K-1 students in the treatment group showed slightly larger increases in general concepts and social skills, and pre-school treatment students demonstrated slightly larger increases in matching.

After three months using TeachTown, students in the treatment group showed significant gains from pre- to post-tests and learned, on average, 34 to 39 target concepts using the software, with the largest gains in receptive vocabulary.

Results from the first half of the study have been accepted for early 2010 publication in the peer-reviewed journal Autism. Whalen and Moss decided to continue with the second half after seeing the first part’s encouraging results. Researchers are currently analyzing data from the second part of the study, and Whalen estimates that the raw data will be available in early 2010. While it is too early to comment on data trends in the second part of the study, Whalen said the results “look promising.”

The study used a Brigance assessment, which is a standardized developmental assessment used to identify deficits and track progress in developmental areas such as language, cognition, social skills, and motor skills.

In addition to helping students, Moss said teachers benefit from using TeachTown as well.

“It reinforced that we’re on the right track, it freed up teachers because it collects data for them, and it differentiates for the individual child,” she said. “It also gives teachers the information they need to give to parents.”

LAUSD just purchased 100 TeachTown licenses so more of its 8,600 students with autism can benefit from the program.

“Because our district is so large, other districts are looking to us for our experiences,” Moss said.

“The advantage of using LAUSD is that it has the diversity that we wanted in terms of student population, both economic and ethnic,” Whalen added.

The study was funded by a grant from NCTI and included the Special Education Graduate School Program at California State University, Los Angeles as a partner.

Early intervention with high-quality autism programs is key to helping children with autism develop valuable communication skills, Moss said.

A new study of 48 children evaluated at the University of Washington (UW) supports Moss’ assertion. The UW study found that two years of therapy in children as young as 18 months can vastly improve symptoms.

The results were so encouraging that the study has been expanded to several other sites, said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks. Dawson, a former UW professor, led the research team.

Early autism treatment has been getting more attention, but it remains controversial because there is scant rigorous evidence showing it really works. The UW study is thus “a landmark of great import,” said Tony Charman, an autism education specialist at the Institute of Education in London.

There’s also a growing emphasis on diagnosing autism at the earliest possible age, and the UW study shows that can pay off with early, effective treatment, said Laura Schreibman, an autism researcher at the University of California at San Diego.

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the study, which was published online on Nov. 30 by the journal Pediatrics.

Children ages 18 months to 30 months were randomly assigned to receive behavior treatment called the Early Start Denver model from therapists and parents, or they were referred to others for less comprehensive care.

The therapy is similar to other types of autism behavior treatment. It focused on social interaction and communication, which are both difficult for many autistic children. For example, therapists or parents would repeatedly hold a toy near a child’s face to encourage the child to have eye contact–a common problem in autism. Or, they’d reward children when they used words to ask for toys.

Children in the specialized group had four hours of therapist-led treatment five days a week, plus at least five hours weekly from parents.

After two years, IQ increased an average of almost 18 points in the specialized group, versus seven points in the others. Language skills also improved more in the specialized group. Almost 30 percent in the specialized group were re-diagnosed with a less severe form of autism after two years, versus 5 percent of the others. No children were considered “cured.”

Ashton Faller of Everett, Wash., got specialized treatment, starting at age 2.

“He had no verbal speech whatsoever, no eye contact, he was very withdrawn,” recalled his mother, Lisa Faller.

Within two years, Ashton had made “amazing” gains, she said. Now almost 6, he’s in a normal kindergarten class, and though he still has mild delays in social skills, people have a hard time believing he is autistic, Faller said.

The treatment used in the UW study is expensive; participants didn’t pay, but it can cost $50,000 a year, Dawson said. Some states require insurers to cover such costs, and Autism Speaks is working to expand those laws.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

TeachTown

Los Angeles Unified School District

httpUniversity of Washington Early Start Denver model