BY ANUM HOODBHOY
Working with children with autism and their families for over 25 years, Dr. Michael Alessandri is now a clinical professor in the Department of Psychology and Pediatrics at the University of Miami and currently serves as the executive director of the Center of Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD). Alessandri is involved with scientific and professional advisory boards such as the Organization for Autism Research, and he is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Rethink Autism Inc. He has also been involved with the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Scientific Affairs Committee of the National Alliance for Autism Research.
One of Alessandri’s recent publications from June 2013, “Comparative Efficacy of Comprehensive Treatment Models for Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” is focused on giving school-based treatment to children with autism by providing a practical application of what are referred to as “comprehensive treatment models,” which are “models that attend to all the developmental deficits that we see in kids who have autism.” The study was conducted over a period of four years and was focused on comparing two high-quality comprehensive treatment models (LEAP and TEACCH) to each other in addition to a control condition “in which teachers in high-quality special education programs used non-model-specific practices.” The three models each took a different approach in providing optimal treatment to kids with autism. LEAP is a model that requires students to attend school for half a day and uses a “peer-mediated instruction” method, where kids are educated alongside their typical peers. There are typically eight peers and four children with autism present in a LEAP classroom setting; in addition to this, three adults are present. On the other hand, TEACCH classrooms are self-contained, where only children with disabilities are present in a typical classroom. It focuses on an adult-structured learning method and is a full-day model. These two models were compared to a non-model specific (NMS) classroom where “teachers did not adhere to one model” and used an “array of evidence-based practices.” After carefully analyzing the data collected from the three different models, no significant differences were found in the models, leading to the conclusion that all three models (high-quality TEACCH, LEAP and NMS) were equally effective in providing treatment for children with autism as students showed “significant improvement from the beginning of the school year to the end.”
When asked how to expand and improve on this topic of study, Alessandri explained that a better study would utilize a “randomized control trial where we randomly picked teachers, randomly assigned them to the philosophy of the models, and then trained them to administer the models at a higher level of fidelity.” He also provided useful advice to undergraduates who are currently doing research or wish to enter the field. He encourages to students to keep doing research and “build on an area of interest so you do not lose motivation.” He explains that it is absolutely essential, emphasizing the need to start doing research “right out of the gate when you enter your freshman year … make connections, find out what people are working on, and try to get into people’s labs early.”
Alessandri continues to stay actively involved with students who have autism by developing effective educational programs that aim to “promote positive developmental outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).”