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Children's National Intervention Found Effective in Treating Growing Population of Children with Autism

Nearly half, or 46 percent, of children identified with autism spectrum disorders had above average or average intellectual disability compared to just 33 percent a decade ago, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Although children of average or above average intelligence represent a large growing population of those identified with autism, Lauren Kenworthy, PhD, Director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children’s National Health System, says “there are very few evidence-based, or proven, treatments for them.”

Dr. Kenworthy and Laura Anthony, PhD, Associate Director of CASD, collaborated with master teachers at the Ivymount School Model Asperger Program in Rockville, Md., to create the Unstuck and On Target (UOT) intervention designed with this population in mind.

People with autism spectrum disorders have much to offer society, but are often prevented from sharing their gifts due to autism-related weaknesses in executive function. Poor outcomes in ASD are linked to specific executive function problems with being flexible, integrating information, planning and coping with the unexpected. UOT is an executive function intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders that seeks to enhance skill development in flexibility, planning, and organization.

A study from CASD comparing the effectiveness of UOT against an established social skills intervention was published in print this month in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Study partners included researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Ivymount School.

“We found that children from both intervention groups showed improvements in social skills and planning, but children participating in the UOT group also made much bigger improvements in flexibility, planning, and problem solving, than the social skills group did,” says Dr. Kenworthy.

“Some of our most exciting findings were that the kids who participated in UOT became more flexible and focused in their mainstream classrooms, making transitions more easily and following directions better,” says Dr. Anthony. “We hope that interventions like ours empower individuals with autism spectrum disorders to achieve their goals more easily.”

The study followed 67 students with autism in third, fourth, and fifth grades. The students received either the UOT intervention or the social skills intervention, but both groups had the same number of sessions and time with group leaders.

The team from CASD followed up with many of the UOT participants nearly a year later, and found the children maintained improvements in flexibility and planning long-term. Because the UOT intervention is integrated into real life settings such as mainstream schools and home life, Dr. Kenworthy and Dr. Anthony see the potential for widespread use and accessibility for people of all incomes.    

The latest CDC report found that one in 68 children were identified with autism spectrum disorder. These numbers are nearly 120 percent higher than the estimate a decade ago.
Contact: Emily Hartman or Caitlyn Camacho, 202-476-4500.

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