School-based program proves “highly effective” for children with autism

Jan 4, 2019

The Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College in Buffalo is making significant progress with a program for elementary school children with high functioning autism. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley met with researchers and a parent to find out how it is providing "highly effective" treatment for children. 

Program banner for the schoolMax program making strides for students with high functioning autism.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

"She might start rocking, she might start crying. She might just start being misbehaving,” said Donna Harrington of Tonawanda.

Gabrielle Harrington of Tonawanda.
Credit Photo from Donna Harrington, mother

Harrington is explaining how Autism Spectrum Disorder affects her 13-year-old daughter, Gabrielle.

Harrington tells WBFO News she reached out to the college's Institute for Autism Research when her daughter was in grade school searching for help. 

“She was stuck in her own head and had trouble communicating, had trouble in school understanding – what we take for granted – having a conversation back and forth, and eye contact – and it’s a disconnect and they just don’t have that piece,” remarked Harrington.

Harrington's daughter participated in the Institute’s school-based intervention designed program. It’s called schoolMAX.  It’s for students who have social-cognitive and social behavior impairments and repetitive behaviors. This program provides skills so they can learn how to communicate better with others. 

Dr. Christopher Lopata is co-director of the Institute. He said the clinical trial it provided “significant improvements” for children in elementary school with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  

Dr. Marcus Thomeer, Donna Harrington & Dr. Christopher Lopata appear at the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

“Our kids are somewhat unique on the Autism Spectrum because they’re characterized by relative strengthens and cognitive and language abilities, so the kids that were in the study have IQ’s that are above the intellectual disability range and most often in the average range, as well as language skills within the average range.  What we try to do in the intervention is maximize and exploit those skills and use those strengths to have the kids learn better social communication skills,” explained Lopata.

Those school-based clinical trials were conducted at 35-school districts across the region with 103-students participating. Half of the students were placed in the schoolMAX program, while the other half remained in their normal school support program.

“The beauty of this program – it wasn’t just us coming – Canisius and the Institute coming in and saying ‘do this program’.  We actually had a three year study where we worked with the schools to take what we know was working in our summer program, we have a comprehensive summer program that we’ve been studying for years,” explained Dr. Marcus Thomeer, also co-director at the Institute.

“It wasn’t just something that happened in the therapy session or in the social skill group – but the teacher, the science teacher, the math teacher, the P.E. teacher knew what skill we were working on so they could reinforce the child for using that skill,” Thomeer noted.

“Alright guys, so we’re going to start and do another skill,” said a classroom teacher in the schoolMax program.

Inside a classroom teachers provided five core intervention components. This includes intensive school skill groups, like how to have a conversation and Therapeutic Activity. The researchers learned implementing these key intervention elements into a school environment gives children with autism a chance to practice their communications skills while in school with other students.

Room used for research at the Institute for Autism.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

“When they’ve done longitudinal research on the kids that we serve, what they generally find is these basic impairments in social understanding and social skills without intervention tend to persist into adulthood, so we have kids that have very strong cognitive and language skills, but they can’t hold a job, so what we’re trying to do – we’re not curing the kids, but those things that tend to persist overtime, we’re starting to build at the earliest stages,” Lopata remarked.

Harrington's daughter is now in her first year of high School at Kenmore-East, using skills she learned through the schoolMax program. Harrington says it unleashed changes in the way her daughter now communicates and interacts with others.

“She knows that her voice sounds flat and that it is coming across as being rude, even though she’s not rude. She knows now that if she has a problem – she knows generally who to go to,” Harrington explained.

Harrington said while her daughter still struggles with some aspects of her autism, the impact of schoolMax in their lives has been "huge". Once a simple trip to the grocery store was unbearable, but Harrington said now her daughter Gabrielle's behavior has changed.   

“She went. She pushed the cart. We had a great time. We laughed and I kept on checking in with her – ‘you doing okay, you doing okay?’ She’s like ‘yeah Mom, I’m doing good’ and something that in the past that would have been, and I know this sounds very silly, but something that little can be a trigger and turn out to be a very miserable experience - was actually kind of cool,” recalled Harrington.