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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Intensive therapy helps with autism
boy drawing
Autism typically involves a lack of social skills
Children with autism can make "outstanding progress" with a new form of treatment, researchers say.


All of the children without exception have made huge gains

Prof Alec Webster
Almost all of those on a special programme run by Bristol University and funded by the city council are now able to attend a mainstream school.

The South West Autism Project (SWAP), directed by Professor Alec Webster, was begun two years ago following a marked rise in the number of children in Bristol being diagnosed with autism.

Data from 26 families were now available and showed "remarkable results", Prof Webster said.

'Huge gains'

"It is a major breakthrough for a number of reasons.

"All of the children without exception have made huge gains in their development.

"There is nothing negative to say about it - it is pointing the way to other local authorities to say these are the kind of programmes you can set up that are very effective."

The children were initially assessed using a "baseline" test, expressed as an overall "developmental quotient" or DQ.

This was the age of development they demonstrated divided by their actual age, multiplied by 100.

Action plan

Baseline assessments ranged from a DQ of 24 - a child with severe learning difficulties - to more able children with a DQ of 100.

An individual education plan was then written for each child - as for all children with special educational needs.

The aim was to enable the autistic child to make sense of what was to them a bewildering environment, so they could begin to engage with it.

Trained tutors worked alongside families at home and in playgroups or nurseries, on average for 10 hours a week, to develop their social interaction, play, communication skills and thinking.

Progress was reviewed weekly.

Trance

For example, a child with no eye contact and poor social skills was taught to take turns using a bubble-blowing game.

Another who withdrew into a trance-like state, even on short car journeys, was given an "I-spy" card to keep him alert.

Prof Webster said all children on the programme made significant progress.

In the best case a child with a DQ of 24 gained more than 60 points in 18 months.

To date, 16 out of 17 children who had been on the programme had gone to mainstream school.

Ongoing battle

The problem remains that some families are not satisfied and feel the few hours a week they get on such a programme is not enough.

Some have resorted to legal battles to try to force councils such as Bristol to provide funding for extra help.

An investigation by the BBC's Newsnight programme showed that the number of formal disputes between parents and local councils over the provision of educational therapy for autistic children had trebled over the past five years.

Provision is not uniform across the country.

In England and Wales, one in 86 pupils is now diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. In Scotland the figure is one in 121.

The incidence has risen dramatically in recent years.

See also:

22 Aug 02 | England
29 Aug 02 | Newsnight
17 Jul 02 | Newsnight
12 May 02 | Education
14 Mar 02 | Health
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