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Major breakthrough in treating autism


Results of a new programme for treating young children with autism have shown that even the most disabled made outstanding progress. Ninety-four percent of those completing the programme so far are now able to attend a mainstream school.

The South West Autism Project (SWAP), directed by Professor Alec Webster of Bristol University and funded by Bristol City Council, was started in September 2000, following a marked rise in the number of children in Bristol being diagnosed with autism. Data from 26 families are now available and show remarkable results.

The children were initially assessed using a baseline test, expressed as an overall developmental quotient - DQ. Baseline assessments ranged from a DQ of 24 - a child with severe learning difficulties - to more able children with a DQ of 100. An Individual Education Plan was then written for each child. The overall objective was to enable the autistic child to make sense of what is to them a bewildering environment, and begin to make active, spontaneous, engagement with it.

Trained tutors worked alongside families in home settings and in playgroups/nurseries on rogrammes geared to develop children`s social interaction, play, communication skills and flexible thinking. Progress was reviewed weekly. On average, families received 10 hours per week intensive provision. All programmes were characterised by small learning steps with a high degree of structure and repetition.

For example, a child with no eye contact and poor social skills is taught turn-taking and how to make requests using a bubble-blowing game; a child who withdraws into a trance-like state, even on short car journeys, is given an `I-spy` card to keep him alert; children who are unable to accept change are taught by a `surprise` card so they can anticipate a change in routine; and children who are afraid of specific places or activities - for example going to the toilet - are helped by placing pictures associated with their favourite obsessions, such as Harry Potter, aliens, tractors, etc.

Key findings show that all children on the programme made significant progress and that it was effective for children across a wide range of ability. In the best case a child with a DQ of 24 gained more than 60 points in 18 months. One third of the group showed DQ gains of more than 45
points and half showed DQ gains of 20 points or more. Children who made the greatest progress received a combination of intervention strategies, including support in mainstream nurseries. To date, 16 out of 17 SWAP `graduates` have gone to mainstream school. Professor Alec Webster at Bristol University said that the results were `dramatic - children made huge gains in academic skills, but more significantly, acquired the social skills to take part in group activities and follow everyday school routines`.

Up to now many parents of children with autism have had to fight legal battles to fund early intervention programmes. As a result, local education authorities (LEAs) were made to fund expensive programmes they were not happy with and which they had no control over. This research points the way forward for LEAs working in partnership with families, and Bristol City Council is leading the way in securing the best approach for young children.

Cherry Lewis | alfa
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