Visual supports and hands-on learning may also be considered depending on the needs of the student.
I end with a few recommendations of my own. The number of resources out there for Autism is exponential but there is a handful that I use regularly when consulting with parents and teachers and keep close when asked for resources that I will share with you lucky readers out there. This list is not at all meant to be comprehensive, rather just “tried and true” suggestions you may want to consider adding to your toolbox.
-Practical Ideas That Really Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Kathleen Mc Connell and Gail R. Ryser
-Educating the Young Child with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Michael Abraham
-*Anything* by Temple Grandin [side note from Musings--I'm reading The Way I See It, 2nd Edition and it's stellar)
Student Resources (fictional stories about living with an Autism spectrum disorder)
-Understanding Sam and Asperger’s Syndrome – Clarabelle van Niekerk and Liezl Venter
-Mockingbird – Kathryn Erskine
www.do2learn.com (picture cards and picture schedules)
Please consider “Lighting it Up Blue” this April to show support for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders!
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