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Autism and Effective Practice

Recently I was asked to do a Hawk Hopes Lecture entitled Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Effective Practice: A Model for Selecting and Implementing Evidenced Based Practice (EBP).  This lecture was based on a framework developed by Dr. Rich Simpson and myself for inclusion in Cook, Tankersley, & Landrum’s Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disorders (see Simpson, & Crutchfield, 2013) This is a topic that I identify with deeply. Prior to seeking my doctorate at the University of Kansas, I was a classroom teacher for five years.  During this time I worked primarily with adolescents on the Autism Spectrum and I was consistently motivated to learn all that I could about strategies and interventions that promoted positive outcomes for these students. This desire to have answers to the complex challenges faced by students with ASD, their families, and the school systems and communities in which they participated is what ultimately lead to my application to the doctoral program at KU.  This blog post will serve as a space to elaborate on the topics discussed in the lecture and as a summary to the book chapter referenced above

The challenges faced by practitioners in school settings who wish to implement effective programming for students with ASD had been well documented, and it is of general consensus that effective practice identification and implementation are at the center of the discussion surrounding ASDs (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, &Kincaid, 2003; Simpson, 2005) However, the general lack of agreement within the field as to which methods are in fact considered EBP, what methods and interventions work best for which students with autism, and an overall lack of guidelines for practitioners who wish to implement these interventions has lead to a lack of daily programming with a foundation in evidenced based practice (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003; Simpson, McKee, Teeter, & Beytien 2007). Recent prevalence increases (1 in 88 births and 1 in 55 males; Center for Disease Control 2012b) have further complicated efforts in developing effective practice as the numbers of students receiving services for an ASD have risen consistently over the past decade.

These increases and unique challenges have created a desperate need amongst school- based practitioners to understand, use, and evaluate strategies that are effective in mitigating the impact of autism. Most professionals agree that students with autism can only develop needed skills through the consistent implementation of effective strategies (Simpson, McKee, Teeter, & Beytien 2007). The following framework (see Figure 1) attempts to advance the selection, implementation and evaluation of EBP judged to be best suited for individual students.

This model is based pillars of effective practice that include such foundational principles as: well-trained and supportive staff, structured environments, and individualized supports and curricula. While these basic elements may seem intuitive, it is important to note that while these supports are not likely to bring about real change in student outcomes simply by being present; it is likely that interventions and strategies implemented without these elements will be less than fully successful. Building on that foundation the model recommends a three-component approach including, identifying strategies that are grounded in systematic investigation, identifying interventions based on the students specific characteristics and needs, and coming to conclusions through dynamic collaboration with all stakeholders.

The first element of our model demonstrates a commitment to scientific methods, and recognition that some methods and approaches are superior to others in relation to their ability to produce meaningful and scientifically validated outcomes for these students (National Autism Center, 2009; Simpson, 2005).  Similarly, the second element recognizes that students with ASD often demonstrate unique learning challenges and characteristics that result in unique manifestations of skills and deficits American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Bregman, & Higdon, 2012; Simpson, 2005). Considering each student’s characteristics and tailoring interventions and teaching methods to individual students is likely to result in the selection of interventions that are a best suited for specific students. Finally the model recommends participating with a wide range of professionals and family members to assemble a broad perspective relative to selecting and implementing interventions and teaching methods. Such a collaborative process assures that decisions are made as a collective group and not by single individuals. Ultimately, practitioners are encouraged to ask the following three questions of all participating stakeholders: What proof supports purportedly effective interventions? How will a selected intervention be evaluated? and To what extent does an intervention fit an individual learner’s unique needs?.

While this model may reflect similar decision making frameworks for exceptional learners, it is a tool that I wish I would have had as a practitioner working with these students and their families on a daily basis. The challenges associated with providing high quality educational programs for students with ASD are enormous, but models such as the one briefly described above promote wide-scale adoption and application of EBP and give those involved the best chance of overcoming these obstacles.


Figure 1:

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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.).

Bregman, J. D., & Higdon, C. (2012). Definitions and clinical characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Educating Students with 

     Autism. Routledge

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012b). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders: Autism and developmental

disabilities monitoring network, 14 cites, United States, 2008. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, March 30, 2012.

Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum

disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(3), 150-165

National Autism Center (2009). National standards report. Randolph, MA: Author.

Simpson, R. L. (2005). Evidence-based practices and students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other 

     Developmental Disabilities,20(3), 140-149.

Simpson, R., & Crutchfield, S. (2013). Effective Educational Practices for Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders:

Issues, Recommendations, and Trends. Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities26, 197-220.

Simpson, R. L., McKee, M., Teeter, D., Beytien, A. (2007). Evidenced-based practices for children and youth with autism spectrum

disorders: Stakeholders issues and perspectives. Exceptionality. 15(4), 203-217


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