Groundbreaking Autism Study

June 5, 2024
Maximizing Connections

Buffalo, NY - Research shows that intervention programs created by the Institute for Autism Research (IAR) at Canisius University yield positive long-term outcomes for autistic youth (without intellectual disability).  The IAR team published results of a long-term outcome study that found their innovative school social intervention (schoolMAX) and summer social intervention (summerMAX) yielded sustained, comparable, and positive longer-term outcomes for autistic youth (without intellectual disability).

WKBW-TV Channel 7 reported on the game-changing results, during its June 4 broadcast.  

Autistic youth are characterized by social challenges and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests that interfere with short- and long-term outcomes. The complex nature of these features poses a major challenge for program developers, and social interventions are needed.

Researchers at the IAR developed one of the first effective social interventions (summerMAX) for autistic children (without intellectual disability), delivered in a summer program format. Several clinical trials support its efficacy.

The researchers then adapted the summer program into a school social intervention (schoolMAX) and a large-scale clinical trial found it highly effective for autistic children (without intellectual disability).

According to Marcus L. Thomeer, PhD, one of the developers of the interventions and one of the lead authors on the studies, “summerMAX and schoolMAX are unique in that they utilize a strength-based approach, including cognitive and behavioral strategies to improve the children’s social knowledge and skills, features, and social performance.”

“Although the initial studies found summerMAX and schoolMAX yielded significant improvements in social knowledge and performance, and autistic features immediately following the intervention phases, no studies had tested whether the intervention effects were maintained longer-term,” noted Jonathan D. Rodgers, PhD, a co-author on the follow-up and earlier studies. In fact, there is widespread recognition in the field of the need for longer-term follow-up testing to determine whether intervention gains are maintained over time or whether they are short-lived. Prior work has found that autistic children generally have problems with maintenance of intervention effects over time.

To address this critical question, the researchers at the IAR took advantage of the prior large-scale school study to test longer-terms outcomes. In the original 4-year school study, 103 autistic children (without intellectual disability), ages 7-12 years, were randomly assigned to receive either the school intervention (schoolMAX) or their typical educational programming (during the school year followed by summerMAX the next summer). A total of 90 youth from the original study participated in the follow-up study, which included testing them 3 times over the 12-month follow-up period. At the time of the last follow-up testing, the children were 9-16 years old and had completed one of the interventions 2.25-5.25 years earlier. Results revealed that both schoolMAX and summerMAX yielded significant post-intervention improvements on measures of social-cognition (emotion recognition), social skills, and autism features that were maintained over the follow-up testing period. Additionally, there were no differences in post-intervention outcomes for the measures of social skills and autism features over time, however the school intervention may have yielded a slightly better improvement in social-cognition (although both interventions resulted in large treatment effects that were maintained).

Overall, findings indicated that both schoolMAX and summerMAX produced largely comparable and sustained improvements over an extended follow-up timeframe. According to Christopher Lopata, PsyD, the study’s lead author and one of the developers of the interventions, “this is one of the largest and longest follow-up studies of social intervention outcomes ever conducted for this population, and the findings provide strong evidence that both schoolMAX and summerMAX are effective in improving short- and longer-term performance of these youth.” “An additional strength of this study was the ability to directly compare outcomes from two active interventions over time that were previously shown to produce short-term effects,” noted study co-authors James P. Donnelly, PhD, and Jennifer Lodi-Smith, PhD.

Professor Rodgers discussed next-steps for the Institute for Autism Research on the WKBW-TV Channel 7 program "Voices." 

This study was funded by U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences Grants R324A130216 and R324A180005 and the findings were published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (February 2024).

For more information regarding the summerMAX program, schoolMAX program, and/or other programs and projects, and/or the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius University, visit or call the IAR at 716-888-2800.

Canisius was founded in 1870 in Buffalo, NY, and is one of 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. Consistently ranked among the top institutions in the Northeast, Canisius offers undergraduate, graduate and pre-professional programs distinguished by close student-faculty collaboration, mentoring and an emphasis on ethical, purpose-driven leadership.