Chapel Hill News

UNC study shows promise for children with autism

Preschoolers with autism benefit from high-quality classrooms, a new study shows, whether or not teachers employ popular treatment models used for decades.

The study followed 198 children ages 3-5 in four states for one school year and measured changes in communication skills and autism symptoms, said researcher Brian Boyd, a fellow at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

The study looked at two established models – LEAP (Learning Experiences and Alternative Program for Preschoolers and their Parents) and TEACCH (originally Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children but now known only by its acronym) – as well as high-quality control classrooms.

“LEAP classrooms are inclusive by design,” Boyd said. “Kids with autism share a classroom with their typically-developing peers, who are trained to help kids with autism in social interaction.”

The TEACCH classrooms in the study separated children into their own classrooms, though the TEACCH model doesn’t say children with autism need to be in such classrooms.

“The idea you can have one classroom that’s LEAP and one that’s TEACCH is a little artificial in the sense you can have classrooms that incorporate both approaches in one classroom,” said Laura Klinger, executive director of the TEACCH program in Chapel Hill. “In their real-world life, (a teacher) uses many different approaches. Their classrooms might be an example of a control classroom.”

The study found no significant differences between classroom types. “TEACCH and LEAP are not ineffective, but kids in all types of classrooms made gains over time,” Boyd said.

Klinger said she’s pleased to see research done in real-life classrooms.

“I’m thrilled that the study shows improvement in social skills and communication skills and autism,” she said. “I imagine LEAP will say the same thing.”

Klinger said high-quality classrooms are well organized, have strong parent-teacher partnerships, and take a positive team approach (not punishing).

“If you were a parent of a preschooler with autism, rather than worry if it’s TEACCH or LEAP, look to see if teachers have training on how to work with kids with autism,” she said. “A well-qualified teacher is key.”

The study has important implications considering the estimated $3.2 million lifetime cost of caring for a person with autism, Boyd said.

“Access to early intervention will reduce the need for certain medical or educational costs later on,” he said. “High-quality intervention early on may make long-term outcomes better.”

One next step is to analyze the costs of the different teaching methods. Another is to better figure out what effective classrooms of all types are doing to best support children with autism.

“What these classrooms may have in common may be more important than what separates them,” Boyd said.