Helping children with autism

Shivan Cespedes

PsychTalks! is an ongoing series of speakers chosen by psychology faculty members together with Professor Amira Rezec-Wegenek, Chair of the Department of Psychology. 

Professor Wegenek teaches many psychology courses including Introduction to Psychology, Research Methods in Psychology and Biological Psychology.  Wegenek also has a PhD in Experimental Psychology.  This is Wegenek’s eighth year as a full-time faculty member at Saddleback College.

She has enrolled several speakers over the past semester and has one more speaker to end her PsychTalks! series for the semester this November 13. Her series will pick up again next semester. 

Her variety of speakers started with Luke McGowan’s “Engineering Chicken Monsters to Study Brain Evolution.” Also with Nancy Segal’s “Twins Separated at Birth: Lessons in Nature vs. Nurture,” then “Helping Children with Autism,” by Allison Jobin and lastly will be “Do Deaf Adults See Better?” by Rain Bosworth.

Allison Jobin learned of behavioral treatments for children with autism spectrum disorders and the research and practice thereof.

Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior.  Basic behavioral principles dictate human behavior.  We are constantly learning to respond to stimuli in our environment and how we should best respond accordingly.  For example, if we study for an exam and do well on it we will know to study for tests in the future.

Research on children with autism is important because of the well documented variability in treatment response.  Every child responds differently to behaviorally based treatments and there is no “one size fits all” remedy.  Each child may require a unique approach, yet there is little information available about how to decide exactly what that approach should be for each child. Jobin described how autism is considered a spectrum disorder which encompasses a wide variety of symptoms and subtypes. 

Autism is typically not diagnosed until the age of three.  One major symptom is the lack of language ability.  Most children have many words by the age of three while autistic children may have none or very few.

Jobin discussed and compared how two different types of behavioral therapy can help to improve language ability (the number of words spoken) in autistic children.  She provided the two types of therapy to two equal groups of autistic children and then compared the observed change in the number of words used by the child. 

One was called Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) and one was called Pivotal Response Training (PRT).  PECS relies on teaching the children to communicate using pictures.  PRT relies on teaching children to communicate with only words and rewarding them with praise or some other reward each time they say a word.  When she looked over her research, it appeared that both types of treatment helped and that they did so equally, children from both groups spoke more words and kept this ability long after the treatment.

On average, children were helped by the treatment, but not each individual child benefited from therapy.  This was the case for both therapies.

So Jobin took a look at individual characteristics of the children in the study and tried to correlate characteristics of the child with success for each type of therapy.  She hoped to find out what could be predictive of whether PECS or PRT training worked best. 

There is a critical early period in which children really benefit from intervention treatments such as PECS or PRT.  So, trying to figure out what would be the best intervention for a particular child before choosing what type of treatment to provide is very important.  If Jobin could devise methods to determine this early on, treatment outcomes could be better for more children with autism. 

She found that the amount of language that a child came to the study with in the beginning of the study was a great predictor of what method of treatment would work best for the child.  Future research will look to find other predictive factors that can help clinicians to choose the best treatments for children accurately and as early as possible. 

This is a great example of research that is theoretical and, at the same time, can have important applications that can benefit individuals and society.