Evidence-Based Practices and Autism
Quality Educational Experiences
By Glennda McKeithan, Ph.D. and Jason Travers, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Effective instruction is a primary expectation of teachers across subjects and settings. Quality instruction is tightly linked to student achievement for all learners, and the provision of good instruction is especially important for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, students with ASD must learn more skills in less time than their peers, but poor outcomes persist because professionals often do not use demonstrably effective methods.1 The provision of specially designed instruction is a fundamental responsibility of special education.
What are evidence-based practices?
Curriculum and educational interventions that have been proven to be effective (supported by evidence and research) can help ASD teachers and related service providers to support learning and achievement.2 3 These evidence-based practices (EBPs) have been assessed by numerous high-quality research studies and have reliably generated positive outcomes for participants.4 Reliable and valid EBPs may be described in ASD textbooks and on websites of trustworthy nonprofit agencies. Educators, families and other service providers will likely be able to access free implementation manuals with step-by-step procedures and training points of emphasis.5 1
The ASD field has a long history of questionable treatments and key components of sound research methodology including gentle teaching, sensory-integration theory, auditory-integration therapy, facilitated communication, nonaversive interventions, positive behavioral support, biological or alternative medical interventions, gluten- and/or casein-free diets, and energy-based and paranormal-based therapies.6
Distinguishing between EBPs, fads (popular ideas or gimmicks with no correlation to scientific evidence) and pseudoscientific interventions (practices mistakenly regarded as scientific) is an essential skill because the use of unproven, disproven and pseudoscientific interventions continues to be common practice in 21st-century classrooms and treatment programs1 7
Every minute counts!
The goal of ASD professional educators, consultants and related service providers must be to make the most of each instructional moment to maximize student potential for success. Ineffective instruction can have a lasting effect on student performance and a larger impact on learning. When planning and delivering lessons to students with ASD, providing meaningful instruction utilizing effective procedures and interventions must be a guiding principle.8
Science Versus Pseudoscience
ASD professionals, parents and program decision-makers must be able to both identify errors in logic and recognize that flawed thinking may be utilized to justify and support unsound instructional strategies and programs that are not validated with empirical evidence. This will help them learn to distinguish between scientific and pseudoscientific practices.1 6 7 9 The chart below displays common flaws in thinking typically used to promote and defend unproven ASD practices.
Common Flaws in Thinking1
|Flaw Type||Brief Definition||Example||Problem|
|Confirmation Bias||Selecting and conforming evidence to maintain cherished beliefs||Investing time and money into Irlen lenses makes it more likely to perceive a positive effect when one doesn’t exist||Purposely or implicitly ignores contradictory evidence and promotes positive evidence; disregards how personal investment influences perceived outcome; ignores placebo effect|
|Appeal to Faith||Intervention effectiveness depends on belief that it works||“Facilitated communication cannot be empirically tested because skeptical examination compromises its effects”||Requires acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence; intervention is only effective when the person believes it will be|
|Argument from Ignorance||Absence of evidence that an intervention doesn’t work is deemed reason to believe it is effective||“There’s no proof this intervention won’t work, so it’s worth trying”||Absence of data against an intervention is not a valid reason to believe it may or will be effective|
|Anecdotal Evidence||Personal experience is treated as reason to believe a claim||“It worked for my student with ADHD, so it should work for Tom”||Anecdotes may or may not be true, but are never representative. Anecdotes are the lowest form of evidence and are extremely unreliable|
|Correlation Fallacy||Belief that because something occurred after an event, so the event must have caused it||“My child got vaccinated and now he has autism; therefore, the vaccines must have caused his autism”||Coincidences are common in a world filled with countless random and non-random events; just because something followed an event doesn’t mean the preceding event caused it|
|Shifting the Burden of Proof||Requiring the skeptic to refute a claim that already lacks sufficient evidence||“Can you prove to me that this student won’t benefit from sensory-integration treatments?”||The claimant bears the burden of proof, but instead expects doubters to provide proof against their unsupported claim/position|
|Appeal to Authority||Status of the claimant is used to support the claim||“Professor Poe says discovery learning works, so we should use it”||Belief in the claim stems from the status of the person making rather than evidence|
According to University of Kansas Autism Program Coordinator and Professor Dr. Jason Travis, "Becoming familiar with the distinctions between science and pseudoscience, and by developing an understanding of how errors in thinking are used to promote and defend interventions unsupported by empirical evidence, special education professionals can better protect their students with disabilities from potential harms associated with ineffective practices."1
Theory and Practice
Unfortunately, a long-standing gap in the literature exists between the practical application of EBPs in school and clinical settings serving students with ASD. Many factors contribute to this reality.9 10 Teacher exposure to EBPs in teacher education training programs and professional development (PD) sessions is varied and may not be grounded in scientific theory; teachers and service providers may have been exposed to an EBP, but they may choose not to implement the EBP and/or they do not implement the EBP with fidelity. Many potential factors may account for these scenarios.11 12
Teacher education programs may not place emphasis on EBPs for specific disabilities such as ASD because they are unaware of the most current research in ASD, and/or they focus on EBPs proven effective for all students rather than a targeted group of individuals such as Universal Design for Learning. PD experiences offered to teachers after certification may be linked to school, county or state mandates, or they may be expensive commercial packages purchased for the district that may not be EBPs. The innate "trust" between administrators and PD facilitators and attendees can perpetuate educator beliefs that what they are learning must be an effective practice—which may not be true—is a potential barrier.1
EBPs presented to teachers throughout their careers may be disregarded or ignored because they are difficult to implement across subjects and settings and/or the teacher may not understand the benefits of the practice or the rationale for its implementation over their existing practices. PD facilitators must always remember that if a recommended practice cannot be easily applied to a teacher's current practice, teachers are less likely to buy into the program and meaningfully apply the intervention into their own classrooms.13 12
Helping teachers to be mindful of why they chose the profession (i.e. to make a positive difference in the lives of their students) can help to motivate teachers to be open-minded and willing to reflect on and consistently improve their practice to meet the evolving needs of students. PD experiences must consistently reinforce the need to be good stewards of public funds by implementing EBPs protect students with ASD from potential harms associated with ineffective practices. ASD training and PD experiences must encourage parents and education professionals to think critically and use informed caution to assess strategies, interventions and programs.6 1
What can you do? Learn from the best, and put theory into practice.
Whether you are passionate about educating students in the classroom or in other school and community settings, or you simply want to become a more effective advocate for individuals with ASD, advanced training will give you the knowledge and practical skills to do so. Faculty at the University of Kansas Department of Special Education are leaders in research and educational strategies for students with ASD, and they bring their years of experience and expertise to the online master's in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).* With access to cutting-edge information from renowned experts in the field, you can be confident that our online graduate programs will prepare you to positively impact the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder and their families.
The University of Kansas is a pioneer in autism education and educator training, having prepared educators with graduate programs in ASD for over 30 years—and our faculty are highly regarded experts whose internationally acclaimed research and decades of practical experience translate directly into a relevant and meaningful experience for our graduate students.
The online graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a focused and direct counterpart to our online master's in ASD,* giving you a solid foundation of key knowledge and the opportunity to put what you learn into practice in a hands-on field experience.
The online autism education program is designed for current educators and related service professionals who need the skills and expertise to develop and implement programming for students with ASD. Students will advance their understanding of the characteristics of ASD and how it affects development, formal and informal assessment/identification methods, instructional strategies, and effective teaching practices for both students who require intensive and highly individualized education and those who need less intensive supports and services.
The online master's in ASD* is intense and thorough, providing a broad foundation in behavioral analysis and then building on that foundation in one of three track directions. Based on your personal career goals and interests, you will be required to choose from one of the following elective tracks: Behavior (understanding and supporting appropriate behaviors in learners with ASD), Leadership (preparing for a leadership position at a school or district) and Secondary/Transition (helping students transition to adult life).
* This program is a Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) in special education with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
1 Travers, J. C. (2017). Evaluating claims to avoid pseudoscientific and unproven practices in
special education. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52, 195–203.
2 Hyatt, K. J., Stephenson, J., & Carter, M. (2009). A review of three controversial educational practices: Perceptual motor programs, sensory integration, and tinted lenses. Education and Treatment of Children, 32, 313–342.
3 Zane, T., Davis, C., & Rosswurm, M. (2014). The cost of fad treatments in autism. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 5, 44–51.
4 Cook, B. G., Tankersley, M., Cook, L., & Landrum, T. J. (2008). Evidence-based practices in special education: Some practical considerations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 44, 69–75.
5 Travers, J. C., Ayres, K., Simpson, R. L., & Crutchfield, S. (2016). Fad, pseudoscientific, and controversial interventions. In R. Lang, T. Hancock, & N. Singh (Eds.), Early Intervention for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (pp. 257–293). New York, NY: Springer.
6 Foxx, R. M., & Mulick, J. A. (Eds.). (2016). Controversial thera- pies for autism and intellectual disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
7 Travers, J. C., Tincani, M., & Lang, R. (2014). Facilitated communication denies people with disabilities their voice. Research and Practice in Severe Disabilities, 39, 195–202.
8 Van Houten, R & Axelrod, Saul & Bailey, Jon & E Favell, J & Foxx, Richard & Iwata, Brian & I Lovaas, O. (1988). Statement on the Right to Effective Behavioral Treatment. Journal of applied behavior analysis. 21. 381-4. 10.1901/jaba.1988.21-381.
9 Heward, W. L. (2003). Ten faulty notions about teaching and learning that hinder the effectiveness of special education. Journal of Special Education, 36, 186–205.
10 Johnson, C. C. (2006). Effective professional development and change in practice: Barriers science teachers encounter and implications for reform. School Science and Mathematics, 106, 150-161.
11 Allen, C. D., & Penuel, W. R. (2015). Studying teachers’ sensemaking to investigate teachers’ responses to professional development focused on new standards. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 136-149.
12 Whitworth, B. A., & Chiu, J. L. (2015). Professional development and teacher change: The missing leadership link. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 26, 121-137.
13 Boardman, A. G., Argüelles, M. E., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M. T., & Klingner, J. (2005). Special education teachers' views of research-based practices. The Journal of Special Education, 39(3), 168-180.