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Institute of Education Sciences

Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Early Childhood: Preliminary and Long-Term Impacts

The prevalence of children identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased steadily in the last 20 years. Early identification and intervention is important, a point that is underscored by the CDC’s campaign Learn the Signs. Act Early. To recognize April’s Autism Awareness Month, NCSER is highlighting two projects supporting the capacity of parents and educators to intervene in children’s early development.

Assisting Early Interventionists in Facilitating Parent Mediation of Learning

Photo of Hannah SchertzPhoto of Kathleen Baggett

Researchers Hannah Schertz (left, Indiana University) and Kathleen Baggett (right, Georgia State University) have developed a framework to improve the social communication skills of toddlers showing signs of ASD with a system that guides early interventionists (EIs) to support parents. The program, Supporting Early Interventionists of Toddlers with Autism to Build Family Capacity (SEITA), aims to help EIs to work with parents as they integrate interventions into natural interactions with their children. EIs learn to guide parents in understanding when their child is engaging in social communication and in implementing learning strategies to enhance these competencies during parent-child interactions. More specifically, EIs guide parents in applying four mediated strategies to promote engagement in learning: focusing, giving meaning, encouraging, and expanding. For example, one strategy they use is to facilitate guided reflection on a just-recorded video of parent-child interactions.

As the researchers test the promise of the intervention, they report that EIs have conducted the intervention with fidelity in both home-based and telehealth contexts. They have found that parents in the study demonstrated clear improvements in their use of at least two mediated learning strategies and have been able to implement intervention practices with fidelity when working with their children. The researchers also track the children’s progress on social reciprocity, joint attention, positive social behavior, and social play, and results will be analyzed when data collection is complete.

Investigating the Long-Term Benefits of an Elementary Intervention

Photo of James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers
The IAR team (from left to right): James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers

As children age into elementary grades, their primary site of intervention becomes the school. In 2008, NCSER funded the development of the comprehensive school-based intervention (CSBI) to support the social competencies of children with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). This multi-prong approach includes interactive computer instruction to teach children to recognize emotions, social skills groups, therapeutic peer group activities to practice social skills, daily behavioral notes, and monthly parent training. A 2013 NCSER-funded randomized controlled trial of CSBI found that students with HFASD who participated in CSBI improved significantly in measures of social cognition, social-communication skills, and ASD symptoms compared to students with HFASD who received typical instruction.

To assess the intervention’s ability to impact long-term student development, Christopher Lopata and his colleagues James Donnelly, Marcus Thomeer, and Jonathan Rodgers (Canisius College) are following up on the initial efficacy trial to study the middle and high school students who participated in CSBI in elementary school. They are measuring student social cognition, social communication skills, ASD symptoms, and academic achievement at the beginning and end of two consecutive school years to examine lasting impacts of the CSBI program. Although data are still being analyzed from this project, it is notable that because data collection occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic caused school shutdowns, the PIs were able to examine the potential effects of stay-at-home restrictions on these students. There have been widespread concerns that disruptions to routines, curtailed social opportunities, and removal of support services associated with shutdowns could have deleterious effects on children with ASD. However, Lopata and colleagues found no significant differences between data collected before stay-at-home restrictions and data collected 4 months after the restrictions on ASD symptoms, adaptive behaviors, or social communication.

NCSER will continue to share the final results of these studies, as well as additional research focused on supporting children with ASD, in the future.

Written by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University, and by Emily Weaver (, NCSER program officer who oversees ASD grants.