Thursday, January 12, 2012
Dear Mr. Schreiner,
We are writing in response to your article, "School accused of putting autistic student in bag" (Associated Press, December 22, 2011). Thank you for bringing attention to this important story in which a nine-year-old boy with autism was enclosed in a "therapy bag" as a consequence for his misbehavior. This is an extreme example of something we see far too often in autism intervention: educators who are not taught how to work with individuals with autism may unknowingly resort to ineffective or harmful practices in their attempts to respond to behavioral crises. As professionals who work closely with teachers (and have teaching backgrounds of our own), we want to highlight the precarious position in which teachers are placed when they are neither prepared nor equipped to meet the unique needs of students with autism.
As the number of individuals with autism spectrum disorders continues to climb, unfortunately many educators (as well as paraprofessionals and related service providers) are assigned to work with them without receiving sufficient training in evidence-based practices. Not only can this lead to ineffective educational practices that do not target the skills so crucial for students to realize their fullest potential, but it may also result in high levels of frustration for the school staff, thereby increasing the risk of student mistreatment as shown in this sad case. Your mention of other instances of dangerous restraint and seclusion further illustrate the critical nature of this issue. Frustration with autism's complexities plus a genuine desire to help could lead to a willingness to try anything to address challenging behavior.
You highlighted another matter that begs discussion. Autism treatment is filled with "therapies" that may sound plausible but have never been shown to be effective in scientific research. Some of these treatments have actually been shown to be ineffective or even harmful. In many cases, educators rely on the recommendations of others without considering the presence or absence of research support. In your article, the student's mother stated that "her son would sometimes be asked to roll over a bag filled with balls as a form of therapy" but she didn't know her son was being placed in the bag. While the staff who suggested this may have had good intentions, there is no evidence of the effectiveness of such an intervention (see the National Autism Center's National Standards Report or the Association for Science in Autism Treatment for treatment summaries).
Your article could have been strengthened if you had indicated that there are interventions with a strong body of evidence supporting their effectiveness (mainly derived from applied behavior analysis) that can help improve the challenging behavior of students with autism. We encourage your readers to become familiar with the resources listed above (www.nationalautismcenter.org and www.asatonline.org) and thank you again for publicizing this story.
Elizabeth Neumann, M.A., BCaBA
Media Review Committee, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
David Celiberti, Ph.D., BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
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