Buffalo researchers find "highly effective" treatment for children with autism

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) - Researchers at Canisius College's Institute for Autism Research have published the results of a school-based clinical trial that has had great success treating high-functioning students with autism spectrum disorder (HFASD).

The innovative approach involved 103 students at 35 school districts across Western New York. About half of the students received the normal support and treatment from their particular school. The other half of students participated in a method called schoolMAX.

"It's a very big deal because we saw significant improvement in these kids," Dr. Marcus Thomeer explained. He is co-director of IAR and is one of the study's lead authors. "This was one randomized control trial, but that's one of the gold standards to evaluate treatment."

Children with HFASD have relative strengths when it comes to cognition and language, but they can struggle with social understanding, social interactions and repetitive or restricted behaviors and interests.

One of the challenges for these students is getting support and treatment in social and emotional throughout the school day, Dr. Thomeer explained.

"The problem for kids with high functioning autism that are in schools is the treatments or the interventions that they get or receive are more compartmentalized," he said.

In order to address this challenge, Dr. Thomeer and his team adapted an approach they had been using in summer-camp style treatment programs and created schoolMAX. It involves weekly social skills groups, therapeutic activities and emotion recognition. The existing teachers and support staff in schools were trained in the schoolMAX approach and implemented it throughout a full school year.

"We found substantial changes in the children's social communication skills, autism symptoms and their social cognition skills," Dr. Jonathan D. Rodgers of IAR explained.

The students who were treated with schoolMAX saw better improvements over the year, when compared to the students who received their normal support and treatment at school, the study found.

“Not only did the two groups differ, the magnitude of the differences was large providing strong support for the superiority of schoolMAX on these measures,” Dr. James P. Donnelly, the study's statistician, said.

These results are encouraging, but researchers now want to conduct more school-based clinical trials to further prove their efficacy.

All of the research, methods and helpful videos have been posted to Canisius College's IAR website. To learn more, click here.

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