The Naked Heart Foundation is developing early intervention services for young children with developmental disabilities in five Russian regions. Our Early Intervention Centre in Nizhny Novgorod was the first facility in Russia to introduce the ASSERT support programme for children with autism, which was developed at Utah State University and is now being used in preschools in Nizhny Novgorod and at our Family Support Centre. We are also actively training staff from preschool establishments in St Petersburg and Moscow, аnd the ASSERT curriculum has been translated and will be published in the near future. We would like to tell you more about this programme, its content and the benefits it brings to young children with autism, their parents and teachers.
Watch video about ASSERT from our sixth International “Every Child Deserves a Family” Forum
Why did we choose ASSERT?
In order to train staff working in intensive early intervention services, we needed to find a programme that combined the basic components of applied behavioural analysis (ABA) and served as a modern, functional basis for training behavioural analysts. ABA-based programmes are currently the only evidence-based methods of supporting children with autism.
Our Naked Heart experts met with Thomas Higbee, professor of behavioural sciences and creator and director of the ASSERT programme at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Every year, the university produces bachelor’s graduates (BSBA) and master’s graduates who work for a wide range of services and universities in the USA and abroad. Professor Higbee has successfully supervised 11 PhD students to completion. Thanks to cooperation with the Foundation, Russian specialists were able to receive training from Thomas and his team.
ASSERT stands for “Autism Support Service: Education, Research, and Training”. The main objective of the programme, which has been run since 2003, is to improve the capacity of the education system to provide effective, evidence-based education for children with autism. ASSERT differs from many other programmes in that it teaches not only children, but also their parents and teachers. Moreover, it serves as a basis for developing effective intervention strategies for children with autism and as a resource for staff at educational institutions throughout country.
What are the components of the ASSERT programme?
• A model support service established at the university, which runs an early behavioural intervention programme for preschool children with ASD
• A basis for training, professional development and clinical practice for undergraduates, postgraduates and PhD students from the USA, Russia and South America
• A research centre that aims to improve behavioural therapy and education services for children with autism
• Training of specialists and support for inclusive special education in kindergartens and schools in Utah
Which technologies are used in the ASSERT programme?
The programme aims to develop skills that are often difficult for children with autism to master. Those skills include communication and social skills, the ability to live independently and self-sufficiently, and important academic skills that are necessary in order to pursue further education.
Children taking part in the programme have four hours of training each day with a personal tutor, and also participate in group activities with other kids. Intensive morning and afternoon sessions are organised at the centres and kindergartens that are running the programme.
The specialists conduct regular and thorough assessments of each child’s needs and abilities. For that purpose, they use the VB-MAPP programme and other assessment methods developed under the ASSERT programme. They also use various reinforcer assessment technologies and technologies to assess behaviour, communication and social skills.
Which evidence-based approaches are used in the ASSERT programme?
Discrete Trial Teaching (DTT) is one of the most common methods of teaching children with ASD. In the DTT approach, students are provided with repeated opportunities to practise specific skills. Initial instruction takes place in a restricted environment and then, as the student develops the skill, he or she can start to use it in various situations with different people.
The use of DTT provides numerous opportunities for practising and receiving positive reinforcement. Children being taught under the ASSERT programme receive between 400 and 1,000 different instructions a day, which allows them to learn and practise important skills.
Studies have shown that DTT is a very effective method of preparing children for education and developing pre-academic and academic skills.
Activity schedule is an evidence-based method of encouraging independence. The ability to plan and follow a schedule is an important skill for anyone, of any age. Activity schedules are used to develop the ability to complete simple academic tasks, play with a variety of toys and use playground equipment. They are also used to help children learn how to play with their peers.
Development of social and play skills. Naturalistic learning strategies are used for the development of these skills. The children have the opportunity to study in a realistic environment, learn how to play and invite other children to play with them. Images of the child’s parents and siblings, other children and teachers are used during classes and the child can use the knowledge gained during these sessions in real-life social situations.
Developing self-sufficiency. ASSERT programme staff pay particular attention to the development of self-sufficiency. They run programmes that help the children master skills such as using the toilet, getting dressed and eating independently. The child’s ability go to the toilet independently is particularly important for many families. We use in-depth programmes to help children master this difficult skill, and parents receive advice on how to ensure that the child continues to practise the skill at home.
Communication development is an important aspect of the ASSERT programme. Work is conducted to develop speech and communication, using both augmentative communication methods and techniques aimed at developing verbal abilities and language.
Working on undesirable behaviour and the development of socially acceptable behaviour is also an important part of the ASSERT programme. Careful evaluation and understanding of the causes of undesirable behaviour is the key to success. All the programme staff work on decreasing undesirable behaviour, applying the strategies developed in the child’s behavioural plan.
Working with parents. The staff responsible for developing and assessing each individual child’s support programme (case managers) visit the child’s family twice a month. The aim of these home visits is to assist parents in carrying out everyday tasks such as putting the child to bed, feeding and dressing them and teaching them how to use the toilet. The instructors working with the children send parents daily updates on how the child is getting on and what he or she has achieved that day.
Parents of children taking part in the ASSERT programme visit the programme twice a month. They are given the opportunity to observe their child at work and discuss his or her programme with a case manager. Special training is carried out on a monthly basis for parents, which helps them better understand the benefits of the programme and the technologies used.
The programme staff also visit preschool establishments, which the children attend twice a month.
The careful collection and analysis of data allows staff to monitor the child’s progress, modify their learning goals and set new goals for them. Data is collected during all parts of the programme – in the booths, during break time, during snack time, when the child uses the toilet and on the playground, among other things.
The use of a combination of these methods produces results. Following the intensive sessions under the ASSERT programme, even children with autism, who initially struggled to concentrate and engage in lessons, started listening to the teachers and completing exercises, and it became easier for them to understand adults and communicate with other kids. Their parents commented on their progress not just in lessons but also at home.
The ASSERT programme is a very important – but not the only – component of the Naked Heart early intervention service for young children with ASD. The Naked Heart experts have contributed to the publication of a book on the Denver model of early intervention for children with autism, and wrote the foreword to the Russian edition. In addition, we are starting to focus on augmentative and alternative communication with the support of specialists from the Kennedy Krieger Institute, we are working with minimally verbal children and, thanks to our work with Professor Connie Kasari from UCLA, we are planning to start using the JASPER programme, expand our inclusive programmes at preschool establishments and update our behavioural programmes for adults with ASD.
The ASSERT programme is now being used at four kindergartens in Nizhny Novgorod and at our Early Intervention Centre, where it is available to 68 children and the 35 specialists that work with them. In addition, we have started an intensive training programme for teachers at preschool establishments in Moscow and St Petersburg where the Naked Heart early intervention project is being implemented.
You can all help ensure that effective support programmes are available to even more children with ASD. Support the project and help us develop it further by making a donation on Russian fundraising platform “Polzuyas sluchaem” [Russia only] or raising your own funds to support the Foundation. Thank you for helping us do more.
>>> Read more about the results of the project in schools and children’s institutions…
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