It has not been that long since the basic approach to children with special education involved warehousing all of them in one room, or even a separate school, to provide basic care and supervision, instead of finding therapeutic pathways to move these students on to as productive a life as possible. The assumption was that most of these students would never be able to function independently, and so many children marked as “retarded” or different in that way spent their school years in confined atmospheres with few outlets for creativity. For disorders on the lighter end of the spectrum, they simply went unidentified, and had to struggle to learn at the same pace as their peers who did not have any disorders at all. The result was that most of them would simply drop out because of the frustration they had with their inability to learn, dooming themselves, in many cases, to minimum-wage careers. The fact that neither Thomas Edison nor Albert Einstein could make it through elementary school in the systems in which they were raised indicates that the diagnostic systems that were in place then were woefully inadequate.
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Since the 1960's and 1970's, though, special education has gradually begun to receive the attention that it deserves, and students who suffer from a wide range of disorders have benefited, as research in a number of areas has identified therapies and treatments that help the children find ways to learn despite their conditions. In the case of autism, diagnoses have spiked since 1990. For example, children born in 2003 are almost 17 times as likely to receive a diagnosis of autism as children who were born in 1992 (Keyes et al., 2011). In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control came out with the announcement that, on average, one of every 150 children had a disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum; in 1990, that estimate was one of every 2,000 to 5,000 children (Roth, 2012). When that announcement came out, there were some who posited a new toxin in the environment as a cause. However, several studies have found out that the increase in diagnosis is not a result of a spike in special needs for children, but may rather be the result of improved diagnostic practices in schools. Indeed, a 2006 study carried out by Paul Shattuck at the University of Wisconsin and published in Pediatrics indicates that the increased number of autism diagnoses has been matched by a parallel decline in the number of diagnoses of special needs students in different categories. This study found that autism findings increased by approximately 500 percent between 1994 and 2003, but that findings of learning disabilities and mental retardation decreased by approximately 450 percent during that same time period (Shattuck, 2006, p. 1031).
While this apparent improvement in diagnosis is welcome, there is still room for refinement in the way that students with autism receive treatment. There are many different therapeutic treatments that have been put into use for autistic students at different places along the spectrum, but they tend to fall into one of two classification: medical management and educational interventions. Medicines that are currently in use tend to come from the psychoactive drug family, and the most commonly prescribed are antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants (Oswald and Sonenklar, 2007, p. 350). However, the research indicating that stimulants and antidepressants have any real benefit for children, adults or adolescents who have a disorder along the autism spectrum is spotty. Depending on the individual, the response to these sort of medications is not uniform, and while the medications may work at masking the symptoms of autism in some students, the medications can also have harmful effects. Since the bottom line is that there is no medication currently known that can alleviate the symptoms of impairment in communication and social skills (Buitelaar, 2003, p. 239), the focus of this research paper will not be on medical management.
It is also worth noting that some holistic treatment professionals have advocated the use of a variety of alternative interventions and therapies. These have included chelation therapy, elimination diets, and a wide variety of other stratagems that have proven less than effective. However, none of these measures have resulted in success that has been validated by academic study. While moving to an elimination diet can be aggravating and uncomfortable, at least there have been no harmful effects found; in the case of more invasive treatments such as chelation therapy, the results can be fatal if they are carried out incorrectly (Brown et al., 2006, p. 535).
The therapeutic approaches to autism have, so far, been the most effective, although there are significant gaps in the existing research. Psychosocial interventions have offered varied results, although on the whole, it appears that some intervention is better than no intervention at all, and it is in this area that this paper will focus. Because so much variance exists in outcomes (Krebs et al., 2009, p. 99), the purpose of this paper will be to provide some helpful results in that area. While it has been shown that behavior therapy can help children gain the ability to maintain jobs and social relationships, in addition to taking care of themselves, the age at which those programs should begin varies widely. Also, there is a considerable variety of methodology available, included applied behavior analysis (ABA), structured teaching, social skill therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and developmental models. What has received the most validation in research is the use of intensive ABA treatment in enhanced functioning for children in the preschool years, as well as children in the early years of elementary school (Rogers and Vismara, 2008, p. 12).
Because so many children go undiagnosed until they reach elementary school, though, the window for treatment for many, at least using developmental treatments, has closed before they receive their diagnosis. This is the reason behind many of the decisions to medically manage the situation, particularly in children in older elementary and early secondary grades, as parents and physicians attempt to solve the problem through chemical means. Because so little research is in place regarding psychosocial therapies, particularly in children in this age window, my proposal involves a psychosocial treatment program for children in grades four through six who have been diagnosed with autism at age six or later. By providing students in this group with a program of behavioral therapy, the research will determine whether or not this therapy is effective. The quantitative measures will include attitudinal surveys given to the students' teachers, before, during and after the treatment; attitudinal surveys given to the student and parents before, during and after the treatment; the students' performance in school, as defined by grades. The scores from the attitudinal surveys will be subject to regression measures to find whether the effects of the therapy are significant. The aim for this project is to search for ways to help students transcend, as much as possible, the limitations which autism places on them. The hope is that the gaps in research that exist in autism therapies will close, as this and other therapeutic studies identify effective strategies in the battle against a condition that causes so much frustration in those who suffer from it, and that has provided so few clear answers as to the best way to combat it.