TUESDAY, July 30 (HealthDay News) -- For parents of preschoolers
with autism, finding a classroom program for their child may have
just gotten a little easier.
A new study has found that it's the quality of a teaching
program -- not the model of instruction -- that seems to be most
important to a student's success.
That means parents shouldn't fret when the local or available
program is not a particular type, as long as it is considered good,
said Samuel Odom, a co-author of the study and director of the
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, at the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Autism spectrum disorder occurs in about one in 88 children in
the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, with boys more likely to have the
condition. Symptom severity can vary widely, but kids with autism
typically have a hard time communicating and interacting with
The new research, recently published online in the
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, showed that
two widely used comprehensive treatment models -- called LEAP and
TEACCH -- were no better than high-quality special education
When quality factors were present in a classroom, the children's
performance improved over time, regardless of whether the teachers
were using one of these two specialized teaching models or a more
generalized special education focus, Odom said.
The key is not so much the philosophy of the teachers and staff
or even the curriculum, but whether certain features associated
with success are part of the classroom routine, he said.
Factors related to successful programs include a predictable
classroom environment, individualized programming for students,
emphasis on communication, and opportunities for social interaction
with adults and potentially with other children with autism, Odom
LEAP stands for "learning experiences and alternative program
for preschoolers and their parents," and it's designed to build
more on an early childhood education curriculum with specific
features that support the child with autism, Odom said.
TEACCH represents "training and education of autistic and
related communication handicapped children," and creates an
environment that focuses on the characteristics of autism, he
While LEAP programs tend to be half-day programs, TEACCH classes
typically are about six hours a day, and the "no particular model"
programs vary in length, according to Odom. While the cost of the
programs for parents can vary, many programs are available within
public schools, he noted.
Odom said the study could shift thinking about comprehensive
treatment models for young children with autism spectrum disorder.
"Perhaps it's not the unique features of each model that contribute
to a child's gains, but rather the common features of the models
that most influence a child's growth," he suggested.
The study compared the progress of a total of 198 children in
LEAP, TEACCH and non-model-specific special education classrooms in
four states. Students were between the ages of 3 and 5, had autism,
had been exposed solely to the treatment type in which they were
currently enrolled, and had been in the classroom for a minimum of
For students to be included in the study, their parents were
required to be proficient enough in English to complete study
surveys. Research staff observed classroom teacher adherence to the
TEACCH or LEAP models, and all programs included adhered to
specific, broadly accepted standards for quality.
Children's thinking, behavioral, psychological and social
progress were measured. The researchers found that children made
gains or reductions in autism characteristics over time
irrespective of program type.
One expert hailed the study as an important and much-needed
"There are competing intervention models with relatively little
research to document their effectiveness in preschool kids and
little research doing head-to-head comparisons," said Dr. Andrew
Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the
Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New
However, Adesman warned that because the findings were based on
group data, the research may not show individual differences in
benefit. The study did not look at whether different subsets of
children may respond better to certain interventional approaches
than did others, he noted.
"Not every child did well," Adesman said. "You can have a
high-quality program but it doesn't mean your kid will do
For teachers and others who are strong believers in TEACCH or
LEAP, the discouraging message may be that there doesn't seem be a
single, best approach to teaching a child with autism spectrum
disorder, he said.
Yet, for parents -- especially those who don't have access to
one type of program or another -- the message is more positive,
Adesman said: "The encouraging thing from their perspective is that
many different approaches may be effective."
Learn more about autism from the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and