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Amanda Joy Friedman MSEd, SBL
Amanda Joy Friedman MSEd, SBL

Quantifying Engagement in Autism Education Models

Expanding educational research leads to greater meaning and connectivity!

T.S. Elliot wrote "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." In schools for individuals with autism and other different abilities, many programs measure out success and learning with token boards, edible reinforcers, gradual climbs along nuanced developmental charts, and acknowledgement of "maladaptive" behaviors. What is missing here? Ways to measure initiation, engagement, motivation, and interest. If only we could use our research to inform our practices and not just the black and white notion that our methods are perfect and students either succeed or fail within these confines. It is time to measure our methodologies, our affect and presentation of materials, as well as the balance between our output and their processing ability to receive the input. Dare I say, we can use research to create an integrated and TRULY individualized approach to education, engagement, and higher level and more meaningful communication between us and our students, your children? I do.

Going into this article as I do going into my sessions with students, the experience of being together guides me in HOW I deliver the message intended. I MUST consider my audience (jargon, appropriateness, level of intellect and sophistication paired with staying true to self and personal integrity) and I am sure I will have a moment or two where the tangents lay in wait, do I follow them and stick to only the theme of this article? Do I allow relevant tidbits that will flavor the experience? How much of the article is simply the spark of a thought, teaching facts, and how much is the personal drive as an author and teacher to make a difference and try to exact fundamental changes in people's ability to reflect on themselves and the current techniques of educational models that are only beginning to tip the surface of true life learning,generalization,and respect of students' individual learning profiles. The definitions later in this post are listed so we can decide what they mean to us and to our students. How do these words resonate within you personally and how do they impact you as parents, therapists, or teachers?

I have asked several experts in the field of special education, speech, ABA, and research to address the role of data in creating meaningful statements about teaching methods, scaffolding developmental growth, and creating more respectful opportunities for meaningful interactions with individuals on the spectrum. It is time to stop looking through a magnifying glass and take action based on what we actually see happening in front of us in our student's attempts at language, passive and aggressive behaviors, and withdrawal from certain activities and people. Let's stop assuming the problem is all them, and see what WE need to be doing differently to truly help. We also must stop thinking so sequentially that we deny students splinter skills because they have not been built up to in a manner we are accustomed to. By probing higher level areas, we may find more exceptionalities in our students that can be stretched out and capitalized upon boosting students confidence and skillsets instead of merely forcing them to climb the ladder step by step. If they climb three steps at a time, so what? Let's have data inform us to better allow students their own path of learning and relationships. You'd be surprised how much they have to show us!

The definitions:

Autism (according to Wikipedia) :

a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interactionand verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotypedbehavior. The diagnostic criteria require that symptoms become apparent before a child is three years old.[2] Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood. It is one of three recognized disorders in the autism spectrum (ASDs), the other two being Asperger syndrome, which lacks delays in cognitive development and language, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (commonly abbreviated as PDD-NOS), which is diagnosed when the full set of criteria for autism or Asperger syndrome are not met.

Education (according to Merriam-Webster):

a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process; the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process Research: (according to 1. diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.: recent research in medicine. Learning: (according to Merriam-Webster) the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something : the activity of someone who learns.

Take a minute here and process what this has meant to you in school settings and in life. What experiences have had more impact then facts, and what facts have helped you have greater experiences? Let the answer inform your interactions with your students and your goal setting on their behalf.

The experts:

RESEARCH - Amanda Leeder is a doctorate candidate in Fordham University's Applied Developmental Psychology Program. She has her MA in General Psychology from NYU and over 6 years experience implementing and researching therapeutic ASD interventions at home and in school settings.

What is the current role of research in education for Autism Spectrum Disorder?

"For therapeutic and educational interventions, the fields of education and psychology rely on the integrity of scientific research in order to validate programs’ efficacy. While it is no surprise that the term ‘evidenced-based practice’ holds a lot of weight, the evaluation of educational interventions for the ASD population is still in its nascent stages, partly due to the challenge of quantifying implementation practices and goals for these learners."

What needs to be in place for better goal setting, validity of data collection and the implementation or generalization of its findings?

"In order to properly educate the ASD population, it is critical that evaluators and researchers respect and focus on the heterogeneity of symptomatology, strengths, weaknesses, and interests inherent in autism. By respecting the individual profiles of these learners and effectively measuring the educational practices designed for them, it will be possible to reliably and validly measure the effectiveness of interventions for sub-groups of the population.Goals of programs are hugely overlooked in current foci of autism interventions. A program can be extremely 'successful' in terms of promoting certain skills, but one must be careful if this is to the exclusion of other goals that might be more important for some learners. A consideration of realistic goals for the learner should include the input of the individual, his or her family members, as well as therapists and teachers."

How do current trends in research guide or misguide families? What do you recommend they do in seeking out best programming?

"Many families of individuals with autism assume that a particular approach will be successful for their child, based on anecdotal evidence, case studies, or because an approach is ‘evidence based’. While in twenty years this term will be a reliable indicator of which school parents should enroll their child, the current state of research on autism education does not allow for this approach.

Research does not sufficiently focus on heterogeneity within the autistic population, nor does it consider the significant variation in therapist’s implementation of a particular intervention.The best bet for families right now is to comprehensively research what therapies and educational approaches are out there, and try to seek out professionals and experts in the field who will give them unbiased answers about autism education."

SPEECH - Nicole Kolenda: M.S., CCC-SLP, P.C., is a licensed speech language pathologist in private practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She holds a Master's Degree from Columbia University. Nicole has supervised and taught at numerous graduate programs throughout Manhattan and Long Island, including Teacher’s College, Columbia University, New York University, Marymount Manhattan College and Hofstra University. She is an expert on speech and language development and has collaborated with Manhattan’s top rated developmental pediatricians. Nicole has written for numerous parenting magazines and websites, including Parent Guide and Modern Mom. She has over fifteen years of pediatric experience with children diagnosed with a range of developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Her primary focus is in treating children diagnosed with motor planning difficulties and Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS); she has recently contributed to research in this area. Nicole believes in an individualized approach to therapy and prepares a customized treatment plan for each client on her caseload.

What is the role of student engagement in assessing ability, potential, and intentionality, especially in the context of speech and communication?

"The most basic prerequisite to learning is being able to maintain attention. Our bodies, in order to work optimally, must be in a state of homeostasis so we can then allow others to engage us. When I supervise graduate students who are studying to be future Speech Language Pathologists, the first thing I tell them to do is look at the learning environment. Is the chair and table appropriate for their client (if a chair is too high, a child will typically sink in their seat or swing their legs in an effort to "find" the floor to feel "grounded"—but this movement then inhibits learning, in that it is taking away the student's attention from the task at hand). Is the room too distracting? Too loud? Possibly too bright? These are things you do not want to compete with because they are so easily fixed.

How do we create the ideal working environment in which to assess "true knowledge and ability" as well as to maintain learning and appropriate goals?

"It is the internal distractions that we have the most difficulty with during treatment because they are very difficult to identify and not easy to resolve. So, once you know the child can pay attention… how do you maintain their attention—or, keep them actively engaged so that they can now accept incoming language and process it with ease? You have to make sure you are working at the "line of learning"—where you are able to maintain the student's attention and they are processing and learning. The easiest way to ascertain this has been achieved is through a student's expressive language—which is a window into a child's receptive repertoire. It is important to note that some students need movement to attend, which can often be surprising when you expect a child did not hear what you said, but they answer a question with ease. I would say that language processing and attention/engagement have a special, symbiotic relationship which manifests itself very differently in each person and, can look very differently within each communicative interaction."

And what is one context, at least, you'd like to see for research in Autism therapies to assist better with attending to and/or processing language?

"I would like to see more research on the role of writing [language] to facilitate processing."

ABA - Kathleen Bradler is a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) who graduated Penn State University. She is an independent contractor and has worked both in the home and school setting.

1) How has ABA evolved to address greater generalization of skills?

"ABA stands for applied behavior analysis. This means that our analysis focuses on behaviors that are of of social significance to an individual. Behaviors are said to have social validity if they affect a person's life in a positive and meaningful manner. ABA teaches skills and shapes behaviors that are meaningful to the individual, and therefore are more likely to generalize throughout the individual's life. We program for generalization in that we teach a skill across settings, across people, and across multiple exemplars of materials. Once an objective has been met, it can be broadened and included in the next objective, into the bigger picture. We cannot drop an objective once it has been learned, or stop teaching a skill, or it may be forgotten. This "programming for generalization" enables the individual to generalize what they have learned into their every day lives."

2) What is the relevance of the data collected to inform the growth of each kids program?

"Data collection is an integral part of Applied Behavior Analysis and of any evidence based practice today. Without data collection, the teacher, parent, or behavior analyst would not have an objective view of the individual's progress, and thus would not know when to add or remove a prompt, when an objective has been mastered and when new goals should be added. For example: (A teacher coming in to work might say) "I am having a great day. My Starbucks barrista gave me a free coffee, there was no traffic (or the subway came right on time), and my hair looks perfect. I am also excited for the weekend! My student with autism had a great day at school today too! He whined a little bit and was a bit non-compliant, but all in all it was a good day." Versus: "I missed the train. It's raining buckets. And I am coming down with a cold. To top it all off, my student had an awful day at school. He whined all day and was so non-compliant all day!" The student may have engaged in the same behaviors on both days. But the teacher's mood has greatly effected her perspective on his behavior. Without objective data collection, we would not have a clear view on how the student is really doing. Just the teacher's perspective on how he is doing."

MULTI-STRATEGIC LEARNING - Alison Berkley, MS, earned her BS in psychology from New York University where she graduated on the Dean’s List and was awarded a Dean’s Scholarship to complete her MsT at Pace University. Alison has taught in both ABA and DIR/Floortime schools gleaning broad and intensive experience in varying educational methodologies.She is co-director of Emerge & See Education Center in Manhattan. (

What is the role of connectivity and engagement in the learning process and research/assessments?

"I think the role of quantifying engagement is incredibly important in incorporating multi-strategic approaches for teaching students on the spectrum! The individual nature of each student's "autism" and their unique learning styles make quantification tricky, but not impossible. We need to careful attune our measures to being observable and measurable, just like any other data-driven intervention. Yet, we need to allow for the collection of the data itself to come from fluid and dynamic interactions."

Why is it beneficial to fold in multi-strategic approaches?

"Any great multi-strategic approach inherently embeds many different goals and aspects to the instruction in a motivating way for the students. Therefore, when we look at something concrete such as eye contact, we can still take data! We might not be sitting across the student at a desk or table with clicker in hand giving Sd's like "Look at me" and filling out our chart. Perhaps we take that chart, slap it on a clipboard, and then go in the gym to play some basketball and before we ask the kiddo to pass, we say "look at me" and when they do, we mark the plus and when they don't we record the minus. At the end of the bb-ball game, we track the data just like any other program. The Sd's, goals, objectives and targets should be set clearly beforehand. That way, the masterful teacher utilizing the multi-strategic approach can fluidly embed those targets into their dynamic and more naturalistic setting. My greatest mentor and best friend, Amanda always likens it to "folding the peas into the mashed potatoes"! A great teacher learns quickly how to get their students doing so much hard work, yet makes it so much fun that the student thinks that all they are doing is playing. How do you think this impacts teachers at large in their perception of students, the teaching process, and meeting concrete goals while making education feel accessible and enjoyable? "I feel strongly that progressive education is moving fast toward multi-strategic approaches, individualized interventions and dynamic learning that involves all 5 senses. Kinesthetic and experiential learning will be rampant throughout any stellar classroom. It's time to track what the master teachers are doing so that the data can prove conclusively not only that the students are learning specific skills, but so that it can also shape future learning and hone in the interventions so they are as effective as possible. (If) Amanda could get any kiddo to eat their veggies. Perhaps it's time she gave the teachers a bite!!?!??"

The questions:

Who is hungry for education and engagement to be equally respected, acknowledged, and prioritized in research, classrooms, home programs, and dayhab programs? How do we do it? Leave a comment and let us know what comes next!

About the Author
Amanda Joy Friedman MSEd, SBL

Amanda Friedman, MSEd, SBL, is the founder and executive director of the Atlas School/Atlas Foundation for Autism.

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