How to fix the research-to-practice gap for students with autism in public schools

April 27, 2022

Key Takeaway:

Effective teaching and learning for students with autism requires special education teachers to possess a secure understanding of evidence-based practices and how to implement them. In the state of Texas, however, there is a significant research-to-practice gap that indicates a strong demand for improvement in the way teachers receive ongoing training in order to meet the needs of students with autism. – Akane Yoshida

The Research-to-Practice Gap

The role of special needs teachers working to integrate students with learning differences in public schools requires a multitude of skills, not least of which is the ability to keep up with the most current research on evidence-based practices (EBP). 

However, as Hamrick et al. note, there is a substantial body of research to show that while school administrators perceive their special education teachers to be well-versed in best practices,1 special education teachers report low preparedness for teaching students with autism the key skills they lack.2 Furthermore, teachers who report low understanding of EBP are more likely to use practices that are unsupported by research or even potentially harmful, such as facilitated communication or the rapid prompting method.2

Regarding instructional strategies, Hamrick et al. chose 35 interventions, of which 26 were documented EBPs and nine were practices that were deemed to be lacking in evidence:

Evidence-Based Practices– antecedent based interventions
– differential reinforcement
– discrete trial training 
– exercise
– extinction
– functional behavior assessment
– functional communication training
– modeling
– naturalistic interventions
– peer-mediated instruction and intervention
– picture exchange communication system (PECS)
– pivotal response training
– prompting
– reinforcement
– response interruption/redirection
– scripting
– self-management
– social narratives
– social skills training
– structured play groups
– task analysis
– technology-aided instruction
– time delay
– video modeling
– visual supports
Unsupported Practices– auditory integration training
– facilitated communication
– floor-time
– holding therapy
– language acquisition through motor planning (LAMP)
– music therapy
– play therapy
– rapid prompting method
– sensory integration therapy
– touch therapy

Findings and Implications for Public Education

The 255 participants involved in this study were individuals who were employed as special educators at various public schools in the state of Texas and had direct connections with students with autism, either through teaching, working with, or case-managing students with autism or intellectual disabilities (ID). 

While the study is limited by its relatively small sample of participants and the lack of diversity among said sample, the results nonetheless agree with those of previous studies in that interventions used by special educators with students with autism are not necessarily evidence-based. 

The EBPs reported by more than 50% of educators as being used on a daily basis include differential reinforcement (56.21), discrete trial (50.44), exercise (52.10), functional communication training (58.62), modeling (77.78), PECS (63.16), prompting (84.00), reinforcement (89.89), response interruption/redirection (RIRD; 74.42), self-management (55.77), technology-aided instruction (58.82), time delay (60.49), and visual supports (82.84).

Over 50% of participants also reported using several practices with no supporting evidence, such as facilitated communication (62.82), language acquisition through motor planning (52.38), rapid prompting method (58.82), sensory integration therapy (51.95), and touch therapy (53.33).

More than 50% of participants reported being very prepared to use only two EBPs—prompting (50.30) and reinforcement (53.22).

The authors point out that this clearly indicates a need for more in-depth training on EBP at the teacher training stage to prepare teachers for the specific demands of meeting the needs of students with autism.

However, an additional finding of the study is that despite the majority of training and resources offered by the state education agency being free online, only 5% of participants reported accessing online training, with over 50% of participants indicating no training for 19 of the 35 interventions in question.

Hamrick et al. state:

State-funded agencies responsible for providing professional development and training for educators should look at the current findings to explore additional ways to provide training opportunities that provide additional face-to-face time to increase teacher knowledge and use of EBP when working with children with [autism]. In addition, these agencies should look at ways to disseminate information about the current online trainings teachers have access to…developing a plan to ensure local education agencies specialists and/or curriculum coaches are aware of these trainings and how to access them could potentially increase the number of educators accessing the online resources.“

They further suggest that educational agencies “could also consider extending their online services to include coaching and feedback” and that forming collaborative partnerships with university programs could spark meaningful change in the way teacher training programs address the research-to-practice gap.

Other recommendations include identifying clear standards for professional development, such as requiring educators to attend training for EBP rather than simply requiring a minimum number of professional development hours within a window of time, and involving teachers as participants in public education research in order to provide them with opportunities to increase their knowledge and application of EBP.

Summarized Article:

Hamrick, J., Cerda, M., O’Toole, C., & Hagen-Collins, K. (2021). Educator Knowledge and Preparedness for Educating Students With Autism in Public Schools. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 1088357621989310.

Summary by: Akane Yoshida — Akane believes in the MARIO Approach because it puts student agency at the heart of the learning and goal-setting process. She loves how the MARIO Framework operationalizes this process and utilizes systematic measurement of student learning and teacher effectiveness to guide interventions.

Additional References:

  1. Pazey, B. L., Gevarter, C., Hamrick, J., & Rojeski, L. (2014). Administrator views and knowledge of instructional practices for students with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders , 8 (10), 1253–1268.
  2. Knight, V. F., Huber, H. B., Kuntz, E. M., Carter, E. W., & Juarez, A. P. (2018). Instructional practices, priorities, and preparedness for educating students with autism and intellectual disability. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 34 (1), 3–14.
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