With one in 110 children being affected by autism, economic costs at $35 billion annually ($3.2 million per individual lifetime cost), researchers are studying various populations in search of effective treatments. Studies show that effective early treatment reduces long-term costs and has a positive impact on the child and family members.
But Kanne, an assistant professor in the School of Health Professions’ (SHP) Department of Health Psychology and associate director of the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, says adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have largely been left out of the treatment plans. New data point to 55 percent of these adolescents becoming aggressive or violent toward caregivers and 32 percent turning that behavior on non-caregivers.
“The treatments we have that have been successful with younger children have neglected adolescents and their parents, siblings and other family members,” Kanne says.
Enter MU psychology Professor Charles Borduin. He’s long worked with juvenile offenders, and in the late 1970s he developed what has become the pre-eminent treatment plan for aggressive and violent youth. After hearing Borduin speak about the research-tested MST model, Kanne thought it could work for adolescents with autism. Borduin had the same idea.“Autism presents problems similar to those of juvenile offenders: family difficulties, peer problems and school problems,” Borduin says. A study to test their observations is now underway.
Kanne serves as the principal investigator on the project. Mazurek, clinical assistant professor in SHP’s health psychology and another Thompson Center associate director, is the co-PI and brings expertise in therapeutic interventions in ASD to the research. The rest of the team includes Thompson Center faculty Janet Farmer, also from health psychology, Borduin and Rachel Brown, professor of clinical psychiatry in the MU School of Medicine. David Wagner, a graduate student who has worked for several years on MST with Borduin, is the project therapist. He works with three families, making twice-weekly visits to their homes, sitting in on school meetings, and devising strategies to deal with aggressive behavior. He is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help with crisis situations arising from the violent behaviors.
And Borduin says when dealing with troubled youth, the whole set of social contacts must be included. “It’s criminal to leave parents out of the treatment of children,” he says. “Even today, too many treatment providers give no more than lip service to the fact that parents are primary socialization agents and hold the key to resolving child and adolescent mental health problems. We should be helping parents to be more effective. We want positive outcomes that last beyond the end of treatment.”
Kanne says he’s seen things in this small study that he has never witnessed before. “We’ve seen adolescents with destructive behaviors, parents in crisis. The stress they are under is phenomenal,” Kanne says.
But there also has been success. Enough, Kanne says, to write a $50,000 grant request to the University of Missouri Research Board. If funded, the research will include two MST-trained therapists working with a total of 15 youths with ASD and their families who have been referred to the Thompson Center.
“It is exciting and a little scary,” Kanne says. “It would be so much easier if it wasn’t groundbreaking. If we are successful, we think where do you get the therapists who are trained in this? But with such a great need, it’s just got to happen.”