Research | Ambitious about Autism
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We support our staff to undertake postgraduate research to inform our practice and improve outcomes for children and young people who use of services. This section outlines the research projects that are taking place at Ambitious about Autism and TreeHouse School.

PhD research projects

Outcomes of ABA based school provision for children and young people with autism and complex needs

Although there is a large evidence base suggesting that ABA is an effective intervention for children with autism, there is very little research about how ABA is applied in ABA schools, and how children and young people progress within these teaching environments. The aim of this PhD research is to evaluate pupil progress (with a focus on academic and life skills progress, adaptive behaviour, and challenging behaviours) over 12 month periods for children and young people with severe autism and complex needs aged between 4-19 years.

Previous research on ABA schools is based on data from around 2-10 pupils, the current research will be the largest study of its kind, using pupil outcome data from approximately 90 pupils. This project is anticipated to strengthen the evidence base for delivering ABA based educational intervention within school environments.

UK Competencies project

Applied Behaviour Analysis is the branch of Behaviour Analysis that uses the science of behaviour to address issues of social significance. However, getting evidence from research into practice is not straightforward. This research explores ways of translating the findings of basic research more quickly and effectively into practice. It involves three strands:

  1. The development of a competence framework for ABA for practitioners working with children with autism in the UK. For more information click here (link to webpage)
  2. The development of a staff training package based on the developed competencies.
  3. Examining TreeHouse School staff competencies and pupil outcomes data to assess whether having a defined set of competencies and staff training package results in improved practice of ABA.

Find out more about the ABA Competencies Framework

Current MSc research projects

Increasing choice making skills in children with autism

Individuals with autism and severe communication difficulties are often face difficulties in expressing choice and preference. It is made more difficult when the choice is about something that cannot be physically held out and offered to the individual. This study will examine the preference of four children with autism by asking them to select a photograph of one of three possible activities in a systematic way (based on ABA techniques). It is hypothesised that children will select their preferred choice when selection of a photograph results in access to that activity. It is hoped this research will result in helping children with autism and severe communication difficulties make meaningful choices for activities.

The effectiveness of using a competence based approach to tutor training

The aim of this research is to evaluate training packages for new tutors working in an ABA school. Two programmes will be compared 1) a new training programme based on the UK ABA Autism Education Competence Framework and 2) a 'traditional' training programme. The two training packages will be assessed using a number of different measures such as a self assessment form, and the York Measure Quality of Intensive Behavioural Intervention (YMQI) to assess tutor competence.

Using Headsprout® to teach children with autism to read

Headsprout® is a computer programme that builds up reading skills using the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis. These lessons are cartoon based and are designed to appeal to children. TreeHouse School will be conducting a pilot scheme with 5-6 children to ascertain if Headsprout® is effective in teaching children with autism to read. It is anticipated that all children will improve their reading and phonetic skills as a result of the Headsprout® program.

Examining the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) protocol

PECS is an expressive communication system used with children and adults with learning disabilities and/or autism. The PECS protocol involves six phases of teaching, as well as strategies for introducing attributes such as size, shape, and colour into the individual’s language. While previous studies have examined the effectiveness of PECS in developing functional communication, none have yet examined whether adherence to the PECS protocol allows for the students to expressively learn and use attributes such as colour (e.g. request a blue sweet) without being required to learn them receptively first (e.g. be able to point when asked to a blue sweet). The aim of the present research will be to test this hypothesis.

Completed MSc research projects

Visual schedules presented on an iPhone

‘The purpose of the current study was to evaluate the use of an iPhone as a means of presenting visual schedules, and the effect it had on the acquisition of critical adaptive skills which may significantly contribute to the levels of independent living for three participants with a diagnosis of autism. Baseline data were collected on the participants’ current level of independence with their analogue schedule (usually on laminated paper and attached using Velcro). The analogue schedule was then removed. A multiple baseline design was utilised to systematically introduce a visual schedule on an iPhone to each participant. Results indicated that the introduction of visual schedules presented on an iPhone was effective in increasing independent engagement in activities. Furthermore, for participants 1 and 2, who had prior experience of using analogue visual schedules, the iPhone schedule facilitated quicker acquisition of independent engagement skills, allowing both participants to work both more independently and for longer periods of time’.

UK ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) Autism Education Competence Framework

The UK ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) Autism Education Competence Framework is for practitioners working with children and young people with autism. The project has been funded by Ambitious about Autism, the national charity for children and young people with autism, primarily through generous grant donations. A project management group, led by Ambitious about Autism and including Bangor University and a parent member, worked with the support of, and in collaboration with, key stakeholders from the ABA and autism communities across the UK.


What is the UK ABA Autism Education Competence Framework?

The UK ABA Autism Education Competence Framework is a detailed framework of the knowledge and demonstrable behaviours (i.e., things that can be demonstrated to another person) that are important for anyone in UK education settings working with children and young people with autism using ABA.

The Framework will provide a clear, professional development pathway for those wishing to pursue a career in ABA working with children with autism, compatible with the internationally recognised Behaviour Analyst Certification Board (BACB®) credentialing but will also, as a later development, map onto the UK Qualifications and Credit Framework. 

As a result of the Framework it is envisaged that:

  • More children and young people with autism will benefit from high-quality, evidence-based education delivered by competent professionals.
  • Practitioners will benefit from professional development and occupational standards.
  • Parents and organisations supporting the education of children and young people with autism will be able to employ practitioners with a greater degree of certainty about competence and quality.
  • Education providers and the academic community will have a greater understanding of the nature and use of ABA in educational practice for children with autism.

Who is the Framework for?

The UK ABA Autism Education Framework is relevant to anyone who works with, provides services for, or is a recipient of services for children or young people with autism using ABA.

The Framework is also useful for training providers who may wish to identify, and develop assessments of, competencies. The Framework may also be useful to inform the development of qualifications for those who work with children and young people with autism.

Who’s behind the project?

Ambitious about Autism hosts and manages the UK ABA Autism Education Competencies Project, supported by Professor Richard Hastings, Professor of Psychology at Bangor University. ABA service providers across the UK are partners in the project, and an Advisory Group draws on the experience and expertise of parents of children with autism and other stakeholders.

Advisory Group meetings are attended by the Management Group.

The first three years of the project has been made possible thanks to generous funding from several funders.

CRAE Partnership

The Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) is a partnership between the Institute of Education and Ambitious about Autism supported by the Clothworkers Foundation and Pears Foundation.

CRAE was established in 2009 to improve the research evidence available to support effective intervention for children and young people with autism. Together we work to produce research that will influence health and education policy and practice in the UK and internationally.

What does CRAE's work include?

  • developing research to understand better autism and its impact upon people's everyday lives
  • gathering evidence on the effectiveness of the current best practice teaching methods for children with autism
  • carrying out research on barriers to learning and how to remove them
  • investigating how autism education practice can be evaluated more effectively
  • and developing specialist training courses for people involved in autism education.

CRAE's aims

  • help people with autism participate more in schools and society
  • promote the translation of research evidence into practice
  • and encourage national and international communication about good evidence-based practice in autism education.

The CRAE team

CRAE is headed by Dr Liz Pellicano. Her research investigates the way that autistic people perceive and interpret the world around them and how any such differences impact upon day-to-day life - at home, at school and in the community.

The CRAE team at IOE also includes postdoctoral and graduate research associates, PhD students and interns.

Ambitious about Autism brings a combination of practice and research to the CRAE partnership. The staff at TreeHouse School are continually evolving, refining and developing evidence-based teaching methods for individuals with autism. And members of the Ambitious about Autism team regularly produce peer-reviewed reports and present at conferences on best practice methods for teaching children with autism. All of this work makes a vital contribution to the evidence base.

CRAE was established thanks to generous donations from:

You can find out more on the CRAE website.

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