IAR offers Hope for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

For the children, Summer Max is a camp where they play games and participate in activities. For Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD and Christopher Lopata, PsyD, co-founders of the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College in Buffalo, it’s a treatment program for children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASDs).  But for the parents, Summer Max is a one-of-a-kind program tailored to meet their children’s needs. 

Children with HFASDs endure lifelong impairments involving social and social-communicative functioning, narrow interests and obsessive routines.  The Summer Max Program addresses social skills, non-literal language skills, emotion recognition skills and interest expansion.  Explains Lopata, “Children with HFASDs lack basis social skills and struggle to interpret non-verbal cues or read emotions in facial expressions.  Their narrow interests and obsessive behaviors also contribute to their social isolation.  Together, these features represent significant barriers to the long-term functioning of these children.”

Despite their significant needs, few comprehensive programs have been developed and validated for children with HFASDs.  “The Summer Max Program is the first comprehensive treatment specifically for children with HFASDs to be proven effective in two randomized clinical trials,” says Thomeer.  These two trials have shown that the five-week summer program for children ages 7 – 12, with HFASDs, is highly effective. Children who participated in the Summer Max program showed significantly better social performance and knowledge of appropriate social behaviors compared to children who did not receive treatment.  They also received lower ratings of autism symptoms.  “The significant decrease in autism symptoms following treatment is noteworthy, as few treatments have been able to reduce these long-term impediments to daily functioning,” says Lopata.

According to Dawn Helms, her son, Nathan, spends more time with the family and less time playing alone in his room since completing the program.  “Nathan is more confident and makes more eye contact with us when he is communicating,” adds Helms. “He now can participate in a conversation rather than just recite facts about subjects that interest him.”

Rene Marciniak’s daughter, Corinne recently completed her second year in the Summer Max Program.  “Before participating in the program, Corinne would avoid social situations and wouldn’t interact with other children,” says Marciniak. “Now, I see changes in her socialization.  She is aware that she needs to put forth an effort to make friends and interact with them.”

School teachers have also noticed the difference.  “Corinne’s teacher noted that she has more confidence and has reached out to students she normally wouldn’t try to communicate with to get a friendship or dialogue started,” says Marciniak.  “It is so great to see her socializing and having the confidence to do so.”

Weekly parent meetings are an integral part of the Summer Max Program. The parents keep abreast of what their children are learning and receive instruction as to how to teach and reinforce these skills at home.  “I believe the success of the program is due in large part to the fact that we are all on the same page,” adds Helms. 

In addition to parents and educators, the experts are also taking notice of Lopata and Thomeer’s research.  Susan Williams White, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and author of Social Skills Training for Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism, says that Lopata and Thomeer fill a huge gap in the field and address the need for a comprehensive treatment program for HFASDs.  “It is difficult to make a meaningful impact on a child’s daily functioning when only a specific problem or two are targeted, because autism spectrum disorder is so multi-component and pervasive,” says White.  “The disorder needs to be treated comprehensively, and the treatment program developed and being studied by Drs. Lopata and Thomeer, does just that. It gets to the core symptoms of ASD - the social, behavioral and emotional – and that is what makes their work so appealing to educators, families and their peers in the field.  And the fact that they have two randomized trials is huge.  That’s not common in this field.”

Lopata and Thomeer now share their research with educators by providing treatment strategies for area schools. The researchers have created a comprehensive school-based program for children with HFASDs that incorporates key treatment ingredients from their treatment programs.  According to White, the schools are the most logical place to treat this population.  “The primary avenue to get any meaningful treatment in a heavy enough dose is in the schools,” she says.  “An hour a week is not typically going to make enough of an impact to be sustained.”    

Drs. Lopata and Thomeer report that initial results from two recently published pilot studies of the school program found it highly effective for children with HFASDs, and teachers, school staff, and parents found it very feasible.  Despite the initial promising findings, additional controlled research involving the school-based program is needed.  Thomeer and Lopata continue to study the effectiveness of the school-based model and anticipate that it will continue to help children with HFASDs by increasing their social competence and reducing problematic clinical symptoms.  “In the end, all of these efforts are undertaken to improve the lives of children with HFASDs and their families,” said Thomeer.  “All indications to date are that we are making progress toward that goal.”